Closing

Kellie Cooper and Ezra.

Kellie Cooper and Ezra.

The closing day of any show brings feelings of relief, sadness, accomplishment, and gratefulness. Relief that we pulled it together and had a production that we are proud of. Sadness because the family bond that was created will no longer be that day-to-day unit. Accomplishment for the fact that a role was realized and brought to life. Gratefulness because I was given the opportunity to step on that stage and do what I love to do. Performing in Venus in Fur brought all that.

As I stood backstage waiting for my final entrance, I felt a sense of calm flow through me. I would have loved to continue playing Vanda for weeks on end…however, this was it. My Vanda was about to take to the stage for the last time and I was going to do her all the justice that she so deserved. While the emotions between Chris and me got the better of us in some moments, the final performance was a success. Tears, laughs, and words of praise were shared by everyone that was a part of this production.

My dear friend who had years ago introduced me to Venus in Fur sat in the audience for my last performance. I was warmed by her laughter and touched by her support. We had come full circle: from watching the play together and discussing what an amazing part this would be to play to her cheering me on as I concluded the role of my dreams. From my dear friends, family, and audience members I didn’t know, the amount of support that was given to me in this production was awe inspiring. As I had suspected, this play brought the people out.

As an actor, I am always looking for roles that will expand my thinking, challenge my abilities, and help me become more versatile…playing Vanda checked off all those boxes. I realized that while comedy is my go-to choice, the serious moments in Venus in Fur were my favorite moments; they challenged my abilities and allowed me to become a more versatile actor.

Last week, I started to audition for the fall theater season. You cannot waste any time as an actor; when one show closes you have the hope that another production will be right around the corner. It crosses my mind how crazy the life of an actor can be: constantly looking for work, tirelessly working on your resume, trying to find the perfect audition piece, and hopefully trekking out to auditions.  I am hopeful that a new opportunity is just around the corner.

Being a part of the beginning of the revitalization of Centre Theatre was inspirational. The production companies have a vivid love for Norristown and want it—and are willing it—to thrive. Starting from the ground up is never easy, however these amazing people have a dream. I know it sounds cliché, but I also had a dream and I know that if you work hard enough you can make that dream come true. B-sharp and Starving Artist Prevention have the dream and the ideas, the teams, and the drive to make Centre Theatre a success. When Centre Theatre becomes a staple in Norristown I will know that I was there in its infancy and I will treasure that moment.

I have taken some of the play home with me. The dog collar, leather skirt, the fur...just kidding! I took the passion that Thomas has for his play when he says, “no one ever gets it right...” This desire for perfection surrounds me in my daily life. I learned from these characters that perfection is not reality and that there is beauty in the imperfections. These two characters stand strong in their convictions throughout the play; not always visibly, but internally their purpose never wavers. I want to have Vanda's depth of feeling, her great knowledge, her clarity of thought, these are all words that Vanda says about Kushemski in his play. They are true to herself as well. On a lighter note, one of my favorite lines in the show is when she is trying to guess about Stacy, “She has a dog...named something traditional, something manly, something Old Testament. Seth, Ezra!” I loved how ridiculous this moment was and I have recently adopted two new kittens one whom I named EZRA. Every time I call his name I have to laugh.

In closing, this process has been incredible. The support from not only the audience members, but also the readers of this blog, my family and friends, and the production staff themselves has been nothing short of amazing. I want to thank everyone for taking this journey with me. I am forever grateful to have been able to document my Becoming Venus.

"Ze proof, as they say, is in ze pudding. Auf Wiedersehen, mein Freund. I’ll be back."

“…a pretty quick study.”

Vanda Jordan in charge!

Vanda Jordan in charge!

Rehearsals and reading/re-reading/studying the script prepare a performer to take the stage, but once onstage the actor has to live and create a character who lives in-the-moment. Each performance takes on its own subtleties and adjustments—the actors sense and adjust to each other, the audience, the moments as they evolve live, and how they are feeling in-character.

About her “quick study” of those moments, Cooper says, “The work that goes into the production prior to opening is ‘the work’ and once the show opens that is ‘the product.’ Every performance is a little different…as it should be. I would be a robot if I said every line exactly the same and landed every mark; where is the fun in that? As with any show that I’ve performed, the further along we go in the run, the more comfortable I become.
“I wouldn’t say that my portrayal of Vanda changed but the pace of the show certainly changed. By Sunday, I had settled into the performance and began slowing it down. The nervous excitement of Opening Night had created a fast-paced, rushed feeling throughout the show. Sunday’s performance felt relaxed, well-paced, and honestly more fun. (I am in the minority within the theatre world because I love Sunday performances…it is the end of the show weekend and a much-needed celebratory dinner and daylight await us after the performance.)
“For Opening Night’s performance, we had a great crowd that we were able to use as a gauge for the rest of our weekend performances. They laughed in mostly all the places where I thought a laugh would land and stayed with us throughout the show. Saturday's audience was also well timed with their laughter, helping us perfect the pacing of the show. As I had suspected, Sunday's audience count was low. A touch of nervousness struck while I was waiting backstage; I peeked out my side-door entrance and there were fewer than ten people awaiting our entrances. I will forever say, I don’t care if there is only one person in the audience: they deserve the same performance as if there were 5,000 people. But comedy is a challenge in general, especially to a small crowd. Laughter is infectious and I always notice that a lot of people seem embarrassed about laughing out loud.  Sunday's audience—while light on attendance—was full of laughter, gratefulness, and enjoyment. After opening weekend, I believe that Sunday was our best show: we took our time, we pushed the audience less for laughter and more for thought, and it paid off.”

Now…a week’s delay. Opening weekend has come and gone with three whirlwind performances. The show refined itself each night to what Cooper calls “our best show” on Sunday. But now…a week’s delay! Time to consider and reconsider. Time to evaluate the plans and choices and decisions she’d made last week. Time to enjoy the successes and suffer the failures of her early performances. Cooper balances her confidence in what she’s delivered with her professionalism to deliver it again.

About the week’s hiatus, Cooper says, “I have been studying my lines since I left the theater on Sunday. Five days between shows is a fair amount of time and I do not want to trick myself into thinking that I can take the week away from the script just because we had a great weekend of shows. I can say that I am not ‘working’ on Vanda as a character any longer. Once I took my first step on stage in front of an audience, there was no longer any character work. My choices were her choices and her choices were mine. As an actor, I can choose to beat myself up over missing a line, wonder if I’d said something differently would that have gotten a laugh, or I can trust that the choices I’m making are the ones that the character would make and go with it. No one is perfect, not even our Goddess Vanda.
“The thought of continuing character work after we open—unless something went incredibly south—is inconsistent with what live theatre is to me. Directors do not typically give notes once the show has opened. However, Christen (the director) told us that she had a few notes and we would discuss Friday. Perhaps while I am not refining Vanda through the week, I may be on Friday before the show!”

But the play—and the character—are with her all week long.

Cooper says, “I find myself using lines from the show during my daily conversations. I catch myself every time it happens and I laugh. The play has certainly widened my vocabulary!”

Being Venus

Thomas Novachek and Vanda Jordan on Opening Night!

Thomas Novachek and Vanda Jordan on Opening Night!

The lights go down, the curtain (virtually) goes up, and the play is live! McGinnis’s Thomas is center-stage and his lines are running… “No. No. Nothing. Nobody. It’s maddening, it’s a plot. There are no women like this.” Cooper is in the wings, listening, standing on the very edge between being Cooper and being Vanda…of creating Thomas’s “woman like this.”

About that instant before Vanda comes to life, Cooper says, “I like to keep the day of Opening Night as normal as possible. I try to keep busy to keep the nervous excitement at bay. I would have said that I enter the mindset of the character when I arrive for my call time at the theater, but I had moments throughout my day when I was subconsciously getting in to character. I have a routine for Opening Nights that starts off with a manicure and ends with grabbing some grub with friends before getting to the theater. I chose black nail polish—I knew that was the color my Vanda would choose. I found myself laughing with my dear friend over dinner conversation because I was unintentionally interjecting lines from the show. I now know that the conscious choice of entering the mindset of the character is way later in the day that what my own mind subconsciously decides.”

The lightning flashes and the thunder rumbles and Cooper/Vanda bangs on the door to announce her coming entrance…a second later, Vanda barges onto the stage, barking out questions, swearing, taking over the stage.

About that moment of transition, Cooper says, “It is difficult to pinpoint an exact moment where my shift happens…the darkness backstage is comforting as I say my prayer and listen to Thomas's opening monologue. The lines fly throughout my head as I try to speed through them right up until I hear his final line. The thunderous sound propels me through the door and at that moment I am Vanda and only Vanda. In this show there is truly no time to process my own thoughts…I must listen to the other person, listen to the audience, and listen to my own choices. I imagine that getting into my own head during this show would be disastrous. With the number of changes the characters make in this 90-minute production, there is simply no room for Kellie any more.”

Cooper had said weeks ago that her creation of Vanda “…maybe won’t be fully discovered until opening night, and I am ok with that.” Even as the play unfolds, Cooper is seeing and sensing new things about the character, about the lines, about Vanda’s relationship with Thomas…she is creating the character as she plays it.

About this constant sense of discovery, Cooper says, “There was a moment [on Opening Night] that makes me laugh because I understood a line in a new way…I think that I will be the only person who laughs at it! Thomas is going on and on about the Bacchae and relating it to his play and Vanda says, ‘Yeah, I think I saw that.’ I laughed when I delivered the line Opening Night because I suddenly imagined that she—as Venus—really saw it happening in the moment not just that she had seen the play. I enjoy finding these moments during the show because they make me realize that I never truly stop developing a character. Yes, the lines are always the same, the blocking is always the same, but my discovery throughout each production will change. It’s a new day, a new audience, and it should feel like a new day for the character as well.
“I didn’t know what to expect from the audience; I had hoped that the audience would respond and they did not disappoint. When Thomas asks Vanda about the dog collar and she replies, ‘This is from when I was a prostitute. I'm just kidding, just kidding.’ I thought the prostitute line itself was going to get the laugh…but when there was silence, I knew I had a hook in the audience; the ‘just kidding’ got a big laugh! Making the audience laugh can be hard but making them believe is a down-right challenge. When I heard a thoughtful, ‘Huh,’ I knew my job was done…making people think is always my greatest feeling with being an actor. Whether it was a, ‘Huh. Did not see that coming,’ or a ‘Huh. That was something,’…either way, people are feeling, reacting, and processing. My job as an actor is complete.”

Despite all the preparation and rehearsals, despite all the study and evaluation, despite all the discovery…maybe because of all that…Cooper at times is controlled by the character: at times, Vanda takes over the actor on stage. Sometimes, “there is no room for Kellie,” Cooper has said, so she is ready to let Vanda go to “autopilot” when the moment in the play is right.

About surrendering to Vanda, Cooper says, “I think the part in the play when Vanda starts to show her true colors is when she throws a chair and proclaims, ‘I am not your countess aunt, I am I.’ The perfect moment to describe the feeling of being on autopilot, it happens right after the fight between Thomas and Vanda—emotions are running high and I have to let go of Kellie completely to make the moment as real as it is. The words just seem to pour out without thought during that scene, which leads me to believe that we are making the right choices.
“I will never be able to say that I completely transform into Vanda, or any character that I play. It is unrealistic for me to think that’s even possible. When you have lines you must say, places you must stand, and props you must hold…you must be thinking about what happens next. As long as you do not give into nerves, the audience will have a hard time distinguishing between the conscious acting and the autopilot moments.”

Finally, Vanda stands at the front of center-stage where Thomas praises her, “Hail Aphrodite!” and Vanda pronounces, with triumphant satisfaction, “Good!”  The stage goes black and the play is finished...but that is a dramatic moment, a constructed moment, written and directed and created to end in triumph. Now Cooper comes back to being Kellie and McGinnis comes back to being Christopher; as actors, they greet the audience’s applause. Any feelings of triumph or failure are theirs, not their characters’ anymore.  

About the moment the play is complete, Cooper says, “Relief! We did it!!! We have a show and it works. It was truly heartwarming to look out and see the people I know as well as the people I don’t know, and feel a joy that everyone took this journey with me. Running offstage after our bows, I had to shake off the thoughts of what I could have done better; I did not want any negative feelings to cloud the satisfaction that I felt. My dream role had finally debuted and I could not have been happier. Chris and I knew that there were places that we wanted to tighten up for the next performance but overall we were happy that we pushed through, had fun, and remembered all 71 pages of lines!!!”

As the Curtain Goes Up

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McGinnis as Thomas playing Kushemski and Cooper as Vanda playing Dunayev.

McGinnis as Thomas playing Kushemski and Cooper as Vanda playing Dunayev.

A unique challenge of being Vanda Jordan is the multitude of characters and characterizations that add up to that one performance. Cooper has to play Vanda, but she has to play Vanda playing Wanda and Venus and, even, Thomas for a short bit. The changes between characters are neither “ambivalent” nor “ambiguous” (as Vanda and Thomas argue about it)…they are specific choices and techniques that Cooper employs. She recognizes that Vanda undergoes a significant change within herself during the play.

About managing the character shifts, Cooper says, “Costumes, set pieces, and lighting all add to the change in Vanda throughout the show. Christen (the director) and I spoke about an internal button that I would use to change in and out of the ‘Vanda’ and the ‘Dunayev’ characters. Because the change happens so quickly within the script, the change in the character has to happen at warp speed. Sometimes it is as simple as a turn and other times it’s a drastic outburst.
“Thomas (played by Christopher T. McGinnis) also adds a lot to the changes that we see in Vanda…through the script and through Thomas’ body language. The tables turn during the fight scene between Vanda and Thomas. We see Vanda slightly broken when he calls her an “Idiot actress” …then she quickly follows with a power play and she becomes more dominant until the very end of the play. The tone with which she speaks, the forcefulness of her stance, and the clear choice of staging all contribute to the believability of the change we see in Vanda.”

A specific set of techniques that the playwright gives Vanda in creating her image is her flagrant manipulation of the truth. She enters the play telling multiple lies that are exposed as the play progresses, and she tells lies or surprises Thomas with the truth throughout the script. Balancing between lies and truth challenges the stage actor’s performance.

About Vanda’s lying and manipulation of the truth, Cooper says, “Through in-depth study of the script I have to know when Vanda is lying or telling the truth. Knowing Vanda creates a difficulty for me to portray that the lies are not lies, so that I can make both Thomas and the audience believe. Much of the comedy lies within the lies. Not only does Thomas call her out on a few of her tricks, Vanda also plays in to her own game. For instance, when she is asked about the dog collar, ‘This, this was left over from when I was a prostitute. I’m just kidding!’ she laughs at herself. I believe she is testing to see how much she can toy with Thomas and make him believe her…so that her more in-depth lies will land as truths.”

Another specific technique that the playwright gives Vanda in creating her image is a balance between “sexy” and “sexuality.” The play is about domination, submission, roles, and role-reversals and the role that sexuality plays in that struggle.

About Vanda’s sexuality, Cooper says, “In using sexuality instead of being seductive, Vanda plays in to the simple fact that she is a woman…she uses her femininity to challenge and soften Thomas. It is very important to me to not play in to the stereotype of what is classically considered ‘sexy.’ This is not who Vanda is. I walk a tightrope between using my own sexuality to portray Vanda’s seductive character, and the urge to give in to just being sexy—the leather lingerie does not help me balance this very well. That is why when Vanda changes into the Dunayev dress I feel the most seductive. It pushes me to use my voice, my gait, and the subtle changes in facial expressions to seduce and convince that there is sexual tension between Thomas and me.”

After five weeks of intensive rehearsal, tomorrow night is opening night for Venus in Fur and Cooper takes the stage as “Vanda” in all her forms. The key question becomes: Who is Vanda?

Cooper responds, “Vanda is a badass! She is all the things that Thomas, in the beginning, says that she is not. Vanda is poised, cultivated, and plays a typical young woman of her time. Vanda is a magnificent creature. The journey that I have taken to bring Vanda to life has been challenging. She tests my limits, pushes me to the brink of tears, and makes me laugh. I can say now that Vanda is every bit a part of me as I am of her. Vanda is my ‘Female Frankenstein’s monster.’ It was at last night’s rehearsal that Vanda and I completed our connection. Vanda’s—as Venus—big moment at the end, ‘We dance in the glory of the Gods…’ had been challenging for me in the past…to break into that moment. I can only describe last night’s performance of that moment as a sort of out-of-body experience. I had chills, I was shaking, and I broke away from it with beads of sweat across my forehead. I no longer was an actor playing Vanda, I had finally let go and let her consume me.”

After that same five weeks of rehearsal to an empty room, everyone—director, actors, technicians, crew—will play to a live audience. The safety of “discovering” all the elements of the play and characters is lost. When the curtain goes up, the audience is live, the play is live, the characters are live…

About the effect of a live audience on her performance, Cooper says, “Audiences affect my performance immensely and, I hope, for the better! The energy that an audience brings electrifies me. I can feel the buzz vibrating off the audience from backstage and it amps me up. I am yearning more than usual for the energy that the audience will give me…I need all the energy that I can get to pull off Vanda’s crazy world. Beyond the energy, I hope the laughter will affect my performance. The pace of the show is crucial and laughter can, at times, stall the pace…but this is by no means a bad thing; laughter means we have to listen to our audience so we can adjust for them not to miss out.

Coming into Focus

Vanda (Kellie Cooper) and Thomas (Christopher T. McGinnis) coming into focus.

Vanda (Kellie Cooper) and Thomas (Christopher T. McGinnis) coming into focus.

Now in the final week of rehearsal before opening night, Cooper is bringing Vanda into focus…even though she acknowledges that the process may last right up to the first curtain. Despite all the personal investment an actor puts into the character, despite all the guidance a director may offer, ultimately everyone is constrained by the script… ultimately the playwright, David Ives, has written the character: what she says, how she behaves, and what she does on the stage.

About the script Cooper says, “It is so hard to narrow down the play to a few critical moments. The first moment that comes to mind as a critical passage is when Thomas yells at Vanda calling her an, ‘Idiot woman, idiot actress,” and claims that she is stupid about the character. This moment is a side of Thomas that will make the audience dislike him even more...his frustrations and confidence get the better of him. The audience sees in Vanda a glimmer of hurt and sadness only to watch her crush that feeling by stating a truth…a truth that Thomas doesn’t understand. When Thomas states, ‘You might say this play is about…beware of what you wish for,’ Vanda blatantly replies, ‘Because she might come walking in the door. Don’t fuck with a goddess is what it’s all about.’ This is a ‘real’ moment between them and Thomas has no idea.”

Now rehearsing on the Centre Theater stage, Cooper begins to focus her character within that space, that place, among the set and props. As she described earlier, she reacts to the environment, the space, and the comfort of the stage.

About the set, Cooper says, “The divan is the number one element of the set. Many fantastic moments happen on that divan. It is a set piece where my Vanda is at her most powerful and centered. It is interesting because many people feel that center stage or standing in general is the most commanding for an actor. Not for our Vanda! The divan is her center stage: she reclines there and is adored there when she embodies Venus; from the divan, she takes charge of Thomas during his last phone call with Stacy; and she speaks it as Vanda, ‘I live on this divan…’ It is the clearest stage element written in the script and now I know why.”

Playing a goddess—a goddess based on the origins of sadomasochism—may push an actor and the audience into areas beyond their comfort zone. The characters struggle with the blurred lines between reality and acting and wrestle with control, submission, domination, roles, and role-reversals. Vanda comes to dominate Thomas, and Thomas succumbs to Vanda…pushing the actors to examine their “discomfort zone.”

About pushing her limits, Cooper says, “There are many moments in the script that force me to step out of my comfort zone. Stripping down to my underwear within the first ten minutes of the play is not as comfortable as I hope I make it seem. Vanda is not trying to be seductive…it’s a part of who she is. Making it appear natural that she is exposed is the hardest part. The audience may see it as ‘shock value’ but Vanda is more interested in putting on her next costume than caring what she looks like in her skivvies! Vanda says, ‘I don’t usually walk around in leather and a dog collar. I’m usually more demure and shit.’ Vanda’s comfort in these clothes leads me to believe that she’s not as demure as she says. It takes a lot of focus not to think about my own insecurities at these moments …the lines that she says help me to remain focused.”  

Even as a dominant goddess, Ives’s Vanda shows a humanity that Cooper recognizes. Vanda offers a comedic side that Cooper values, a comedic side that Cooper doesn’t want to lose in the text and intellectualism and drama of the play.

About Vanda’s humanity, Cooper says, “Vanda’s comedy is my safe zone. The goofy, lighthearted moments she has in the play are a part of me. It is easier to make a moment appear natural when I would make the same choice the character makes. I find comfort in these moments that Vanda and I share…that isn’t to say that these comedic outbursts are easier or less work—comedy is challenging in its own right. But these moments ground me in a show that is otherwise very intellectual and classical in a way. Christen (the director) and I spoke at length about the comedy—early on more so than about the drama of the show. Our intentions are to give the audience a break from contemplating the intentions of the show. The lines in the script themselves are incredibly funny. Pair them with perfect timing and delivery, and laughter most certainly will ensue.”

 

Next entry on Thursday, June 16…Cooper finalizes her creation of Vanda.

Development

Christopher T. McGinnis and Kellie Cooper in rehearsal.

Christopher T. McGinnis and Kellie Cooper in rehearsal.

Weeks of hours-long rehearsals…expanses of alone time (strategizing about the next rehearsal, focusing on the nights of actual performance) interrupted by the collaborative work of rehearsal time (understanding the director and the other actor, making herself understood). Becoming “Venus” is a long, complicated road.

About upcoming rehearsals, Cooper says, “My primary focus is hammering in a large chunk of the lines and working with props. It is very important to me to have the freedom to move without a script in my hand…but this production affords me the luxury of having a script in my hand. Props in general are frustrating at times, and my dear Vanda has a panoply of props! I learn a lot of my lines by connecting them to a prop that I may have in my hand at a specific time or place on stage. I have started to put the pieces together, one leather dog collar at a time.
“Our access to the Centre Theatre space didn’t start right away. Rehearsals are scheduled at our houses and a local dance studio—but the change of scenery is not a problem. I anticipate that once we are in the theatre, our choices as actors will become clearer. As with any production, when we first get on set, the characters change in certain ways. We react to the environment, our spacing changes, and the lighting provides a comfort that a living room cannot.”

From her feelings of being overwhelmed and confused during the first rehearsal, Cooper pushes forward to make discoveries…even within the collaboration of actors and director, she is specifically charged with making Vanda real. Now she finds herself balancing this new rehearsal process with her own natural process for developing the character.

About that balancing act, Cooper says, “I would have to say that Christen’s (director, Christen Mandracchia) rehearsal process was less a surprise than an “Ah-ha” moment. There is always a piece of Kellie in every character that I play. The tough part is connecting the dots of who I am and where that lands within my character. I truly hadn’t expected Christen’s sense of discovery so early on in the process. Vanda being who she is takes me, as an actor, on an emotional and physical journey…being able to break down my own walls early on has helped me embrace the unfamiliar rehearsal process.
“Without sounding too cliché—just as Venus appears to Thomas in the play—I knew Vanda would eventually appear to me in the rehearsal room. Becoming any character is a process. For me, it begins with the age-old questions: Who, What, When, Where, and Why? After I answer them, the character begins to come together. My Vanda is far from complete and maybe she won’t be fully discovered until opening night, and I am ok with that.”

Developing the character, for Cooper, is finding where she and the character overlap and fail to overlap: where are they the same, where does Cooper have to discover and adopt Vanda’s traits, where does she have to imbue Vanda with her own traits?

About her sense of herself and her character, Cooper says, “I joked when I first saw Venus in Fur that I was ‘very much like Vanda.’ Having worked on Vanda for the past few weeks, I should probably stay away from saying that I am, in my real life, just like Vanda.
“When I read the script, the first layer of Vanda’s character was evident. The more I read it, the clearer her character becomes. The lines themselves provide much insight into who this character is and that is just great writing for you—believe me, I have worked on shows where I read the script and say to myself, ‘Ok, so I have to create this character from scratch!’ This script provides a smooth transition between what I am bringing to the character and what the playwright has already laid out for me.
“Vanda, as we find out, is Venus come down to teach Thomas a lesson…I have to say that it would be pompous of me to say that I have much in common with a Goddess. Vanda is calculated, very much in control, and way more powerful than I am. But I connect very much to the humor that is Vanda. Her lack of inhibition is something we share. I am proud of that characteristic for it has made me a better actor. And Vanda and I, as actresses vying for a role, share a fevered desire to prove that we are right for the part by being ourselves.”

 

Next entry on Monday, June 13…Cooper enters her final week of rehearsals.

 

Rehearsal

An actor’s control over her character pauses when she goes into rehearsal. It won’t return until the curtain goes up on opening night and the actor and character become one…until then, creating the character enters its collaborative phase during rehearsal. 

About the first rehearsal, Cooper says, “My expectation for rehearsals is my own worst enemy…but I have learned my expectations tend never to be reality. I expected maybe we’d begin working on Vanda’s vocal qualities the most. It’s our first rehearsal and I’m thinking all about me: my plan was to focus on voice and movement. I had been working on a Marlene Dietrich impersonation and hoped I would do her justice. I travelled to the theater with my first three pages of script playing on my recorder—but I panicked: Should I have these lines memorized already? Would we even start at the beginning? It was just the beginning of the long journey to become Vanda.

Rehearsal begins…under the decision-making and structure defined by the director. The director’s vision sees the destination and her process guides the way.

About starting the rehearsal, Cooper says, “I was apprehensive on arrival to the theatre. The director began with a warm-up exercise that brought me through the seven levels of tension. We started with me laying on the floor and breathing deeply, releasing my tension and achieving a tension-level zero. She then had me slowly get up and begin walking lazily around the space moving back from a level-zero to a level-one. The warmup progressed through the tension levels until we reached tension level-seven…I was tensed, frustrated, and yelling. I released the tension and then we began discussing the many personalities of Vanda.
“In a subsequent exercise we broke down the layers of Vanda into 5 different stereotypical female traits, ranging from ‘Dimwitted’ to ‘Trashy,’ with ‘High-strung’ and ‘Apologetic’ in between. We even named these traits, Tiffany the Trashy one, Donna the High-strung one, and Sylvia the Apologetic girl. To be honest, I was not used to these exercises and I was feeling overwhelmed and confused. I never was an actor who needed to be revved up to yell and I never needed to think of a depressing moment to cry…I just do it without thinking of a process or reason…not to say I am disconnected, only that I am easily emotional.”

The first rehearsal opened as an emotional exploration and an exploration of emotions for Cooper, guided by the director. Managing tension, examining female traits, feeling overwhelmed and confused…Cooper was discovering herself as an actor at the same time she was discovering Vanda.

About the next stage of rehearsal—turning to the script—Cooper says, “We progressed to the opening moments of the play, dissecting every line giving Vanda an alter ego and a tension level. This proved to be challenging for me. As an actor, I make in-the-moment decisions; taking the spontaneity out of the moment in the first rehearsal was a huge mountain for me to climb. But at the end of the two-hour rehearsal, the light at the end of the tunnel began to shine.

The first rehearsal ended emotionally as well: dejection, self-questioning, and new realizations.

Cooper says, “I left the rehearsal feeling dejected. Had I gone through my career making wrong choices? Was this what I missed by not going to school for acting? I took a breath and began to process: Acting is about opening yourself to new experiences and methods. I began to realize that though I connected with Vanda from the first moment I saw her step on stage, I hadn’t realized how complex she truly is. I credit the director for showing me a new way to look at Vanda, a new way to approach Vanda, and a new way to become Vanda.
“The moment I let go of my preconceptions of the rehearsal process was the moment my Vanda appeared to me; I embraced her with open arms. Her reasons became clearer, her control had a purpose, and her personalities now had names: Tiffany, Donna, Sylvia, and the others all had their moments in the script and I must do them all justice.”

 

Next entry on Thursday, June 9…Cooper searches and finds the links between herself and her character.

Audition

Kellie Cooper, minutes before the audition.

Kellie Cooper, minutes before the audition.

Kellie Cooper’s preparation for the audition was complete—outfit chosen, lines learned, accents adopted. Leaving her apartment, Cooper felt confident in her preparation. She had created her sense of Vanda and was prepared to “strut it” for the audition. But time and travel and waiting have a way of undermining confidence…of causing us to reconsider our considerations. The mental certainty of being at home was challenged by the time she reached the audition space.

On entering the theater, Cooper says, “I love auditioning. Auditioning invigorates me and makes me thankful for the chance even to be considered. I walked in to the lobby of the theater—head shot, sides, and resume in hand—and took a look around. We had been told that we would be paired with an actor reading for Thomas, so I scanned the room imagining who I would be reading with. I started to compare myself to the other women in the waiting area; some were wearing leather and dog collars to match perfectly Vanda’s opening wardrobe; others were wearing low-cut dresses leaving little to the imagination. I took a moment to question myself: “What are they looking for?” Using a line from Venus in Fur, I thought they are most likely looking for, “Somebody who's not me. I'm too young. I'm too old. I’m too big, I’m too small. My résumé’s not long enough. Okay.” Then my name was called and I snapped out of it.”

Audition evaluations are a committee decision—a number of people watch the actor’s portrayal, her knowing her lines, her relating to the other actor(s), her use of and comfort in the space. Sometimes, questions about the actor’s understanding of the character and the play are raised. The audition is a living thing…not just a recitation. But in the end, the director holds the actor’s fate…the director looks to see the character in the actor…

About the director, Cooper says, “I actually did not know anything about the director before seeing her at the audition. I was surprised to see a female director…I’ve worked with a few female directors in the past, but most of my directors have been male. By the end of the audition, I was thrilled to be working with Christen (Mandracchia). She expressed her passion for the play, how she’d wanted to direct it since she saw in on Broadway years ago, the way she spoke about the relationship between Thomas and Vanda…it was evident that we shared such a strong connection to Venus in Fur.

The audition experience is compressed while it happens…the intensity of effort makes the time race. Cooper was prepared to risk everything she’d imagined and prepared, while at the same time trying to detect input and reactions from the observers and the other actor(s)…and then to reshape the character instantaneously in subtle ways. Cooper’s audition began as a slow elevator ride…the doors opened as if they were a curtain rising.

About the audition, Cooper says, “I took the elevator up to the stage space and my nerves were gone as soon as I stepped into the room. The director, a producer, and the dramaturge sat facing the stage. The audition reader was standing to the right. I was thrilled that I was auditioning with a reader and not a fellow auditioner. (The reader knew the script well and was extremely talented.)

“I had the one side memorized and we started there. I took a breath and immersed myself into Vanda as I knew her. Using the transatlantic accent I’d practiced, I finished the required monologue and they asked me to continue reading the scene. I read on until they asked me to read the second side with the reader. I was cut off two pages into the second side; the director thanked me and said they would be contacting everyone soon. At that moment, I felt successful.”

But even post-audition, time and travel and waiting have a way of undermining confidence…of causing Cooper to reconsider her audition and audition choices…but as a seasoned auditioner, Cooper also knows the risks of reconsidering.

About her trip home after the audition, Cooper says, “I was very happy with my audition. I’ve learned over the years—regardless of how I feel about my audition—to avoid disappointment I must congratulate myself for even trying. As long as I feel that I was completely prepared and confident…if they choose someone else it means that I was not who they had envisioned and another part will come my way. It may be cheesy to say, but it’s the only way around the rejection you receive as an actor. You cannot dwell on what has been…but you can check your email 500 times, keep your phone within inches all hours of the day, and pray that you land the role.”

Cooper got her call and got the role as Vanda, the actress becoming a character. Excitement and work and new disappointments and new successes lay ahead.


Next entry on Monday, June 6, where Cooper wrestles directly with the complex of emotions that give Vanda life.

Venus in Fur

Kellie Cooper has been forging her career as an actress for nearly a decade, beginning with Fringe productions and webisodes, then moving into live theater, playing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed in Business, and Joanne Galloway in A Few Good Men. Today, she takes on her latest role…an actress becoming a character who is an actress becoming a character…Vanda in Venus in Furs.

About her interest in Vanda, Cooper says, “About 2 years ago my friend invited me to see Venus in Fur at the Suzanne Roberts theatre. I entered the theatre with not a stitch of knowledge on what the play was about. Our seats were a few rows from the stage. I sat taking in the incredible one-room set waiting for the actors to take their marks. From the moment Vanda rushed in I was enthralled. I went from hot and bothered to utterly mesmerized with the depth and persuasion Vanda’s character had. I walked out 90 minutes later feeling overwhelmed with questions and a burning desire to take Vanda on, knowing it would be a role of a lifetime.
“I searched for any theatre that may be producing this show since that evening 2 years ago…I pushed the script on a local community theatre that I have been a part of for many years…they were worried that the content and the fact that it was only two characters may lead to low audience counts. Then it happened! I saw the casting call for Venus in Fur at the Centre Theatre in Norristown. I immediately submitted my headshot and resume...”

But like auditioning, playing Vanda puts an actress at risk: Vanda is an auditioning actress who wants to be seductive, who wants to be loved, who wants to be seen as subservient and malleable, but who will lie and assert, and threaten just to get the role and play it her way.

About preparing for her audition, Cooper says, “I had an audition slot and it was time to revisit the script. The vision of this strong, beautiful female character never left my memory, the words however had. I knew that Vanda had to be candid, timed, and–to be honest–sexy as hell. Vanda, in my opinion, is calculated without the audience really realizing it until the end. Vanda is one of the most vivid, realized, brilliant characters that has crossed the stage in a very long time.
“I knew playing Vanda would be quite the undertaking. Two person shows are daunting on their own, but add in a leather corset, multiple accents, and 90 minutes of nonstop banter and you have gone from daunting to downright overwhelming!”

During preparation for the audition is the last time that the actress will see and feel and understand the role on her own. Preparing for the audition, the actress invests herself in the role she’s auditioning…learn the lines, create the look, create a feel, impart the character with an understandable life. That’s who Vanda is when she enters the stage…self-realized, self-styled, her “self” speaking someone else’s lines.

Cooper created her audition-version of Vanda from her own closet, “I actually discovered many things about myself and Vanda’s character while preparing for the audition. First and foremost I discovered I have way too many outfits in my closet! Finding the perfect audition outfit is like finding your wedding dress. I asked myself, should I dress as Vanda (leather and thigh high boots), should I wear a period dress for when Vanda reads in character, or should I stick with jeans and boots? [My] happy medium…a black cotton dress with combat boots and leather pants. I opened the link that was sent to all the actors with the sides we were to prepare. I must have read them a hundred times, picking apart every word and action. I listened to accents to ue …and recorded myself reading the 8-page side when she first enters. During the next 3 days, I began to notice how neurotic I am. I found myself walking to work with my headphones on saying the lines out loud, answering the phone with a transatlantic accent, and begging my coworkers to run lines with me. Three days felt like 3 years until I arrived at the audition.”

 

 

Next entry on Thursday, June 2nd. Cooper takes the elevator to her audition, her director, and exposing her idea of Vanda.

Becoming Venus

Vanda as Wanda
But is Venus covering herself with the fur – or is she opening the fur to reveal her glories?

In June 2016 at the Centre Theater in Norristown, PA, B Sharp Productions and Starving Artist's Prevention presents Venus in Fur, directed by Christen Mandracchia and starring Christopher T. McGinnis as Thomas Novacheck and Kellie Cooper as Vanda Jordan. The play examines themes of control, submission, domination, and the blurred lines between reality and acting when people interact.

Vanda, who becomes Wanda and a portal for Venus in this world of roles and role-reversals, hides behind her lies and, at the same time, pursues truths about herself, Novacheck, and Novacheck’s play.

Follow Kellie Cooper’s process of discovering and creating the layers of Vanda…transforming Vanda from a character on paper into a real walking, talking Vanda on the Centre Theater stage in Venus in Fur.