Late last month, WSC Avant Bard began rehearsals for “Orlando,” playwright Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s canonical 1928 novel. For those unacquainted with the story, it’s about an incredible transformation — Orlando begins his journey as a man, then turns into a woman overnight.
Three weeks after rehearsals for the gender-bending play had begun, Facebook released a buzzed-about list of more than 50 new options for users to define their gender; beyond male and female, they include such terms as agender, intersex and two-spirit. It was serendipitous timing for WSC, whose marketing team went right to work, sending out a promotional e-mail posing the question “Which gender would Orlando pick on Facebook?”
“I think Orlando would choose different [identifiers] depending on what phase of her life she was in,” says director Amber Jackson. “Who knows what gender or personality she would take on beyond the 20th-century middle-aged womanhood where we leave her at the end of the play?”
Here are a few ideas.
The poet Orlando begins his journey as a teenage man and ends it as a woman in her 30s. And although Orlando is only 36 years old at the end of the play, the story takes place over four centuries. Actress Sara Barker, who plays Orlando, said that because Orlando and other characters undergo such dramatic transformations, it’s sometimes tricky to keep track of which pronouns to use when discussing their characters offstage.
“Because I am physically, biologically a woman, they mostly call me she,” she says. “And sometimes I correct them. I say, ‘I’m a man at this point.’ ”
Jackson had to help the actors get in touch with both their masculine and feminine sides during rehearsals, where there were frequent conversations about the nature of femininity.
“We tried to kind of unlock the attributes that people associate with various genders,” the director says. Those attributes went further than Adam’s apples and long hair — the cast even focused on the difference between small, dainty hands and strong, masculine arms. Then they identified physical gestures that could help them find a window into their characters. For example, Barker, as male Orlando, had to change not only her voice, but also her center of gravity.
Of all the new terms on the Facebook list, “gender fluid” is the one Barker says she would choose for Orlando. “The word ‘fluidity’ has come up a lot when talking about the character,” she says.
Orlando isn’t the only one whose identity fluctuates. “Orlando” is often taught in gender studies classes because so many of the characters defy societal norms — whether it’s the cross-dressing Archduke or the androgynous princess, Sasha. And revisiting this story now, as society becomes more accepting of gender nonconformity, is particularly timely, Jackson and Barker say.
“It really feels like Virginia Woolf was so prescient and knew that this gender revolution we’re in the middle of was coming,” Barker says. “There isn’t too much that isn’t already there to bring to it from our present time. There is a consciousness of the present.”
Gender is an important part of Orlando’s story, of course, but Jackson says she doesn’t want it to be the audience’s only takeaway.
“One of my favorite quotes in the play is ‘She had a great variety of selves to call upon,’ ” she says. “Each person is a variety of things, and accepting that and not diluting yourself into one thing, or not trying to place that pressure on anyone else, is important. I think the play challenges people’s notions that way.”
For Barker, “Orlando” isn’t the story of a man who turns into a woman but the story of an individual.
“It’s this earnest, earnest poet,” she says, “who can’t quite find the right words for his poetry, and then her poetry, until he’s lived both.”
Through March 24 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run, Shirlington. 703-418-4808. www.wscavantbard.org. $25-$35.