Tuesday, February 15, 2011

St Andrews

Last weekend we were up in Scotland to perform at the Byre in St Andrews. What a beautiful theatre! Following several conference room and an underground club it was lovely to be back in a theatre, especially one as nice as this!
We arrived in St Andrew's after a long train journey and were warmly welcomed by everyone we came into contact with!
On Friday we started the day with a meeting with Susan Sellers then had a shoot with the Times for an article (which sadly wasn't used due to all the happenings in Egypt) then began getting ready for our first show. It felt quite a long time since we had performed but I felt really excited to do the show again. What was particularly interesting was the post show Q&A sessions we had. It was very productive to have some audience feedback, especially as so much of it was positive. I also gained a whole new load of information from Susan and Beth's talks- it seems I will never have learnt all I would like to about Virginia!
On the Saturday Kitty and I began by leading a workshop focussed around the Moving Stories method. We included lots of play and then gradually wokred in elements of the show and specifics around Vanessa and Virginia. Sadly we only had two participants, but they were wonderfully enthusiastic and really threw themselves into the work.
After lunch we spoke at an academic symposium alongside Susan and Beth about the process of putting Vanessa and Virginia on the stage. Beth had created a wonderful slide show to go with her talk and it was quite bizarre seeing pictures from so many months ago (such as ones of Emma and I freezing during a green screen recorded read through!) and made me realsie again just how special the developmental journey has been for this show, and how lucky I am to be a part of it!

Symposium notes

Some notes about how I approached the role of Virginia for the symposium at St Andrews....

From the moment I read Elizabeth Wright’s script, I became completely fascinated by Virginia Woolf. She is by far the most remarkable woman I have ever had the privilege of playing, and by far the hardest! Ordinarily I would expect to have a relatively clear idea of the direction a project will take at the very start of the rehearsal process. However, on the initial day of Vanessa and Virginia rehearsals Emma Gersch, the director, Kitty and myself all admitted that we were very unsure how the show would turn out, of the style it would take and the way it would develop. However once we began working we very quickly established a dream like quality within our work. Emma’s decision to have neither myself or Kitty leave the stage at any point added to the enticing fluidity of the play, which was enhanced further by Jeremy Thurlow’s beautiful original music and the moving backdrop which runs throughout the performance. Transporting our audience on this poetic, evolving journey helped to reiterate the wonderful way memories, such as the ones Vanessa recalls throughout the piece, can form a continual accompaniment to the human mind.
Having no prior familiarity with Virginia Woolf, it was important to me to throw myself into a huge pool of resources, beginning my research months before we began rehearsing. In particular her diaries and letters gave me a highly detailed insight into her inner most thoughts, more so than her novels- edited and sculpted for public viewing. The beautiful and sometimes tragic honesty of Woolf’s words within these excerpts provided a detailed journey of her thoughts and brought me closer to understanding elements of her life which were further from any experience I could understand. Equally, they allowed the human condition- the fundamental experiences of being human in a social, cultural, and personal context- to translate the event or feeling into something I could very much hold as true to myself. For example Woolf’s mental illness had an enormous effect on the rest of her life, both in the depression that tormented her and the mania that fuelled her mind and her pen. With no experience of bi-polarity myself I used a range of sources to ensure my interpretation of this part of Woolf was as real as possible. Psychology sites provided me explanations into the behavioural aspects of the illness, and I used medical journals to research the side effects and uses for each of the drugs mentioned in the hospital scene. I was very privileged to speak with people I know who have suffered with bi-polarity or depression. They spoke very generously about their own experiences, allowing me to ask questions that text books may not have answered. Of course Woolf’s diaries did a wonderful job at painting an insightful image of the feelings that consumed her so often. For example, a line in the show which we took from a diary entry ….. ‘It’s coming, the horror, physically like a painful wave about the heart, tossing me up….’ The words here are enough to evoke a real sense of the suffering Woolf lived with.
In addition to Woolf’s personal history, I thought it crucial to gain an understanding of the world and society she lived in. Events such as the world wars, society expectations and artistic movements were necessarily included within my research and consequently enhanced my understanding of the impact these events would have had on Virginia.
In order to gain an impression of Woolf’s day to day life I visited both Monk’s House and Charleston. It was fascinating to be so close to Woolf’s possessions, to be within her surroundings, to look far across the downs she spent so many hours walking along. I walked from Monk’s house to the river Ouse where Woolf famously drowned and was shocked at how emotional I felt, especially after the twenty minute walk to the riverbank. It was at that point for me that the hours of reading her novels, devouring her diaries, examining her house and absorbing images that I felt these factors coalesce and was overcome with a startlingly real sense of just how truly remarkable Virginia really was. And at the same time absolutely terrified at the prospect of having to do her justice on stage!
Perhaps the most challenging thing I found when playing Virginia was achieving a sufficient portrayal of her age, particularly as she gets older throughout the play. As a relatively young actor, I found the younger ages easier to play, what was much harder was finding the essence of Virginia in the second half of her life, finding her physicality and energy as an older woman. Something that particularly helped with this was the method of lowering my voice to add age. I found that lowering the tone of my speech suggested a maturity, and suggested a progression from the younger child I had previously played.
A continual awareness of the events throughout Woolf’s life also supported this aging process. Understanding the emotional and physical struggles she underwent allowed me to use these as a metaphorical heavy coat of experience which I imagine weighing her down. Costume also helped with this gradual transition, in particular a pair of antique glasses which I wear as Virginia in her last few years, mark a significant shift into the final chapter of her life.
During our rehearsal process, a determination to have as full an understanding of the sisters lives as possible meant we created a continually growing timeline around the walls of our rehearsal room. With the introduction of each new name, event or place we surrounded ourselves with books, images, pens and paper- filling sheet after sheet with notes, quotes and pictures. Once we had scribbled down all the information we could find, Emma would lead Kitty and I through an explorational introduction to each new era, location or event- allowing us to explore the dark, suffocating atmosphere of Hyde park gate, or the contrasting lightness of Bloomsbury. By playing under Emma’s guidance we were able to discover finer specifics in our character connections and feelings to each event or section of the play, making our response more personal and enabling us to revisit these locations or events and our emotional responses to each specific event more productively throughout the rest of the rehearsal process and during performance. We were also extremely privileged to have both Elizabeth Wright and Susan Sellers present in some of our rehearsals. They continually fascinated both Kitty and myself with their huge pool of knowledge, generously sharing their research to enhance our understanding of our characters. These contextual findings interlaced with our own feelings and responses, became the foundations from which our creative exploration was built.
A fundamental part of Moving Stories’ work stems from the human condition. For this reason alongside the fascination of its subjects, Vanessa and Virginia is also essentially a story about the relationship between two sisters sharing joys, sorrows and memories. Therefore it was very important that the relationship between Kitty and myself translated as true on stage. Fortunately we already had a strong friendship and working relationship, and our director Emma Gersch built into our rehearsals a selection of games to create character memories the both of us could share. Kitty and I worked closely exploring and learning from each other, recognising intricate details about each other’s character and working together to create a strong shared vision of the world these girls inhabited, integrating memories from explorational improvised sequences to enhance the formation of a shared character memory, all the while taking into account the competition, jealousy, admiration, care, comfort and comradeship present in so many sibling relationships.
It is important to us all that each movement and response in each moment of a performance is as organic and as honest as possible, and I feel very lucky to be able to work in such a way which allows this crucial element of the work to exist as a priority. The wonderful thing about working with Emma in this way is that it gives me, as an actor, the chance to play within each performance, and experience each moment as a new. Further to this, with Kitty and I trusting each other to do this truthfully during performances, we are able to throw different reactions and strands of a response to each other from show to show- meaning that we have scope to respond and play slightly differently in each scene from show to show. This enables a stronger human reaction as opposed to a rehearsed response which is at risk of becoming stale from repetition over time. I think even the word ‘performance’ is dangerous in acting. Yes, we need to pay heed to logistics such as diction, vocal volume and audience sight lines, but ultimately I think an audience should feel as though they are watching a series of events rather than a performance of those events.
There are several events within ‘Vanessa and Virginia’ that are on a supremely tragic level. In terms of approaching the emotion needed throughout the play, and particularly within these sections, I believe it is important to draw upon my own experiences to ensure the response to these events is as organic and honest as possible. This comes from a range of my own memories which have been interlaced within my rehearsal process enabling me to rediscover strong emotions of my own and relive them through Virginia’s eyes and circumstances. For example when the sisters are watching their dying mother on her death bed, I recall a very poignant memory of visiting my mother in hospital for the first time after she’d suffered a stroke.
Prior to each show I find it important to submerge myself within the world of the play, mentally reminding myself of the events I hold as most pertinent to the journey of Virginia throughout the piece. The collection of props and costumes dispersed around the stage are integral to this process, with each one triggering a specific personal memory or emotion. Be it the memories of jealousy linked with the smooth rounded beads of Vanessa’s amethyst necklace, the painful loss highlighted by the weight of the mourning shawls, or the close comfort triggered by the texture of the velvet fabric. I also hold close specific exercises that Emma has lead us in, either as warm ups before previous shows or within the rehearsal journey. A particularly useful exercise required Kitty and I to recognise specifics about our character relationship and explore these feelings vocally and physically. This stemmed from Emma asking us a series of questions such as ‘What do you admire most about your sister?’, What do you need from your sister?’, What worries you about her?’. With the answers to these specific questions woven so firmly within the play, the few seemingly simple inquiries brought back an enormous amount of character memory and emotion. It helped us to sink ourselves further into these women, identifying with them, re-realising the enormous complexity of their relationship and enhanced our need to tell their story. Spending time in the space with Kitty helps to reaffirm our relationship prior to each performance. Using single lines from the script to express pertinent feelings towards one another secure the sisters’ history, communicating with a look and sharing games re-emphasises the unique relationship we need to feel and continue to explore throughout the show.
It is only through a combination of all the above mentioned methods that I have felt able to do justice to Virginia on stage. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to share her story with such a variety of audiences, and have a huge respect for the remarkable life journey she endured.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

V&V - From Poland to the Byre, Scotland

So tomorrow I will be travelling up to Fife to join Sarah and George to perform ‘Vanessa and Virginia’ at The Byre. And so over the last few weeks as we have unpacked and re-packed the props and costume I began thinking of our last performances in Krakow, Poland in November.

To be involved in a show like this is very special, not only because of the plays creative and immersive process and the company but also the places we are being invited to makes it even more of a privilege; for the people we meet, the experiences we gain, the food we taste and the adventures we have.

Our journey to Krakow began with our director Emma researching all things Bloomsbury and coming into contact with Tony Bradshaw and the Bloomsbury workshop. His collection was to be part of an exhibition at the ICC called British Bohemia. Mr. Bradshaw thought the play would fit perfectly with the exhibitions program and very kindly became our sponsor to get us to Poland.

And so after another adventure in the airport (including the crafty repacking of boxes and tackling the penny grabbing airline and their weighing scales / bag size cages) we touched down in Krakow. We arrived in a taxi late evening to a beautiful square (which we later discovered was the smaller square but still amazing) and were met by Tony’s son and daughter-in-law who took us to their home for a party. What a welcome! Lovely food and fascinating company. And so our time in Krakow began.

The performance at the ICC was in a room that was again of different dimensions to ones already played and again we discovered new ways of trying to handle the space and also thought of how we may overcome some of the audience not speaking English. I was reminded of a note from rehearsal given to us as we began to run the play in its entirety – ‘Let every moment ripple out’.

Before performing the show I had spent some time looking around the exhibition upstairs, which was excellent, they had recreated a feeling of Charleston and as I walked around it, it helped me reconnect with areas of our research. We had also been to a lecture given by Francis Spalding whose biography on Vanessa Bell I had studied and had clutched to at the beginning of our rehearsal journey. It was the first book I had received when beginning my research. I remember reading it in a very hot Cyprus at the beginning of the summer and being enthralled as I learnt about this women’s moving and extraordinary life. Francis’s lecture gave us more food for thought .

Our second venue was a few meters away from the first but entirely different. It was at the Pod Baranami. A place of great history and interest. A cabaret venue under ground, full of character. The stage was so much smaller than we had played before and the audience so much closer, but the intimate playing space worked so well.

Again as I think back to Krakow I think of how without taking the play there I maybe would never had visited and I am so glad I had the opportunity. As well as performing we had some time to delve into the city. We spent the Sunday wondering the streets and markets and had chance to visit the Schindler museum, which was most moving and an all enveloping experience.

During our time in Krakow we were hosted so well, Tony’s daughter-in-law Martha Bradshaw had sorted our accommodation and held evening meals for us and was able to point us in directions of places to go and see and experience.

Again I left Krakow with a feeling of “what did we just do?” my body full of new experiences and a real excitement for the next time we would perform the play.

To St Andrews

Preparing this our next performance is like unpacking the props and costume; re-stitching together the characters, the words, the connections, the past explorative work and the resonances within us. Its remembering how extraordinary these women were and how the stories within the play can be brought to life and shared.

As the tour continues, however long it is inbetween performances the process of re-discovering the play also involves trusting the work is there in our bones. I am sure that since our last performances I have thought about the play and Vanessa every day.

Also with every time we revisit we will always discover new things, new thoughts and from every performance there will be things we take and develop.

This week we did a full run with costume and props. Emma began the rehearsal with an exercise re-establishing our characters own experiences within the play, resonances and connections of the two sisters. I felt it helped placing the props out on to the stage and thinking and feeling the moments they come into play, the stories they are part of.

Our performances for St Andrews at the Byre Theatre will be unusual as it will be the first time out on tour without our director, which feels very strange for all of us. But Emma has sent us on our way with plenty of thoughts and notes to explore.

Such a vital note from Emma is to drop anchor and stay alive moment to moment.

As I write this I am on the first leg of my journey up to Scotland on the train and I am reading Vanessa Bells memoirs and being reminded of how she saw the world, the colors, the patterns, the shapes and forms presented in every day life.

I have a feeling of excitement, nervousness, and anticipation as we begin to approach our next performance of ‘Vanessa and Virginia’.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

“We are only just beginning our journey……..”

“We are only just beginning our journey……..”
So we have now done three performances of ‘Vanessa and Virginia’ and it now feels so long since those days in the summer when Sarah and myself would, the evening before or in the morning of rehearsals, try to prepare as best we could by learning the lines of the units to be tackled that day. The time when I just couldn’t get my mouth around lines like “even Father appears released from the relentless burden of his work that oppresses him in London”. But as the research, rehearsal conversations, improvisations and tackling with the details developed and deepened, I connected myself more with the stories of these sisters and Vanessa and the lines started to settle. Then there was the battles with getting the correct sound of the words and RP took over my Northern habits, and I found myself trying to slip in words like butchers, butterflies and aunts into everyday conversations to get in the pronunciation practice.

When the rehearsals reached that point when an audience was needed we headed for Aix (although flights caused a slight delay to our arrival) and our premiere performance of the play in front of mainly Virginia Woolf scholars. With very little tech time and problems flung against George our technician, who did a brilliant job of making it possible for the show to have all the technical aspects needed, the first ever performance of ‘Vanessa and Virginia’ went up.

I can honestly say I have never felt so nervous before a performance. It was a different kind of nerves, maybe due to the problems we had encountered in getting to Aix and little tech time, the fact we would be performing to people who knew the life stories of the sisters or the weight and size of the play that Sarah and me had to now share with an audience. My fears and nerves were put in their rightful place as Emma took us through a warm up that grounded us as actors and also grounded us within the characters and their relationship. We spoke aloud our characters thoughts and feelings to one and other and again played within our world. Before going on I grounded myself in the work we had done to this point and also trusting in the remarkable stories of these women.

In Aix the play took on new heights – energetically, emotionally, physically and I found a new connection as I communicated directly to the audience.

After Aix we had weeks of time to wait till we next performed. During our notes from the first performance Emma asked us what was it we needed to do to keep the new found elements of the play and all the work fresh and not forgotten before our next performance. For myself emotionally through the first performance things had started to shift and I felt more physically connected to certain moments. In my own time I tried to plant those changes and discoveries within my muscle memory as I find as a performer I am very physical and I use my physical being in connection with emotions.

Sarah and myself did line runs in the time between performances however we found it was very hard to just do the play on a line run level. During line runs we found it was valuable to recap over things that we had discovered in Aix.

As we worked with Emma in prep for our Bath performances a main note for myself was now the lines were hopefully feeling more secure, not to just let the thoughts run into each other and to keep each unit of action fresh.

The performance space in Bath was very different to the one in Aix, much smaller and intimate. I actually found comfort in being able to speak directly to every audience member.

For myself as a performer the warm up prior to a performance is vital both technically and to get myself into the right place in terms of focus, character, energy and emotion. Emma took us through a series of activities focusing us on bringing new life to the work and energetically engaging with each other and the space but also again grounded us in the lives of these sisters.

In the Bath performances as the piece felt more rooted I felt an even stronger connection with Sarah both as characters and also fellow performers sharing the space. I felt we played a lot more within the units and felt more connected with each other in terms of ensemble play.
Our playing time was shorter but I don’t feel we rushed. As I deliver the words in the play, at this present time, each one feels as if they are a very delicate piece of glass or something like that. I am not sure if that makes sense of what I mean but I am always more than aware that my overriding objective is to tell our story and each word is so very important.

When working with performing art students, "loosing yourself in the action" is something I speak about with them and strive to help them understand. In the Bath performances I felt I let myself go a lot more within 'the moment' and found each unit was like riding a wave when surfing and sometimes at the end of a unit I would catch myself and question what had just happened. I also found in this heightened sense of loosing myself, I also had a voice in my head (either my characters voice or actors voice, I am not sure) guiding me in moments, telling me to breath, or slow down or just to alter the weight in my body.

Our performances in Bath also brought another new challenge, which was unlike in Aix; we had an audience who maybe had little prior knowledge of the sister’s history. This is something we spoke about a lot in rehearsals and as a company felt that the piece had to connect with the human condition and had to allow those with no factual knowledge to be able to follow the story.

And now as we prepare to go to Poland and the challenges that the spaces and audience will bring there, I am thinking about the overall tour and the length of it (till next October) and I am excited by the challenge that each space will bring and how to keep the play alive and new as it develops over time. In Poland we will be performing in front artwork by Vanessa Bell and other members of the Bloomsbury group. What a privilege.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Susan's Notes

The process of seeing my novel, Vanessa and Virginia, transposed into a stage play has been fascinating, hugely educational, surprising. I’ve written about it on my blog

Here, in addition, are my notes for a talk on the process given in conjunction with Beth Wright at the Tramway Theatre in Glasgow on November 3rd 2010.


What prompted me to write a novel about Virginia Woolf?

For past ten years, I’ve been working on a scholarly edition of Woolf’s writings for Cambridge University Press. This led me to read or reread not only VW’s writing – her novels, essays, diaries, and correspondence – but also a great deal by her contemporaries.

This provided an extraordinarily rich seedbed of information – I felt as if I knew Woolf and Bell and their world intimately. This an important starting point for fiction: you have to know your characters to the extent that you can second-guess how they will feel, what they will say or do – and you have to know the world they inhabit well enough to be able to select from it the pertinent details that will bring it alive to a reader.

The work on the edition was also an impetus for other reasons. The more I read Woolf and Bell, the more questions I had about their lives. Many of these questions cannot be answered by the historical record. Like Orlando’s narrator, there are gaps and omissions in what seemed to me some of the most important places. For example, why did Vanessa Bell – whose art work (particularly in her decoration of her house at Charleston) suggests extraordinary sensuality - fall irrevocably in love with the homosexual painter Duncan Grant? The answers to these and other questions can only be speculative, and it seemed to me that fiction presented an arena in which it was possible to explore these questions and answers ethically.

To give an example, using a different question. It has always seemed to me particularly moving that Virginia Woolf committed suicide relatively late in life – when she was almost sixty. What was it about this particular moment in her life that led her to drown herself when she had survived other bouts of illness, surmounted other acutely difficult moments in her life. One possible explanation is the effect of the second world war and the threat of Nazi invasion. Virginia and Leonard knew they were listed by the Nazis and that in the event of an invasion they would be interned at best – Leonard was a jew after all, and Virginia had a record of mental health problems. To prepare for this they kept a spare can of petrol in their garage and discussed how they would gas themselves before the Nazis arrive. Did this fear (it was not at all clear that there would not be an invasion in 1941) and these discussions feed into Virginia’s depression and suicide? In fiction, it is possible to present these events in proximity – allowing the reader to speculate too and without making categoric claims.

To give an example, I want to read a short passage, where I use a known historical fact creatively to suggest adolescent rivalry between the two sisters.


‘It’s the fact that she must stand.’ Aunt Minna puts her cup down on the table. Her starched collar crackles as she reaches for the pot.

‘Another for you, Leslie?’ Father’s only response is a grunt. For the past half hour he has sat staring into the space ahead of him, his silence broken only by the occasional groan. Aunt Minna has not yet abandoned her aim of trying to cheer him and interprets his grunt as a yes.

‘Pass me your Father’s cup, will you Virginia, there’s a dear.’ You glare at Aunt Minna and I see that you have taken her silly observation to heart. Aunt Minna prattles on.

‘Writing seems to me a much better activity for a woman. The body is supported, and as long as one makes sure to sit up straight there is no pressure on the back. I can’t think it can be good for Vanessa to have to stand all day before an easel. Have you thought, dear, of the impact on your posture?’

I ignore Aunt Minna. I know what she says is kindly meant. I watch you pick up Father’s cup and pass it to her. There is no mistaking the look of fury on your face.

Only later do I realise the extent of your anger. For your birthday you ask Father for a lectern so that you can write standing up. You will not allow that painting is the more difficult art.

At the same time as I was working on the Woolf edition, I was also thinking about the relationship between sisters, particularly in connection to Freud’s insistence that the developing human infant forges its sense of self in relation to its mother, then its father. I was teaching a course on contemporary fiction that included Helen Dunmore’s novel about sibling incest, and reading Juliet Mitchell’s powerful challenges to Freudian theory in her studies Mad Men and Medusas and Siblings where she argues that siblings and one’s peers play an even more dramatic role in subject formation.

I mention this because the novel focusses closely on the relationship between Woolf and Bell as sisters, which as you will hear becomes a crucial focus for Beth’s play.

I want to say a few things about decisions I made in writing the novel, again with a view to hearing in a moment how they were transposed to the stage.

I wrote the novel from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, primarily because her written voice was much less familiar to me and I did not want to produce a poor pastiche of Woolf.

The novel begins after Virginia’s death with Vanessa looking back over their lives together, so that it is her memories that structure the chronology of the narrative. This was important because some aspects of the biography – for instance the period in the late 1890s when the sisters lose first their mother then their beloved half-sister Stella – were almost impossible to fictionalize as a sequence. (Coming so close together, the events felt like overload and hardly credible.)

As you will hear, this use of memory – of long interior passages – posed problems in the novel’s staging.

I said a moment ago that I think in order to write good fiction – in order to bring your characters alive on the stage – you have to know your characters and their world intimately. But as I’ve also suggested I think that what drives writing are questions – things you don’t know but which unfold as you work. For me personally, this not-knowing, this mystery, is at least as important in prompting me to write.

One of the things that was mysterious to me about Vanessa Bell was that the fact that she was a visual artist. To research this, I watched artists at work, and became fascinated by the way a painting is built up, brush-stroke by brush-stroke. This I think fed into the structure of the novel, which is a series of short vignettes which I hope cumulatively create a picture. It also gave me a rich source of metaphor and palette of language. It was fascinating to me to try to inhabit a character who sees the world visually, and the narrative draws heavily not only on descriptions of Vanessa painting, but on her paintings. As you’ll hear in a moment, this was a challenge which also presented an unexpected opportunity for the staging.


A wall of orange ablaze in the sun, the glow of hot coals. My colours have the sheen of silk, the rough textures of hessian. In the top right-hand corner of my painting is a pale pink square, edged in blue. The clash between the pink and orange is violent, compelling, gorgeous. I mute it by adding a daub of white to the pink, but only slightly. I do not want to diminish the effect. On the left of my canvas I paint a series of rectangles. Some interconnect, some stand alone. I paint two of them blue, one a potent aquamarine, the other paler, and tempered with the same hint of whiteness as the pink. I am careless with the outlines. I have had too many years of cloying detail. What interests me is the impact of colours.

In the centre of my picture I paint a single rectangle. It is a rich, crimson red with traces of darker vermilion. It dazzles and sizzles against the orange. I revel in its daring. I turn my attention to the two remaining bars. I paint one green, a blue-sage, slightly chalky. For the other I choose a strong burgundy.

I am fascinated by the way the different reds shun and call to each other. Sometimes, when I stand back from my canvas, I can see nothing else. The way the orange recedes against their impact astonishes me. I cannot believe the past has already lost its power. I turn my attention to my central rectangle. I am audacious. I will create the spaces I need. I will be mistress in my own house.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


These are the notes for a talk I gave regarding the process of adapting the novel and its translation from script to performance. Please forgive the roughness of the prose, it was not typed to be read by other eyes and I added and subtracted as I gave the talk. I also didn't check grammar and spelling! I refer to slides throughout so ignore these references. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts:

There are a number of difficulties with reducing a full length book into short play. I had to be ruthlessness and focussed only on aspects of the book pertaining to Vanessa and Virginia’s ‘close conspiracy’. I cut the majority of the passages where, for example, Vanessa is in conversation with others e.g. her conversation about Virginia with Stella is removed p. 21 and more minor relationships e.g. with Jack Hills pp. 31-32. This was partly due to space, but partly due to the fact that the play had to appeal to non-Bloomsbury scholars and, of course, the more names one introduces, the more confused people get.

BUT, this was still too much, so I focused only on aspects of their relationship which I believed were absolutely vital to our understanding of them, so even moments where Vanessa is intimate with key figures in her life had to be downplayed or removed e.g. the moment on pp.158-159 when she tells Angelica who her father really is, is edited out. I had to keep reminding myself that this play is called ‘Vanessa and Virginia’. This was difficult to achieve as I didn’t want to lose the flavour of the novel in process.

Other difficulties surrounded transforming a book which reads as a series of moments, episodes or prose paintings, into a play. Knowing how challenging such a fluid structure would be on stage, it was simply a case of hoping that the audience would be able to enter into the dreamlike fluidity of the swift succession of scenes and follow on the slightest of hints. I knew that we would have to recruit some very daring and emotionally mature actresses to achieve this, as the play has to move much more swiftly than the novel. The actors would have to transform from laughter to tears within the space of a few lines and from to youth, to maturity, to old age within the course of just an hour and a half. The novel has line breaks to help this transition, we had to rely on the shifting images, music and the actors’ skills. These difficulties were assisted by props and costume, but mainly relied on the skill of the actress.

Of course, some of the problems with editing the novel down were side-stepped by the nature of drama itself. They say that a picture tells a thousand words, which is a good thing because it allowed me to say certain thing without words. So much can be said visually through the movements and expressions of the actors, by the use of props and costume, and by the design of the set. My initial plans for the set were to have a moving image backdrop that reflected the mood and set the scene for the action unfolding on stage, but this seemed too literal for such a dreamlike play. So I wrote into the script the paintings which Susan describes in her novel and which would, in part, act as background. In an early performance of a tiny section (now cut) at the Cambridge ‘Making Sense’ Conference in September last year, I asked a friend to animate Bell’s 1914 Abstract and timed its evolution to coincide with various words and mood changes in the script. As you can see this is unfolding behind me as I speak. This I decided was firstly too distracting and secondly too expensive considering the amount of copyright permissions, so Emma Gersch (the director) and I, got in touch with the curator at Charleston and, with the permission of Henrietta Garnett, the set designers went and took photographs of the house. It is from tiny parts of these photographs that we abstracted our backdrop. Here is a selection of some of the images.

Emma and I then spent a very long day deciding on which parts of the images would best evoke specific moods. This is the table of the images that we decided to use and which parts of the image should form the basis of the picture behind the action. We then instructed the students working for Artswork Media in Bristol to play with and animate these images which evolve in the background.

Other ways round the need for more words included music and dance, the first to express mood and the second to express emotion. Here we have three different clips from the beautiful original score by composer Jeremy Thurlow of Cambridge University.

Dance was also used by the director to express certain feelings without the need for Vanessa to stand up and explain them, for example, the feeling of freedom Vanessa feels when she paints in St Ives and this moment expresses all the other moments in the novel when Vanessa speaks about the freedom she feels through painting:

Other dilemmas I came across with the script included whether to use 2 actresses or to bring other characters into play. It was pretty obvious that with the concentration on their relationship that the two actresses would prove a stronger focus for the story, but there were moments when I had to have other characters in order to make sense of the sisters’ bond. I side-stepped this problem in several ways. Firstly, by using imaginary figures, for example, the moment when Vanessa is showing Thoby her paintings and Virginia cuts in to steal him away, or by having the character give an impression of another person, for example, the section in the novel where George takes Vanessa out and parades her like a thoroughbred horse was transformed into Vanessa imitating George’s manner for Virginia. Compare pp. 29-30 in the novel with the script:

Vanessa: (to audience) I come into the drawing room swathed in white voile overlaid with black and silver sequins. I have amethysts and opals round my neck and my hair is pinned with enamel butterflies. George raises his eyeglass and appraises me. There is no difference between his gesture and his scrutiny of the Arab mare he has bought for my daily rides. I look to you for protection but you turn away.

(speaking to Virginia) At the party the rooms are ablaze with light. [Imitating George and miming a handshake] ‘Mr Chamberlain, allow me to introduce my half-sister, Miss Vanessa Stephen’. Miserably I shake his hand. I can think of nothing to say. I know George is angry. [Imitating George] ‘Would you like to tell me what that was about? I suppose you think it’s amusing to insult people. Your hair was awful, too!’

(to audience) George’s constant haranguing, his perpetual reminders as to our place and obligations, focused what might otherwise have remained vague longings for an alternative.

The actress who played Virginia was also scripted to play the role of Sir Leslie Stephen who shouts at Vanessa for the household accounts so pp. 34-35 of the novel becomes:

Virginia sits at the desk in imitation of Leslie Stephen

Vanessa: [To Virginia as father] The accounts, Father.

Virginia: [Imitating Leslie] What’s this? Strawberries! You allowed Sophie to order strawberries in May! Salmon! Do you mean to tell me that the fish we ate Tuesday last was salmon? Look at the price girl! You stand there like a block of stone! Do you wish to ruin me? Can you not imagine what it’s like for me now? Have you no pity?

The director also decided to use the actress playing Virginia to play Duncan (though he has no dialogue in the script).

Problems of dialogue. There isn’t much dialogue in the novel it is weighted, as the luxury of the novel form allows, towards reflection, observation and description; beautiful, but largely unworkable in drama. I therefore had to ensure that there was a balance of dialogue with monologue. Monologue can become dull to an audience. The first few drafts were far too monologue heavy and so I had to keep reworking it until I felt there was a better balance. I did this by reading the play aloud as I went along and playing the two characters myself. My flatmates started to suspect they were living with a schizophrenic! But as this is something Woolf used to do when writing her novels, I though what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Even so, there were two moments when the rehearsal process highlighted this as a problem. One of these moments came when I had allowed Vanessa the luxury of describing her paintings, but it was a luxury that Emma Gersch was sure the audience wouldn’t thank me for, so, at her request, I rewrote this long section where Vanessa describes her paintings, as dialogue. Thus this:

Scene transition - As Vanessa speaks the images slowly unfold layer on layer on the screen behind her.

Vanessa: I am working on two large canvases simultaneously. I move back and forth between them. In the first picture, an elegantly dressed woman perches on a footstool in front of a fire. She is gazing at the naked figure of a small boy, her son, we suppose. There is a coolness in her look, an aloofness, as if she is holding something in check. On the right of the picture a second woman is seated on a sofa with a much smaller child. She is dressed in workaday clothes. Unlike the first woman, she is fully engaged with the child she is holding. The woman on the footstool has a mirror and handkerchief in her hand. I cannot decide if these are intended for the boy or are part of her own preparation for leaving. Something about the way she gazes at the boy tells us she will soon depart. There is resignation as well as wistfulness in her expression. She is studying the boy far too intently, instead of clasping him to her. It is as if she knows that in order to detach herself she must restrain from loving him. There are no children in the second picture. On the left a nude reclines on a sofa, resting perhaps, from her work of posing as a model. On the right the woman is fully dressed, staring at the arrangement of fruit on the table before her. She appears indifferent to the woman on the sofa. Whatever she finds in the fruit bowl preoccupies her entirely. I cannot finish this second picture. There remains something vacant at its heart. The void persists. I begin to sense that neither of the women is central to the painting: whatever work of art they are creating seems somehow beyond their reach. Something in the women’s demeanour implies that I am responsible for their failure, that it is my task to alter their fate. Yet I scarcely know how.

Became this:

Scene transition – They stand gradually, move boxes together and sit together. They focus on two canvases in front of them.

64 – Painting M21 fades out as they begin speaking.

Vanessa: [to Virginia] I am working on two large canvases simultaneously. In this picture, we can see an elegantly dressed woman perching on a footstool in front of a fire. She’s gazing at the naked figure of a small boy, her son, we suppose.

Virginia: (looking at Vanessa) There is a coolness in her look, an aloofness, as if she’s holding something in check.

Vanessa: (nods) Here, on the right, the second woman is seated on a sofa with a much smaller child, she’s more engaged with the child she’s holding, but something about the way she gazes at the boy tells us she will soon depart.

Virginia: There’s resignation and wistfulness in her expression. She is studying the child far too intently, Nessa. Must she detach herself if she is to refrain from loving it?

Vanessa: [ignoring Virginia and indicating the 2nd picture] There are no children in this second picture. On the left a nude reclines, while on the right, the woman is fully dressed, staring at the arrangement of fruit on the table before her.

Virginia: Whatever she finds in that fruit bowl is preoccupying her entirely!

Vanessa: I cannot finish this picture. There’s something vacant at its heart. [to self/audience] The void persists. I’m beginning to sense that neither of the women is central to the painting: whatever work of art they are creating seems somehow beyond their reach. [Looks at Virginia, then moves behind her) Something in the women’s demeanour implies that I am responsible for their failure, that it is my task to alter their fate. Yet I scarcely know how.

Obviously, theatre is a more collaborative process than fiction. Many more people have a creative impact on it: the director, the actresses, the lighting designer, the sound designer, the set designer all contribute to the overall effect. For example, my original script had Virginia entering and exiting at various moments, but the Director, Emma Gersch wanted Virginia on-stage at all times. This is, I think, a very sensible idea and useful for intensifying the focus of their relationship. The actresses obviously bring their own ideas to the delineation of their characters, but they were also, at one point, asked to write letters to each other in the style of Vanessa and Virginia which Emma and I decided were a perfect way to express the frustration they both felt when Virginia was taken away for Dr Savage’s rest cure:

Vanessa: Dearest Billy

Virginia: Dearest Nessa


1) I hope this reaches you well and that you are recovering every day./

2) My news is only of our new home. My days are spent decorating our new rooms the walls are white with simple furniture./

3)The light feeds my soul. I have placed your desk in front of your window so you may look out over the trees as you write./

4) We have our own room and no unwanted footsteps outside our doors./

5) I cannot wait to share with you this place. I long for your return. /

6) Nessa.


1) I can’t begin to say how much I am longing to see you. I don’t think I can bear much more of this imprisonment./

2) I haven’t had any sort of real conversation for weeks. Won’t you write to them and tell them to let me come back to you sooner? You understand me better than they do./

3)I fear I will only continue to fade unless you rescue me. I promise to be good. The dark and emptiness of each day is numbing my mind./

4) Tell me about what you’ve done. Tell me it all. Tell me of the house, the garden.

Don’t, whatever you do, forget anything about me. The thought of seeing you is all that keeps me going./

5) Wouldn’t you like us to be together again? Bring me home. Please bring me home/

6) Billy


a. As I have already hinted, the rehearsal process highlighted certain areas that needed to be re-envisioned. It was also vital to the success of the production for the two actresses to become fully immersed in the lives of these women. During the rehearsals, the room was covered in their research.

b. And at various moments they contacted me for guidance about the relationships and characters that the sisters were referring to, and I was also requested to add the ages of Vanessa into the script to help them.

c. The rehearsal process was also itinerant, as some rehearsals were conducted at Bath Spa, others at Mountview and further ones at Robinson College in Cambridge where the composer was able to work closely with the production to create a score that reflects the events unfolding in the sisters’ lives.

The finished product

d. We now have a fully fledged play that was given its first flight at the Contemporary Woolf Conference in Aix en Provence.

e. The production is poised on the edge of a UK and European tour, partly made possible though AHRC funding.

f. You can catch the play in Glasgow June 2011 as part of the International Woolf Conference.

g. It will also be on at the Bloomsbury Adaptations Conference at Bath Spa University on the 5th and 6th May next year. Further details of this can be found on the website: www.bathspa.ac.uk/bloomsbury

Friday, September 24, 2010

Our French adventure!

This time last week the first performance of Vanessa and Virginia had just begun. But not without difficulty. On the Thursday morning the team (Emma, Kitty, Beth, George, Luke and I) met bright and early at Gatwick's south terminal and were hit with a blow. Our flight to Marsaille had been cancelled. With this huge inconvenience and EasyJet proving to be totally unhelpful we quickly set about trying to find an alternative route to France, searching through every possibility, flights, trains, ferrys and driving. Eventually we managed to get some flights later that evening but at the expense of two of our party. Unfortunately the more expensive tickets meant that Beth and Luke were unable to join us.
So eventually at half 9pm our party of four arrived in Marsaille only to be informed that the hire care which had been promised as part of our flight deal, wasn't actually available, so tired and frustrated we clambered aboard a coach from the airport with our set, costume and cases and eventually arrived at Hotel Cardinal in Aix en Provence.

We awoke on Friday and headed off for what would prove to be a long day in the theatre. George quickly set about working with the students at the theatre and began rigging and focussing for the show. Even as early as 10am, with 9 hours till the performance time I was already aware of a swarm of butterflies in my stomach. Due to some technical complications, brilliantly handled by George, our tech was delayed and we were unable to finish a cue to cue of the show before we began.

Waiting side stage as the audience entered the space I was more nervous than I have ever been pre-show before. I think this was a combination of it being our first performance, the knowledge that we were performing to a host of renowned Woolf scholars and my own determination to do justice to the extraordinary woman I was about to play.

Despite all of this, the show went better than I could ever have hoped. Both Kitty and myself found new elements to our characters, found a new sense of play and exploration which had developed even further from the rehearsal room. It was a totally exhiliarating experience and I felt more than ever before that this woman was really coming to life. The response from our audience was overwhelming. I could never have hoped for such a positive response and it was hugely reassuring to know that all our work during rehearsals and research had been successful. Of course that isn't to say that there are still more things we can do to improve the show further, but for our premier performance and after an incredibly trying couple of days it felt like a huge success and has even opened up performance opportunities in Germany and Greece.

The rest of the weekend was spent both at the Woolf conference, hearing papers about Woolf's writing style and particular novels and walking the beautiful streets of Aix en Provence. The trip was an incredible experience and has left the whole team feeling incredibly excited about the next development of the project.