Life…or theatre? Shaina Silver-Baird on “Charlotte: A Tricoloured Play with Music”

Shaina Silver-Baird as Charlotte; photo Cylla von Tiedemann

Is it theatre? Or is it life? 

Charlotte: A Tricoloured Play with Music poses this provocative question, among others conjured by its very title. While the work interweaves many elements, it first and foremost honours the titular character German-born Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943), who was deported to Auschwitz, where she died at the age of 26. Before that, between 1940-42, Salomon painted a sequence of 769 gouaches, complete with accompanying text and musical references that she titled Life? Or Theatre?. Prior to her deportation, she entrusted the paintings to a local doctor, entreating him to “take good care of this…it is my whole life.” He did take care of them, and her life’s work did miraculously survive to inspire Charlotte, which premiered at the Luminato Festival in 2017 and is currently touring Europe. 

I think it’s an important distinction that this production is not a biography,” points out actor-musician Shaina Silver-Baird, who plays the title role. Instead, it is the “story Life? or Theatre? that she painted in the last 2 years of her life. She painted her memory of her life in Berlin, and memory is subjective. I find it quite beautiful that we are telling her story the way she wanted it told, based on her images and her words.” Sliver-Baird describes the piece as “very unique”, somewhere between musical theatre, opera and drama: “I would call it music theatre – it is a play where much of the story is told through music.This show is a particularly special challenge because we get to push the boundaries of genre with Aleš [Březina]’s exciting score. I get to use so many colours of my voice to embody different ages and styles, which is exciting as a singer.” Given the breadth of Silver-Baird’s skills,the interpretation of Charlotte could not be in better hands: in addition to being a Dora-Award winning stage and screen actor, Silver-Baird is the lead singer-songwriter for the electro-pop band Ghost Caravan. 

“Life? Or Theatre?” Painting by Charlotte Salomon

A second major challenge comes with centering a play around a character who does not seek the limelight. Salomon often paints herself at the edges of her paintings, outside of the main action. She is an observer – keen and intelligent, but also self conscious – so she often paints herself with her arms crossed in protection. “But you cannot have a character telling the audience her whole story while being withdrawn,” Silver-Baird explains. This causes an important and liberating shift: “I approach this play as Charlotte inviting the audience into her inner world. You get to experience her inner thoughts and feelings, and they are quite animated and compelling.” If anything, this is an understatement – the mindscape and emotions realized on stage are heightened and larger-than-life. The energy of the performance is compelling, but the questions Charlotte wrestles with and the conjured interactions she re-plays on stage can be disturbing. Silver-Baird admits that as a “very shy, artistic child” herself, she associates with Salomon on a “deep level”.  

A play with music and inspired by autobiographical paintings, Charlotte is a sobering, thought-provoking experience that piques curiosity about the artist and the experiences behind the art. It does not sugarcoat  the people and events that Salomon faced during her brief life. Silver-Baird asserts that “it’s important to tell stories about challenging subject matters like those in Charlotte, including suicide and the holocaust, because it helps us process them. And it helps us remember and learn from the past.” What Silver-Baird loves most about theatre is how it can “help us to reframe how we think about something. Stories can empower us, which I think is central to this piece. Charlotte has to contest with so many personal, familial and societal challenges, and yet she was able to rise above them, see the beauty of the world and document it.” And despite its darkness and depth, Silver-Baird considers the piece “quite beautiful and funny at times.” 

So is it life? Or theatre? Or a provocative, complex and multi-faceted alloy forged at their intersection?

Charlotte’s unconventional form, weighty themes and intensity of experience are resonating widely: “The experience of touring this show to several countries has been eye-opening. People from all walks of life have connected deeply with this story of a young, Jewish artist. I am so happy and amazed that this story has connected with so many people despite being performed in a language some of them do not understand. I think Charlotte would be proud.” 

Ariana Chris & Shaina Silver-Baird in Charlotte, 2019; photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

News You Can Use

What: Charlotte: A Tri-coloured Play with Music, created by Pamela Howard (Director/Scenographer), Aleš Březina (Composer), Alon Nashman (Librettist), Peter Tiefenbach (Music Director), Marie-Josee Chartier (Movement Director), Ellie Moon (Dramaturg)
Musicians: Peter Tiefenbach, Michele Verheul, Kimberly Jeong, Ben Promane
Actors: Ariana Chris, Andrew Cohen, Kaleigh Gorka, Christopher Lucas, David Ludwig, Tracy Michailidis and Shaina Silver-Baird
Who: Audiences 16 years of age and older
When and Where: On tour in significant venues throughout Europe

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.