Anatomy of: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Throughout the month of September I'm blogging about the making of a black and white project I recently shot with Ogilvy Mather, Chicago. The print campaign was for Steppenwolf Theater Company's 35th season entitled Public/Private Self. This is the last update in the series.

Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962) is a raucous story about a middle aged New England college professor and his nearly schizophrenic wife who engage in scathing, drunken tirades and physical battery in front of their two young house guests. Eventually their lies and abuses turns on their guests, none-the-less, the party rages on.

Final image

The objective was to create a moment in the mid 60’s, which our two unwitting houseguests are greeted at the door by the inebriated older couple, played by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton. The older couple has been drinking for hours, but embattled for years. The time of day is 1am. Our shoot had to be scheduled in the late morning however.

My pre-pro pencil

I was thrilled to be working with actors Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as my talent. They have established working relationship, most notably from Amy’s performance in Tracy’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, August: Osage County. Needless to say, they bounced off each other like Seinfeld and George.

Amy and Tracy take aim.

I learned that seasoned stage actors are not inclined to be the most natural photography models. Their forte is telling stories with their bodies in time. It's important that they get how their character arrived at this moment: A fair question. I talked to them separately about how I wanted to distill the various themes of the play into the single moment which they'll never perform again.

Me talking to Tracy Letts about the shot.

Location scouting took me across the city to find a Victorian era, wooden porch. I first investigated buildings with phone numbers attached to them; Bed and breakfasts in old Chicago neighborhoods could have worked. It was important that once the doors swung open, we saw plenty of interior space to position a small wet bar in view and none did the trick. With the help of a location scout, we found a private home that was willing to work with us.

Scouting shot of the location

Wardrobe styling was crucial to convey the right era. Our touchstone was the fabulously styled show, Mad Men. When my art director emailed me this wardrobe shot from the show, the hunt was on for a plunging neckline cocktail dress (middle). Not all too common in the early 60’s.

Styling period

The icing on the cake was a white fox stole which became my favorite prop in this story of an overdressed and aging debutante, flirting with her house guests.

La piece de resistance

My technical challenge was to create a lighting strategy to shoot under broad daylight but making it feel dark outside. To accomplish this, there were a lot of lights firing but not all at the same time. The talent was lit with several strobes positioned as if coming from the two sconces beside the door and trailing off into darkness.

Lots of gear to remove in post

Once talent was shot and released. I created the plates that would give us another cue of nighttime but on the house itself. Strobes were directed to strike the siding just how the sconces might at night. The quality and length of shadows needed to replicate how the tungsten lights would look to the eye.

What I like about the final shot is how Amy's character is upstaging her husband. And from him, we understand that it's not for the first time.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf opens December 2 at Steppenwolf's downstairs theater.

Directed by Pam MacKinnon

Equipment: Multiple Speedotron packs, Hasselblad H4D, Hasselblad 35-90 zoom,
Crew: Annika Howe, Brynne Rinderknecht, Mark Doddato, Morgan Blaul, Jabari Zuberi
Retoucher: Studio Satellite
Ogilvy Mather: Allie Armstrong AD, Gabe Usadel CD
We ate: Heartland Cafe.