by Virginia Woolf
with Peta Hanrahan
Last week La Mama showcased a production in which four performers narrate and depict the four corners of Virginia Woolf’s mind as Woolf tackles the subjects of ‘women’ and ‘fiction’, in A Room of One’s Own.
I, Madison, attended the La Mama Courthouse and was immersed in the brilliance of both Woolf’s feminism and language, and Director Peta Hanrahan’s ethereal production. Below is a very insightful gaze into the brilliant, and talented mind of Hanrahan.
Madison: The raised issues of fiction and women in A Room of One’s Own, how relevant are they today?
The beauty of this text is its flexibility; the multi-layering of metaphor and symbolism from a dramaturgical standpoint is a gift. ‘Fiction’ for me in context with this work, as I believe it was also for Woolf herself is a representation of all art, and in turn all women creatives, be they writers, composers, painters, actors or in my case directors of theatre.
So if we subtly shift the definition of the word for a moment and translate ‘Fiction’ to ‘Art’, one then reads ‘Art and Women’. Now we can clearly see that the questions Woolf poses in the novelette has a greater universal resonance and is not as seemingly specific to one discipline as in first read or listen. What we also start to see, through the course of the narrative, is that Art and its relationship to, for, with and from women has been almost exclusively experienced and recorded historically from the male perspective. She – all women, have had their voice (Art) muted and taken from them, ‘Not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time’. (A Room of One’s Own – Cambridge Press. P 112.)
In the works contextual relevance for today, I see it this way – I am a woman and I am still alive, I am not yet a part of history, or the past, I am relevant because I am still breathing, therefore if this literature speaks to my heart, my day to day experiences and to my understanding of gender driven social inequity, then that makes it relevant. If 51% of the worlds population are still being treated as a ‘sub-culture’ what indeed does that say about the irrational and profound imbalance of all cultures?
Madison: The use of language has changed dramatically since the 20th century, what drew you to Woolf’s essay? In terms of language.
Working in theatre for 30 years breeds a kind of literary addiction. Once you start down the rabbit hole, you will find, with enormous delight that the hole in which you have jumped is bottomless. The English language is a physical experience. Our bodies move, our minds move and our souls are captured by its muscularity, its danger and immortality. Virginia Woolf is a master of its manipulation. Her poetic prose (a very great favourite form of mine) compels you to listen. Her sharp and yet playful wit, her thrust and recoil and her languid dreaminess capture the listener as she draws you into a relationship between her thoughts and ideas and your own internal monologue. She talks to you in first person, you are here in the world with her – this is a conversation.
Madison: In the intimate setting of A Room of One’s Own, no one can hide, the actors or audience. How much of this controls your production decisions?
You reference the audience positioning in the performance space. Yes, very intentional. Traverse is the technical name for placing the seating banks at either side of the performance, reminiscent of ‘Theatre in the Round’. The reason for this configuration is two fold. Firstly, I wanted the audience to be conscious of itself. Placing half the audience on the other side of the room so that people where facing each other brings the audience into a ‘real time’ atmosphere. To sit in a seating bank all facing the same direction causes the audience to be the silent unseen, buried away in the darkness of anonymity. It was integral to the concepts and ideas delivered by Woolf that the audience was invited to participate by just being present. It’s a beautiful way of taking the audience into the consciousness of their own lives without being threatening.
Secondly, my absolute favourite thing about theatre is actors and great performances. Actors are sentient human beings, just like you and I and we as humans are visceral, multi-dimensional, geometrical works of divinity, balanced and chaotic in the same breath. For an actor to perform in traverse means that they must be working in all of these dimensions as well as emotionally, conceptually and practically and the audience gets to witness humanity at every angle. An actor is freed up to move as they are compelled by the language and its meaning instead of ‘presenting’ forward to a bank of faces who too are playing out the learned conventions of theatre, film and television.
Madison: A Director’s mind is quite the anomaly, tell me something about your process in directing A Room of One’s Own…
This is a very big question and one I am very excited about, as I have reached a certain point in my own practice where I am changing my own rules of engagement. A few things remain the same – my love of great acting and its discipline being the paramount provocateur of anything else that comes forth. But questions are developing in my mind about the soul. As touched on in the previous question, humanity itself, consciousness and the universal mystery have not yet been defined within the context of theorised performance practice. There have been a few books written that touch it, but deep measured investigation as far as I can see is still a new idea. That is exciting for me and is the next step in my own evolution.
Madison: Feminism. What are your views? Within the context of the arts industry.
I come from a particular generation of Melbourne theatre practitioners. We are the generation that followed the powerful days of The Pram Factory and A.P.G. The birth of Playbox Theatre and Circus Oz. We were the younger brothers and sisters of the generation that gave the world Whitlam, colour television and Australia’s first arts funding council. All that amazing cultural activity cast an equally long shadow, and we, thousands of arts practitioners where left out in the cold. We were then given Jeff Kennett as Victorias Minister of the Arts and watched all of our brilliant small to medium theatre companies like Anthill, Chameleon and Whistling in the Theatre be decimated by ignorant arts policy making and again, we were bereft of any kind of purchase on a continuing performing arts culture outside of the glorious La Mama Theatre. We had no space to grow, the divide between small independent projects and the new ‘Mainstream’ was an intraversable gulf. So in answer to your question, feminism and the egalitarian progress of the female creative became stifled under the pressure of not knowing if one had an arts industry in the first place. We as women were usually delegated to the support roles, administration, stage management, publicity etc. And because of our passion for the form we shut up and did it, every now and again daring to venture an opinion through our writing and directing, but the fear of being ostracized by a male dominated culture was a very real threat. One knew that one’s career (for want of a better word) was tenuous to begin with, any boat rocking was deemed by the ‘Lords’ as career suicide and well…you would get what you deserved. If it wasn’t for the birth of groups like the Australian Women’s Directors Alliance and the courage it took to face up to the ‘Lords’, I still believe, to this day that the new traction they were able to secure would still not exist. My formative years in the theatre industry were very different to the experience my younger sisters are having now and I am excessively grateful for this. We are still being treated like ‘special needs’ children, but one day, I am faithful, women will no longer be seen as a sub-culture in the arts but as powerful partners and if I my dreaming flourishes to fruition we may yet lead our industry onto greater heights again.
Photo credit: Dagmara Gieysztor