Venus in conversation: Ryan Bassett, director

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Venus in Fur opens this week!  To find out what we should expect, last month a couple of us sat in on a rehearsal and then chatted with Ryan afterwards about what we saw.  Here's what he told us, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Producers: Why this play, first of all?

Ryan: I saw it a few years ago at CanStage and I thought it was a blast, and I thought to myself “that would be a lot of fun to direct one day.”  And then it kind of went on the backburner.  And then in the fall of 2016, a friend of mine was auditioning for a play, and she asked for some help preparing, and it was a piece from this play.  We worked on it in depth for a while, and I remembered how much I loved it.  And right around the same time the proposals window opened up so…

But it’s also a hard play.  It’s an intricate, delicate dance.  Which Vanda says; “it’s like being on the fucking dance floor”.  And I think a very timely play.

P: So there are the power relationships in the play: you’ve got the basic gender dynamics, but also the director/actor and the writer/actor.

R: That’s exactly what we’re looking at: man/woman, actor/director, and also dominant/submissive.  Which is kind of the S&M bit of the play, so to speak.

Selina Russell as Vanda

P: How kinky does it get?

R: That’s something that we’re still building.  The “kinkiest stuff” is yet to come, and it’s going to be choreographed to everyone’s mutual comfort, it’s going to be something a conversation that the three of us have in crafting the scenes.  So to answer your question: we’ll see!

P: I guess it’s a question of building trust between the actors, and between the actors and you.

R: Trust is the most important thing.

P: And how are your actors so far?

R: They’re fantastic.   There is an enthusiasm that we’re all sharing about this, so that when things are working we’re all very excited about how much they’re working.  I think conversely that when things aren’t working we’re all feeling it a little as well; luckily there really haven’t been too many of those.  But when you rehearse a show, it’s not going to just come together.  There’s got to be downs to make the ups that much better.  But it’s been a blast.

P: I thought it was interesting what you said in rehearsal today, where you want the action first and the justification for it later.  It’s very existentialist: existence precedes essence.

R: I come from the absurdists.  When I was 16, one day in my high school drama class we read “Waiting for Godot” and I fell in love with it. The first play I ever directed was a Harold Pinter, I co-directed “The Homecoming” with Will Innes, a friend from school.  So while I love the absurdists, and they are inherently existential, that’s not necessarily where my “we’ll do it, and we’ll figure it out later” comes from.  That’s legitimately just “I love this” but we don’t necessarily have all of the context for it yet.

P: But you trust yourself, and you trust your crew to figure it out.

R: That’s always the hope, that we’ll figure it out. Why does that chair get thrown?  Why does she take her shoes off?  We need the shoes off, we need the chair out of the way; we don’t necessarily know why we’re doing it yet, but we need it out of the way.  We’ll do it, and then figure out why we did it.

So I hadn’t actually considered the existential thing, but it does bleed into my learning, and my area of interest. So there we go: in itself, I had a thing, and we found the justification for it later.

P: I guess the danger with that as a directing mantra is that it could get very easy to slip into self-indulgence.

R: Absolutely.  The trick is, it’s not a crutch: it’s only used as a necessity. 

Ryan working with Selina

P: One thing that I observed in rehearsal today was that you’re very granular as a director.  You’re really getting in there line by line and getting everything just-so, while at the same time remaining open to contributions from the actors and from stage management.  Which is cool!  Because that’s a difficult balance to hit.

R: In a sense, yeah.  It’s just an openness to explore, I don’t pre-plan a lot of stuff.  It’s more “let’s get in there, let’s dance”.

P: Just see what bubbles up, ad then refine it from there.

R: Exactly.  Everything that we do in there is a conversation.  I’m looking at it from one direction, but John and Selina are looking at it from other directions and maybe they think that from this point of view, maybe this will work.  So we try it out, and if it works, that’s great, it may be better than what I had.  And if it doesn’t work, that’s ok, we tried it.

It’s a play, so play.  Why not explore?  Shake it around, see what falls out.  I think it’s much more organic to do it that way.  And that’s kind of how I feel as an actor too: I prepare the lines but I don’t sit at home and think “I’m going to say my lines like this, and do this when I say them.”  It’s important to be in there, to make decisions in the moment.

Going back to the granularity: yes. It goes back to some of those playwrights I love, where there’s so much subtext; and things like pauses; how much can you say with silence that you can’t say with words

P: And this is one of the things I noted at one point, where there was a moment you want it silent and you want it awkward and you want it to stretch; you want everyone in the room to feel that awkwardness.  That’s a very not-community-theatre kind of thing.

R: The main thing about those silences is not that they’re awkward and long, but they’re deafening.  When we write those silences in there, it’s never just: pause.  Something I tell my actors is when there’s a pause, write me a monologue.

P: So they’re saying things in their heads and you want to audience to almost hear that.

R: Yes. They’re not saying anything out loud, but a lot is happening in the stillness and the silence. It’s what’s underneath and in the space between the words.

P: Stillness is another thing. I’ve heard the advice that you need to keep people moving on stage, you don’t want things to become static.  And you don’t seem to be afraid of that.

R: But why?  Why do they need to be moving?  It circles back around to how we make our decisions and then justify them.  If you can’t justify a movement, why move?  If an actor is like “I’m going to cross the stage now” to be on the other side of the stage… there’s no reason for it.

P: There’s a concern about the so-called talking heads, where you’re just going back and forth.

R: That’s why you make what the heads are talking about very compelling. The important thing is the subtext.  I focus a lot on what’s being said rather than how it’s being said or what people are doing why they’re saying it, because I think the most important thing is what’s being said… and perhaps more importantly, what’s not being said.  It’s just mining the text, and finding out what’s going on in there. I would rather have my actors stay still for the entire show than having them constantly moving around for no reason. 

And it’s a little unnerving, the stillness.  Like, it’s calm, and we love calm, but calm is unnerving sometimes. 

John Settle as Thomas

P: So this play is our WODL entry.  Is adjudication on your mind a lot?

R: I’d briefly mentioned anxiety with interviews: I don’t like them.  It’s just this thing where this [points at mouth] goes before this [points at head] 90% of the time.

P: Was it difficult last year when you were in “Lion in the Streets”?  I guess  it’s different as a performer than as a director.

R: Right, I only had to worry about my work in “Lion in the Streets”.  I mean, I hope the whole thing goes well, but specifically I only have to worry about my work.  Because that’s my responsibility. In this case, I’m the director, I’ve got more responsibility.  I think it just stems from the fact that I want to do a good show.  

P: Did you ask for the adjudication slot?

R: Yeah.  [laughter]  I asked for the adjudication slot or the experimental slot.  And I was and am very excited about it.  Seeing the other shows that have been in here, and being a part of one, it’s a fucking honour, honestly.  I’m very grateful for the opportunity.

P: So how do you think this is gong to play to our audience? 

R: Well, I hope!

P: In terms of your production team, you’ve surrounded yourself with women.  You’ve got Liz ad Nyssa in stage management, Jamie as your TD, Mara as your costumer.

R: That was very fortuitous, but not necessarily planned.  Elizabeth I had asked; I told her I was submitting two plays, and would she be interested in either if they were picked.

P: And you’d worked with her in Lion, so you knew what she was about.

R: Yes, bit of familiarity there.  Nyssa, Elizabeth brought on.  Jamie was recommended to me by Carolyn and Josh.  And Mara is the single greatest costumer I know.  We’ve worked on a number of shows together, and I’ve seen several she’s worked on as well, and her work is consistently a high point every single time. At our first meeting to discuss this show, before she’d even agreed to join, she had fantastic research and designs. I don’t think there’s anyone I trust more when it comes to this

And Jamie’s been a delight to work with as well.

P: It sounds like you’ve been working pretty closely with her.

R: Yeah.  We’ve had a few meetings, we’ve gone a few places. She always seems to know exactly what we need and where to look.

P: She’s worked professional houses, 700, 1200-seat houses.

R: She’s brilliant. Her designs, her knowledge and expertise, everything. Her work is just amazing. So I really couldn’t have asked for a better production team, all around. I lucked out, better than I could’ve ever hoped, and the show is so much better for their work.