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Virginia Woolf On Stage With ‘Between the Acts’ At The Hope Theatre

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‘Being Totally Ignorant Gave Me the Courage’
John Schmor on Adapting Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts for the Stage

True confession: I have read just about everything (published) that Virginia Woolf ever wrote. I have shelves for the diaries, essays, letters, criticism – and fiction. I’ve read Jacob’s Room countless times, love listening to Juliet Stevenson read Mrs. Dalloway, can make myself laugh and cringe and cry at Orlando (the book) and smile with delight at Orlando (the Sally Potter-directed, Tilda Swinton-starring movie, which I first saw in London in 1993 when I was studying abroad there).

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But I’ve never read Between the Acts. Perhaps by the time I finished The Waves, I was just worn out? I don’t remember.

Here’s a plot summary, for as much good as that will do you with Woolf books.

The publicity material for the play, by the way, says “It’s a funny and loving play about an English family and some friends gathered to host on their estate the local summer pageant – which this year attempts to trace (and parodies) the whole history of British drama.  It is set in June of 1939.”

When I got an email saying that the University of Oregon Theatre Department’s John Schmor had adapted the book for the stage, I was intrigued. Woolf’s interiority and experimentation make movie or TV adaptations a little challenging, to put it mildly, so how would this work? Schmor invited me to his house to talk about it. Despite the fact that I was late, he graciously offered me lavender lemonade and let me ask a few questions about the book, the work of adaptation, and this production.

 

 

So, John, how much had you read of Virginia Woolf before this?

None. I had not read a single thing by Woolf until [a friend] handed me this book and said, “You’ve got to devise something with the students on this because it needs to be on stage.”

Whoa! OK. Then what?

Eventually, I got around to reading it, and I was so mesmerized by it, I felt foolish.

Here I’ve gotten to be – well, at the time I was nearly 50 – and nobody told me about this magician?

I came across some scholarly thing through the New York Times and the scholar called her the only clear genius of female letters in British writing. I don’t know about that.

She is uncommon. And to realize she’s having that influence on the writers I care about who are writing today – for instance, Caryl Churchill – and also it’s just damned funny, and I wasn’t expecting that.

It is awfully sad to think of this book as her farewell, but it’s a pretty good way to go out. [EDITOR’S NOTE: You can read more about that in the Register-Guard preview of the play.]

Virginia Woolf! She was so prolific.

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‘She is uncommon. And to realize she’s having that influence on the writers I care about who are writing today – for instance, Caryl Churchill – and also it’s just damned funny, and I wasn’t expecting that.’

 

So how did it become a play?
I had just read it, and I was talking to Jane Jones from Book-It Theatre (in Seattle). She was down here, and I took her to coffee and said, You guys have got to pick this book up. And she said, “Why don’t you write it?” I said, “I’ve never written something from a book like this.” She said that’s not true, and she started talking about the Shakespeare adaptations, like Love Will Shake, and my devised work.

Then I had a research term, a month in Brazil where I was teaching in Sao Paulo, and my friend said I should go to this island off the coast, Ilhabela. It was the most bizarre, perfect contradiction because this little place I was staying in was surrounded by jungle, and I’m working on this 1939 English rural church/village community play.

I couldn’t write at night because they have these lightning bugs about as big as an avocado pit, and they’re very attracted to laptops. I had to go to sleep when the sun set.

That was November 2010. Then I sent it to Jane right away, scheduled a reading with actors from Book-It, I went up in April, and we had a great time, but life got in the way [of a full production].

Then I was looking ahead to this summer and thinking what am I going to do? I need a project. So sometime in the fall of 2013, I applied for this grant to give me just enough budget to work with a good costume designer and good designers all around. And then I sat down with four friends of mine who are actors and who I wanted to work with, and then little by little started to cast. The cast changed over time; people dropped out for health or family things. And from that core four, two took totally different roles than they were supposed to be in. But I think it’s better this way. It just worked out.

 

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‘I came up against a lot of people telling me [this adaptation is] not doable – you know, her internal sensibility and thought processes, how are you going to put that on stage? Being totally ignorant gave me the courage.’

Did you read other things by Woolf?

I did. This has been what, four years. I read A Room of One’s Own. I still haven’t gotten To the Lighthouse.

I came up against a lot of people telling me [this adaptation is] not doable – you know, her internal sensibility and thought processes, how are you going to put that on stage? Being totally ignorant gave me the courage.

Of course, Between the Acts is actually between the wars. It’s completely a coincidence that this is happening on the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

Did you try to incorporate that deliberately into this production?

I found her book so moving because it is not prominent. It’s glimpsed, it’s hinted at, but it is not the message. Through the several readings I did, some people said you need to make it clear it’s 1939, the characters are on the verge of World War II.

But the whole point of the book is that people are living their lives, clinging to the daily – and to deeper, wider thoughts, and what’s coming. I don’t think any of them are in denial or anything like that.

It’s the way life is – horrible things can happen, and we do our best to pretend that until they happen, we’re just fine.

The book really reminded me of what I love about Chekhov. These are good people, struggling. Also, I just tried to keep the humor in it, keep everything that was funny to me about reading the book in the play.

How did that work during the first weekend’s performances?

We had one audience that came expecting, you know, dour Virginia Woolf, and they didn’t laugh very much. She has that reputation, but it was physical and funny.

What will happen to this show after this?

I don’t know; this is all just an experiment.

This is sort of like what happened to me when I did a play about Emily Dickinson’s love life.

A very funny playwright in New York wrote a very funny script about Emily and Susan’s relationship. I started reading about that life, and what happened to the poems, and how the two sides of the family controlled those things, Yale and Amherst – that’s why there’s not yet a fully completed library set. PBS should do a series on the Dickinsons! But basically, I fell in love with the poet, and for a while there I couldn’t read anybody else.

You like having projects to work on. So what’s next?
Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. It’s a totally interesting script, very new. It opened at the Royal Court in 2012, and they did a revival in New York in March, and I don’t know how Ariel [Ogden] did it, but we got the rights. There are 150 characters, more than 50 vignettes, and none have character names or clear gender, age, or race signals. You can go any way you want to go. I don’t know how it’s going to work. It’s a complete jigsaw puzzle.

Opening Night at the Oregon Bach Festival: Pretty Music, Then A Half-Wild Yawp

The Oregon Bach Festival usually kicks off with a great deal of excitement and buzz, at least for aficionados: Helmuth Rilling is back! Look, there’s our favorite OBF oboist! And oh, what a superb chorus!

The Bach Festival this year started not with a bang, but with a soft ramp up, an easy path that became more varied and interesting as the evening went on. But if not for a post-intermission piece of rather surprising programming, the entire thing could have been a particularly decent night at a (top) city symphony.

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The Hills of Fake Iowa, And The Deadly Effects Of Marriage

Francie Ford (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and George Page (Ted Deasy) learn about their wives (Gina Daniels, Terri McMahon) schemes to have their revenge on Senator John Falstaff. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

At long last, and after much (internal, completely unnoticed by other humans) agonizing on my part, Part III:
Marriage

“I’ve never seen Christopher Liam Moore do anything – acting or directing – that I didn’t think was fantastic,” I said to my partner before we headed into the CLM-directed The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. “Also, I’ve interviewed (Very Merry Wives writer) Alison Carey, and she’s brilliant, so I have hope for this play.”

Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaah.

I still think CLM usually kicks acting and directing butt (2010’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof should have won national awards), and I still believe Alison Carey is brilliant. Her ability to combine the script of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor with contemporary English should win her some kind of adaptation/reinvention prize, at least in terms of language. But dear god, this play? This farce gone overboard? This parody without end? No.

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Play On: Oregon Shakespeare Festival Summer Season, Part II

Archbishop of Canterbury (Richard Howard) assures Henry V (John Tufts) that there is no bar to his claim to France. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

So I started off yesterday (well, Wednesday) with the Greeks as a theme, but Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella segues perfectly into the next two themes:

Music and Marriage

That bwessed awangement, that dweam wifin a dweam

Right, that, but I want to start with the food of love: music.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch has never hidden his love for musicals; 2009’s Music Man was one of his first smash hits as artistic director, and he’s had a surprising number of live musicians onstage for many plays since. But I have noticed an uptick in music within the plays that aren’t musicals since Rauch came on board permanently in 2008.

Shakespeare, as I was told by my high school “Shakespeare on Stage” teacher (Ms. Berit Lindboe, if you ever read this, this entire thing is your fault, and by “thing,” I mean my life as a Shakespeare addictnerd), liked to put songs in his comedies. Thank god our high school class never had to make up tunes to go along with the lyrics. But I digress: The point is that under Rauch, the festival has gone hog-wild with the music. Continue reading

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival Plus The Greeks (Summer Reviews, Part I)

Touchstone (Peter Frechette) entertains Rosalind (Erica Sullivan) and Celia (Christine Albright). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The short and sweet of my five days in Ashland during outdoor opening of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

  • Go to As You Like It no matter what else you see. “It’s the play you take someone from out of town to,” said someone on Twitter, and I agree. Gorgeously presented, capably (often better than that) acted, with lighting and set designs that should win someone some awards.
  • If you have a good tolerance for war plays, hit both Henry V (in a rather traditional staging, though not traditional costuming) and Troilus and Cressida.
  • If you have a flexible mind and patience for a rather messy first act, and/or you love any of the plays involved, do go to Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella.
  • If you know nothing about the Midwest, have no dear-to-you relatives or friends there, and/or enjoy constant punning and The Merry Wives of Windsor, go ahead and hit up The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa. Otherwise, you might want to stay away.

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Home Is The Place Where, When You Go There, They Have to Take You In: Sam Shepard’s Lie of the Mind At The Lord Leebrick

Jake (Kato Buss) and Lorraine (Rebecca Nachison). Photo courtesy of the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company

Forget the obvious age issues, the saggy middle of the play, the oddly cartoonish writing at the climax – the reasons to go see Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind at the Lord Leebrick Theatre (through June 3) number at least two: Kato Buss and Mary Buss.

Not to give short shrift to Jeffrey Cook’s evocative and flexible set or to Rachel Kinsman Steck’s lighting design – which without being intrusive works to illuminate both the actors and their emotions – or the strong direction of Richard Leebrick (who, like Kato Buss, adores Sam Shepard), but without the family Buss, this would be quite a different, and I suspect lesser, experience.

Both Kato – who now has his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon – and Mary have raised the bar for Eugene acting during the past few years. I know at least Kato (congrats on that job, but damn you for leaving) won’t be here next season, so it’s especially great that they’re the vital center of Lie of the Mind. The play trades in images of wounded, lonely, lost people who go on damaging one another past the point where anyone with a lick of rationality would fearfully call a halt.

Indeed, action opens with an anguished, slightly surreal and definitely nightmarish phone call in which Jake (Kato) tells his far-away brother Frankie (Jacob King) that he’s killed his wife. He doesn’t know where he is; he doesn’t tell Frankie how to find him; he just hangs up the phone and wails.

Frankie (Jacob King) and Mike (Mike Hawkins). Photo courtesy of the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company

Also wailing (though internally more than externally), Beth (Mary) awakens in a hospital bed, seriously injured. Her brother Mike (Mike Hawkins, who hasn’t been on the Leebrick stage since the tour de force Pillowman production a few years ago) falters between a deep wish to help her and an overwhelming desire for revenge.

Both Jake and Beth come from hardscrabble families; Jake is the scion of an alcoholic fighter pilot, with a mother (Rebecca Nachison) who both favors and abuses him, and Beth’s father Baylor (Achilles Massahos) is straight out of Small Western Town Central Casting, with his heads of cattle and his hunting shack and his inability to see anyone else but himself.

He’s not the only self-focused one. Beth’s mother Meg (Gloria Nagalo) can’t focus on the world around her or remember events well; perhaps Shepard means us to know she’s nearly as brain-damaged as her directly injured daughter from her years with the mercurial, grumpy, unloving Baylor. Massahos pulls off a tightrope act as Baylor, who’s both a crazy asshole and a man deeply dependent on women, and Nagalo as the alternately generous and vacant Beth. Their orbits are fixed; Beth and Mike don’t really figure into their lives.

Shepard’s message, perhaps? The arid, deadly West damages men, and its men damage women. I’m reminded of Joe Wilkins’ painful and powerful essay Out West  – “We hurt the land, and it hurt us. Sometimes it hurt us physically … and sometimes it struck us in other, deeper ways.”

But Wilkins handles the harshness of Montana’s outer and inner landscapes with a sensitively honed touch; Shepard, on the other hand, uses class and rural life as a bludgeon. At the first intermission, one woman in line for the bathroom said to another, “I don’t know how Shepard can write about these characters. They’re all so unlikeable.” To put it mildly.

Perhaps there’s something about shadow characteristics, in a Jungian sense, for women watching this, or any, Shepard play. Jake’s mother Lorraine (Rebecca Nachison) alternates between a horrid coddling and a just as damaging neglect of her son. She doesn’t care if he’s killed Beth; she doesn’t even care about Beth at all except as a rival who took her son away from her. She sends her daughter Sally (Michelle Nordella) away when Sally seems to upset Jake – and there’s more than a hint that she’s also been complicit in letting Jake molest Sally. Nachison bites into the role of Lorraine with relish, treating the kids, including the sweet and hapless Frankie (King plays Frankie with a good mix of courage and naïvete, but both he and Nordella, with their unlined faces and youthful energy, seem to exist in an entirely different world from the rest of the cast), with a terrifying mix of disdain, regret, anger, possessiveness, suffocating care, and displeasure.

Who would want to be Lorraine or Sally or Meg? And who would want to be Beth, the magical truth-teller, the victim, the helpless one? Beth takes on a quasi-mystical role in the second act as she explains and resists the pull of her childhood home, but she also desperately desires her husband, her abuser. Where is he, this man whom her mother can barely acknowledge meeting? Where is he, this husband, whom she misses and wants to see even through the fog of the brain injury he caused her?

Why, he’s sorting through memories in his childhood room. He’s plotting to escape his mother. He’s dealing with memories and mementos of his WWII veteran, asshole, alcoholic, abusive, wreck of a father – a man whom he essentially murdered.

Beth (Mary Buss), with Meg (Gloria Nagalo) in the background. Photo courtesy of the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company

Shepard embraces Big Symbolic Touches like Beth, wearing her dad’s shirt, talking about how the clothes make the man – or make a human a maaaan. Like Jake wrapping himself in his father’s American flag and setting out for Beth’s family house, 500 miles away from his home, with no pants because his mother hid them. Like Lorraine’s burning of memories, her abandonment of the past and all of its complicated emotions. Why, you could write many a paper – and oh yes, it’s been done – on Shepard’s Symbols.

At certain times, I find them a tad bit obvious, a tad bit trite. The headless deer carcass in the living room. The flesh wound poisoning the innocent boy. Shepard’s bludgeon comes out hard at the climax. Those who revere the physical flag neglect the wounded; men like Mike who claim to protect women often just want to dictate to them out of competition with other men.

Yet sometimes wild heart attracts itself to wild heart, and things go wrong in mean, hard, petty, soul-crushing ways that can’t even be epic because epic is too much for these characters to reach for.

Joe Wilkins: “Go over it again: how it begins with the whims of wind and want, or maybe just some quick moment of stupidity; how failure and shame, even in an instant, become so impossibly heavy, a sack of stones you must shoulder; how this then is fear; and how fear someday detonates you — the slow implosion, the breakneck explosion.”

That’s Jake. That’s Beth. That’s Mike, and Baylor, and Lorraine. That’s the death of the family and the death of the past – except the past, of course, is never gone at all. It’s right there, embodied in everything these characters plan, say and do, embodied in the ways Jake lives in Beth and Beth inside of Jake.

Shepard gives the theatre crowd an entire shadow region of life – while we’re the ones who don’t beat each other up, the ones who know how to get a wounded man to the hospital, the ones who take responsibility and serve each other with honor and compassion, we know we could be like that. Shepard’s repellent characters may then serve a purpose for those of us who feel mauled by his plays: the knowledge that we’re capable of anything. And we can choose to do better by each other – and by ourselves.

The play runs through June 3 at the Lord Leebrick, 540 Charnelton St. Tix available at 541-465-1506, here, or at the door (though Leebrick plays have been selling out this year).

Meet Scott Freck, New Executive Director of the Eugene Symphony

Last summer, while I was (ironically) in Chicago, the Eugene Symphony announced that its excellent executive director, Paul Winberg (here’s a Q&A I did with Winberg a few years ago), was leaving the symphony for a spot as the executive directorof the Grant Park Music Festival.

Winberg left the symphony in good financial shape, still in the black after years of recession. As symphonies around the country go bankrupt or conduct punishing negotiations with their musicians, Eugene seems calm though the development team certainly works its (collective) butt off to raise the money necessary to stay in the black.

Scott Freck, via Polyphonic

Last week, the symphony sent out a press release to announce that it had hired a new executive director: Scott Freck, currently the VP for artistic operations and the general manager of the North Carolina Symphony, based in Raleigh. Freck will move to Eugene in June, and his family (he has a wife and two kids) will follow in July.

But he won’t be new to Oregon; he grew up “outside of Portland.” When he was young, he was a cellist with the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and he worked as artistic administrator for the Oregon Symphony in Portland for years before he moved in 2000 to that other, hotter, more mosquito-ridden coast.

I had the opportunity to talk to Freck about his return to his home state, his feelings about the Eugene Symphony and his plans for the future – and how to fill Winberg’s shoes and keep the Eugene Symphony financially and musically successful.

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