It’s safe to say that Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending classic novel “Orlando: A Biography” was ahead of its time when originally published in 1928, telling the story of a young 17th-century Elizabethan man who goes to bed one night as a duke only to find himself transformed into a duchess the next morning.
Legend has it that noted playwright Sarah Ruhl was dared into adapting the novel into a play, as the story’s gender twists and turns, not to mention some other hard-to-conceive scenes for the stage, made it seem less than ripe for the theater.
However, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee created a critically acclaimed script and a new staging is currently running at WSC Avant Bard with Amber Jackson directing.
“Orlando spans five centuries, she changes genders, ice skates, she goes to a carnival, she takes a voyage on several ships and the thing that excited me the most about directing this project was exploring how to tell that story physically,” Jackson says. “It’s crazy and fantastical. Sarah leaves so much room to the imagination and because of that, there’s a lot of room for interpreting through movement and building a concept from the ground up. That’s one of the things I latched on to the most.”
Jackson was brought into the production by the theater’s artistic director, Tom Prewitt, who knew she had a history with Ruhl’s work.
“I already had a copy of Orlando because I had worked on another Sarah Ruhl play called Eurydice when I was working on my thesis at Baylor for directing, and I developed a strong fondness with her at the time,” Jackson says. “As soon as I read Orlando, I thought Virginia Woolf and Sarah Ruhl were a match made in heaven. They like a lot of the same themes and do things in the same whimsical style.”
Originally, WSC did a staged reading of the play and when that went well, it was added to the current season.
“It’s a fantastic story, a lot of fun, very sexy, and I think Sarah had so much fun writing it, that fun and adventure oozes from every page and scene of the adaptation,” Prewitt says. “I am fascinated by Amber Jackson. I think she has this amazing theatrical imagination that is surprising and sometimes dumbfounding but always really compelling. I think that manifests itself in her kinship with this material.”
Turning to Jackson as director was a no-brainer in his mind due to her familiarity with the playwright and her rising star in the D.C. theater scene. Jackson has directed for Constellation Theatre, Rorschach Theatre and at SourceFest. And has served as assistant director/choreographer for the Folgers Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet (which garnered five Helen Hayes nominations this year) and last year’s Keegan production of A Few Good Men.
“Amber has a passion and long-standing interest in Sarah, but much more than that, she brings directing skills and chops that allow her to jump into this as an artist,” he says. “She has a background in movement-theater and dance and you can see those skills coming to life in the way this play is staged.”
“Tom deserves huge kudos for giving me a chance. This is a tough town to make it in as a director—especially a young female director—and it’s hard to work your way up and find people willing to take a chance on you and give you the opportunity,” Jackson says. “Tom gave me a chance to prove myself with the staged reading we did and when that went well, he made it happen. I don’t think there are many artistic directors in this town who would do that, and I am super grateful.”
Beyond exploring the physicality of the play, another thing that excited Jackson about taking the helm was she felt it was one of the first times she ever read a play and thought, “This gets what it means to be a female in a completely different way.”
“I identified a lot with the character and found a lot of myself in Orlando in both genders, so I feel like if it can do that for me, I can do that for a lot of other audience members as well,” she says. “I try very hard not to get in the way of the story. I want to do the story justice and not layer in anything that’s not justified and be too heavy handed. In an adaptation like this, there’s already a couple of voices at work so I very much want to capture the spirit of what the playwright has given me and tell the story in a compelling way.”
Playing the title role of Lord/Lady Orlando is WSC member Sara Barker, who Jackson describes as being able to play gender without trying to play gender.
“She just seamlessly embodies the spirit of male Orlando and female Orlando and does it in a very frank matter of fact and sincere way and doesn’t go for any cheap shots or gimmicks,” Jackson says. “She loves Virginia Woolf and Sarah Ruhl so she already had the spirit of the text and brought grounded research into the rehearsal room on her own. The biggest part of my job has been to clear the path so she can take the journey in a compelling way.”
One of the chief decisions made by Jackson was deciding on what to do about the rest of Orlando’s cast. The script only lists “chorus” without giving specifics to how many, what genders or who says what.
“I decided to keep the chorus small—an all-male chorus of three—and then came the task of assigning what lines they will say. We tried taking turns with different paragraphs, switching every sentence, but eventually the personality of actors began to layer in on top of the chorus lines, and instinctively started to gravitate towards specific lines and helped in assigning who would say what,” she says. “It’s been a very collaborative process and they were great at jumping into the deep end and trying new things. It’s my job to set the parameters of story and allow them to go wild with it and explore every corner of that.”
Virginia Woolf herself has called Orlando the most fun she ever had writing a novel and seeing Jackson’s enthusiasm, it’s no surprise to see that same exuberance show up in preparing the production.
Orlando begins previews tonight, February 21st, officially opens February 26th and runs thru March 24, 2014 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run, Shirlington, VA. Details and tickets