Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday Feature: Rick Miller on Venus in Fur and "Comfort"

by Rick Miller (photos by David Hou)

“You don't have to tell me about sadomasochism. I'm in the theatre!”

(from Venus in Fur, a play by David Ives, 
adapted from the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch)

Judging from the photo above, the idea of ‘comfort’ seems an appropriate lens through which to examine Venus in Fur, the play I’m currently co-starring in with Carly Street at Canadian Stage in Toronto. This Tony Award-winning two-hander by playwright David Ives is now the most produced play in the United States, and it’s easy to see why. It’s smart, sexy and seductively entertaining, while tapping into ongoing debates about gender inequality, power struggles and sexual mores.

CanStage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn uses the word “labyrinthine” when speaking about Venus in Fur. It’s an apt description, in that the play leads us through a jarring set of twist and turns as it spirals to its quasi-mythical climax. The ‘comfort zone’ that is established early on with the audience slowly dissolves and becomes more and more unsettling and uncomfortable. When the lights come up from the final blackout and we settle back into the familiarity of a curtain call, Carly and I both feel the rush of having taken the audience – and ourselves – on an incredible ride.


Back in the Spring of 2013, I received a call from my Toronto agent asking if I wanted to audition for the role of Thomas in Venus in Fur at CanStage, directed by the fabulous Jennifer Tarver. I had heard of the play before, but wasn’t at all familiar with the role or the subject matter. From the three scenes I was sent to prepare, I could gather that it was an intense showdown between a man and a woman, but I had no idea how far the play went in its power struggle and role reversals.

First of all, actually going to the audition was a step outside of my ‘comfort zone’. I spend a lot of time performing my own solo theatre pieces, which comes with obvious pros and cons. On the ‘con’ side, the cast parties are always lame. On the ‘pro’ side, you never have to audition. I usually stink at auditions, or at least I always feel that I do. Auditioning yanks me way out of the comfort of my own creations, where my strengths and weaknesses are known to me. In the audition scenario – which Ives’ play maps out beautifully – everything is unknown, and it’s easy to slip into a state of anxiety or even desperation. And if I feel uncomfortable in auditions, it’s probably nothing compared to what women like Vanda are made to feel like on a daily basis.  

As fate would have it, Carly and I were the first actors Jennifer saw for the parts. Jennifer later told me that she had been looking for a male actor who could not only play several roles (including a woman), but who could also convincingly portray an obsessive director/playwright. For the callback, I was sent the whole script, and I became more and more convinced (as actors often do) that I was perfect for the role – that I had to play it. All in all, it took three auditions and two months of waiting, but when I found out I was to play Thomas to Carly’s Vanda, I was elated. (cont'd)


Rehearsals began in September, and Jennifer created a very comfortable, open-minded environment. The three of us were encouraged to bring forth our own ideas, insights, and instincts. Everything was given space, and there was remarkably little conflict working on a play that is almost all about conflict and a struggle for power. Perhaps the greatest struggle was external, as Jennifer was dealing with the death of her father. I can’t speak for her, but as difficult as it was, I think she found working in our little fantasy world a welcome respite from the harsh realities of hospitals and funeral homes.

The uncomfortable collision of fiction and non-fiction is the driving force of the play, and it made for some interesting meta-moments during our rehearsal process. Thomas is engaged to a woman named Stacy, and his five phone conversations with her form a kind of disintegrating spine to the play, reflecting how deep within the labyrinth he has ventured. Sometimes Carly and I would break after a saucy, sexy scene, and I would call my wife Stephanie. It was almost comic how similar in tone my calls were to Thomas’: “No, everything’s good… I’ll call you when I’m leaving… I love you too!” (An important note: Stephanie and I have been married for 15 years, and she’s far more open than I am about discussing sexuality and intimacy… almost to the point of making me – yes – uncomfortable!) 

Rehearsals also threw me into a different zone of discomfort. In my solo shows, I usually address an audience directly through monologues spoken via a number of characters. In Venus, I spend the entire play engaging with another actor onstage. To be fair, Carly isn’t just any actor. She’s a force of nature, and the strength of her presence and her performance challenged me to listen in ways I had become unaccustomed to. That she is also the one who gets to ham it up onstage leaves me playing the ‘straight man’ for the first time in my career. Without the usual muscles to flex in a performance, I had to place tons of trust in the script and in Jennifer’s direction. 

A sidebar: trust and doubt play huge parts in any artistic process. When working on massive collective creations like Robert Lepage’s LIPSYNCH, trust is placed in the director, in the dozens of technicians and in your fellow performers stumbling around onstage. What you constantly doubt is the script, which is always in flux. On a smaller scale, the same is true for my long-standing solo creations. The script is still heavily in doubt, and trust is mostly placed in myself and my performing instincts. A situation like Venus in Fur, however, is completely different and perhaps much more common in Canadian theatre. The script is unchangeable, needing to be trusted entirely. Doubt arises in how best to navigate through the ‘architecture’ of the script. Personally, I found it immensely comforting to throw myself into a script without doubt, trying to find the best path from entrance to exit. (cont'd)


Our first previews were taken over by another interesting fiction/non-fiction dynamic. We were trying to figure out the first ten pages of Ives’ play, where Thomas tries to get Vanda to leave, but she ultimately convinces him to read with her. The main question was: “how much of an asshole is Thomas with Vanda?” Instincts were pulling Carly and Jennifer in different directions, and I felt stuck in an uncomfortable middle – a servant of two masters, if you will. Jennifer was pushing to release my “alpha male”, and Carly was pulling for a more sympathetic read. Like Thomas, I was becoming more and more lost in a power struggle of my own making. By opening night though, a happy balance was struck, which goes to show that sometimes we need to address uncomfortable questions head-on in order to access better solutions.  

Venus in Fur opened on October 3rd to stellar reviews across the board. The challenge then became how to maintain the same intensity and enthusiasm for 4 weeks straight, 8 shows per week. It’s a grueling play for both of us, physically and emotionally. Carly and I are trained singers and voice actors, but filling the 900-seat Bluma Appel Theatre has taken its toll on our throats. I also get thrown to the floor, slapped repeatedly, and tied to a pole. Carly spends 90 minutes in leather underwear and four-inch heels. But this is the strange profession we have devoted our lives to, and part of our bliss comes from experiencing and communicating severe discomfort to spectators. If it all sounds a bit sado-masochistic, have a look at the quote at the top of the article…

One final note. I teach an interdisciplinary class at the University of Toronto called “The Architecture of Creativity”. My students came to see Venus in Fur, and it led to interesting discussions about issues such as comfort. One of their assigned projects is to create something outside of their core discipline (ex: a music student paints a watercolour, a visual art student writes a monologue, etc). I think stepping outside of our comfort zones allows us to experience life more fully, sometimes giving new perspective on what we think we know. Or, as modern dance pioneer Martha Graham so aptly put it: 

“No artist is pleased. 
[There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. 
There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, 
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching 
and makes us more alive than the others.”

Rick Miller, Oct 16 2013.

Venus in Fur plays at Canadian Stage (Bluma) to October 27, 2013. Following that, Miller will hold a final workshop in Quebec City for his new solo show BOOM, previewing at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary, Jan 15-19 2014.

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