Interview with Masha Obolensky, playwright of Interior of the Artist Without Her Sister.
Conducted by dramaturg, Dena Roncone.
What initially attracted you to Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf’s relationship?
I would say that they went through childhood trauma together and survived it by depending on and supporting each other. As well as challenging each other. They were deprived of the expectation to excel in the world. They gave that to each other. Their drive to create helped get them through a very difficult childhood. And then I was interested in the ways in which the trauma continued years later to affect aspects of their relationship and their life choices and ways in which they were able to make some sort of peace with it. Also the roles we play in familial relationships and how difficult it is to break free of those. And many other reasons! So many layers to their relationship…
What about Vanessa inspired you to dramatize her life?
The choices she made in her life fascinate me. I was particularly drawn to her quiet insistence on their move to 46 Gordon Square and the way in which she was able to buck all of the societal pressures of the time and make the choice to live in an unorthodox way. And yet, while her open marriage with Clive Bell and long time romantic and creative partnership with Duncan Grant seem on the surface to be so radical, she ended up in a conventional role in many ways. I was interested in this dichotomy. And the other major draw for me were the questions I had around what it might have been like to be the sister of Virginia Woolf and to be an artist and the sister of Virginia Woolf. And then imagining what happened to Vanessa Bell’s sense of herself with the closing of this primary relationship that contributed so much to her identity.
Interior of the Artist Without her Sister includes beautiful imagery and dreamscapes to show events from Vanessa’s past. Why did you choose to show the memories in this way as opposed to a linear narrative?
Most of my theatre pieces integrate image and physical storytelling elements. The first performance piece I wrote/created was a solo piece called Historic Beauty about Greta Garbo. It was an hour-long and had very little text. Melia referred to Interior of the Artist as “associative” in a rehearsal. That seems to me the perfect word. I do write outlines, but I almost never follow them. This first draft has actually turned out to be more linear than I expected it to be. I follow events In Vanessa Bell’s life sequentially for the most part. For this first version of this piece, grief and memory are frameworks – so those both lend themselves to non-linear expression.
How did working on this piece knowing it would be live-streamed by actors in different rooms, impact the script?
I first had the idea for this 9 years ago. I shelved it after my son was born and I moved onto something that wouldn’t require research. Last year, the Huntington Theatre, presented a challenge to prior playwriting fellows to write 30 pages of a play in one month. I picked this up and wrote the first 30 pages – it was written for 3 actors at that point (one man who played several roles, Vanessa, and Virginia). So when this started in November, I had just 30 pages. The rest has been written over the course of the past 3 months. I did not think about writing for Zoom. I wrote it for the stage, knowing that with Melia, we would all reimagine it for this format. As of today, we are about to go into “tech”. I am excited to work with the wonderful group of designers and see what is possible with these technologies. I miss the stage and wish I could be in a room with everyone, but I have found that under the direction of Melia, a genuine community has been formed amongst all members of this undertaking. I am so impressed with the actors, the designers, the production team, everyone involved – we are all making the best of these less than ideal circumstances and connecting in spite of being physically separated.