NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble revives its excellent The Yellow Wallpaper adaptation at Little Theatre of Norfolk this weekend.
I’m excited to see it again, and excited to talk to some old friends about how they adapted the Charlotte Perkins Gilman work – and how the show has evolved. The short story, a late 19th Century exploration of an isolated woman’s deteriorating mental health, is a key work of feminist literature.
The story is structured as journal entries of Jane, who suffers from the control of her husband, expectations of society, etc., which effectively deny her the ability to think and control her own life. Core is well known for its physical performances, and some of the themes and suggested characters within the story are reflected in the embodiment by actors of the wallpaper.
The show has been performed locally before, as well as being taken on the road. It has involved casts of varying sizes, and the latest incarnation features all woman in portrayals of the isolated, thwarted heroine at its center and the wallpaper itself.
I talked with members of Core shortly before the first run of 40 Whacks. At the time, we discussed the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of their adaptations and originals. This talk is with my longtime friends Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; and Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor and artistic associate.
The show runs at 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday, Nov. 30 to Dec. 9, at the Little Theater of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave. in Norfolk. General admission is $15 or, for season subscribers, $10. FMI click this link or call (757) 627-8551. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: As you guys know, I’ve seen [and earlier production of] it, and I loved it. I really thought it was – I’d seen a lot of bad local theater when I saw it so –
Q: And I’m like, “Oh, I just paid eight dollars.” [Laughter.] But I really enjoyed this. I thought a lot about it afterward, thought about what you did, why you did it, and I thought it was a lot of strengths you guys have in a really great package. One of the reasons I talked to you about [40 Whacks], which I didn’t know going in, is that I liked The Yellow Wallpaper so much. So what I hoped we could do is talk about how you found that short story, and why you thought that might be material.
Ertugrul: I believe – It was long ago. [Laughter.]
Castillo: It was so long ago.
Ertugrul: We were trying to look for things to adapt. We wanted to do more adaptations. We had done some before and thought, “Well, what else can we do?” I had read this story when I was taking English classes in college, and I believe someone else had read it as well. And we said, “You know, that story resonates with me.” So we all went back and read it, and it was amazing how concisely and beautifully that story is written. Everyone kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we can do that.” … There have been a lot of people who have done this as a show, but a lot of them do it as a one woman show. We did not want to do that. Just what we feel about –
Castillo: One woman, one man shows – [Laughter.]
Ertugrul: “A tour-de-force!” Of one person. [Laughter.]
Q: With that work, that isn’t really moving the ball that far.
Ertugrul: It isn’t.
Q: The short story is journal entries. It’s like journal entries for the stage.
Ertugrul: It’s like a giant monologue.
Castillo: That would be an easy way out with the story, that it’s one whole monologue, which technically it is. It’s a big monologue.
Ertugrul: We had seen another show’s [production stills] that had taken it very literally. … Someone was actually holding a roll of wallpaper behind the woman. … They were in period garb and things like that. I said, “The title of the story is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper;’ it’s not ‘Woman Loses Her Mind.’” It’s not anything like that, so we thought what if it’s this long piece of paper? And, if it’s this long piece of fabric that all these people manipulate, then they actually are all the people that she talks about. What if there really are women in the paper and we manipulate it as she deteriorates? If you give yourself four wall, or three in front of an audience, it kind of takes things to a – We opened up a door that meant we could put that door in the middle of a performance. It doesn’t just have to be the way that some set designer decided.
Castillo: Actually having people manipulate the same piece of cloth, you realize very quickly that if you’re moving one piece, then somewhere down the line [it affects another actor].
Ertugrul: Someone’s either got a lot or not enough.
Castillo: It’s a great physical dialogue between everybody holding the paper. They have to create this breathing entity, basically.
Ertugrul: We’re taught that everyone [in a cast] is actively crucial. The quickest way to make them even more crucial is to tether them together.
Q: How did you approach the journal entry structure of the short story when you determined what the text was going to be?
Ertugrul: We started as a monologue, because at the beginning she’s really trying to hold it together.
Castillo: There isn’t much cut from it.
Ertugrul: Yeah, we didn’t cut a whole lot.
Castillo: The story was natural to adapt for theater because its just first person. We made a compromise here and changed –
Ertugrul: A couple of things like tense or things to make it more conversational. Like we do have conversations between her and John [the husband of the main character and, effectively, her doctor]. We made that happen. Instead of her remembering a conversation with John, which is a very passive thing, we actually had the conversation happen. We just tried to have that conversation relived. It’s a little different in this production than it was in the one you saw.
Castillo: We’ve actually subtracted all the male [cast members].
Ertugrul: Someone would play John, but this time it doesn’t happen. It’s more of a choice. We came back to again and said, “You know, it really needs to be all women.”
Q: But why?
Ertugrul: What we’re going toward is that this really is inside her head. If there are no walls, if there’s nothing really tangible for her to hold on to, then we’ve got to start breaking down what’s real and what isn’t. From the very beginning, we’re in her perspective, so therefore these conversations really didn’t happen. Was she ever really in this situation? By not really nailing down our room, it opens up so many other interpretations. … With the original production, there was a person there in front of her that she could grab and pull and try to hug. … This is all head space.
Castillo: Really all you see on stage is the wallpaper.
Q: Was it a controversial decision to make the wallpaper plaid? [Laughter.]
Ertugrul: Yeah, the tartan. We had a problem last time when the MacCleods came. [Laughter.]
Q: Where did you get the idea to use fabric as the wallpaper?
Castillo: We were batting around a couple of ideas. I remember seeing this one production a few years ago and I thought it was really cool that they had pieces of spandex on one side of a room – a completely different play – but it was sliced up and down every, I think, six inches, and the actors would jump right through.
Ertugrul: [With fabric as the wallpaper], could be like cat’s cradle and you could be in it. [Moving her fingers.] So we found it in a remnant pile at one fabric store.
Q: Did you know the text at that point?
Ertugrul: We knew we weren’t going to change the text too terribly much. We said, “Read the story.” And then we met. We had the idea for the paper and we had two songs that we liked. We said, “This is the opening, and this is where things come. We’re in the middle of it.” And we said, “Do you want to do it?” And, as long as [cast members] bought into the idea that they we were going to choreograph this entire paper everywhere, and they were excited about it, they were the right people to have.
Q: The paper’s a character and plays characters. I’m not explaining very well, but it’s a setting but it’s also characters, individual characters. Am I explaining that right?
Ertugrul: Yeah, and then, how do you integrate that. As she starts deteriorating, the wallpaper starts talking back. … There’s a lot of choral work that goes on in it.
Castillo: It’s one character and then it becomes individual voices.
Ertugrul: [The actors in the wallpaper] have to speak as a chorus and also speak individually.
Q: But it’s not bat—-.
Ertugrul: [Laughter.] No.
Playing us out – because we are born of this land, and, like this land, immortal – is a tribute to Connor MacLeod that someone made on purpose.