The story behind “Sisters of White Chapel: A Short But True Story” isn’t quite as grand as the stories of women compelled to head north during the Klondike Gold Rush that inspired it. But the Victorian folk opera’s origins are no simple A-to-B journey either.
“I spend a lot of time daydreaming, and I think when I get these fantasies about projects and forming these ideas, I never imagine how complicated they’re going to be,” said Annie Bartholomew, a Juneau singer-songwriter and now playwright. “It’s really a joy to have so many amazing friends in this town.”
Complicated might be underselling it.
The piece, which will be read by Christina Apathy at Resurrection Lutheran Church on Monday as part of Theater Alaska’s inaugural Alaska Theater Festival, features music from a collection of songs written for a grant-supported album that’s still coming together in light of the pandemic. It draws from insights gleaned researching primary sources, contemporaneous reporting, likely apocryphal memoirs and historical books. The work was shaped by visits to Dawson City, Yukon, and an artistic residency in Whitehorse, Yukon, among other travels and interviews. It gained further form through collaboration with and feedback from both local and visiting writers and actors.
A stage adaptation of the material was something Bartholomew said she envisioned as coming well after the album, which received a Rasmuson Foundation Project Award last year, was completed. However, amid pandemic and with access to writing workshops, the script got flipped.
“I thought ‘I need deadlines, why not now?’” Bartholomew said.
That’s why when Theater Alaska, a fledgling Juneau-based theater company that prioritizes community connection, opened applications for a writers workshop, Bartholomew decided to apply. She was ultimately accepted. Bartholomew said it’s been a pleasure to work with Theater Alaska on developing the project.
The appreciation and admiration is reciprocated.
“It’s been really amazing,” said Flordelino Lagundino, producing artistic director for Theater Alaska. “We were just excited to work with her and see what she was working on. It feels like a real quintessential Alaska story. A really unique perspective. She’s been on this journey. It’s exciting to give her this space and be on this journey with her.”
Inspired by probably true events
“Sisters of White Chapel: A Short But True Story” takes its form as sort of a one woman show based on the stories of women drawn northward by stories of gold, like one tale Bartholomew found in an edition of the Klondike Nugget published in the late 1890s.
“For three days she tries to find honest work in Dawson and can’t find it, and is eventually rescued by the madam and goes into sex work as a method for survival,” Bartholomew said.
While such accounts were often attributed to pseudonyms or contained in impossible-to-fact-check firsthand memoirs, Bartholomew said such scenarios weren’t just plausible but relatively common. At the time a high cost of living, a dearth of employment options for women and fierce competition for “honest” jobs, especially in the arts, meant sex work or sex work-adjacent professions were often necessary for survival.
Bartholomew shared a similar anecdote contained in “Nine Pounds of Luggage,” a 1939 autobiography by Maud Parrish. Parrish came to Alaska with a banjo in tow —if not on her knee — during gold rush times hoping to make money playing music in dance halls.
“But she found it more profitable to be a dance hall girl,” Bartholomew said.
Dance hall girls were women who worked at saloons and dance halls and danced with men. Generally, they did not engage in prostitution, according to American history website Legends of America.
“Just the discovery that banjos were in Alaska at that time is super-interesting to me,” said Bartholomew, who decided to learn to play banjo around the time she began doing research for the project. “It’s been so fun to dive into.”
With help from friends
The Monday reading isn’t just a one-woman and a banjo show.
The piece will feature of some Alaska all-stars. Along with performer Christina Apathy and Bartholomew on banjo, Kat Moore will play piano and Marian Call will play guitar and jawbone. It will be directed by Heidi Handelsman.
Despite subject matter inspired by American dreams deferred, Bartholomew said she made an active effort to balance the bitter and the sweet. Also, while the music is inspired by events from around the end of the 19th Century, it was written with modern audiences in mind.
“If we had just tried to make music that had been occurring at the time… It’d be like polkas and really long piano ballads that wouldn’t really resonate,” Bartholomew said. “An audience can’t unhear a musical. There are certain formats within pop songwriting that you want the message to resonate with folks.”
The reading, which will be performed in front of an audience limited to 15 people, as well as available to stream, is also a chance to gauge what lands with an audience and further refine what works with the potential for a larger production in mind.
“My hope is next summer, we can do a full stage show with costumes and lighting and all of that fancy stuff,” Bartholomew said. “This is just the first taste.”
Know & Go:
What: “Sisters of White Chapel: A Short But True Story”
When: 6 p.m., Monday, May 17
Where: Resurrection Lutheran Church,740 W. 10th St. Registration is free but required and limited to 15 people, and online. A link will be available through Theater Alaska’s website, theateralaska.org.
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt