Tuesday, February 15, 2011
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!
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
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 .
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.
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’.