In Conversation with Naomi Wright, Actor/Producer of Bloomsbury Collective’s A Room Of One’s Own, playing at the Campbell House Museum November 13th-24th
Interview by Madryn McCabe
MM: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the show?
NW: We are doing an immersive production of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. So A Room of One’s Own is this beautiful book that Virginia Woolf compiled after she gave two speeches, to Girton College and Newton College in 1928-1929. And Patrick Garland, this wonderful director and writer in England, adapted that book for the stage in the 80’s. So, our idea for the show is that we want to try to recreate these speeches in a theatrical way. Our audience is invited to the Campbell House Museum, but the Campbell House Museum itself is playing a role as Girton College. So you arrive at the Campbell House Museum like you were arriving at Girton College in 1928, and we have this lovely improviser, Kayla Lorette, who is going to play the head of the society that invited Virginia Woolf to give the speech. They were part of the ODTAA Society, which stood for One Damn Thing After Another. So Kayla plays this girl who welcomes people, like it’s the night that Virginia Woolf delivers this speech, and you can have a drink at our bar, we’re going to set up the space like it’s Girton College, so there’s going to be lots of stuff to look at, there are going to be newspapers from November 1928, there’s going to be a whole library of all the books Virginia Woolf talks about in the essay, and then upstairs there’s going to be this bedroom that’s still kept historically accurate. So we’re saying that it’s where Virginia Woolf is staying while she delivers this speech, and so you can go into this room and open drawers and look through things, and we’ve chosen various pieces of writing, like letters and diary entries, that will give you insight into who Woolf was as a person, as a woman. And so you’re there to hear the speech. And, for me, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It’s a powerful piece of work about claiming your space in the world and not letting anybody tell you that you’re less than you are, and especially never telling yourself that you’re less than you are.
MM: Is the play written to be such an immersive experience, or is this something that you and the creative team have developed? Why is it so immersive?
NW: The way that A Room of One’s Own is written is Virginia Woolf is talking directly to you. So, automatically, it’s assumed that you’re at Girton College, at the time that she is delivering this. There are no stage directions in the script, it’s just words on 32 pages of paper. But, it reads like she is talking directly to you. So from that, we said, okay we’re at Girton College, and then when Sarah [Rodgers, AROOO director] and I were working on the scripts, we read through her letters, what was she doing at this time, and the more that we unearthed…Virginia Woolf is one of the most fascinating, complicated characters in literature, in history, and so while you can pull that nugget, put that thing, and say as an actor, “okay I’m going to digest that, I feel like that connects to these words, and I feel that that is what she’s saying when she goes to this place” it’s a fleeting moment. Even though it might impact the audience, in a way that they don’t understand, that it’s moving, or it’s funny, they don’t have the full story behind it. So that’s when we began to weave this idea that we could try to offer a bigger piece of the story through the immersive experience.
MM: I was reading on the website that the Campbell House Museum is open and that part of your immersive experience is open, even when the play isn’t running, so that people can go in, read these books, and look at these letters.
NW: It was so much fun to compile them. We found a website that’s a catalogue of whatever used books that bookstores in the world have, they can put their stock on it, and you can enter in, say, “Jane Eyre” and all of these books will come up, in Paris, in London, New York, Philidelphia, wherever, whoever has that book, and you can order it and have it sent to you. And so we started ordering the books that she was talking about, and then we thought, “We really should order every book, and put it out in the library”. And they’re just so beautiful. And what we hope will happen is that people will look at them during the reception and set their eye on one, and as a bonus to your ticket, you can come back to the Campbell House any time during their opening hours, and sit in that gorgeous house, and take a breather, and read that book. It’s also sort of a throwback to a time when you did that. Back in 1928, that’s kind of the thrust of what people were doing. That’s how people got their information, newspapers and books, it wasn’t as instantaneous. There was no Twitter and Facebook, and “sharing” and “liking”. That’s what so great about the letters too, particularly to Vita Sackville-West, who was Virginia’s lover. Her letters are so desperate. There are things like, “Dearest, I haven’t heard from you in two days! I’ve sent twelve letters!” There’s something so beautiful and romantic about that.
MM: So you were finding that you were getting a lot more out of your research for the role looking at these letters?
NW: Oh yeah definitely! Letters, back in the day, were an art form. Lots of people had their letters published. It wasn’t totally an idea that it was private, so Virginia Woolf’s letters, while very intimate, are beautifully written. They’re addendums to her work, they’re another branch to her art. So we definitely wanted to include some of that in there.
MM: I was seeing that the whole creative team of the show is all women. Did that happen by accident or is that a tenet of your company?
NW: It’s not a tenet of the company, but when we started developing the show, I had applied for some grants, and when I was doing my research, I started Googling around and said, “where is equality for women today?” And first of all, it’s a little disturbing that it’s not quite as advanced as we think it is. Women on the whole still make less money than men for doing the same job, we do not represent congress or parliament or politics in any sort of substantial percentage, we’re not even close to half. It’s such a big deal that Premier Wynne is a woman, and it’s 2013! It’s amazing. Tina Fey won this prestigious comedy award in the United States, and they announced that she was the second woman ever to receive it. And in her acceptance speech, she said, “I’m really looking forward to the day when we can stop counting things. When I’m not the second of this, or the fourth of that, when it’s just the award.” And when you actually break it down, logically, it’s so absurd. What is it that makes us say, “Wow! A WOMAN is Premier!”? What is it that we’re talking about? Are we talking about the anatomy of a woman? The social aspect? What is it that is so remarkable about the fact that women are different? What is it throughout history that has made women “the lesser” sex? The fact that we don’t build muscle the way that men do? That we were the gatherers back in the day? That we bear children? It’s interesting, because that’s a lot of what Woolf talks about in the essay. She talks about back in the day when there was no birth control. If you were a wife, you were having twelve, thirteen children. Because that’s what happens in nature. Eighty-five years ago is when she wrote this. So, in a way, that’s a long time ago. We hope that lots has changed since then. But, in another sense, some of the shocking things that were the norm in 1928 are still around. Eighty-five years is within a lifetime. So your grandmother lived in that time, when people could still write things like, “A woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on its hind legs; it’s not done well, but you’re surprised to find it done at all”. That’s literally pulled right out of A Room of One’s Own. I have the book that it comes from. Cecil Gray was a music reviewer, and he wrote a book called “A Survey of Contemporary Music” and the ONE review he gave to any woman composer was that.
MM: That leads me into something else I was going to bring up, which is David Gilmour’s comments that he only teaches tough, heterosexual men and if you want to learn something else, take someone else’s class, BUT he does have one of Virginia Woolf’s writing in his curriculum.
NW: For me the David Gilmour thing, the whole debate started coming up, and for me the thing that I took issue with, was that he was quoted as saying, “I don’t like women writers”. And he just sort of said it, just like that. I don’t need him to be punished or feel like a jerk, I just need him to realize that’s a meaningless statement. He could have said, “I don’t like Alice Munro, I don’t like Margaret Atwood, I don’t like Virginia Woolf”, every female author who’s ever written, to infinitum, THEN he’s expressing a preference. As soon as you go, “I don’t like women writers”, it’s a prejudice, and it doesn’t mean anything, because you haven’t read every woman writer who ever wrote anything. I’ll bet if we sent David Gilmour a bunch of books with the name reversed, he wouldn’t know which was written by a woman and which were written by men. I don’t know what he thinks he meant by it [his quote] and that’s why I think people reacted so strongly. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf talks about going to the library and researching women in fiction and all these things come up. “Women: weaker in the moral sense” “Women: Vanity of” all these things and she says, “While I was reading these things, I started to draw a picture, and I drew a picture of this very angry, rather ugly man, and I realized I was thinking about the writers, and not what they were saying, and that made me realize that they were angry.” Because when you’re thinking about the person, and not the legitimacy of what they’re saying, there must be some sort of bias, there’s something else going on there. And she felt that it was the professor’s need to be superior, and make other people feel inferior. And what’s confusing to me, is that Gilmour is a smart, great writer, so I don’t know what he wasn’t able to follow up and say “this is what I really meant”. I would love David Gilmour to come to the show! And I would love to talk about it afterwards. Because maybe he would say, “I’m totally wrong, I didn’t mean it, it was a shitty thing to say” and that’s cool with me. I don’t need him to be punished, or burned or whatever, but I do need us to say that what he said isn’t cool. Because if we let that kind of thing hang in the air, and nobody reacts to it, that’s the danger. That’s why it was really important that people did react to what happened.
I wanted to go back to what you originally asked me, did we mean to have the entire team be women, and we didn’t but when I started researching our grants, I found this really interesting study done by this woman at Harvard. And one of the things that she discovered was that 80% of plays produced in the United States are still written by men. We’re still on that bias in theatre. So, what she did was, she took a bunch of new scripts by men and by women, and she swapped some of the names so that some male scripts said that they were written by women and vice versa, and she sent them out to artistic directors all over the U.S. The male artistic directors on the whole weighed the plays equally, but the women, in quite a big margin, said that the female written plays were worse than those written by men. And so that brought up an issue to me that is maybe more disturbing than anything else, which is that women might be, as suggested by this study, harder on other women, and less likely to help other women than men are. And I find that really disturbing. And so when Sarah and I were sitting around and talking about this show, Sarah, who is a director who works a lot on the west coast, and so is able to give a lot of theatre designers jobs, said, “I think that I go to male designers sooner than I go to female designers, and I never thought about that. I just have these guys that I usually just go to.” And she has a show that she directed that just opened up on the West coast last night, and so she said, “There’s an amazing designer who’s just coming out of UBC and I’m going to approach her to do the show”. There’s some idea about feminism that it’s angry, or hard done by, but I think now what it’s about is just having conversations. It’s just about recognizing and letting it sit at the table with you.
So even though we didn’t set out to make the whole team women, we really felt out that the best people that we were getting for the work were women. So I already knew that I wanted this specific woman to do the promotional images for the show, and she said that she didn’t really do the type, so I asked her if she knew anyone and she said that there was this girl who is 22, just graduated from her program. So I interviewed her, and knew that I wanted to bring her on board, and I asked her, “What’s it like for you? Isn’t graphic design just full of guys?” and she said, “Oh yeah. I’m one of two women from my program”. And I just thought that it was such a wonderful serendipity that right down to the graphic artist, we’ve got this really talented, up and coming woman on board.
MM: So what is it you’re hoping your audience can walk away from this experience with?
NW: Of course we want them to be entertained. Virginia Woolf is very funny, she’s very witty, so we hope people will have a little laugh. We hope they’ll be moved, and I think the everlasting power of A Room of One’s Own is that simple message that you must stake your place in the world, and fulfill exactly what you what to fulfill. Never let anybody else make you shrink back from that. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something, or that you shouldn’t do something, because it isn’t appropriate for you because of your gender, because of your sexual orientation, because of your race, because of your father, because of your social status, whatever it is. You need to stake yourself, so that you can free everything that you need to do. And I don’t know what is a more powerful statement than that.
A Room of One’s Own
By Virginia Woolf, adapted by Patrick Garland, presented by Bloomsbury Collective
Where: The Campbell House Museum, 160 Queen St. W.
When: November 13th-November 24th, Wed-Sat 7pm immersive reception, 8pm show time, Sun 2pm
Tickets: $20 http://aroomofonesown.brownpapertickets.com/