My Sister Urges Audiences to Pay Attention

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by DANI OLIVER

[dropcap]Emily[/dropcap] and Elizabeth Hinkler had never officially met Janet Schlapkohl. She was a mysterious playwright that everyone else seemed to know — she attended all the shows at the University of Iowa and had graduated from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, that much they knew. So when they received her email in the winter of their junior year, it seemed to fall from the sky. “I wrote this play for you,” it read. There was a script attached — the first draft (of the subsequent 80) of My Sister.

The Hinklers, 23-year-old identical twins, were then undergrads at UI’s Department of Theatre Arts. When the script arrived in their inbox, it felt like a gift. And it wasn’t long before they were in rehearsal for the production’s first iteration, which premiered at the university in September of 2013.

A two-woman show set in 1934 Berlin, My Sister depicts the lives of identical twin sisters, Magda (played by Emily) and Matilde (Elizabeth), during the pre-war uprising of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. The sisters have arrived in the city with a dream of joining Berlin’s bustling cabaret scene — Magda as a star performer, Matilde as her writer. The twins — identical in their genetics, their vitality, and dedication to their passions — are set apart by how they physically experience life: Matilde has cerebral palsy, while Magda is able-bodied.

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There are many tropes surrounding twins in fiction, and — when you sit down with the Hinklers — it’s hard not to think of the familiar Finishing Each Other’s Sentences device. They don’t just finish each other’s sentences; they speak entire strings of sentences simultaneously.

“We’re mirror twins,” they explain in unison. At the same moment, they face each other and raise one hand each, palm to palm, and move them swiftly and precisely — near perfect reflections of one another — before dropping their arms and turning back around, as if they’ve both heard a cue to cease, inaudible to everyone else.

It’s this type of acute synchrony that Emily and Elizabeth say has been so crucial to the development of Schlapkohl’s script, on which the three of them have worked intimately since 2012. Many of the first drafts included explanatory dialogue that, with the collaboration of the Hinklers, the playwright has since removed, e.g., “Let me help you into your nightgown.”

“You don’t need to say things [like that],” says Elizabeth. “Twins just have their own language.”

And indeed, much of the physical action of My Sister occurs as a sort of dance of unspoken communication; Matilde and Magda move through their small apartment as a unit. Matilde relies on Magda’s assistance to change clothes, to move more easily around the space; Magda needs Matilde to sing her to sleep, to write the scripts she’ll perform at the cabaret. And rarely do they need to ask.

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Elizabeth reveals that she and her sister chose which roles of Schlapkohl’s script to claim based on an experience they had shared years prior. She had torn her ACL, and Emily was tasked with carrying Elizabeth around the house… “for the entire summer,” they finish together. In that time, they established an effective system for getting around; it seemed only natural to resume their care-giver/receiver roles onstage.

That left Elizabeth with the not-insignificant task of portraying a character with cerebral palsy. When asked if there were any preconceived notions about the disability that she had to remove from her mind before tackling Matilde, she thinks for a moment before saying, “What I had to put into my mind was education.” The actress spent months researching CP, which included watching hundreds of videos of individuals with the disorder, as well as putting herself on tape — tweaking bits and pieces of her physical and vocal disposition until Matilde emerged.

Dani Oliver

Dani Oliver

Dani is the Editor of @ This Stage Magazine. She is an award-winning poet (Candace Silverman Memorial Scholarship, Virginia Middleton Creative Writing Award), theatre director, and journalist. She was previously the Editor of Daily BR!NK (dailybrink.com), and she holds a bachelor's degree in English and theatre from the University of Southern California, where she graduated magna cum laude. She is a proud member of the LA poetry collective, the WOMEN group, a Kahn Fellow, and an avid yogi. Find her on Twitter @DaniOliver.