Categories: Entertainment

Play explores mystery of Gertrude Stein

St. Albert resident Kyla Shinkewski

It is ironic that few people today are aware of the profound legacy Gertrude Stein left the world in both art and literature. And yet she has been dead for less than 65 years.

Who is Gertrude Stein, you ask? She was an American-Jewish writer, poet and art collector who spent most of her life in France, but succeeded in turning the art and literary world on its head.

The daughter of a wealthy railroad executive, Stein and her brother moved to Paris where they amassed a world famous collection of modernist paintings. By the early 20th century, Stein had developed a nose for discovering genius and quickly snapped up works by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Delacroix, and Toulouse-Lautrec at bargain prices. To be singled out by Stein was every starving painter’s dream.

However, Stein’s literary forays were less successful. Similar to the avant-garde artists she discovered, her writings were exquisitely rhythmical and cadenced. Yet, international success eluded her until the 1933 mass-market publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her lesbian lover of close to 40 years.

“She reclaimed words by stripping away the meaning and looking at it in different ways,” explains Beau Coleman, director of The Gertrude Stein Project, premiering Friday at the Timms Centre for a 10-day run.

Taking on this multi-disciplinary project is the University of Alberta’s 12 graduating bachelor of fine arts students, among them St. Albert’s Kyla Shinkewski.

In short, Stein “started a movement, activated audiences, looked at the landscape and influenced minimalism,” Coleman adds.

After Stein’s death in 1946, 1,500 random notes written by Stein were left at Yale University. But no one was sure what the order was or what the notes meant. Nearly 50 years ago, a young professor, Leon Katz, spent a year in Paris interviewing Toklas. “He spent eight hours a day for months and months learning about Gertrude, learning about what we didn’t know.”

One of the surprise discoveries was that Stein, who had studied psychology at Radcliffe College, spied on people and analyzed her friends rather scathingly at times. No one was spared. Not even Toklas.

“She [Stein] was an extremely self-absorbed woman with a large ego who had a lot of pain. Her parents died while she was young and she had a tragic love affair at college that didn’t end well.”

But by 1934, she was the world’s biggest celebrity Coleman says. “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was written in the normal way. But she was writing through Alice’s voice and that hadn’t been done before.”

Studio Theatre’s multi-disciplinary, experimental production looks at Stein’s life as poetic fragments in an out-of-sequence order. “It’s going to be very different for Studio Theatre. We’ve never attempted something like this.”


The Gertrude Stein Project
Studio Theatre
March 31 to April 9
Timms Centre for the Arts
87 Ave. and 112 St.
Tickets: $5 to $20. Call 780-420-1757 or purchase online at www.tixonthesquare.ca

Anna Borowiecki: Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.