Power play

Hot topic: Willie Repoley, left, and Hanna Sloat star in Venus in Fur, a “multilayered piece examining power dynamics in an audition.” N.C. Stage further shifted the dynamic by inviting local creative types to view and comment on an early rehearsal. Photo by Ray Mata
Hot topic: Willie Repoley, left, and Hanna Sloat star in Venus in Fur, a “multilayered piece examining power dynamics in an audition.” N.C. Stage further shifted the dynamic by inviting local creative types to view and comment on an early rehearsal. Photo by Ray Mata

When you’re determined to blur the boundaries of traditional theater, what’s more appropriate than a play about blurred boundaries? N.C. Stage Compay producing director Angie Flynn-McIver describes Immediate Theatre Project’s upcoming production, Venus In Fur, as “A multilayered piece examining power dynamics in an audition.”

A 2013 Tony Awards nominee for Best Play, Venus in Fur was written by David Ives. It’s an adaptation of Venus in Furs, a novella by Austrian author Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name the term masochism was derived). The erotic subject matter caused a great deal of controversy when it was published in 1870. The modern play premiered off-Broadway in 2010; Immediate Theatre Project brings it to N.C. Stage from Wednesday, March 19 through Sunday, April 13.

The two-person production, starring Hanna Sloat and Willie Repoley, is about a playwright/director casting a lead role. When actress Vanda Jordan bursts in at the last minute, she’s everything the playwright detests. And yet, as she auditions for the part, the control shifts, and the actress exerts her dominance over the director.

To further blur those already-getting-fuzzy boundaries, N.C. Stage’s audience development manager, Kelly Walker, invited a small group of local creatives to a rehearsal. And it wasn’t a mostly polished dress rehearsal. Although Sloat and Repoley had been rehearsing for a week (about 30 hours) they were only a third of the way through the rehearsal process. It was a time when most producers and directors would guard their incubating play from prying eyes. “Theater is about not letting the seams show,” says N.C. Stage artistic director Charlie Flynn-McIver. “This is an attempt to draw back the curtain.”

Charlie hopes that this experiment — which includes a social media aspect where that early audience tweets and blogs about the play-in-process — will attract new audiences. “Theater always happens in a closed room,” he says. “Some people grew up believing it’s stuffy and not for them. So we were thinking, ‘how to lift the veil?’”

For the early audience, the veil was lifted on page five of the script. There, Vanda (Sloat) arrives for an audition with first-time director Thomas (Repoley), who is also the playwright and desperate to find the perfect actress for his beloved work of art.

Watching a rehearsal of an audition is a mind-bender. During the first run-through it was hard to tell, at times, whether the lines — “Where should I stand?” — were from the play or part of the acting process. Angie offered suggestions as the actors ran the scene a few times: “OK, Willie, you’ve had this argument with many people.” Subsequently, Repoley’s reading contained more impatience and a touch of condescension. Sloat questioned how her performance was being received. “It’s not coming across as smarmy or anything,” Angie assured her.

One audience member intuited that there was something awkward about Sloat asking Repoley to remove her fur shawl during the scene. It would be a faux pas in an audition. “It’s a violation of the norms of the rehearsal space,” Angie explained.

“She doesn’t play by the rules,” Sloat said of her character.

Production coordinator Catori Swann admitted he had encountered such prima donnas. “There’s a type of actor who gets cast all the time — once,” Swann said. “Because no one can stand working with them.”

Within the story of Venus in Fur, charismatic and sexy Vanda is a shoo-in: talented, mesmerizing and unmanageable. “Someone can be spot-on as an actor, but at the same time they’re someone you can’t be in the same room with,” Sloan said in the rehearsal.

The glance behind the curtain continued: Character motivations were debated. Repoley repeatedly flubbed a line. According to Swann, this is not simply about memorization. “It’s a sign a connection isn’t being made, maybe between the characters, or with the material,” Swann said. “Not every director understands that, but Angie is really good.”

The social media interaction among the invited audience was light following that rehearsal (follow along at ncstagecompany.blogspot.com). Perhaps theatergoers who appreciate live performance are less apt to participate in the virtual sphere. Or maybe, like learning lines, this full-access approach takes time time to catch on. Regardless, N.C. Stage is determined to expand its reach. Says Charlie, “If we could, we’d have a picture window to the street so people could watch Angie leading a rehearsal.”

what: Venus In Fur
where: NC Stage, ncstage.org
when: Wednesday, March 19–Sunday, April 13. Wednesday-Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, at 2 p.m.
$14-$30, Student tickets $10.

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About Toni Sherwood
Toni Sherwood is an award-winning filmmaker & writer of articles, screenplays, and fiction. Recently she wrote, produced & directed two sketch comedy films soon to embark on the 2014-15 film festival circuit.

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