Entretien de Trois: Interviews with Courtney Bates, Maureen Hughes, and Brett Leach of Venus in Fur

Courtney Bates – Director

Q: What made you decide to direct this show? What drew you to it initially?

A: So actually, I used to be the executive director with Threshold Rep, and when I first started with Threshold, this was one of the first shows I was involved with as a producer. It’s an amazing show, it’s beautifully written, David Ives is a brilliant playwright. And it’s extremely captivating, that’s what drew me in. It’s a two-person show, 90-minute show, and it goes by quick. There’s a lot going on. It’s a lot for actors to accomplish, so I thought it was a perfect show for Underground.

Q: As we conduct this interview, we’re about one week away from opening night. How are you feeling about the show as of now?

A: Well as of last week I was gonna have a heart attack. But I was actually pretty pleasantly surprised with yesterday’s rehearsal: they were majority off book, which I think is the biggest hurdle. They’ve got the blocking, they have the intent, they have motivation. They see the bigger picture. They absolutely understand the show and the characters. It’s just getting to the point where they’re completely comfortable being off book, and I think they’re almost at that point. It’s about putting the smaller pieces in place at this point, and we’ve got a week and a half to do it.

Q: Why put on this show in this space?

A: When I first saw this show, it was in a black box space. A little bit bigger than the Studio, about 50 more seats. But I think this show has to be experienced up close, and I think you can definitely do it on a main stage, but the intimacy within the show, I wanna create within the audience as well. So you feel like you’re in the room with them, and I think you can accomplish that in the Studio.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the subject matter. When you were planning this show did you ever think that some people might hear or see “BDSM” and just immediately tune out?

A: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. What I think is so interesting is, yes, BDSM itself is a taboo subject, but sex isn’t. Everybody, y’know, or let’s say the majority of people have sex, and there’s a lot of humor to this show that they could overlook. David Ives writes so well, there’s a lot of humorous moments having to do with sexuality, and I think anybody or everybody can relate. So whether or not you’re into S&M isn’t the point, it’s that we can all relate to being humans, and relationships, and sexuality.

Q: How have the actors been handling the sexual nature of the show?

A: They’re fabulous. These actors are extremely professional. I went over a great deal of it with them before we started and when I asked them to be a part of the show, what they were comfortable with, and what the show does call for from an actor. The character Vanda has to be in lingerie for the show, there’s no getting around that aspect of the show, so I had to make sure the actress was comfortable. There are intimate moments on stage, there are moments where a character might have to touch another in an intimate way, and to be honest, this show doesn’t go as far as I’ve seen a lot of other shows go. But you want to be sure your actors are comfortable. They’ve talked together, which was very important to establish boundaries, and we explored all of that before even stepping into the blocking.

Q: What has been the highlight of the rehearsal process, and what’s been most difficult?

A: The highlight is just seeing the actors taking a note or direction and rolling with it, and then seeing that character that I’ve kinda seen in my head come to life. And when they have an “a-ha!” moment in the script, or when they bring something new that I hadn’t thought about before, those are the moments I love the most. I think some of the more daunting moments are on the production side of it: arranging furniture and props and costumes, and I’ve been pretty much a lone wolf on this show, which is okay. We have plenty of things to do on our main stage, so plenty of people are being stretched in a lot of directions. So I had to do a lot of arranging on those things on my own, but I think it’s coming together.

Q: What do you think Venus in Fur says in today’s environment?

A: This is absolutely a strong female piece. Not only is it a strong piece for a female actress to portray this very strong-willed individual in Vanda, but there’s a lot of material in this show that calls out blatant sexism that could easily be overlooked in day to day life. And it calls it out and it makes a point to correct it, or try to correct it. My favorite line in the book, the play within the play, is “In society, I want to see what women will be like when they are equal to men in education and in work,” and I think that’s a really powerful line, and I think it says a lot to our current situation with inequality. Not only with education, but with work, and we need to educate more women and create equality in the workplace, with the same rate of play for women.

Q: Since this show is based around an audition, what’s your best audition story?

A: Okay, I got a callback for Sweeney Todd, and I didn’t audition. David just knew I could sing, so he told me to come to callbacks. But he had forgot to put my email on the list that he sent the side to for everybody else, the music he wanted us to sing. I got it about a day before the callback, and oh man, it was bad. It was, like, a really tough song, it’s “The Worst Pies in London,” so that was just really funny, because he came up and said “Okay everyone, I have to apologize to Courtney. I gave this to her a day before.” And I was very happy with taking an ensemble role in that show anyway, but that was a good one.

Q: Give me your best pitch: why should people come see Venus in Fur?

A: It’s a good time. You will be laughing, you will be on the edge of your seat, there’s a lot of suspense as well as humor in this show. There’s a lot of tension, there’s a lot of sexual tension, and you don’t know where it’s going. That’s the fun part of this show: you don’t know where it’s going until the very very end, until things start making sense. I think this is one of those shows you need to see more than once to get all of the intricacies that’s in it.

Maureen Hughes – Vanda Jordan

Q: Who are you? How long have you been involved in the theatre?

A: Okay, about me, my name is Maureen Renee Hughes, and I’m a local actor, and also a singer/songwriter. I write and publish music, I work in software sales engineering, in addition to doing that and film. About me, on a more personal note, I have three sisters and a dog named Smokey Bear, he’s like my child, so spoiled. Originally from Mississippi, moved to Charleston a few years ago with my husband, and yeah, we’ve really enjoyed it here. I had my first role in Charleston as Morticia Addams in The Addams Family, and yeah. I’ve been involved ever since.

Q: What made you want to audition for this show?

A: So for any show, when I’m interested, I like to research it a bit. And if I can find a script, I read it, see if I enjoy the concept and characters, and for this one I had heard a bit. I heard there was an adaptation on Broadway with Hugh Dancy that was very well done and provocative, kept you on your toes, and that intrigued me. So I got a copy of it on Kindle, I read it in less than an hour, I was flipping through it. It’s very well written, David Ives is a genius, and there was a part of me that resonated with Vanda. And part of me, too, it’s interesting that Brett was saying I was funny, because I normally don’t get the chance to play funny roles, I’m usually the one that’s crying on stage. I have friends in Boston who said “Oh, give Maureen the crying roles, she’ll cry on cue, you’ll have to mop up the stage,” and in my personal life I’m a little quirky, a little neurotic, so it’s been fun to explore a comedic rule.

Q: We’re about a week from Venus in Fur opening as we conduct this interview. What has the experience been like, and how are you feeling?

A: I’m feeling great about it. I think the rehearsal process has been awesome. As Brett said, I think our chemistry is great, we work well together. We’ve tried to stay open with our choices and experimenting with how to approach beats in a scene; Vanda is always changing her tactics, so it’s fun to explore different ways to approach a scene. I think this has been good to help develop my skills as an actor and challenge me.

Q: How would you describe your character, Vanda? Is she much like you?

A: So, in a way, I find it hard to describe Vanda because she’s a very mysterious and complex character, and the choices she makes as far as tactics go are complex, and at the end of the day you don’t know who she is. She might be an actress, she might be pretending to be an actress to get info on Thomas, she might be a goddess. But I do identify with her silliness I think. I use comedy as a coping mechanism for everyday life, and that’s where comedy in general resonates with me, so I understand Vanda’s approach to the play. In terms of her boldness, I don’t personally relate to that approach of being super-confrontational and not backing down until I get what I want I try to be calm and talk things through, and if things get weird I back off, but Vanda keeps pushing and pushing until she gets it. This is silly, but she makes random bird and cat noises, and I do that all the time, so that’s definitely similar. Making weird voices and accents, she speaks in a Southern accent sometimes, that was a choice to just be silly with the lines, like my Aunt Rachel from Clinton, Mississippi would take like that, so I saved it into like my brain’s RAM. Like, “When I married your Uncle Raymond, I couldn’t boil a pot of water” and I was like “That’s lovely! Say that again, please!” So making creative choices in terms of vocalization, I’d say that does resonate with me.

Q: I know you’re very active in film acting, I’ve seen you in book trailers and local commercials, stuff like that. How do you switch from the “I’m acting for a camera” mindset to the “I’m acting for an audience” mindset?

A: So I saw an interview once with an actor, but they said something to the effect of how film acting is, in a way, eye choreography, so you have to keep your movement constrained, and you have to understand the medium. So if it’s like a Tyler Perry show where all the movements are bigger, you have to fill the room and understand the environment. Because there are some shows you’d perform almost as big as you would in theatre, but for the most part, especially with film acting, especially when it’s a closeup, you have to channel all of your emotions into your face instead of just projecting out like you would in theatre. And commercials are also weird because you have to smile a lot, and the camera can tell if you’re fake smiling, so you have to be very careful with that. But it’s fun.

Q: How have you and Brett been navigating your characters’ relationship? It starts out as just “auditionee and director” and evolves into something more sexual, so how have you been working on that?

A: I find it very interesting because, with Vanda, there’s a lot of things you have to read between the lines with or just take at face value with her, and at the beginning you think she’s a ditzy actress, and that’s fun to play. Then she just progresses over time, she keeps changing her tactics and developing as this person, where she’s more brilliant compared to the start, and I just find that really fascinating to play because you need to find the right moments to start to develop, and when should the audience be able to see she’s smart, and should this be played in a way that’s more silly to throw him off his guard. And that’s been fun to play around with with Brett because it’s just us two. If we’re trying to accomplish me flattering him or boosting his ego, we need to see how that works, how to play those beats, and it’s been fun to experiment with that and see how it progresses through the play.

Q: Since this show is based around an audition, what’s your best audition story?

A: So how I relate to Vanda is, she comes into an audition guns blazing and very, oh gosh. Her situation, she comes in hours late, I can relate to that when it came to auditioning for this play because I fell down a few stairs on the way down. And people were worried, but it was fine, I had my shins bruised but that’s it. And in that way I was already relating to her. I was wearing these boots I shouldn’t have been wearing, and I did this dance-like twirl and I landed on the landing. And this older lady was like “are you okay?” and I had to play it off like “no, I’m fine!” but it’s definitely the weirdest way I’ve entered an audition.

Q: What personally do you take away from this part and this show?

A: What do I take away? That good things can happen when you fall down the stairs. As an actor it’s been a good challenge. I’ve had to learn a German accent and I’ve never done that before, I was in a production of Cabaret but I was ensemble, so not much talking. Being able to practice the accent and become more comfortable with that, the memorization for the role is pretty intense, and it’s probably the most lines I’ve had to learn for a show. A good takeaway is that I’m continuing to push the boundaries of what I can store in my brain. But as an actor, the physicality you need for the role is daunting: when she’s the ditzy neurotic, when she’s playing the German countess, it’s a lot, and it’s just you two for 90 minutes. You have to make sure your energy doesn’t dip, and when you’re approaching certain scenes, you don’t want it to get boring, so it’s challenging in a good way to keep up the energy for the whole time and capture the audience’s attention. Also, in terms of the risqué nature of the show, this is probably the most I’ve pushed the boundaries in that regard with roles I’ve played. Film, I’ve done some like that, but theatre, even Morticia it was a long dress, she wasn’t walking around in lingerie. This is the most revealing I’ve had to be, which has been a good challenge to, and learning to be not focused on that but one what my character is trying to do, what her tactics are, in every moment in the show.

Q: Give me your best pitch: why should people come out to see Venus in Fur?

A: Well, short and sweet, because it’s funny and it’ll make you think. Also, to expand on that, it’s funny, it makes you think, and relationships are so complicated, and this story explores that so well in so many ways that I think the audience will have fun just observing the progression of Thomas and Vanda’s relationship. They’re trying to understand who the other person is and what they want from their interactions. So I would say that, the power struggle you’re watching, that’s all fascinating, and as an audience member I would enjoy watching that. And you won’t have to fall down any stairs to get to the show. Theatre is about entertainment, but intertwining that with something you can take a message from at the end of the day. The best shows I’ve seen or been in are the ones that made me feel something, so if you as an audience member watch a show and think about something in a new way, I think we’ve accomplished something good there.

Brett Leach – Thomas Novachek

Q: Who are you? How long have you been involved in the theatre?

A: So, I am Brett Leach. Born and raised in Goose Creek, moved back after being in the Air Force for a while, now I am a student at the Citadel for clinical counseling, it’s a graduate program there. So a lot of my study outside of theatre has been psychology related. I’ve been involved with theatre since I was like a child, but off and on, and not really consistently, until my senior year of college. I’ve been studying theatre through a couple of different classes, but I wasn’t in a show until my senior year, and that was 2017, that was when I got really back into it. And I’ve steadily been in shows since then: I did 8 to 10 before I left at the College of Charleston, and then the first thing I did outside of college, I was involved in a Spoleto show, it was a tragic Italian opera. I got paid for that, so that was very nice. $1200 bucks for the month, not a very difficult part. Shortly after that, I did some stuff with 5th Wall Productions, and then I did The Crucible, that was my first with Flowertown, followed it up with The Pillowman, and now this. So, yeah, pretty steadily since 2017, I’ve been involved with a show with very little downtime. I’ve been sought out a handful of times, which is a nice confidence booster and I take it as such, but I take it with as much humility as I can.

Q: What made you want to audition for this show?

A: I did see the audition initially, and I thought about it, and I actually had thought about taking a breather because I had Death of a Salesman. Small part though that would be, I was still gonna be in rehearsal for that and I didn’t wanna take on anything extra at the time. And I read the synopsis of the play, and I didn’t imagine myself fitting Thomas. I imagined him being a bit older. But when I think about it, the last couple of roles I’ve had were for people supposed to be a bit older. The Mating Instinct, that was a high school teacher supposed to be in middle age. Revered Hale, a young-ish guy, but still closer to middle-aged than I currently am, and that’s what I thought Thomas was in my head. The show sounded very funny and very interesting, and it sounded really taxing, and I knew I was gonna be busy with Pillowman and Salesman. And in fact I didn’t attend the first round of auditions, but Courtney sought me out, and once I read for the part I enjoyed it very much. I thought it was funny based on the sides and small amount of scripts beforehand, and of course, the German accent gets introduced. I like it because it’s fun, it’s something I’ve done a lot just through joking with one of my best friends, and when I knew I was gonna do that for most of the show, I was sold.

Q: We’re about a week from Venus in Fur opening as we conduct this interview. What has the experience been like, and how are you feeling about the show?

A: I’m feeling very good about the show! There are moments where it becomes a little difficult not to break from laughter, which I’m usually pretty good about. But this one, that’s been one of the biggest challenges with this show, because Maureen’s hilarious. She gets a lot of the funny moments, whereas I’m the straight man – not like straight as in heterosexual, but the straight man like the serious one. I’m trying not to Jimmy Fallon it. But this show, like I said, super challenging. I always like getting to do accents and being silly, and it’s hilarious. I’m really digging it.

Q: How would you describe your character, Thomas? Is he much like you?

A: I’d have to let someone else answer whether he’s like me. I don’t think he’s very much like me, and I think because of that, he is kind of fun to play. I’ve been accused on a handful of occasions of being a know-it-all, being pompous, being a little bit cocky, all adjectives that apply to Thomas. I think I’m better at being more humble than Thomas, he gets flustered and angry, and my days of having a short fuse are pretty far behind me. I’m a lot more levelheaded than I used to be. He is, I said this to the City Paper interviewer last night, but he’s just likable enough to get over how pompous he is. You can root for him while still thinking, “eh…he’s kind of a douche.”

Q: I understand you’ve been very busy over the last few months; you were in The Crucible in October, you were in The Pillowman at Threshold, you were involved with Death of a Salesman at Footlight for a while, and now you’re here. How do you balance it all?

A: It’s difficult. This is the most shows I’ve ever had in my head at one time, because I’m still doing The Pillowman this weekend. I’m the lead in that, so I have the most to say; at least four or five monologues that are three to seven minutes long each. And then doing this of course, it’s just me and Maureen. So that’s a lot of show in and of itself, it’s just dialogue, back and forth, hour and a half, none of us are leaving at all. None of us dominate with a monologue, and in a way, it’s easier. It’s just, really it’s just discipline and dedication. As much effort as I can put into it while not sacrificing the other aspects of my life, because I do work part-time in addition to going to school full-time, and then trying to maintain somewhat of a social life as best you can during all that. Doesn’t leave a ton of time for sleep, but you do what you can. Just something I really love to do, so.

Q: How have you and Maureen been navigating your characters’ relationship? It starts out as just “auditionee and director” and evolves into something much different, so how have you been working on that?

A: The buildup to that has been going really well. From some of the people that have sat in on rehearsals, I’ve been told that we have a good chemistry. I would agree, obviously, we haven’t had many moments where we’re like “oh, that’s how you’re playing it?” Which you can run into with a two-person cast, but it’s come easy for us. It’s flowed very easily, very few miscommunications if at all, really, and if there have been, they’ve been resolved within a few seconds of them being pointed out. The comedic timing between us is really, really good, I believe, and it’s going very well. We’re pretty good at not being too afraid to push each other, because there are a lot of little, y’know, power battles that go on, when one of us is taking the upper hand, one of us is shouting, one of us is pushing the other down. Most of the physical abuse happens at my expense, while a lot of the verbal and emotional blows come from me. But so far, we have not had any real issues of kinda like, just letting go and exploring that, and I think it’s all been to the benefit of the show.

Q: Since this show is based around an audition, what’s your best audition story?

A: So, I was at the College of Charleston, and they were doing an open season audition. And I go. I’m not sure if I had a monologue prepared or if I read from sides, but whatever I did, the directors wanted to hear more from me, so they told me to tell a story or a joke. And I told them, “I can’t think of a joke off the top of my head,” so I told them…it was fortunate because that day I had got fired from Brownsport Bakery downtown. So I told them that story, which they thought was hilarious, and they also thought it happened some time ago, so I told them “no, that actually happened today,” so that’s the punchline I guess. And they either found that hilarious or they took pity on me, so I was cast as a lead in An Enemy of the People, and that was my last show with the college, so it was nice to have a major part in that.

Q: What personally do you take away from this part and this show?

A: I’m taking away, I mean, one of the biggest parts of this is the challenge of actually doing it. Doing the German accent, having this much to do, having no breaks to take between these…it’s just a generally challenging piece of theatre. And I think it’s good, it’s good for me to push the limits of what I’m capable of doing, especially with all the stuff I have in my head currently. So it’s showing me what I’m capable of in regards to acting. And in being Thomas, there’s, he has moments where he just lets go and goes from whatever he’s doing and, this is a bit of a spoiler, but there’s a moment in which I have to behave in a rather feminine way. And growing up I would never really assume I would do anything like that, and probably, if you asked me ten years ago, I wouldn’t be very comfortable in doing stuff like that. But when I do decide to let things go, the response has been very nice. It’s nice to push past those apprehensions again and just test myself and see what I am able to do.

Q: Give me your best pitch: why should people come see Venus in Fur?

A: Oh, God. I’m a terrible salesperson! But you should come see this show if you have ever thought about, and especially in the social climate we’re in, expanding your mind a bit, raising your level of consciousness about the relationships men and women can have, about equality. And if you’d like to do that in a way that’s entertaining, that’s fun, that’s hilarious…and you’ll get to see me in a fur coat, behaving, not very daintily, actually. That’s what I would say, it’s just, there’s a good lesson to be learned here, and I think this is a fun format to do that.

Venus in Fur begins its two-week run next Thursday, February 21st, and runs through March 2nd. Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office.

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