Monday, November 11, 2013

Bonus Feature: Interview - Actor Naomi Wright on A Room of One's Own

                                                                                             (photo by Emily Cooper)
Communion With Virginia
In Woolf's life, she suffered a lot of pain for a million reasons, and part of that was being a woman of genius in a society that did not recognize women of genius...
by Gregory Bunker

After the media storm surrounding David Gilmour’s comments and Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize in Literature, there could hardly be a better time to revisit Virginia Woolf’s iconic feminist text, A Room of One’s Own. Naomi Wright, who plays Virginia Woolf in the Bloomsbury Collective’s upcoming show, talks with CharPo Senior Contributor Gregory Bunker about the state of equality today, the translation of Woolf’s essay into immersive theatre, and whether David Gilmour knows that his favourite female writer will soon be brought to life at the historic Campbell House.

CHARPO: Do you think that Judith Shakespeare [William’s hypothetical, equally talented sister] would be able to match William’s legacy today?

WRIGHT: That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer, actually. Back in the spring I started writing grant proposals for this project, and I started googling, 'Where is equality for women today?' and it’s kind of disconcerting when you look into the facts. Women still make less money than men for doing the exact same job, and we still make up a tiny percentage of people who make decisions in the general scheme of the world. Then I googled, 'What is equality for women writers?' and I found this study that a woman at Harvard had done. She had gone through the arts in America, and one of the things she found was that The New York Review of Books still gives 80% of their reviews to men, so when you think about that, when you’re reading the New York Times, when you’re reading all of these amazing reviews, maybe one in five is given to a woman, so what is the likelihood that they can sell the way that men can? For me, it’s not that we need to be burning anything or standing on any soapboxes, but it is really interesting for us to just take stock and to think about it. (cont'd)

WRIGHT (cont'd) The most disturbing fact I found was a study that this woman at Harvard had done in which  80% of plays produced in the US are also written by male playwrights, so this is what we’re reflecting back on to society: the male perspective. And you see that a lot in film and television: we play the girlfriend or the mother, but we are usually the appendage to the male story. This researcher took scripts written by men and scripts written by women, and she switched some of the names, and she sent them to male and female artistic directors. The male artistic directors would weigh them more or less the same: it didn’t matter what gender had written it. Female artistic directors said that women’s work was far inferior, even though some of the scripts were written by men. So this brings up the question of why women are harder on women than men. Woolf talks about this in 1928, and I think that is a giant question that we, as modern women, have to be talking about with each other. All of this is unconscious, and I think it’s all about bringing up these questions. When you talk about the Old Boys Club, men who mentor other men, who bring men into the fold, who can see themselves reflected and say, 'I want to give him a chance. That was me at that age.' I don’t know if it’s because women have had to fight so hard that they say, 'Look, I had to fight my way up, so you fight your way up. I’m not going to help you because no one was there to help me.' But I don’t know if that’s the attitude.

CHARPO: So this work is about creating this dialogue then?

WRIGHT: Yes, when Sarah [Rodgers, the director] and I started talking about producing this project, she said, “You know, I realize that my go-to designers are all guys, and I don’t even think about that. I just like working with them so that’s who I go with.” It’s not that there are less female designers; it’s just that there are less working female designers. So when we were putting together this project we had it in the back of our minds that it would be really cool to find an awesome woman to fill each position. It wasn’t a deliberate, 'This is going to be an all-female production and no guys allowed,' but it has ended up that every single person working on this show is a woman, right down to our graphic designer.

CHARPO: The format of A Room of One's Own is a bit unusual in that it has an hour-long reception before the show. How do you see people using that hour?

WRIGHT: I think it's a way to slip gently into the bathtub of the show. We decided to do it for a couple of reasons. One, the theatricality of it is really engaging. Two, when we do our research, we uncover all of these personal things that happened, we read through Virginia’s diary and her letters. A Room of One's Own, even though it has this reputation for its political or social impact, is told very much as a personal story, it's very anecdotal, and she gets these worlds spinning, getting all of these complex stories together. In Woolf's life, she suffered a lot of pain for a million reasons, and part of that was being a woman of genius in a society that did not recognize women of genius, even in 1928. So the letters that we've incorporated into the show give insight into the personal life of Woolf. 

We're also adding these newspapers from 1928, and the idea behind that was in the book of A Room of One’s Own. After Woolf has gone to the British Museum and looked up women in poverty, she goes to a coffee shop, sits down, opens a newspaper, and sees these articles about these amazing men doing amazing things in the world – politicians, presidents, and inventors – and then there are these style columns about women or a movie actress who is being dangled off a building in New York. Those are the stories that the media is telling us about women and men in 1928, when she's written this. And the vernacular of these newspaper columns is so interesting to read because it's very pointed; the division of the sexes was still very evident in 1928, so when you start to read that you start to fully slip into the world that gives you the context for what this work was and how revolutionary it was. We were researching all these old articles and I went to the library looking at the magazines, and I started taking pictures because there's this woman in a bikini and Michelle Obama with her arms. Everything for women was about losing weight, exercising, or how to please someone, and everything for men was about how to be stronger, how to climb the ladder, how to optimize your whatever, and I thought, 'It's different, but it's still the same message today.' And that was the idea of this reception: to start to acclimatize to what era we're talking about and what this experience would've been like, being at Girton College [where Woolf delivered the first lecture her essay is based on] at this time.

CHARPO: Who is it that you want to reach with this performance?

WRIGHT: At first crack, I want to reach women, young women; I want to reach women writers. I want to reach out to that community, but I've had a couple of guy friends help me with the lines, and as they get through the script they say, 'This is amazing; this is really inspiring,' and the truth about the essay is that if you look at it simply as a metaphor for not letting anybody else make you smaller, not buying into anybody else's version of you, not believing that they can tell you what your limitations are, it's an absolutely universal piece. I think the way she speaks about claiming your space is completely universal. And I think that also speaks to her genius, and what she's talking about in the essay, because at the end of the essay she says, "All of these things have happened, we've had to fight all of these social mores that keep us down. But to be a great writer, you have to let it go. If you're writing with this anxiety and woe-is-me-ness, you're never going to be a great writer. So you look at it, you acknowledge that it's there, that you're not going to take it on, and you do what you're meant to do." And every time I read it the hair on my arms stands on end. I find it totally inspiring.

CHARPO: You mentioned that you've had some guys look over the lines. Have you changed the script since it was a work-in-progress 10 years ago?

WRIGHT: So there's the book, and the script adapted by Patrick Garland in the 80's. Sarah came to me with this script when she was doing her MFA and I was doing my BFA, and she needed to direct a one-person show, so we worked on this script to cut it down a bit, and we totally fell in love with it. Then there was a festival, like a fringe festival, called the UNO Festival, and we took it there. It did really, really well. And I don't know why I was surprised about that. I guess when you talk about A Room of One's Own, you feel like it might be hard to sell, with people thinking, 'Oh, a feminist essay, it feels academic.' I don't know if it's because it's Woolf, but people come out, and they realize it's really accessible, really funny, and really moving. So by word-of-mouth this spread and by the end of the festival, we were doing sold-out shows. As a side note, this gentleman came up to me after the show and he said that he felt that the show was speaking directly to him because he is a single father, and he felt completely akin to the words in this script, and that he was shocked that he identified so closely with what might be described as a feminist piece of writing. So, over time, the play sits differently in me, it marinates, and we've added more of the script into what we're doing now. This is the first time we've ever done a full production in the theatre format, with design elements, light elements, and the immersive idea of the show. For me, as I get older – I'm still younger than Woolf was when she delivered this, but I'm getting closer to that age – it sits differently in me with time as I encounter more of the world. It's almost like Shakespeare. They say that you'll never get to the bottom of Shakespeare, and every time you dig you'll find a new cavern and I find Woolf is like that too.

CHARPO: Is there a particular message that you want people to take away from it in the end?

WRIGHT: Yes, the message is to stake your place in the world and never shrink back, and especially don't let anybody make you tell yourself that you can't do something. I find that is one of the most inspiring parts of the play, as she describes this writer Dorothy Osborne, who had this beautiful talent for writing, who wrote letters, and who engaged in this debate about whether women should write books. Margaret Cavendish was writing books, and Osborne said, "Well, even if I didn't sleep for two weeks, I would never become so ridiculous that I would start to write books." And this was a talented writer saying this. So that is the full fruition of repression, when you have convinced the people you are trying to keep down to keep themselves down, that they don't even want to try because they know that they can't do it. And I think that is absolutely tragic. So long as you are fighting an oppressor, there's hope, but as soon as you've swallowed so completely that message, it's hopeless, there's no chance that it will be better. And I think that still happens today, not just for women, but across the board in whatever abusive situation a person can be in.

CHARPO: So you see theatre as the most powerful way to relay that message, as opposed to reading it?

WRIGHT: Right, it's that communion, people sitting in a room listening to these words, and we're all complicit in that, we all look at each other. And that's something nice about Campbell House and this play in general, that I can look the audience in the eye, that it's direct address for much of it, so there is a definite connection with people, and I find that really powerful. I've had a couple times when I’m doing my thing and I’m looking at my friend in the audience, looking at her eyes that were welling, and it's so powerful to share that connection with someone. Because even when you're friends with someone, you don't always have that intimacy with them, to cry, to show that vulnerability or anger. So it's that communion within the theatre that is a very powerful part of the play and that has such an important message.

CHARPO: You've mentioned Alice Munro and David Gilmour in the context of putting on this production. Can you elaborate on where you think this production sits between these events?

WRIGHT: Well, I don't know David Gilmour, and I don't know what he meant by what he said. People have come out and said that he was just expressing a preference for writers. You can say, I don't care for Alice Munro; I don't care for Margaret Atwood; I don't care for Virginia Woolf; I don't care for Toni Morrison; I don't care for Aphra Behn, ad infinitum – you can list every female writer that you don't like, but as soon as you say you don't like women writers, you're expressing a prejudice, and you are dismissing half of the population in terms of whether they could ever write something that could interest you. That's what I take issue with. I don't know the man, but I don't necessarily read his comments and say, "He's a misogynist. He hates women. He wants us all back in the kitchen." But he's a professor and a writer and he has to be careful with his words. I need us as a society to go, "No, that's not cool; you can't say that." And it's also meaningless: what does that mean that you don't like women writers? Has he read every book written by a woman? It doesn't mean anything. 

That a current professor at the University of Toronto, who is also a successful writer, is still saying something like that and doesn't necessarily think, 'Shoot, I really shouldn’t have said I don't like women writers,' but that he was just really distracted and that he kind of likes Woolf, is like saying, 'I'm not racist, I have a black friend,' you know? What is interesting to me is that this piece is exactly a reaction to the same idea 85 years ago, and here we are in 2013, and it is still said again. At least there was a media storm around it, where 85 years ago it was just the norm. But you have this unfortunate event where this man misspoke or whatever happened, and then you have Alice Munro win the Nobel Prize. So it's interesting that we live in a time when a woman wins the biggest prize in literature and these statements are still being said. I would love to have Alice Munro come to a show and do a talk back, and talk about Shakespeare's sister and if we are there yet. I don't know. Are we getting closer? Yes. It would be interesting to hear what that experience is for a woman writer today, and what these giant literary female talents have to say about whether we're there yet.

CHARPO: So having said that, have you thought about inviting David Gilmour and his class to a performance?

WRIGHT: I would love to invite David Gilmour. I put it out on Twitter, and I've also said I don't need to do a witch hunt, that I don't want it to be like, 'There he is!' but I do want to have a debate. We can debate this. And I'm cool with whatever opinion anybody has as long as we can talk about it. So I would love David Gilmour to come, and I don't want to scare him off either, but I have to put it out there that he'd be very welcome to come. We're also hosting these talk back nights, we call them talk back salons, and right now we have two women who are leading these debates about where we are today and if we have achieved what Virginia Woolf set out for us 100 years ago. And I got this amazingly enthusiastic response after I sent an email around to all of the professors at UofT just to say, “Bring your students. Come, you’re welcome.” And this lovely professor Garry Leonard is a lover of Virginia Woolf, and he was like, “I would just love to do one of the salons. Here’s my CV; I’ve been to Brown.” And I was like, “You’re sending me your CV?! Yes, you can come and talk, I would love that.” So he'll lead a talk back salon that isn't quite focused on feminism and the state of equality for women, as he feels that Woolf engaged the world in an empathetic way that writing and reading was this way of feeling and empathizing with what others feel.

CHARPO: And I like this idea of the library that you can access with your ticket stub afterwards.

WRIGHT: I love it on two different levels. One is the nerdiness, ordering these books from all over the world, these beautiful physical copies of these works of literature that she talks about, and it's also about the immersive experience of this show, so it's this whole other level where you can come back for, say, two hours Saturday afternoon, bring your ticket stub to Campbell House and read for two hours. Which is a throwback to how it was in Virginia's day, when she sat by the fire where she wrote all these letters and read all these books. It's such a focused experience to sit with a book and open it up and dive into this world. 

The other thing about this library is that I managed to find a lot of the works that Virginia quotes in the book. For example, she talks about the way men have talked about women in the past, and she says of Shakespeare’s sister, when she goes to London, the manager barked something about poodles dancing and women acting, that no woman could be an actress, and then she said, “And here we have in this year of grace, 1928, the very words used again.” And it’s this reviewer of music, who says, “Of Mlle. Germaine Tailleferre one can only repeat Dr. Johnson’s dictum concerning a woman preacher transposed into terms of music. Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” And I got the book that he wrote it in. It’s called A Survey of Contemporary Music; it’s by Cecil Gray, and you open it, and because sometimes when it's said in a play, you almost think that it's not real, you ask yourself, 'Who could say that?' let alone, 'Who could publish that?' and there it is, in this book. And this was in 1928, not the 16th century. It could be within someone's lifetime, that some of these things were acceptable things to say and publish as critical work. And that excites me when I can find the actual source and go, "Look, that's right, that happened!" It's just tactile and real.

The other thing I'd like to say about this essay is that it is really funny. Virginia Woolf has this wit that is so razor sharp that I wish she was here when David Gilmour made those comments, because you know that in just one sentence she would've summarized it, just dripping with wit. And the essay is full of it.

Gregory Bunker
CHARPO: Yes, you're saying it's very accessible, but in a lot of the description of this performance there are these words such as "essay" and "lecture" that sound really stuffy.

WRIGHT: I know, and I've tried to steer away from using those academic words because it feels like you won't understand it, or that you're going to be told off or something, and that's not at all what the structure of it is. I try to hear her speak and to lift the words off the page.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

A Room of One’s Own runs at the Campbell House from November 13 to 24, with Naomi Wright, directed by Sarah Rodgers, and produced by the Bloomsbury Collective.

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