LENOX — Award-winning actress Annette Miller couldn’t help but say “yes” when opportunity knocked with the offer to revisit the role of Martha Mitchell for Shakespeare & Company’s new film production of Jodi Rothe’s “Martha Mitchell Calling.”
“A good play speaks to the now,” Miller said during an outdoor, socially distanced interview.
Miller created the role of the flamboyant, outspoken wife of President Richard Nixon’s attorney general and campaign manager for his 1972 reelection bid when Rothe’s play premiered at Shakespeare & Company in 2006. She reprised the role in 2007 at Stageworks in Hudson, N.Y.; and in 2008 at Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables, Fla., and then with Nora, a theater company in Cambridge.
Now, Rothe’s intermission-less 85-minute play is being brought back in a 60-minute film adaptation that begins free showings 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28, on the Vimeo platform accessed through Shakespeare & Company’s website — shakespeare.org. Veteran television and film producer, writer and director Mark Farrell directed; Kale Browne plays John Mitchell. Shakespeare & Company staffer Elizabeth Aspenlieder is producing.
Subsequent screenings are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Sunday. The Sunday screening will be followed by a talk back led by Shakespeare & Company Artistic Director Allyn Burrows. Joining him will be Miller, Rothe and producer Aspenlieder. Separate registration is required for the talk back.
Rothe’s play is set against the background of the Watergate scandal and the excesses of the Nixon administration. The setting is Martha Mitchell’s boudoir on the night before the start of her soon-to-be ex-husband John Mitchell’s trial in 1975 on criminal charges stemming from the Watergate break-in and following cover-up.
“’Martha Mitchell Calling’ seemed like a natural fit at this time in the election cycle, and at this time in history,” Burrows said in an email. “... it provides a very amusing perspective on the serious game of power and politics.”
Outspoken and brash, Martha — who became known in Washington, D.C., political and social circles as “the Mouth of the South” — was openly displeased with the Watergate events, said so publicly, and reportedly pressured her husband to resign as attorney general, which he did to become manager of Nixon’s reelection campaign.
“I re-read the play and some lines in particular stood out for me,” Miller said. “At one point, Martha says ‘Point your fingers at that mad man in the White House.’ She also says ‘Where is Martha now, now that we need her?’ Indeed,” Miller said, “we need a Martha now.”
“I think the evidence of the cyclical nature of history will be very evident to our audience with this piece,” Burrows said.
With Rothe’s involvement, “Martha Mitchell Calling” was trimmed to a one-hour running time. “We wanted it to be tight, concise,” Aspenlieder said in a joint interview with Miller.
“The camera really tells the story,” Miller said.
The idea for the project came about somewhat serendipitously. Burrows had been looking for something timely and virtual to launch a fall season of primarily virtual programming at Shakespeare & Company.
“I’ve been doing film and TV a long time,” Farrell said in a telephone interview from Lenox, where he was editing “Martha Mitchell Calling.” “I was looking for a way to get back to theater and had been discussing some possibilities with Allyn.”
At the same time, he said, “Elizabeth is a great friend who co-produced a film I had done [in the Berkshires] last year.”
Actually, he said, the project came together in roughly four weeks, including only two days of shooting — one day Miller’s scenes; one day Browne’s.
The groundwork, especially under the COVID-19 precautions, “took a lot of preparation in a different way than theater,” Aspenlieder said. “”This is film; a film adaptation of the play. Film prep is extremely detailed and arduous. Mark mapped out the whole flow of the production using only one camera. It was very complicated.”
Filming took place in the Sarah Morgan bedroom at Ventfort Hall, the Jacobean Revival-style mansion built in 1893 for Sarah Morgan, sister of American financier and banker J.P. Morgan.
Filming took place under extremely strict COVID-19 safety guidelines in accordance with state, local and Screen Actors Guild protocols that included twice-daily testing of crew and actors.
Farrell decided against using Zoom for his shooting platform. “It fights against the notion of being in a theater audience,” he said.
Farrell used the equivalent of a common television technique — live-to-tape shooting — in which, he said, “you set up six camera positions. We shoot once, using all six cameras, everyone goes home and you are left alone to put it together.”
Here, Farrell planned a six-camera shoot using only one camera.
“Basically, we rehearsed on camera,” he said. “We’d do a take, sometimes a long five- or six-minute take.
“People are used to Zoom constantly going back and forth between squares. This way the effect is immediate. What people are experiencing is immediate. I want our audiences to feel they are sitting in a theater.”
In returning to Martha Mitchell after 12 years, Miller said she found herself going deeper.
“The inner drive of connecting the audience to your words is deeper,” Miller said.
“Aside from the presidential importance of the play, I began to think about relationships. What happens? Especially now, with COVID, what goes on long distance? It’s the longing that gets heightened.
“I wonder what will happen to society if we don’t connect. What goes on with connections and relationships? The loneliness is deeper.”
In the case of Martha Mitchell the loneliness and isolation became as dark as it was deep. She was publicly vilified by Nixon and his supporters who attempted to silence her. She and John separated. She died alone of cancer at age 57 in 1976. John was found guilty of perjury, conspiracy and destruction of justice and sentenced to 19 months in jail.
“Martha was muffled,” Miller said. “We are all muffled now.
“Once you place each line on the canvas with the brush, you have changed. If you’re living and breathing, you are always now,” Miller said.
“It was important to get this out now. It was done now to get it out now.”