Interview conducted by and edited by Anina-Marie Evans
Welcome to Bravo Brisbane’s exclusive interview with the talented and inspiring women behind The X Collective’s latest production, Venus in Fur. Our team had the pleasure of sitting down with AJ, who plays the lead role of Vanda Jordan, along with Larraine Griffiths, the Stage Manager, Brigitte Bennett, the Set Designer, and Laura Fois, the Singer. Together, these remarkable women shared their thoughts on women in theatre, the challenges they faced in bringing this production to life, and their passion for the play itself. Join us as we dive into this captivating conversation and discover what makes Venus in Fur such a compelling piece of theatre.
As an actress playing the role of Vanda Jordan, what do you think are the main challenges of portraying a complex and enigmatic character like Vanda?
Balancing the different aspects of her personality. Vanda is simultaneously vulnerable and assertive, innocent, and seductive, and it can be challenging to convey these different aspects of her character in a convincing and authentic way. Vanda is a character who is not always what she seems, and it can be challenging for an actress to convey her enigmatic nature while remaining accessible to the audience.
I also found navigating the power dynamic between Vanda and Thomas to be challenging. Throughout the play, Vanda and Thomas engage in a power struggle that is both intellectual and sexual in nature. I feel like I need to navigate this dynamic with sensitivity and nuance. The play explores themes of gender, power, and identity, and I feel like I need to convey these themes in a way that is true to the character and the story.
How do you feel Venus in Fur explores themes of power dynamics and gender roles? How do you approach these themes as an actress?
For me, Venus in Fur is a play that delves deeply into the complex power dynamics and gender roles that exist in relationships, particularly in the context of traditional (albeit outdated) male-female interactions. The play explores these themes through the interaction between Vanda and Thomas. Vanda challenges Thomas’s assumptions about gender and power, and as the play progresses, the balance of power between them shifts in surprising and unexpected ways.
For me, it is important to approach these themes with some objectivity. So as to explore the different layers of power and control that exist in Vanda’s relationship with Thomas, as well as considering the ways in which gender roles and societal expectations influence their interactions.
Ultimately, exploring the themes of power dynamics and gender roles in Venus in Fur requires a deep understanding of the text, as well as a willingness to approach these complex and often challenging themes with sensitivity and nuance. By approaching the character of Vanda with thoughtfulness and care, I can create a compelling and authentic portrayal that captures the many layers of this complex character.
In your opinion, what does the play say about the pressures and expectations placed on women in the entertainment industry?
As an actress, Vanda faces numerous challenges in trying to succeed in her career, including the limited roles available to women, the expectations of what a woman should look and act like, and the gendered power dynamics between men and women in the industry. All of this echoes the entertainment industry – even today.
Vanda is initially dismissed by Thomas as being unsuitable for the lead role, but as the play progresses, she slowly gains power and control over Thomas. This shift in power dynamics highlights the idea that women are often underestimated and undervalued in the
entertainment industry but have the potential to rise to positions of power if given the chance.
The play also touches on themes of sexuality and sexual power dynamics, as Vanda’s character in the play within the play takes on a dominant role over Thomas’s character. This suggests that women are often objectified and sexualized in the entertainment industry, and that this dynamic can be used to gain power and control. Although the industry has evolved, these issues are still very prevalent for women and will continue to be so.
How do you feel about the representation of women in theatre and film today, and what do you hope to achieve through your work as an actress?
The representation of women in theatre and film has improved in recent years, with more complex and multidimensional female characters being written and portrayed on stage and screen. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving true gender equality and representation in the industry. Women are still underrepresented in leadership roles, such as directors and producers, and there is still a lack of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender identity.
As a woman of colour, I feel this immensely working in Australia and feel that this country has an incredibly long way to go to achieve diversity and representation. I believe that through the work of actresses of colour and other women in the industry, there is the potential to break down the barriers and stereotypes that have historically limited female representation. As an actress I see this being achieved through the creation of more diverse and complex roles for women, as well as through advocacy and activism for greater gender and intersectional equality in the entertainment industry. This is something I will continue to strive towards. I’m excited to be a woman of colour in the Australian arts industry and a leader for the next generation of women of colour.
How do you believe Venus in Fur portrays the complexities of women in the entertainment industry, and what do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
Women are sometimes treated as ‘extras’ in the industry, which is regrettable. There are women working extremely hard in their field who are still labouring to be acknowledged. Venus in Fur identifies the pressures and roadblocks that women can, and often do, face. The female character in Venus moves from submissive to dominating, back and forth, as we see her true personality emerge.
As a woman working behind the scenes, how do you feel about representation and visibility in the industry, and what changes do you hope to see in the future?
It’s interesting that the majority of people working behind the scenes in entertainment are very often invisible to the public. So too much visibility almost seems wrong. However, it’s always nice to be noticed for your work and talent. I would really like to see people of all genders working behind the scenes and acknowledged for their work.
How do you believe women in technical roles can support and empower each other in a male-dominated industry?
Well that’s an easy one. Actually support each other, work with each other. This industry can be cut-throat and the last thing women need is to be hostile to other women. I think we naturally work well together when we allow each other to show our strengths and work on our weaknesses.
How do you approach your work as a set designer from a feminist perspective?
To approach things from a feminist perspective is such an inherent part of who I am and who I have always been that I don’t know how to consciously separate which parts of my approach to my work would be considered feminist. I think this comes from being raised in a
household that presented me with very few traditional gender roles: my brothers and I played with both dolls and dinosaurs together, and one of my brothers was encouraged in his childhood ambition to be a midwife, and the other a police officer, while I had my heart set on being a palaeontologist. I do feel very lucky to have my first experience in set design working on a production that features strong and interesting women both on and offstage, especially as it has been making me consider how I can bring different perspectives to
communicating character personalities in design choices as a woman working in set design. It’s something I look forward to exploring further as I get the opportunity to design more spaces for different kinds of characters.
What do you hope to achieve through your designs for Venus in Fur, and how do they reflect the play’s themes and messages?
Venus in Fur is an interesting script to work with, as much of your design for the set is done for you by scripted requirements of what is needed onstage, leaving you to work with style choices and set dressing to create the personality of the space. The key set pieces
themselves blend into the background until they are brought to life by our actors, allowing for the changes in setting the characters imagine to better translate to our audience.
My aim was to create a space onstage that felt like a rented rehearsal room that was starting to show more of our fictional director’s personality the more he used it as an office, while most of the furniture still felt like a combination of previous shows that might have occupied the same space. Our real Director and I hoped to show the character’s passion for the project he’d been working on and his admiration for the metaphorical figure of Venus by how we added
this set dressing to suit his personality. My favourite kind of live performance is immersive theatre, and it has taught me exactly how much the small details that it seems no-one would notice can influence how a space feels: a dress and wooden dagger I once wore to portray a Greek Goddess, a few books on mythology, a bust of Aphrodite. Suddenly the nondescript space belongs to the play, and to both of our leading characters in different ways.
How do you navigate and overcome gender stereotypes and biases in the design industry?
Gender stereotypes are a strange one for me, because as a lesbian I encounter quite a different stereotype to most women working in male-dominated industries. In fact many people expect me to work these roles, so I enjoy disrupting that stereotype by bringing some
of my more typically feminine hobbies like baking and sewing into workplaces where people tend to expect me to be more masculine. I love showing that I wear a dress just as well and just as often as I wear my many-pocketed work pants. Gendered biases are a little simpler, and working with a lot of amazing women in a variety of roles in theatre has taught me that sometimes the best way to navigate these biases is to simply act as though they aren’t there. What I mean by this is not to ignore them, but rather to stop trying to get people who will never change their minds to believe you should belong, and instead act as though you can’t think of a reason why they would be questioning if you do. Do your job well and call out biases when you see them. I have felt firsthand the importance of someone else calling
out a behaviour that I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about, so both having and giving that support is something that’s incredibly important to me.
How do you approach your pre-show entertainment in a way that empowers and uplifts women?
I chose songs that I think have an underlying positive message. Although I have to say with jazz, it is a bit harder. The standards come from musicals that were written a 100 years ago, with all the implication of what the culture was then, most songs are about love and longing, and jazz can tell terrible stories with a happy vibe… which might not really help with the message.
On the other hand, the pre-show is gonna be a background “decoration” while people are waiting for Venus in Fur, hence choosing the music to help the audience to tune up to the upcoming show is the key.
Venus in Fur has an incredible and strong message, and that is what we need to focus on first.
What role do you believe art and entertainment have in promoting gender equality and women’s rights?
Art and entertainment are extremely important: they are one of the main communication media. Musicals and movies have for decades, (and opera before them) promoted the concept that women should be rivals, just a beautiful object in a man’s story… or graciously waiting to be saved by the tenor…
It is the kind of stereotypes we need to fight now, as they are so inbuilt in the generations and often passed on by women themselves. In the same way arts can help to promote a different concept: sisterhood, inclusion and support, by showing strong women ready to fight and focusing on positive masculinity.
Is it easy? Of course not. The roles for women (or the roles in general) are limited and, unfortunately, often shallow. They’re there as a corollary to the male story in way too many cases. We are in an environment that will still proudly put onstage Carousel, or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes because they’re “entertainment history” and while the latter has two leading women (which is very rare), I don’t think their depiction does women any favours.
As a female artist, how do you navigate and overcome challenges in a male-dominated industry?
In the past few years, I have tried to put onstage my ideas and stories I write. Which is very hard: adding the production step on top of your writer and performer role increases the effort required enormously. I have also been looking at feminist authors and tried to present some of their work.
I write stories about women and when I can, I performed roles of controversial characters. I always aim to start a discussion, to leave something to think about.
I do that sometimes through comedy and music, which I believe is the best way to let an idea stick. But not only through that means.
I also like to involve women, I try to have as many women as I can in my teams (performers, photographers, directors). I don’t think women get the same visibility, and it is just fair to give them more of a chance.
How do you think the arts can serve as a platform for women to share their stories and experiences?
First, I would say, promote new. Get the new generations of writers and artists the visibility they deserve. Their new and unapologetic perspective is what we need to create a good stir.
There are composers and writers out there with very modern approaches to stories, relationships and representation. There are incredibly bold pieces of work that approach women and society’s problems for what they are without sugarcoating them with stereotypes and excuses.
Also, the arts should make social issues a priority, make representation a priority. The arts need to consciously decide to help. I think Brisbane has few incredible examples of this philosophy with new companies making social issues, equality and representation an essential part of their statement, now we need more of it.
The X Collective’s Venus in Fur also features Direction by Wayne McPhee, Lighting Design by Charlie Graham and Nick Sinclair in the role of Thomas Novacheck.
Venus in Fur will play at the Latvian Community Hall from 20 April to 6 May and tickets are available here.
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