BWW Interview: Director, Jack Hartman of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at The Belmont Theatre
Broadway World recently interviewed Jack Hartman. Hartman, an accomplished actor and director, is currently putting the finishing touches on a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? At the Belmont Theatre (previously known as York Little Theater).
BW: Tell us about your interests and experiences in theater.
JH:I have been a practicing trial and health law attorney in Central Pennsylvania for over forty years. The theater has been a passion since high school, and I have been acting and directing for even longer. I have done Shakespeare, including Petruchio in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW and King Lear in college, and Capulet from ROMEO AND JULIET in New York. Roy Cohen in ANGELS IN AMERICA is also a favorite role. I was nominated for best supporting actor at the DC Film and Music Festival for my role as the ghost Dad in an independent film entitled LILLY'S THORN. Having settled in York, I have now appeared on stage at the Belmont Theatre as William Gillette in POSTMORTEM, Van Helsing in DRACULA, Duff in LANDSCAPE, and Atticus in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
My directing credits include the award-winning ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST last season at the Belmont, ELLIS ISLAND: DREAM OF AMERICA (recently performed with the York Symphony Orchestra), HARVEY, DUTCHMAN, my own adaptation of LISA AND DAVID, and I have directed myself in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, THE HARMFULNESS OF TOBACCO, and my own original play STETHOSCOPE. I am scheduled to direct again at the Belmont this Fall.
BW: Most people were probably first introduced to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through the classic 1966 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. How does the stage production differ from the iconic film?
JH: For cinematic effect, the film took the action out of the living room into the backyard and a local café. The play keeps the audience in the living room of George and Martha, and there are literally only minutes of passed time between acts. No set changes are required, and the audience is focused right back on the action where it left off at the intermission. As with any translation from stage to film, film gives more opportunity to have close up subtlety. On stage the actors have to convey all emotion - subtle or broad - with a combination of projection control, lighting and blocking conventions. Actually, having watched the film again recently, I believe the stage production is more engaging.
BW: The main characters of George and Martha are not especially likeable. How do you get audiences to care about people who they may eventually grow to hate?
JH: This was a concern identified at the auditions. While the audience may not end up liking the characters, the actors have the power to create a caring appreciation for the situation the characters find themselves in. Also, the actors have the opportunity for the audience to respect the skill of the characters to play their games, carry out their plan of attack on each other, and as one line suggests: even if flagellation is not your thing, appreciate a good flagellator.
BW: Virginia Woolf is an extensive, dialogue-heavy show with only four characters. How have the actors approached such an unavoidably intense rehearsal process?
JH: This was also identified by a director's note in the audition notice. This is the most dialogue intense play I have ever been involved with, and I have worked with it before in college. All my actors are experienced and talented and fully embraced the enormous task of learning these lines. I have taken several different approaches to assist and support them in that effort, including staggering the time to get off book, alternating runs with focused rehearsals on individual acts, doing speed reading exercises, stopping and correcting the delivery to avoid reinforcing mistakes, using short rehearsals in the theatre to allow for more time to learn lines, and encouraging the actors to realize that the reason they signed on - to have the satisfaction of performing these roles of a lifetime - will only be realized when the play itself is not in the way of performing the play.
BW: Why is Virginia Woolf a good fit for The Belmont's intimate black box theater?
JH: I have designed a minimal, suggestive set, and kept all of it black, so it is truly a close-up, intense theatrical experience for the audience. The play is very much like a boxing match, with the characters constantly circling and sizing up each other, preparing for the next strike. With all the focus on the living room, set on a carpet, and no distracting effort to construct a realistic background, the three-sided seating actually mimics a boxing ring. The play is about the characterizations and their interactions, and the black box is a perfect setting for that.
BW: Times have changed since the play debuted in 1962. Themes, situations, and dialogue found shocking 50 years ago are now prevalent in movies geared to adolescents. What does this show have to offer to today's theater-goers?
JH: This play is timeless, and translates easily into the socio-political times we are in today. We have not tried to identify the time setting of the play. There will still be shock value to the lines that were designed to create it, and I applaud the Belmont for being totally open to putting on a play like this as written, and without any attempt to tone down the effect of Albee's searing insights into American life. I will include a portion of my Director's Note to further respond:
Edward Albee's darkly beautiful piece of American literature will not leave the audience with answers to all the questions it raises, but will surely have the audience feeling the raw emotions created by these complex characterizations. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf provides pulverizing insights into four flawed individuals, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes fierce, always insecure and unsatisfied with their respective lots in life. Each person exploits the weaknesses of the others to create an ever-progressive dynamic from truth to illusion, and back again. But in the end, when the truth is told and all emotions are laid bare, there is at the core of each individual a degree of caring - whether intended or simply accepted - that will get everyone through to another day.
Set in the living room of George and Martha in a small New England college town, Nick and Honey come to visit too late, drink too much and stay too long. Act one peels back the first layer of truth in Fun and Games. The symbolic act two, Walpurgisnacht (translation from German: the night the witches gather), takes the audience a layer deeper into the characters and their relationships, and sets the stage to reach the core truth. In the final act, Exorcism, illusion finally gives way to reality. Has it been total war, as George and Martha declare, or a nightmarish version of a true love story, as only they can live it? And have you become afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be performed at The Belmont Theater, April 28-May 7. For tickets and more information go to the following link.