‘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).
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.
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.
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.