By Sarah Nicell || Layout Assistant
“You’ll all have a ball,” George tells his house guests in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—a 1962 play written by Edward Albee. As though they were part of the ensemble, audience members listened carefully as they were lured into the insanity of the show and coaxed into enjoying the absurdity of it all.
The first week of November, the Green Room Theatre Club, Franklin & Marshall’s oldest student-run theatre group, performed the ‘60s play on the patio between the Steinman College Center and Roschel College House. Directed by Emma Hawkins and Sam Lippi, the drama is described as “a play that examines the complexities of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. Late one evening, after a university faculty party, they receive an unwitting younger couple, Nick and Honey, as guests, and draw them into their bitter and frustrated relationship.”
The plot becomes increasingly bizarre as it unfolds, and several factors—including lie after lie from principal characters—account for the confusion, discomfort, and shock that ensues. Spectators begin to question the credibility of George, Martha, Nick, and Honey, ultimately the resolution of the show suddenly coming to a screeching halt. To truly grasp a deeper meaning, attendees must do a great deal of thinking, which makes this not-your-typical relaxing day out but instead an experience that you will certainly remember.
With three acts and only four characters, the amount of material that cast members were responsible for memorizing seems insurmountable. This, accompanied by pandemic regulations that altered the blocking, inevitable outdoor and street noises, and the metaphorical and chaotic nature of the drama, made for a challenging performance.
To find out more about what putting on such a play during a pandemic required, I decided to ask some questions to the members of the team responsible for this production.
The following were their responses.
What was your role/position in this production?
Aviva Katz ‘24: I played Martha for the understudy/swing cast.
Nathan Genduso ‘22: I played George in both the main cast and understudy cast shows.
Mei-Lan Holland ‘24: My role in the play was “Honey.” I played the understudy in this production. Honey is a sweet and silly young woman who has just moved to a new town for her husband’s job. Based on my interpretation of the role, she is definitely a more passive character, but she has emotional moments.
Olivia Heffernan ‘22: I was fortunate enough to play Nick in the primary cast.
Emma Hawkins ‘22: I was the director.
How did COVID impact the performance/your performance in the play?
Katz: This will definitely be a show to remember. My character does a lot of yelling and heavy breathing (whether because of anger or sobbing), which is not the simplest thing in a mask. The amount of mask adjusting that happened was insane. The show was also done outdoors, and we wore gloves the whole time so we didn’t have to touch the props (at first we were wiping props down with masks between each use!). Plus, there are some intimate scenes. Obviously, we couldn’t have any kissing or anything. At first, we played with incorporating some games of footsie, but eventually, we moved to suggestive actions, such as playing with his tie or dancing where we don’t actually touch at all. Another big impact was quarantine. We often had to cancel rehearsal because one of us was in mandatory quarantine. Not an easy feat.
Genduso: It made me really have to consider my actions; you can’t act the same way when you aren’t able to touch anyone with your hands and you have to partake in careful cleaning procedures. It was a unique challenge, but one that I thought we handled very well with some elegant solutions.
Holland: COVID changed the way we were able to perform in this production. Some scenes of the play get a bit raunchy and we had to completely re-imagine them to follow COVID guidelines, and even outside of that, no character makes physical contact with another character for the entire show. Wearing masks was something we also had to get adjusted to. In any normal performance, you have to project when you’re onstage. But with the masks, no one wearing a microphone, and fighting with the other outside noises, we had to project even more than normal. And even throughout the rehearsal process, we had some rehearsals canceled due to several house quarantines, which really affected our journey in the long run.
Heffernan: In the original stage direction, Nick is a fairly physical character, with several plot-dependent moments of contact. I found working around this to be fairly difficult, both staying in character while adhering to COVID restrictions and thinking about what the performance could have looked like under normal circumstances.
Hawkins: We definitely had to change a lot of the blocking in order to keep the distance between actors. That and performing outside was certainly something I have not experienced before.
How did you prepare for your role, especially with the stress of the module system and the pandemic?
Katz: There are two parts of preparing for a role: learning your lines and learning your character. One was a lot harder than the other for this show. I loved learning my character; in rehearsal, we worked on how our characters walk and talk, and we discussed our characters’ histories. I also took an acting class in Module 1 which helped me know how to properly get into character. But learning the lines was a lot harder. It’s talking for three hours straight and a lot of that is monologues. It was so hard that at one point I thought I’d have to drop out. But I went over my lines every night, even nights that I had already had rehearsals, and on weekends, too. Believe me, it was stressful.
Genduso: I had to spend a lot of time memorizing lines because George likes to ramble on a lot. I personally found taking this time to learn a show and perform was a good escape for me, even though it was a lot to handle at times. We also spent a lot of time carefully considering our characters beyond the page; Albee was not always clear with what was true and what was a fantasy, especially with this play, so it was interesting to decide that for ourselves and decide what that meant for our characters.
Holland: I had some difficulty preparing for my role since it was the biggest role I’ve ever had, and with the added stress of the pandemic and module system, I was definitely overwhelmed. I did my best to balance my time between classes and the production while trying to embrace the craziness in the world. Our directors Emma and Sam were so helpful in the process, as well. They made sure to carve out time to help everyone fully develop and understand their characters while also allowing us to bond as a cast.
Heffernan: Because my character Nick is fairly physical, with several plot dependent moments of contact, I found working around this to be fairly difficult.
What did you learn from your experience?
Katz: The first lesson would be to stop taking on more than you can handle! In addition to this show, I was also in Head Over Heels, and I filmed some things for F&M Players. Plus other club commitments, and you know, classes. But the other thing I learned is how much people can bond over craziness. And with the nature of the show and script itself, plus being put on during a pandemic, this show had a lot of craziness! Yet, theater always manages to bring light to my day, so I very much enjoyed the experience. And I love the people I got to work with!
Genduso: I learned a lot about character work, as this was one of the biggest roles that I have ever undertaken. So it was interesting to have so much material to work with and make decisions based on that information.
Holland: I learned that character work plays a huge part in the overall performance. Without understanding your character’s history and motivations, it’s difficult to give a realistic and powerful performance for the audience.
Heffernan: This was my first show at F&M and I did it on a whim. But, I couldn’t be happier that I did. This show reawakened my love for theater and I had the privilege of working alongside such a wonderful cast and production staff. I had never thought myself capable of such things, but I’m pleased I made the attempt.
Hawkins: I learned a lot both about directing in general, as well as making things run as smoothly as possible even with limitations. It was a very different experience than it would have been in previous years, but I think it showed that good theater can still happen, though it may not look exactly like what it would have been pre-pandemic.
How often were rehearsals?
Katz: I’d say what our “average week” looked like, but we didn’t have an average. A good week would have two rehearsals. We often only met once, because the main cast rehearsed the other days. Though some weeks we couldn’t rehearse at all because people were in quarantine, and then some weeks we rehearsed three times to make up for that. The overall trend was on the lesser side, leaving us feeling not quite ready, until tech week when we rehearsed every day.
Genduso: It varied, 2-3 times per week for certain and near opening night, a bit more frequently because of tech and working with props and the set.
Holland: At the beginning of the process, we had rehearsals a few times a week. But the last week of the show we had rehearsal every day, running through the entire show. In the end, it was a bit exhausting yet so rewarding.
Heffernan: For the primary cast, I would say that we met, on average, three times a week.
Hawkins: Since we had two casts, I usually had rehearsal five nights a week.
What was the greatest challenge you faced during your experience?
Katz: Number one would be lack of time. This is a really difficult and long show: three acts, with only four people! To get something like that down needs a lot of repetition, and the way the semester went (with COVID and having two different casts rehearsing at separate times), we just didn’t get that much time. The other is, as the understudy cast, we never rehearsed with one of our characters, the main character, George! Nathan played George in both casts, so he would rehearse with the main cast. For our rehearsals, our amazing assistant director (Sam) or stage manager (Bridget) would read George’s lines, but we didn’t rehearse with the actual cast member until the week of the show.
Genduso: I actually got a concussion about 3-4 weeks before the show opened, so it made learning lines a bit more difficult than anticipated because I basically lost a week.
Holland: The greatest challenge I faced during my experience was knowing that we could have done so much more artistically if we weren’t in the era of COVID.
Heffernan: My cast is so exceptionally talented, and watching them perform their roles so masterfully and joyfully was also nerve-wracking. As I said, this is my first significant role, and I wanted to make sure that I did right by both Nick and my cast. Fortunately, I was wonderfully supported by my cast and crew.
Hawkins: Probably working with everyone’s schedule in order to make rehearsal times. We wanted everyone to have enough rehearsal time to feel secure with the show, and with houses being put into quarantine throughout the semester, it was quite a challenge.
How did you feel about the material of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? What made it fun or challenging?
Katz: It’s quite a show! Weird. Very weird. But fun, once you get to understand it. I loved talking with my cast-mates to determine the meaning behind the text, creating history that wasn’t written-in and finding the subtext. Once I created that past for my character, it was really fun to play a character that might seem totally mentally insane, crazy, and downright obnoxious to others but felt human and understandable to me. I also loved forming relationships with the other characters and delving into the wacky conversations they have and the things they do.
Genduso: I felt like it was a challenging show to do well because of the heavy content and the length of the show, but that also made it a lot of fun to work on. I appreciated the challenge that the show presented in the themes of truth versus fantasy, and how that can drive a relationship to the point that both couples, especially George and Martha, are at during the show.
Holland: When I first looked at the material in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I was stunned by how zany the characters were, but after realizing each of their backstories and quirks, I fell in love with the story. My role in particular was challenging yet fun to play because Honey has so many different mood swings and random bursts of emotion throughout the show that I had to figure out how to embody them and give them a real purpose and meaning.
Heffernan: This show is rough. There is no other way of saying it. It is a highly emotionally violent show. While Nick is far from the craziest character, he does have the privilege of acting as the audience’s point of reference to reality. This allowed me to react to the absurdity of the show is the closest approximation of a real person present. Something I certainly struggled with was reminding myself just how bizarre the events of the show were, as through studying them, I had grown accustomed to the madness.
Hawkins: It is one of my favorite shows, and I had such a good time putting it on. I definitely think it was a challenge for the actors to play these odd and complex characters, but they did a wonderful job with it. It’s always gonna be a bit more work to do a show with the sensitive subject matter since there’s always the chance of doing it poorly and the meaning not coming across properly. Even given that, I enjoyed the whole process, and I think it really came together in the end.
First-year Sarah Nicell is a Layout Assistant. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.