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Exploding Moments: Septimus and Clarissa

Thursday, August 26, 2010 Leave a Comment

Readers of this blog know that after Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf is my favorite writer; close readers may even remember that we played around with staging Mrs. Dalloway at a Flux Sunday.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard Ellen McLaughlin was adapting the novel for the stage with director Rachel Dickstein of Ripe Time. I confess I was also a little nervous; how could something I love so much survive translation to such a different medium?

Thankfully, it did; and the workshop production of Septimus and Clarissa is one of my favorite experiences in a theatre this year.

Septimus' suicide was particularly stunning: a revolving staircase that is the centerpiece of the staging points upstage, and as he runs up it to escape from his doctor, the staircase revolves 180 degrees so he is now facing us downstage in his moment of distress, unable to escape. He jumps, and the actor winds himself through the lattice underneath the stairs, creating a beautiful/terrible image of Septimus' broken body below.

In other words, it was a perfect moment for our Exploding Moments series, where we look at what makes a production work through the prism of a single moment. I sent the following five questions to playwright Ellen McLaughlin, director Rachel Dickstein, actor Tommy Schrider (Septimus), and set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers to find out more about how they did it.

What follows are their unedited responses (I am willing to risk a daunting length to keep the value of their responses); and I hope shining this wee bit of light on their work leads to a full production and longer run of this beautiful play.

1. The use of the mobile staircase and landing was one of the defining scenic elements of the workshop. How did you find this element in production meetings, and how present was it in rehearsal?

Ellen McLaughlin: Rachel and Susan, of course, can speak to that in a way that I can't because I wasn't in on the original thinking about the set. But speaking from the perspective of both the writer and the actor playing Clarissa, what I felt the staircase accomplished for us was to provide, with a poetic economy, visually resonant places for Clarissa and Septimus to exist--me on top of the unit and him beneath it-- both of us with access to "windows"--frames we could look out of. It felt right that we establish that at the beginning in the preshow. What the audience sees on entering the theater is basically two people thinking--me, up high, in pleasant light, looking out a window, listening to the sound of birds. Septimus beneath me, under the slope of the staircase, in a relatively cramped interior, scribbling on the floor or the back wall as he listens to a period radio playing news and music of the era alternating with static. As the play begins with the entrance of the music, we both stand and look out our respective windows, Septimus to some extent foreshadowing his look out the window before the suicide and Clarissa, by contrast, looking out at the world with pleasure and anticipation, the day ahead of her. Then I come down the stairs as the music builds until I reach the landing, where the music cuts out and we hear the sound of wings. We will hear that sound again at the moment of the suicide, but in this instance it is the sound of a different kind of release--Clarissa's release into the joy of the morning and the memory of herself walking out into a morning in the country when she was a girl. But because Septimus, under the staircase, is part of that first image too, I think it layers that moment in interesting ways. That moment, the moment at the start of the play that links the two characters, seems to me to be one of the most important elements we had to figure out as a company in order to make the production work properly. We wanted the two character lines and stories to echo and inform each other and that's the sort of dynamic it was vital to establish.

Anyway, about the staircase: Even though the staircase we had to use for the workshop was that unlovely, hellishly raked thing that was a remnant of the production, The Forest, which had preceded ours in the theater, we could still get a sense of what a staircase might eventually do for us. As it pivots, like the hand of a clock sweeping through the space, there is the sense of time passing as the day goes by--something the frequent sound cue of the tolling bells does for us as well. There is also the necessary sense of interior and exterior--I always liked the feeling of standing on the landing as the staircase was moved slightly onstage and then walking down off of it to indicate my entrance into the cool silence of my own house after the heat and activity of the world outside. And my retreat upstairs into the "attic room which is at the heart of a life" always made great sense to me.

And of course we needed height, if only for the suicide, that leap from a high window. It was important that Septimus flee up and away from Dr. Holmes and it was visually arresting to see him standing up there before the jump. Adding wheels to the staircase easily doubled its effectiveness for us theatrically since, like any huge sculptural piece, the character of the thing changes profoundly as you view it from different angles. The narrow garret under the stairs could be tremendously useful for Septimus's Bloomsbury apartment, and climbing along the side of it as if up and out of trenches proved wonderfully evocative for Septimus's memories of battle. These provide a nice contrast to the way Clarissa uses the stairs. Clarissa's memory of Peter Walsh telling her when she was a young woman that she "would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of the stairs" is central to the way she thinks of herself and determines the way she uses the height and the majesty of the descent. (Although the combination of heels and raked steps--what on earth were they thinking?--made for a real challenge, I must say.)

Rachel Dickstein: The mobile staircase was an idea that came from set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers in an earlier workshop phase in 2009. I think she sketched it out while sitting in on a rehearsal in December 2009. Susan introduced the idea to me as a way for us to suggest Clarissa's home - Peter Walsh says he always knew she'd marry a prime minister and be seen at the top of the stairs (meaning about to descend below to greet many guests at a party she'd throw for well-heeled people in London.) He means this in a somewhat critical way, but of course its true - when her party does begin she in fact does walk down a long stair case to join the party and I loved the idea that the set would be focused on the thing that takes her there - in the same way that the book is all about the events leading up to the party itself on that one June day. The stairs also would allow for a space on stage (the landing) where she could be alone, where she could retreat from that highly public life and offer a window for her to look out upon to see the June day, to see the glory of the world that exists outside the more fragile reality of her internal life.

What sold me on the idea of the stairs, however was when I started to imagine the space as a home for Septimus as well. While Clarissa lived atop it, Septimus' "home" would be below, highlighting in one architectural/scenic element how the story show the two characters being two sides of the same coin. Each level would have a window above and below, as if one were reflected in water. We see Septimus at the beginning of the show underneath it, in a somewhat caustrophobic space, we return there in a later scene (just before his suicide) when he and his wife have their last beautiful moments together in their apartment. I loved the idea that the window she looks out upon from her own room, would be the same window he jumps from when committing suicide also underscoring the reciprocal nature of the characters.

As to the stairs moving, Susan and I both wanted the set to have moving elements, so that we could slip fluidly between one part of London to another, or one state of mind to another. The stairs moving allowed that kind of fluidity while also allowing us to feel as if the ends of it were hands of a clock turning, or time passing in a more metaphoric way.

The stairs were not present in rehearsal, I would have loved that to be the case! But we did have some mockup 2 dimensional elements to at least approximate the footprint of the unit and that helped a lot. When we go back into rehearsal for the full production, I hope we'll be able to have the new unit available to us to work with earlier and we can build even more beautiful material with it the more time we have with it.

Susan Rogers: When we started thinking about the design for the play, we wanted to create a set that supported Woolfe's associative thought and stream of conscious thinking. The play goes backward and forward in time, overlapping moments. It seemed to me that the play has an arc-like gesture. We talked about many different ways to achieve this kind of set movement. But it was in rehearsal that I thought about a staircase. The staircase worked as contrasting spaces for both Clarissa and Septimus and its circular movement helped the play navigate through time and space.

The height of the staircase also worked to create a feeling of danger, of falling, which I hope to push further in our full production.
(Septimus (Tommy Schrider) and Lucretzia (Miriam Silverman)
2. Septimus is a veteran of World War I who experiences visions both terrifying and transcendent. What were the challenges and opportunities you experienced in staging, writing, and playing those visions?

EM: To a very large extent, it was the figure of Septimus that attracted me to this Woolf novel as opposed to any other when Rachel and I first talked about adapting one of the novels. From the first time I read it, Septimus's trauma and voyage toward suicide has always struck me as one of the great achievements in literature in its detail and poignancy. It's also, of course, terribly resonant now as we continue our foreign wars and our uneasy or simply oblivious relationship with the suffering veterans among us. I knew that, with the right actor, and Tommy Schrider is undoubtedly that actor, Septimus's mutable and vivid psychological reality would be fascinating to explore theatrically in terms of movement, music and text. It proved to be extremely challenging, but I think that the work the company did on his manias and his ultimate suicide is some of the best work we were able to do.

RD: One of the most thrilling things for me as a director and movement crafter was thinking of how to get the audience inside Septimus' head - to paint out the tactile sensory reality of his alternatively exultant and terrified state of mind. Ellen did a brilliant job of editing down the text from the novel to perfectly synthesize his story and Tommy Schrider, an amazingly gifted actor, brought great truthfulness to the role and honesty to those internal realities. I also had a great ensemble of inventors to collaborate with who all contributed an amazing amount of material towards what those visions would look like. Craig Baldwin, who plays Evans, Septimus' commanding officer who dies in battle and whose death haunts Septimus, played a huge part in developing those sequences. Daniel Irizarry, a long time Ripe Time-affiliated artist who worked with us in an earlier workshop, also helped create a lot of great material for these moments that remained in our June showings. In rehearsal, I set up structures for the actors to improvise within and they create material that I then shape. Everyone creates material for all the characters as we create the vocabulary of the whole piece together as an ensemble. Its a very collaborative process, and especially exciting when coming up with the dynamic material that makes up Septimus' visions.

Tommy Schrider: In the book, Septimus’s hallucinations are transcendently beautiful, yet have an apocalyptic underbelly of violence and terror borne out of his experiences in the Great War. As an actor I wanted to give voice to both of these extremes - especially the darker, more horrific elements of these visions - in order to provide a strong and necessary counterpoint to the beauty of Woolf’s language and of much (but certainly not all) of the rest of the story.

The visions in the park were quite challenging for a couple of reasons. I was determined to bring an emotional and dramatic clarity to an experience that, on the page, was larger than life and, onstage, needed to be intensely theatrical. Add to that the streamlining Ellen had done with Septimus’s text and the journey of each of these visions (in the book they are a good deal longer), the trap of those scenes for me then became falling into a general state of euphoria and/or terror (ie: melodrama), rather than living through each experience moment to moment in order to bring it to truthful theatrical life. Rehearsal became about tracking each vision – it’s origin (why is this happening to Septimus right now?), it’s progression (the subsequent beats/build ), it’s revelation (what does it reveal to him?) - and developing a dynamic physical/theatrical expression of it in onstage. I was lucky to work with an amazing bunch of actors who jumped in and together we were able to develop a physical vocabulary that led to what we staged.

As for the wartime sequences, a lot of the material was generated in rehearsal with Craig Baldwin (with a huge shout out to Daniel Irizarry who helped me think about those sequences in a very specific way during the first workshop). Craig and I knew that Rachel wanted to stage a lot of the war stuff on the scaffolding of the staircase, so we used that as a jumping off point and created a bunch of material on the staircase at the ART-NY South Oxford space on South Oxford Street in Brooklyn. We were determined to capture the physical and psychological brutality of Septimus’s wartime experience that left him so traumatized. Craig and I came up with some really cool stuff over in Brooklyn that we adapted for the stair unit at CSC. One of my favorite moments was when Craig was climbing up the scaffolding and grabs my hand for help, only to be shot in the back. There is that moment of suspension - we’re holding hands – until he slowly falls away and hangs there as Septimus stares out into space. That really felt like a viable breaking point for Septimus and helped me understand viscerally why he felt compelled to "fall" to his death later in the play.

The playing of the suicide itself was rather simple. He does have a moment of clarity and makes a choice to do it once he realizes there's no escape from the Holmes' and Bradshaws of the world. Originally, I was just going to fall out the window - make it quick and brutal - but the reality of the space prevented that from happening. I think what we came up with was more potent because it was so simple.
Clarissa's Green Dress dream (Ellen McLaughlin as Clarissa atop stairs, Mike Rudko as Peter below)
3. As he ascends the top of the stairs, they revolve, so that Septimus is brought from upstage, facing away from the audience, to all the way downstage facing us. How did you arrive at this staging choice, and how did it feel to play it?

EM: What I thought was remarkably effective about the staging of that moment was that it worked the way that terrifying moments feel in life, I find, when an instant slows down and the fleeting second is suddenly suspended, crystalline and heightened. The moment of his jump, we hear a loud ticking as the staircase is spun and the entire perspective for the audience is thus shifted -- he is brought from the center back of the stage to directly above the audience at the front of the stage. It is only after that long, almost sickening suspension that with the sound of wings we heard at the beginning of the play, we enter time again and achieve the release of the death.

RD: Actually when we moved into the theatre we had a slightly different plan, that the suicide would happen when the highest part of the stairs faced upstage. We had wanted to create a real jump and for various reasons, mostly regarding safety, we could not do that in this production phase. I turned to my lighting designer, Chris Akerlind, to see if there was some creative way to handle the moment with light and he actually suggested the shift of the stairs to the downstage position. It was such a better choice - Septimus "jumps" when the stairs face up but that moment of the jump is extended over the whole shift of the unit downstage - a clock ticks loudly the pressure of time beats in our ears and then as soon as it hits the downstage position, with Septimus towering above the audience, a sudden impulse pulses through his body as if flaying his body open, shooting him through the air, and we have black out on him - a shift to Clarissa walking upstage (as if to ask how does the moment echo with her?) and then a shift back to the room to see Lucrezia, his wife and Dr. Holmes seeing the devastation out the window on the street below.This also gave Tommy time to place himself on the railing below so that we'd see his body frozen as if impalled as his wife saw him in a beautiful tableau on Susan's angled iron work. As with many of moments we most love, the staging was started in rehearsal, and fully crafted in tech with all the elements in play. Tommy of course can speak best to what it felt like to play it.

4. I was struck throughout by how the roles were doubled, so that when Septimus sees an old man through the window on his way up the stairs, the role is played by the same actor who plays Sir William Bradshaw, the doctor who terrifies Septimus with the tyranny of "proportion". How deliberate were these doubling decisions?

EM: The figure of the anonymous old man whom Septimus sees across the street from him just before he jumps is in the Woolf text, though rather incidentally. I amplified that moment because I wanted to echo for Septimus the figure Clarissa sees at crucial moments in the play--the figure of the anonymous old woman in the house next door, a figure she relates to the notion of the "privacy of the soul" and indeed the mystery of life itself. In these incidents, I thought that the idea of each actor playing multiple parts--which is essential to the way we were doing the piece--really paid off for us. In the case of the suicide, dogged by the inept, bungling Dr. Holmes, who is coming up the stairs and driving him out to the window ledge where he is gearing himself to jump, Septimus looks across the street to see a stranger, a man who is played by the same actor as the man who played Dr. Bradshaw, who had only that afternoon cooly dismissed Septimus as mad. I liked that resonance, the sense that his world is filled with familiar strangers, all of them judging him, staring at him. I also liked the idea that, like Clarissa, he looks into the mystery of a stranger's face at this crucial moment--that one's most intimate moment is shared with someone whose name you will never know.In the case of the old woman Clarissa is linked to in a similar way, that character was played by LeeAnne Hutchison, who also played Young Clarissa, which was a bit of double casting I was happy we could do because it allowed us to have Clarissa contemplate the same figure when she thinks of her past and when she thinks of her future. She is what she was and what she will become. The old woman, like the Young Clarissa, is her other self.

RD: The doubling of Bradshaw and that old man was certainly intended. Ellen and I thought through a lot of the doubling as we were casting the show with the specific actors in mind. Guy Paul who brilliantly played both those roles, was the right voice and presence for those roles. When an actor doubles you certainly do see edges of the characters they have played before as they take on new characters. I don't think we thought of the old man as a stand in for Bradshaw at all, but certainly characters have a way of accumulating in your mind as this story unfolds and I like that those two characters overlapped for you. Most important to this moment is to create a parallel between Clarissa seeing the old woman out her woman at her party and this moment for Septimus. I could say a lot more on the resonance of these moments but each person watching in the audience should find his or her own meaning!
(Ellen McLaughlin as Clarissa Dalloway; Ensemble)
5. Septimus experiences a moment of lucidity right before his suicide; and his suicide elicits a similarly vivid clarity from Clarissa when she hears of it at her party. Why do you think Woolf linked the characters in this way, and in a full production, how would you stage this moment of Clarissa's?

EM: I found that the minimal staging we were forced by time constraints to do ultimately worked surprisingly well for that last part of the play, which we had to do as a reading. What we discovered the first time we did it was that having Septimus enter at the moment Clarissa is coming to terms with hearing of the death of a stranger she will never know was extraordinarily powerful. All he did was stand and say "Fear no more the heat of the sun" a phrase that goes through both their heads all day long. In fact, the only palpable link between them as characters is that snatch of Shakespeare. They are both contemplating their mortality on this particular day and that phrase keeps bobbing into both their consciousnesses. So on the last of the many times that it occurs to Clarissa--this time in relation to hearing about the death of Septimus--it made sense that Septimus himself would speak it onstage and Clarissa would turn to look directly at him for the first time. We came up with this simple moment together on the day we read through the scene as a group, and the power of it in performance was exceptional for me. It was an example of the sort of thing you can only achieve theatrically and I thought it justified the whole enterprise, if nothing else did.

RD: I wish I could say now how I would stage that moment for Clarissa. We haven't staged that part of the story yet, but I certainly will say that it should mirror and reflect Septimus' moment absolutely. There are subtle ways we've tied the two characters together and will be working on doing that even more as we continue to develop the piece. And this moment is really the most important in the whole piece so it will be staged with the kind of vivid clarity it deserves.


  • Carissa Cordes said:  

    Thank you for posting. Mrs Dalloway is one of my favorite books and I was extremely interested in how they they would attempt to stage something like Mrs Dalloway when I heard this production was happening.