Caitlin Williams: We might as well start out with the most obvious question – what’s your kink?
Zach Selmes: Such a Vanda question! Would it be such an actor thing of me to say “role-playing”?
You play two characters in this, the playwright Thomas and his character Kushemski. What drew you to these roles?
The greatest thing about acting is being given the opportunity to explore such a variety of characters, of lifestyles you’ll never lead, and play within that world for a while – a gentleman in the Austro-Hungarian empire, for example. I love this industry and if a show is meta, I’m interested! As an aspiring director, Thomas is an excellent example of the traps a creative with privilege can fall into if they aren’t thoughtful of their subject matter or choose to regard their colleagues as little more than puppets to do their bidding. He’s a great case-study on how NOT to negotiate with your actors.
You come from a musical theatre background, how does it feel working on straight theatre?
Two people alone onstage for ninety minutes is definitely a jump in the deep end. After majoring in musical theatre at uni, I played a lot of comedy roles in what were largely ensemble shows. More recently, I was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night but played the fool and musician in both and always had a joke or instrument to charm the audience onto my side. ‘Venus in Fur’ is the first show I’ve done without a single song and, while Thomas gets in some dry zingers, he is far from comic relief. It’s a refreshing learning experience to be playing the antagonistic straight man.
What do you think this play has to say about the complexity of power in relationships?
It certainly subverts the idea that power comes down to physical dominance. Indeed, while it explores the erotic side of power, the play is far more driven by the psychological nature of Thomas and Vanda’s relationship. From the moment Vanda storms the stage, Thomas has to fight to maintain his directorial power and as soon as you think you have a handle on the power struggle within his play, it becomes apparent that any power Vanda has is a result of Kushemski’s manipulation of her… until she manipulates Thomas right back and the lines between the plays blur! It’s a constant tug of war and the longer it goes on, the more gloriously frustrated everyone becomes.
With the #MeToo movement all over the media, how do you feel this play is relevant to the current moment, particularly surrounding the treatment of actors?
I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of some overwhelmingly conscientious casts, but I’ve only fairly recently been delving into plays. While I could only reference media reports with regard to straight theatre, I can say first hand that being a young man on the musical theatre side of the fence means a lot of unsolicited attention – typically from male creatives or networking figures – in situations where it is difficult for a performer to refuse the advances for fear of losing current or future work. As we see with #MeToo, it’s an industry-wide problem because of the unique ways our work environment relies on trust. Every show that I’ve worked on has had a co-ed dressing room (often closer in size to a closet) where you have to trust that your colleagues are being respectful of your privacy. Onstage, you become more intimate with people in ways you normally wouldn’t and have to trust that their focus is on what’s best for the scene and show, and not something more sinister. The industry and its workers are vulnerable to that trust being taken advantage of or broken which is why it’s incredibly important to be constantly aware of your other actors and their wellbeing. Having support systems in place like cast reps and being a part of your actor’s union (MEAA) gives power back to the majority of the industry who just want to be able to work and create safely.
Zach Selmes: You’ve been involved in a lot of shows recently, what’s special about Venus In Fur?
Caitlin Williams: What’s special to me about Venus In Fur, is that it lets me play a role I rarely get to play — the young, sexy, confident, take-no-prisoners Vanda. I can’t tell you how many times in the last two years I’ve played an older role or a male character rewritten as a woman, so it’s nice to finally get back to playing someone age appropriate who’s so much fun.
As an emerging female creative working both onstage and behind the scenes, how relevant do you find this play to the theatre scene in Sydney?
I think what this play shows is that the audition room is such a fascinating, terrifying thing, where the power imbalance is profound and can, as we’ve seen in the international and Sydney theatre scene, be easily exploited. What Thomas expects out of Vanda is a level of perfection that’s impossible for any woman to reach, and I think that standard of perfection is still subconsciously expected of emerging female artists.
Performing a two-person text isn’t easy, especially when that text involves a play within a play. Is there a craft to bouncing back and forth between character mid-scene? Mid-sentence even?
For these roles I’ve been finding lot of the character changes come from my voice and accents. Vanda Jordan has your typical American accent, while Vanda Von Dunayev has this much more regal, old-school transatlantic accent. I’ve found that once I’ve gotten the accent switches down then I can bring in that characterisation and physicality that comes along with each change.
Were you always a theatre kid, or was there a specific moment that converted you?
I think it was a high school production of A Midsummer Nights Dream, where I went in determined to play Helena. I’d never spoken a word of Shakespeare out loud before but I went in, auditioned, and got the part. Being part of a cast, getting to explore a character and have fun on stage in a safe environment, really kicked off a love of theatre in me.
As your character Vanda so eloquently describes Venus In Fur “basically it’s S&M Porn”. What would you say to any hesitant theatre-goers who worry the show might lack depth?
This is a play that’s fun, sexy, and hilarious. But it also tackles issues that the entertainment industry has really had to come to terms with in the form of #MeToo. This play is about female empowerment and the complexities of power in relationships.
Zach Selmes and Caitlin Williams can be seen in Venus In Fur by David Ives.
Dates: 10 – 13 Apr, 2019
Venue: 107, Redfern