Director Emma Burns and Actors Caitlin Williams and Zachary Selmes on Venus in Fur | 107

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Image by Andrea Mudbidri

Night Writes sits down with the director Emma Burns and lead actors Caitlin Williams and Zachary Selmes from upcoming Venus in Fur at 107 to discuss their production and its larger ramifications.

What originally drew you to David Ives’s script?

Caitlin Williams, Vanda: Venus in Fur is just such a fun, powerful and sexy script. I was drawn to it because of Vanda, who’s such a powerful female character, and its really intricate portrayal of relationships and sexuality in theatre (on and off stage).

Zachary Selmes, Thomas: I scored my first role in a play, Feste in Twelfth Night last September, and the dam broke. I’m from a musical theatre background so I’d been doing independent musicals for the majority of 2018 but I knew I wanted to delve deeper into straight theatre. I’m only 22 and still have a lot to learn about the craft, but I’m impatient to start my career so my compromise is focusing my time on shows that I know will test my range and resilience as a performer. When I saw the callout for a two-hander play, onstage for ninety minutes in two different accents no less, I had to audition. Stepping away from the comedic roles I’d been playing since uni was also a drawing point.

You say this production “demand[s] maturity”; what do you mean by that? Does that speak to the content or its complexity?

CW: I think both the content and complexity require maturity. Obviously it’s a play that deals with sexuality and BDSM, and that requires maturity. But I think there are so many layers to this play – what’s going on beneath the surface is just as fascinating as the words they’re speaking.

Emma Burns, Director: It speaks to both the content and the complexity and was a phrase we felt gently cautioned the inherently sexual nature of this piece without selling our show as a kind of sexual event. Sexual politics also has a very powerful effect and many find its depiction incredibly awkward. The text doesn’t distinguish between the sexual content and the complexity, the two actually enhance each other. It was a phrase meant to encourage our prospective audiences to bring maturity.

Where has the influence for your portrayal of this script come from?

EB: I think it’s fairly safe to say personal influence has played a very large role as with any creative venture. My own experiences as a young woman have certainly shaped the particular elements of the script I wanted to highlight and make a moment of. As an actor and a director I prefer a “natural” performance and that has certainly influenced the literal portrayal of the script and the style of the show.

ZS: I’ve never been a fan of replica productions or portrayals; I’m in this to create, not copy. I’m a strong proponent of reading the play and developing my own version of the character long before I ever watch a second of another portrayal. This can’t always be helped but, in this case, I was unfamiliar with Venus in Fur so I dove into my script and then let Emma, our director, mould what I came up with so that my version of the characters would suit her version of the story. As far as character goes, I think the scary thing about Thomas is that every man has the potential to be him. He’s not even actively a bad guy, but he’s not a good guy either. He’s just too self-important to notice his micro-aggressions and too proud to apologise when somebody finally pulls him up on them. He’s a cautionary tale about alienating people and undermining them to your peril.

What challenges have you faced in putting this production on stage? What have been the primary concerns of the process?

CW: Originally, we wanted to do this as a student production, but we couldn’t get the rights. Then we got the rights, and a venue – until that venue shut down when the bar beneath it closed. Now we’ve finally found a home at 107. And they can’t pull the rights once we’ve signed the contract… right?

ZS: The show losing its original leading man (sidenote: is Thomas even a leading man if the only characters are one man and woman?) was a blow to the production, forcing them to put the call out to the broader theatre community and eventually find lucky ol’ me. Since my joining the team, we have also endured the closure of the Blood Moon Theatre, which would have been our venue. Thankfully, our amazing producer Sean Landis procured the 107 space in the knick of no time.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a part of this production?

EB: Now that we’re nearly up and running (!!!!), I’d have to say the steady and constant problem solving which this show has demanded in all aspects. It has been a slow lengthy production process, which only sped up for me in February when rehearsals began. It’s been rewarding the last few days to look back at all the work that it has taken to get us to this point and I think we all feel a great deal of pride in the work we’ve achieved. All our creatives have played an important role in the shaping of this show and have framed the way it will go on for audiences in a week’s time. The challenging nature of the show has made for some very rewarding work which audiences will hopefully also find rewarding.

CW: Getting to work with so many enthusiastic young artists when most of us are fresh out of student theatre creates such a dedicated work ethic. I think the most rewarding aspect has been working so hard and so closely as a team.

ZS: Getting to know the SUDS [Sydney University Dramatic Society] community! For a non-USYD [University of Sydney] student, I’ve managed to become involved in a lot of current- and post-USYD projects over the last couple years and made friends from MUSE [Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble], comedy revue and beyond, but never SUDS. It’s great to take some time away from music to work on my acting and make friends doing it.

The play is often summarised as being a reversal of sexual power. In the time of #MeToo where powerful men in Hollywood are being held to account, what does it say to assume a sexual authority in a director/actor relationship and, particularly, to place it on the man?

EB: I think in our broader society sexual impetus is often placed on the man and he is expected to live up to standards of “virility”; I certainly believe sex and power cannot be separated. Given that power and masculinity are so intertwined, and that masculinity and sex(ual domination) are likewise closely related, the three of them coalesce together in positions of power.

In the context of the Hollywood industry where appearance is paramount and sex sells it’s understandable why Hollywood, and other performance industries, has such an ingrained “casting couch” culture. I think it’s only because Hollywood always has our attention that this movement came of age; I just hope it has a domino effect to other industries. I don’t believe this behaviour is exclusive to performance industries; this behaviour is exclusive to expressions of power and dominance in whatever context that may manifest. I hope that we can enter a new era where sex and power can be separated; if only to prevent the abuse of the vulnerable and the powerless.

ZS: Nobody should have sexual authority of another human being in any context (unless voluntary, which still implies agency; see Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) and we have social and legal rules dictating acceptable behaviour in the workplace. This is a clear-cut issue in almost every other industry in the world, but unfortunately, the theatre lies in a very grey area where the rules are clear but detecting breaches are not. We rely on a fragile system of trust in ways other workplaces never would; we trust that our colleagues aren’t peeking at us in the dressing room, we trust that our director only wants us in revealing costumes for artistic reasons, we trust our scene partner is only being intimate in character and not trying to cop a feel. Not everybody is trustworthy, and it’s when someone breaks that trust that the system breaks down and we have to find ways to rebuild it with better safeguards in place.

Coming from the musical theatre scene, I and many people I know have had our fair share of unsolicited attention in situations where it’s difficult to refuse advances for fear of losing current or future work – typically from male creatives or networking figures. The unfortunate reality is that more men are likely to make advances because of their (often) physical upper-hand and the everyday confidence they gain because of it. The level of trust required in a director/actor relationship, especially if the director is a man, is unworkable without support systems in place such as having cast reps and being a part of your actor’s union (MEAA), which give power back to the majority of the industry who just want to be able to work and create safely.

CW: I think what defines this play is the reversal of that power structure which has long been allowed to go under the radar and relatively unchallenged. The “casting couch” was something my grandparents warned me about when I said I wanted to go into acting. I think that the attitude towards the “casting couch” as a necessary-evil needs to be torn down, something the #MeToo movement is really working towards, and something I think the play does.

Your company describes itself as a group of emerging young theatre-makers; what’s coming up in the future?

ZS: I’m currently rehearsing the role of Ariel for a May opening of The Tempest, and after that I’ll be assistant directing a production of Reefer Madness at my old university. That should keep me busy until July, we’ll see after that.

EB: You’ll have to wait and see…

NOTE: Responses have been edited for clarity.

Venus in Fur is running at the 107 Performance Space from April 10th – 13th. For more information and tickets, view here.

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