Anticipating A Catharsis - Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?Monday, February 14, 2011
Last night Rosemary and I watched Mike Nichols’ 1964 film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We had seen it before in Mexico City in 1968 and our memory of the film had faded. But I have never forgotten the cast of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis and George Segal nor the presence of a strange drink called Birgin and water.
We watched this terrific film in preparation for the opening performance, this Wednesday, of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ( a Blackbird Theatre production) at the Granville Island Stage of The Arts Club Theatre Company. The play is directed by John Wright and the cast is made up by Gabrielle Rose, Meg Roe, Kevin McNulty and Craig Erickson. As I saw the film I wondered at the nuts and bolts - the difference between directing a film and directing a stage play. In the film, sound is very important as when Taylor clinks the ice of her bottomless drinks. Will Wednesday’s actors light up cigarettes? There is an important scene in the film where Burton refuses to light Taylor’s cigarette. Is this scene in Albee’s play or a quirk by Nichols to infuse his personal touch? The film, unlike the play has two settings, the Taylor/Burton house and a dancing bar. A lot happens in the car going to it and coming back. How will Wright do this? There is a lovely scene in the film where a station wagon is parked on the driveway at an angle with a door open and the passenger’s side turn blinkers on. Taylor notices and with drink in hand turns off the blinker but leaves the door open. And then there is the rifle that shoots the...
In what seems like a lifetime, and an age of innocence I remember shooting stills for the Woolfman Jack Show and the René Simard Show in Studio 40 of the CBC on Hamilton Street. At any given time there were two cameras (both on wheels), a crane for shooting from overhead and a fourth camera, a small portable one. This is how variety shows were made. That’s how I thought films were made.
Then in the early 80s I went to Egmont, BC to shoot stills for Ritter's Cove a CBC drama series. They used only one camera. I was astounded.
The actor would have to say his lines over and over as the camera was moved from one angle of view to another. Simple film dialogue became a complex combination of the camera showing the person listening or the person talking from the listening person’s point of view. The cameraman would have to move in an operation called blocking both in film and in a stage play (where a camera is not used). In a stage play the director specifies where actors have to stand. Once the segment of the play is done the director then goes to the next block.
It was explained to me that only with big budgets, and even with them, one camera was used. The exception might be a special effects scene involving a runaway locomotive. Several cameras might be used if the locomotive would be “destroyed” in the process!
Simply from being a sort of behind the scenes bystander as a stills photographer I had come to understand the basic difference between a variety show on TV, a TV drama (close to film, perhaps?) and theatre.
After having seen the film I look forward to Wednesday’s play wondering about John Wright’s take. It almost seems obvious to me that a stage director (not having a film or video editor) must indeed have more power than the film director. There is no camera point of view of the director of photography or the individual cameraman. The director must reign supreme on the stage. And once the play has started there are no re-takes. It’s set in stone, but unlike the film (also unchanging once it is released in its final form [but then there are director’s cuts!]), every theatrical performance is different.
That is one of the pleasures of theatre.
We know what happens in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In much the same way we might know the plot of an ancient Greek play. And in both cases, while we may know that, we don’t know the details. It is in a curiosity for those details, beyond the plot structure, where in the end we arrive at a catharsis, a purging or cleansing as defined first by Aristotle.
But it is not only a catharsis but also the pleasure of knowing a bit about a play and then seeing it performed. There is pleasure in that. There is pleasure in that surprise. There is pleasure in watching the actors’ performance.
That is theatre.
Gabrielle Rose and Meg Roe