The astonishing and true story of Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka’s tumultuous love affair with composer Alma Mahler and the obsession that would drive him to commission a life-size doll in her likeness after their breakup is the basis of a new musical that will have its world premiere in February March 25-6 at the eXperimental Theater at UC Santa Cruz.
Presented by the Department of Performance, Acting, and Design, led by UCSC Permanent Lecturer Kirsten Brandt, and co-written by poet Amy Gerstler and composer Steve Gunderson, The artificial woman sheds a feminist light on this chronicle of infatuation and fetishism set in the artistic and intellectual hotbed that was Vienna just before the First World War.
“This story hasn’t left me alone since I stumbled across it in graduate school,” says Gerstler, who pitched it to Gunderson for their first collaboration on a work of historical fiction. “It’s fascinating, captivating and raises so many questions about gender roles, women as muses, obsession and objectification, artistic creation. The list continues. Whenever I talk to people about the young star of avant-garde art Kokoschka and the widow of Gustav Mahler, they say “No!” This couldn’t have happened! Then I googled one of four existing photographs of the original doll, and it came as a total surprise to everyone.
The doll, which Kokoschka dressed, took to parties and used as a studio model, plays a central role in The artificial woman as a feminist center and narrator, speaking directly to the audience in Gerstler’s lyric poetry to question everything he observes.
A lot of The artificial woman is set to song. Gunderson composed over 20 original pieces for the genre-defying play.
“I wanted to create a unique musical universe for it because it exists in a space between fantasy and history,” says Gunderson. “Sometimes it leans towards opera and sometimes towards musical theatre. It’s a new musical world and not easy to play, but the student performers were brilliant and really rose to the challenge. We got so much insight into this game from them.
The artificial woman was significantly reworked and refined through a quarter-hour development workshop with UCSC Theater Arts students in the spring of 2021. The process has been eye-opening for playwrights.
“The students had such important questions about the play and their characters,” says Gunderson. “It showed us so much about what would and wouldn’t work, and we made some big changes as a result.” Gerstler adds: “The level of professionalism among the students is very high. What they came up with taught us a lot about what the coin is. It’s a gift to develop something like this with bright, active, committed, talented and inquiring minds.
Brandt, who led the workshop process, notes, “It’s really great for our students to be working with something brand new. They see how the process works, which is rare. It’s joyful to wrestle with new material and be the first to make discoveries. And there’s a wonderful complication to this show that makes the work so invigorating. The students really savored the whole experience.
Joining the eleven UCSC cast on stage will be a live band made up of UCSC music students on piano, synthesizer, double bass and drums. Doctoral student Michael Blackburn is the musical director.
The premiere of The artificial woman runs from February 25 to March 6. Tickets can be purchased online.