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.