Hart House put on an entirely different kind of production for the end of the season. Rather than taking on another Shakespeare play, director Chelsea Dab Hilke chose a modern one. This Is for You, Anna is a piece loosely based on the murder of Klaus Grabowski, who was gunned down during his trial for the charge of murdering Anna Bachmeier, whose mother Marianne burst into the courtroom and shot Grabowski in the back seven times, instantly killing him. She was sentenced to six years in prison.
This play is a difficult one to take on; the entire story was constructed solely from a small newspaper article from the 1980s after the murder took place. Hilke and her brilliant ensemble merged improvisation with the script to create something unique and powerful.
One of the most compelling aspects of this non-linear play was how snippets of scenes would break into ones already being performed. The actresses engaged in monologues and a flash would go off to the sound of a camera shutter, prompting an actress to interrupt her lines and shout, “No interviews!” This happened several times throughout, with the flashes sometimes going off repeatedly to look like paparazzi, which painted a great picture of what Bachmeier would have seen as she left the courtroom during her own trial.
The set was also notable. White clothes hanging on clotheslines that stretched out into the audience took up the majority of the stage. A refrigerator stood at back centre and a small TV set at stage right. Everything was there to pull the audience into the piece. The play began with the TV turning on and playing a news clip about a murder.
Also impressively, in some scenes the actresses all spoke at once. This was particularly moving when they discussed topics like domestic abuse. All four women began to give excuses simultaneously and the overlap effectively depicted the excuses women make for friends and family in an abusive relationship.
The actresses all played Marianne, but took on different roles in certain scenes. Claudia Carino, Lesley Robertson, Amaka Umeh, and Melissa Williams were all powerhouses in their own ways. Anna was an off-stage character.
The group also worked well together when they improvised scenes. Williams warned the crowd that they shouldn’t watch the next scene they were about to perform. The audience chuckled and then the actresses branched off as different characters into the audience. They made their way through the crowd, engaging in conversation and asking questions. They broke the fourth wall like this several times throughout the play.
Towards the end, all four actresses took on the role of Grabowski’s fiancée, providing her side of the story and trying to plead his innocence. Their speeches weren’t meant to convince anyone that Grabowski’s act should go unpunished, but it was interesting to see her perspective.
After the play, a discussion followed with Hilke, the actresses, and Hilary Carroll, Michelle Langille, and Tenille Read, members of Theatre Inamorata, about “creative collection”. The moderator, Professor Kathleen Gallagher, began the discussion by enquiring about Theatre Inamorata, which Langille explained had been created to bring scripts to life for emerging female artists.
“It’s nice to have a script that also inherently has that collective creation aspect,” Hilke said. “So you have the structure of the script, but there’s moments where you have to create together.”
“The beauty of this piece is that it tells the story of not only just Marianne and Anna, but the unity of all women and the struggles that we’ve been going through,” Williams said. She thanked Hilke, saying that before they met she had neither understood nor supported feminism.
Umeh said it was her first time being part of an official collective creation. “The script provides a skeleton for us and the fact that it’s a true story definitely informed some of our connections to the piece,” she said. “But this isn’t something that’s happened to any of us, so in that sense we didn’t collectively create this experience.” But, she said, they spent a lot of time bringing themselves into the narrative under Hilke’s direction.
Hilke said certain parts of the script simply instructed them to improvise. “It was terrifying for me to just say, ‘Go off and make something,’ and I could tell it was terrifying for [the others] as well,” she said. “But I think that’s why an ensemble has to be really strong and connected and with the same goal in mind, because it is a scary thing to trust each other to put something together.”
Umeh said they really wanted to challenge the audience. “There are pieces that you go to see to be entertained but, especially with the addition of the victim scene, it sort of forces you to act,” she said. “We hope that when all is said and done, what you take away from the entire thing is that something needs to be done about the issues that are raised in this show.”
As the discussion wrapped up, Robertson explained that there was never an effort to hide from the audience that four performers are taking on multiple characters. “I think it would be almost more confusing for the audience for me to be a schizophrenic performer on stage rather than this storyteller,” she said. “As performers relating to it, we’re communicating in different ways.”
Hilke added that she had instructed the performers to present the characters and stories, but not to represent them. “That way, it does remove the actor from the character a little but to keep them unbiased and tell the story straight out,” she said. “That allows the audience to form their own opinions. We’re not trying to tell you how to feel about her or the events.”