By the end of the month, an original piece of drama, Daughters of England – an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s short story, The Society – will be put on by the UEA Drama Soc in Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre. I decided to interview the writer, Katie Stockton, about Woolf, the writing process, and the canon…
Tell us about Virginia Woolf. What drew you to adapt this piece of hers?
I really like adapting short stories, and when I read The Society I thought it was perfect. It’s a very dynamic story; there are lots of different characters who investigate lots of different spheres and spaces in the world around them, which I thought would be a really wonderful thing to stage. Woolf is really interested in feminism in academia. The theme of women acquiring language, especially written language, and exploring themselves on a page in a way they never have before is interesting to me.
Lovely. Do you feel this story in particular is something that you can transcribe to stage?
Yes, because there are multiple characters, multiple spaces, lots of opportunities to play with. I adapted The Yellow Wallpaper for stage before and because it’s a diary, it was very difficult to get those thoughts into a script; I made the one character into four different women, all in dialogue. But in The Society, there are five women who are all present, so it’s much easier to transcribe.
Can you describe the adaptation process to us in more detail?
The fun bit that I start with is stealing the amazing bits of dialogue that are already there; I like to build moments around them. There’s one scene in The Society where a woman talks about how she wants to set herself on fire and then roll herself around on the British flag to put herself out, and it was such an amazing dramatic line that I had to use it. Then the harder bit is what I call the ‘blind spots’, bits that you can read but can’t stage, like someone’s thoughts. It has to become something material and visual. That’s the hardest part; whether that’s through inventing a new character, or putting it into a conversation. Fleshing out is a part of it too: I had to extend a lot of scenes, to create more of a dramatic build.
Because you’re staging a short story written in the 1900s, what elements of your script do you think speak to a contemporary audience?
Well, the subjects that the women explore in the play, like the acquisition of knowledge, the ability to critique, and then having men tell them that their opinions are lesser, is the same thing that we sometimes experience in universities now. It could be an interesting parallel for female students at UEA, to see the same struggles with intellectualism, even though we now have a voice, and have greater access to information. Our voices are still sometimes treated as lesser than in academic spaces.
Ok, I have one last question. You say you like to write about academia. How much does your play address the canon?
In the play we have a lot of criticism of great literary works, for being somewhat glib and meretricious. I think Woolf strived to tear down the pillars of what we see as literature and pave more room for alternative voices. This is what happens in the play: some of the women become interested in writing themselves, despite their husbands and friends telling them they shouldn’t. It explores these sorts of alternative voices, and shows that they shouldn’t be intimidated by the canon or what’s been done before.
Meanwhile, Daughters of England is being directed by Masters student Magda Bird and Drama student Molly Farley. I investigated further into how the original script is going to be treated.
Firstly, tell me a little about the play
Bird: Well, I don’t want to give too much of the story line away, but the play is to do with a woman who brings together a community of women that go out and try to prove that there is good literature available. It’s a big critique on the literary canon of the time, and it’s a comedy and a farce! We have loads of scenes where they’re retelling what they’ve found from what they read, and it’s quite Oscar Wilde-esque. When they retell these stories it’s quite Brechtian, where all the women multi-role as these caricatures of male writers. I’m excited to put it on, and luckily I have Molly who knows comedy!
So, I know you as an English student: is that what drew you to the play?
Bird: I think so, yes. This is my first time directing, and what I think is so incredible about the process is that you get given a script to analyse and see it through. It’s my own analysis of the characters, and now I’m trying to get people to portray what I see in it. It’s such a literature thing, it reminds me so much of my literature classes, except its more practical.
Farley: What drew me to it is that I just love working with an mostly female cast. It’s fantastic. The writer and directors are women, and there’s a cast of five women, and one man who’s also fantastic. Everyone who studies English knows that potentially 80 percent of what you’ll study is written by men; we’ve been taught to swallow the fact that certain texts are good by nature because everyone says so. Obviously, we’re encouraged to debate, but I don’t think we’re ever encouraged to outright say ‘this is terrible, this is categorically horrendous!’ So we’ve looked at that through a comedic lense. As Magda says, it’s farcical, but it has moments of genuine seriousness – I love that arc, how it keeps the comedy throughout but uses it as a lense.
So your main vision for the production seems to be the critical aspect of it, in regards to the issues raised by the canon?
Farley: Absolutely. It’s often said that when you laugh at something you understand it. I want the audience to laugh at the critiques of these male figures in literature and say, ‘gosh, yeah, I’ve reconsidered that’. I want it to be a lot of fun too, that contrast is very important.
How does it feel that you’re directing something that is adapted from a piece of prose fiction? Do you think this will have an influence on how you treat the script?
Farley: For me, personally no. I’m seeing it as Katie’s work, and with the cast I’m very eager for them to have their own mark on the piece. That’s important with everything that I direct, the cast must influence the characters.
Bird: I totally agree with Molly on that. I think that when you’re coming at a text, you’ve got to see it as a blueprint, dependent on what material you’ve been given to work with. Whereas with a novel, the reader reads it and thinks that that is the finished form. We will be moulding it around the actors. But that doesn’t mean that Virginia Woolf isn’t important to us!
How do you think you’ll address the time difference between the original story and this production? Do you feel the need to add a contemporary element to it?
Bird: There is an awareness of the contemporary, especially in the lines closer to the end. There’s still so many fundamental truths within The Society that are prevalent today. As Molly said, 80 percent of what you study in a literature degree will still be white hetero cis men. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but there should be more voices being heard, and a search for new voices. These themes are unfortunately quite timeless
Farley: I also find the references that are made in the play to be universal. There are comments on Shakespeare, for instance, that even if you’ve never studied English Literature you’ll recognise. That’s interesting in itself: you don’t have to study literature to know what these men have written. We’ll use that to our advantage in how the lines are delivered. Yeah, these texts are fantastic and absolutely Shakespeare was a genius, but there’s a line, I think, and Katie has hit the nail on the head with that.
Bird: There’s also a reference to World War I that comes in between Act One and Two. Characters remark on the fact that their attention is being drawn elsewhere, which is very relevant to society now. Even though we’re not engaging in outright war, we’re still snakily supplying arms – not even snakily anymore, we just are – and in the media I feel that there’s a habit to take attention away from these issues. Especially in Trump’s America; it’s a form of distraction. The script definitely picks up on that, and I hope it resonates. Also, we will be working with the cast to see what they want to focus on, and they are incredibly talented, so I’m looking forward to that.
Daughters of England is being performed on the 29th and 30th of November, and the 1st of December, in the Maddermarket Theatre, Emmerson Studio, in Norwich city centre. Tickets are £5.