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.
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.
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: Who is it that you want to reach with this performance?
CHARPO: Is there a particular message that you want people to take away from it in the end?
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.
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.
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