The idea to create a staged version of The Yellow Wallpaper first came about back in 2020, when I heard about the new Canada Council for the Arts Digital Now Grant, and thought immediately of reaching out to our VFX friends about making an animated wallpaper. What started as a simple concept for a one-woman show quickly expanded as more people were brought into the project, eventually culminating in Bygone’s most ambitious project to date.
Bria Cole came on as our Media Producer, but that title does not begin to describe all she’s done for this project. From technical planning and projection mapping, to creative suggestions on how to better create interactive exhibits, Bria is very much a creative influence as well as a tech guru.
Kate McArthur and I adapted the script, and wrote additional sections that could be voted on by streaming audience members, making for a sort of “choose your own adventure” feel: we wanted to avoid creating a Zoom show that felt like just a poorly filmed play, and were eager to make sure the footage was top quality and that there was still an interactive element for those watching from home. Accessibility is a key factor for Bygone whenever we are creating a show, and while Campbell House makes for a beautiful and unique venue for this production, it is unfortunately not accessible due to its tall, winding staircase. Often I find that “accessible” options for things really mean offering a lower quality version that has been adapted to accommodate, and we didn’t want this to feel like a back-up. We’ve worked hard to ensure that both the in-person and online versions of the show are unique experiences in themselves, and encourage those who can to experience both.
We rehearsed and blocked scenes knowing that they needed to look interesting not just for the streaming audience, who would see it cut live using Black Magic Technology, but for those who were watching any particular angle at a given time while wandering Campbell House – this was a difficult feat given our limited time in the venue, and meant that on top of memorizing 30 pages of repetitive monologue Kate needed to keep track of some very specific blocking, all learned in a short period of time. Luckily, Kate is an awesome talent and a pro, and makes it all look much easier than it is.
We wanted each room in the house to have a different feel, something interesting and specific to it and the story. Bria and her Production Design Assistant, Helga Packeviciute, came up with the idea of using black light to give audience members a chance to explore and find different elements on their own. When I got a black light pen and saw the blue glow, I immediately thought of old flow blue plates, and so that is what inspired the dishes seen in the dining room. On a beautiful long table, draped in a cloth, instead of seeing a formal dinner set out we see The Woman in her bed, her most intimate moments on display in what almost feels like a medical dissection table. The white plates blend into the projection, but when viewed under a black light reveal perversions of antique chinaware, sharing the secrets and fears of The Woman – things that are right under our noses, but can’t be seen unless you know how to look.
The overall concept for the show was to have an experience where you could feel like you understand The Woman’s story, you’re privy to her private moments, but still the isolation and distance she feels is evident at every moment. No one goes into her room. No one sees her directly. Instead you see pieces of her in one room at a time, limited to a certain angle and so never seeing the full story. Or, you watch online, the film cutting to follow the action, but leaving out the chance to see or hear the additional context you would get from visiting the rooms. Partly inspired by COVID-19 and the toll isolation took on our mental health, as well as the way in which social media affects our view and understanding of mental illness, the show leans heavily into the digital elements, using them to purposefully show both intimate things we would not normally see up-close in a play, and to hide others, reminding us that anything viewed through a digital lens is skewed, and incapable of telling the full story – what we don’t see is just as important as what we do.
While discussing the ways the different senses could be used in the show, we considered various soundscapes to fill the house. Ultimately, we decided to have Kate’s voice play in all the rooms, to give some sense of linear story to a show that could become confusing without some thread to follow through all the different possible paths. However, we wanted to have a way to limit this in a similar way to how we limit visuals, making it so that you couldn’t get extra information about one aspect of the show without missing out on another. It was decided that we would record conversations between characters that are mentioned but not seen in the show. By picking up a pair of headphones placed strategically in the house, audience members can “eavesdrop” on private conversations between Mary, the maid (played by Barbara Athanasoulas); Henry, the cousin (Davide Sallese); his wife, Julia (Julia Edda Pape); William, the brother (Jonah Waugh); and Dr. Weir Mitchell (Robert Pape). As with real eavesdropping, it is impossible to know what you will hear, and so everyone who listens in will catch a different part of the conversation. While this will give some context to The Woman’s story, while listening to that you will not be able to hear what she is saying, once again emphasizing the fact that it is impossible to ever know the entire story of someone’s life. These conversations were written and directed by our Assistant Director, Julia Edda Pape, who researched mental health treatment of the time to ensure their historical accuracy. Julia also helped us in rehearsals, assisted with setting up the house, and learned how to cross stitch in record time to help me make one of the pieces found in the house.
Conor Fitzgerald is credited as Producer, and in the early days of this project that was his only role – securing us sponsors and creating contracts. But as the tech needs of the project grew greater and greater, he found himself learning how to use all of the technology, and set up the streaming and switching, and likely many other things I don’t know the details of as they are beyond my pay grade. Essentially, Conor handled the hardware while Bria took on the software, and I learned how to cue them all.
Shreya Patel was a late addition to the team, but a key one. As Associate Producer she has focused on getting the word out about the show, and knowing her experience as a film maker and mental health advocate, adding her to the team was an obvious choice.
Steve Dirckze is the talented animator behind our creepy yellow wallpaper, and his work helps to bring the audience into The Woman’s madness.
So many people have helped bring this project to life, and in a very condensed timeframe. Nicolino DeFrancesco built the mattress for the bed, making sure it was sturdy and safe for our lovely actress. Oliver Georgiou came and recorded the voice of John, the husband, in about 30 minutes, nailing it immediately. Steven Sangster generously leant us some of his film equipment, and Wendel Wray consulted with us on creative and technical elements in the early days of creation. And of course Panasonic generously provided the projectors that have made this possible.
Thank you to everyone who had a part in making The Yellow Wallpaper come to life, and to all who will come and see it. We hope it entertains you and makes you think, and we would love to hear your feedback on what is a very different kind of show for us.