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!!!”