"The Severed Parts Together": Adaptation, Mediation, and Textuality in Waves

Isolation and permeation. Solo and ensemble. Whole and diffuse. The boundaries of existence and interiority shift and blur in Waves, Katie Mitchell’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves. Mitchell’s challenge in devising the work was to find a way to put a novel on stage that is comprised entirely of interior monologues: thoughts in the minds of the six characters. In collaboration with her company of actors and scores of designers and technicians, Mitchell set out to develop a theatrical form that would not only tell Woolf’s story but echo the specific style and structure of the novel. To do so, they ended up incorporating technically advanced video equipment as well as old-time radio sound effect techniques. The piece functions as follows: the ensemble of eight all work simultaneously to produce the image of a character thinking, which is projected on a large screen hung upstage. Each ensemble member performs a separate task: one actor is filmed as the character, while another recites the text, the character’s thoughts, into a microphone. Some operate camera equipment, some establish the scene with lighting or set pieces, while others create sound effects through foley techniques.[12] All is happening onstage, in front of the screen, in full view of the audience.

Kate Duchêne as Susan
PHOTO BY Stephen Cummiskey
(National Theatre, Waves, 2006)

Through these live film and foley techniques, Mitchell manages to find a way to stage what at the outset seemed unstageable: interiority. But more importantly, the form of Waves reflects a deeper, thematic element of Woolf’s novel: the tension that exists between extreme isolation and extreme communion, an essentially philosophical, existential tension that Woolf explored throughout all her work in experiments with both form and subject matter, but perhaps most radically with form in The Waves. With the use of live video equipment, ensemble members create images, moving portraits of the various characters which appear on the upstage screen. If an audience member focuses solely on the screen, she sees the image of a single character within a frame: extremely cut off from any other human being, unmoving, unspeaking, lost in thought. If she moves her attention from screen to stage, she sees eight actors moving, speaking, touching, all working in sync to create the isolated image. Due to the connection between these two images, one cannot focus on one at a time, but must view them simultaneously, not only as two events occurring in the same space, but as parts of a whole; the image on the screen is created by the ensemble on the stage, who works off of the image to continue to feed it.

For productions that incorporate technological media in such a way, Greg Giesekam uses the term “intermedia,” which he introduces as an alternative to the word “multimedia.” Giesekam acknowledges that the incorporation of various media in live theatre does different kinds of work depending on how it is used. In his book Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre, he differentiates between multimedia and intermedia works in order to focus on intermedia, “where more extensive interaction between the performers and various media reshapes notions of character and acting… and where often the interaction between the media substantially modifies how the respective media conventionally function and invites reflection upon their nature and methods.”[13] This is significantly different from multimedia productions, where the primary purpose of technology is to aid in forwarding plot and character.

The live video in Waves transforms the way the characters are presented on the stage and the way the story is told. Further, the live action on the stage and the image on the screen mutually rely on one another: the ensemble’s complex dance on the stage serves only to create the image on the screen, an image that would not exist without the dance on the stage. Finally, it is within the relationship between the ensemble on the stage and the characters on the screen that the central concern of the novel — the isolation/communion contradiction — is articulated and explored. Therefore, Waves can be firmly situated as an intermedia production.


BY Katie Mitchell
(Oberon Books, 2009)

It is in fact Mitchell’s choice to present Waves as an intermedia production that makes the isolation/communion contradiction central to it. Giesekam discusses how intermedia productions shift the audience’s focus from character or plot to the form of the piece. He states that intermedia productions “generally demand a response predicated more on reading the interrelationships between different sources than on empathetic or emotional responses.”[13]

This is the case for Waves: the form of the production, or the way the characters are presented and the story is told through the use of live video, becomes more important than the narrative or the characters. This is not to say that the narrative and characters are lost within the intermediacy of the production, but they are of secondary importance to the production’s form. The narrative and characters work to enhance the philosophical, existential exploration that is most fully played out through the use of technology, just as in multimedia productions, technology is used to enhance the narrative and character development. Therefore, the tension between extreme isolation and extreme communion is made the central focus of Waves through its form as an intermedia production.

Page 4 of 8 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 View All


  1. “Foley artists work in film and TV. They are brought in after a movie or programme has been shot to provide any required sounds that cannot be sourced from sound libraries… For instance… if during [a] shot a car crashes into a lamppost, the Foley artist would create the sound of the crash, ensuring the movement of the car and the exact moment of impact into the lamppost were accurately timed.” Kerbel, Lucy. Waves Workpack. London: The Royal National Theatre Board, 5.
  1. Giesekam, Greg. Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

Permalink URL: http://www.cerisepress.com/02/04/the-severed-parts-together-adaptation-mediation-and-textuality-in-waves

Page 4 of 8 was printed. Select View All pagination to print all pages.