After years developing and refining, local artist Annie Bartholomew will bring her Victorian folk opera to Juneau audiences.
“Sisters of White Chapel: A Short But True Story” premieres Thursday at the Treadwell Mine Office Building after a development cycle beginning at the start of the pandemic that saw the production torn down and rebuilt.
Named after White Chapel, Dawson’s City’s Gold Rush-era red light district, the performance is based on women who went to the Klondike and other sex workers of the era, Bartholomew said, whose tales often go underreported.
“I hope the audience leaves more curious about this history and the perspectives that have been overlooked,” Bartholomew said. “I hope the show inspires more collaboration between music and theater, and results in more Alaskan artists telling stories of this place and our history.”
One of the original sources of inspiration was an 1898 Klondike Nugget article about a woman, called Milley Lane where a woman brought low by unfortunate circumstances found herself boarding with one of the madames of the White Chapel district.
“We thought, this is going to be the longest one-woman play in the world unless we change it,” said Heidi Handelsman, the play’s director, in an interview. “It became an ensemble piece rather than a one-woman show.”
Much of the material that would inspire the writing for the show came from archives and material from the time period, Bartholomew said, like the Klondike Nugget article.
“I had so much to learn. It’s a new form of media,” Bartholomew said in an interview. “I wanted to use so much archival material, so that was a whole other beast. How do you translate this for an audience?”
The stories of those women who came north alongside those chasing the dream of the Klondike Gold Rush forms the bone s of the story, Bartholomew said: telling the story of groups who aren’t as well represented in media as others.
“Yellow journalism drove people north. There were a lot of tall tales,” Bartholomew said. “We’ve got so many experts, it’s great. It’s local theater, but it’s so much more.”
The timing of the performance is auspicious, said musical director Kat Moore, a singer-songwriter, with its focus on women’s stories in a time and place where they had few overt rights and little power.
“This play right now for me feels very appropriate,” Moore said in an interview. “There’s a lot of light-heartedness to the performance, but the story is one about women’s access and rights and how that has changed in some ways and how it hasn’t in others.”
Moore praised the performance for looking closely at some of the ugly realities of the Gold Rush-era, bereft of retroactive airbrushing away of some of the pervasive misogyny suffused the culture.
“It’s nice to take a nonromanticized look at the Gold Rush,” Moore said. “It’s dirtier and rustier,” Bartholomew added.
The play will be performed for free at a variety of venues around Juneau, including the Treadwell Mine Office Building, Glory Hall, Riverside Rotary Park and Mendenhall Valley Library. The Treadwell location is her favorite, said Handelsman.
“There’s something very special about hiking through the forest to the space,” Handelsman said. “It’s surreal. It’s magical.”
The environment and the weather could introduce considerable variety into the performances, Moore said, praising Theater Alaska for its willingness to play with the venues.
“You could come to the same site twice and see two completely different performances,” Moore said. “I think it’ll be really neat for the guests to see these beautiful instruments in these spaces.”
Moore said it was her first time working on this kind of performance.
“This is the first time I’ve done musical theater. Annie gave me lines, so this is the first time I’m acting too,” Moore said. “(You have to factor for) how much more theatrical you need to be. We’re not a pit orchestra.”
The all-female cast has been a delight, Bartholomew said.
“Everybody is so awesome. It’s such a pleasure to work with everyone. There’s such talent in the cast; we struck gold,” Bartholomew said. “It’s all Alaskans acting and performing. It’s such a dream to have all these gals singing my songs.”
That variety has been a huge asset, Moore said.
“I feel like I’ve learned something new from every cast member,” Moore said. “It’s been a joy to work on.”
With a limited run here in the next two weeks, Bartholomew said she hopes she can take it on the road in the future, heading to places where the tale will resonate with the history.
“We’d love to perform the show in Skagway and take it to the Yukon, eventually doing a run up north on the road system to Anchorage and Fairbanks,” Bartholomew said. “My dream would be to tour it in mining communities across Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48 that share a version of this history.”
A complete list of the free performances occurring between July 7 and July 17 can be found at theateralaska.org/sisters-of-white-chapel. Tickets for the Crystal Saloon performances on July 16 and 17, which include a VIP cocktail hour and other musical performances, can be purchased at crystalsaloon.com/shows.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.