BWW Interviews: VANESSA KAI
BWW Interviews VANESSA KAI
Once in a while you see an actor whose performance just blows you away. That happened when I saw A.R. Gurney's Far East for the third time and Vanessa Kai was cast as The Reader. A few years later I saw her perform in the physically demanding and emotionally wrenching two-person show, An Infinite Ache, about a couple who meet, marry and grow old together.
Don't take my word about her talent. She received the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Debut by the Connecticut Critics Circle in 2007. Earlier this year she performed in The Architecture of Becoming at the Women's Project Theatre. Paul Morin of Entertainment Hour wrote, "Vanessa Kai's stoic Tomomi Nakamura drags at the heart strings while later roles throw the chains of 'Gaman' away and reveal a new side of Kai."
Kai attended the "Fame" school, Manhattan's Fiorello La Guardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts and was accepted for both drama and vocal studies. Her other talents include bungee jumping (she jumped off the Manhattan Bridge three times in 2004) and pitching shows. Soon Kai will be in Cake Productions' seventh mainstage production, This Lingering Life by Chiori Miyagawa, directed by Cat Miller at HERE Arts Center. The show opens on September 12. Meanwhile, look for her in the HBO show, The Leftovers, Episode 9, airing in August, as well as the upcoming third season of Orange Is The New Black, in Episode 4.
BWW: When did you first know that becoming a performer would be a goal, not just a wish? Did someone in particular inspire you?
I was first inspired when I saw my first Broadway show, Me and My Girl (with Robert Lindsay and Maryann Plunkett). My mother worked in an office and her boss would get great tickets and sometimes give them to her. That afternoon she played mahjongg, and my father took me to see it. When the lights went down and the music started, I was on the edge of my seat. I laughed. I cried. I was absolutely enthralled. Another great influence was my aunt. During an afternoon when she was babysitting, she introduced me to The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. But it was when she said that "Fraulein Maria" and "Mary Poppins" were the same person that my jaw dropped and my mind was blown. Not only was it my first introduction to hair and make-up (which is amazing in and of itself!), but it showed me the wonderment and magic of performance and character work. I was too young to articulate how it affected me, but I knew that it made an imprint. And it was from those seeds that I saw my future blossom.
BWW: You started your professional training in high school. Had you done any acting or singing professionally before the "Fame" high school?
Not at all. Before LaGuardia, I was always involved in school plays or participated in the glee club, and I was even in the school band playing the flute for three years. When I was reminded that LaGuardia even existed - a friend was accepted for art - I immediately applied. But, oh boy, I was very sheltered and uninformed. I thought an audition was like a 'try out', more like a sport. Maybe we'll get into groups. Play a few games. I really didn't know what to expect. So, on the day of my audition, as I'm waiting in the hallway (along with 2 other applicants) for my turn to go in[to the audition room], a student - a junior - walked around and offered to help with us with our monologues. Sitting there, looking very confused, I asked, "What's a monologue?" They all looked at me as if I had three heads. The student explained to me what a monologue was, and informed me that I needed a dramatic monologue and a comedic monologue. And then added, "It's something you should've prepared a month ago. I said, "Right." So while the student helped out the other applicants, I went into the stairwell and made up two monologues. I improvised my audition. And I got a callback. Thankfully, I was able to repeat what I did in the audition room, and I was accepted.
I was very determined to attend this school. So to cover my bases, I auditioned for whatever I could that I thought would give me the greater chance of getting in. That's how I came to audition for drama and vocal, and was accepted for both. It was because I wasn't as passionate about playing the flute that I decided not to audition for it as my instrument.
BWW: You must read music, no?
I'm afraid not as well as I used to. But I'm trying to slowly teach myself how to play the guitar, so that's helping me remember.
BWW: Forgive me for asking a few delicate questions. What's your ethnic background? Do you seek out roles for Asians? If so, is it only ethnic pride or are you able to make other theatre goers aware of things that the world should know about?
I'm Chinese-American. My mother and her side of the family are from Hong Kong and Canton, and came over when she was about 12 years old. My father and his family are from Canton, and he also came over when he was about the same age. They met each other here when they were about 19 or so. English is my first language, but I still have a working knowledge of Cantonese. It's a muscle that I don't get to exercise as often as I would like.
My ethnicity comes with a cultural background that has helped shape and inform who I am today...but it is not my sole experience. Because of that, I don't seek out roles for Asian-only characters. Instead, I seek out roles that are interesting to me, that have layers. I try to discover how I might relate to the character's experience, and then work on how I might be able bring that to life. After that, all I can do is hope it resonates with the person who's casting it, and later, whoever is watching it.
I think of myself as a human being, then as a woman, than as an Asian woman. We all share a common thread of the human experience....love, loss, the experience of growing up and growing old, for example. Even so, as a "minority" in this society, what has always fascinated me was learning about other cultures. I'm actually very intrigued that there are a lot people who are not.
BWW: Tell us about This Lingering Life. How does it differ from any other play in which you have performed?
This Lingering Life is inspired by Japanese Noh plays that look at the human condition through the Buddhist concept of Karma. It journeys between the time periods of 15th/16th Century to present day, and through various characters, it explores desires and attachments, and the question of human existence, and how we, as humans, explain suffering in our lives. And despite how different we may be (in appearance or in time), there is still that 'something' that connects us - whether it's a grieving mother whose son was kidnapped, a blind beggar, or lovers born to enemy houses.
I've never worked on a play with this theme. That alone makes a huge difference because it's the extra bend and stretch of my imagination as I explore each character I'm playing. I don't want to say much more. I'm still building.
BWW: You pitched An Infinite Ache to Steve Karp of Stamford Theatre Works. Tell us about that. Have you also pitched other shows to other directors? Do you have any other unconventional ways to get auditions?
It was never my intention to pitch it as it were. I came across An Infinite Ache because I auditioned for it for another theater. I had never read anything like it, and I was just absolutely in love with this play. Steve and I worked together on Far East and had become (and still are) great friends. The evening I won the Lucille Award we were driving back from Connecticut into the city and were just chatting and talking about our week. And I was telling him about this play that I'd just auditioned for. I described the play and talked about why I loved it so much, and I said, "I really want you to read it." A few days later I bought a copy of the play and mailed it to him. A few months passed, and suddenly I get a surprise phone call from Steve telling me this is what we're going to do. He said he received it a few months before, had set it aside with some other new plays he wanted to read, but became very busy and forgot about it. It was when he was looking for a new play to produce that he went through the pile, and came across the play I sent him. As soon as he read it, he loved it. It honestly never occurred to me that he would produce it. All of that came out of a conversation between two people sharing something they love.
I don't ever think about pitching. Rather, I am much more interested in having inspiring conversations and sharing ideas that we both might get excited about. For example, I just finished The Architecture of Becoming at the Women's Project Theater at City Center Stage II. And while working on the show, I've had some wonderful conversations with producers and playwrights and directors about a variety of ideas about the show, about other shows we've seen, about films we're interested in, etc. I know that these conversations have sparked bigger ideas, and have gotten some creative balls rolling. Of course, there's no guarantee anything will happen or that I would be included. But I am definitely grateful to have been involved in those conversations.
BWW: No doubt, every theatre company is unique. What do you find most valuable and desirable as a performer (besides the amount they pay)?
Yes, money is important (for all the obvious reasons of rent, food, etc.). That said, I really love theatre companies that are interested in telling new and interesting stories in new ways. Playwrights Horizons is an excellent example. I was able to catch 4 out of 6 of their productions last season including My Burns (the post eclectic play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, Stage Kiss and Fly By Night. 2 plays and 2 musicals. Each one of those stories were so innovative and clever, intelligent and still emotionally moving. I am amazed at how consistent this theater is at producing great shows. I can't say enough about that theater company and the work they produce. I can only hope I'll have the honor to work on one of their productions one day or to work with other theater companies like them.
BWW: You have done some film and TV work. Will you be pursuing more of that, or do you concentrate mostly on theatre?
I absolutely love theatre, and all of its delicious twists and turns. And there's certainly room for film and TV. I would never turn away an opportunity to help tell a story, no matter the medium.
BWW: What would be your most challenging role?
I've had a few, but the challenge has ultimately been the same: it's when the character goes against the grain of who I am or maintains a mode or an ideal I am unfamiliar with. The challenge, then, is to find a way in, something about the character's motivations or desires I can relate to or identify with, and to do so without judging the character or myself.
BWW: And your favorite role, or do you love all your children?
I must admit,The Reader (Far East) and Tomomi Nakamura (Architecture of Becoming) are two roles that have a very special place in my heart. But, really, I love them for all.
BWW: What other roles would you like to play? Which directors would you like to work with?
There are so many. But off the top of my head, to explore something I haven't yet, I would love to play a Shakespearian role. I'd also love to play a villain, a hero or even an anti-hero in an action film or TV show. It's something I've always wanted to do.
I am a huge fan of Leigh Silverman's work. I would love to be a player in one of her imaginations coming to life. In fact, I would even take on the smallest role, pushing a broom across the stage, in one scene only, while wearing a mask, if it meant I could be player in her genius. Another director I'm a big fan of is Kim Weild. In addition to being a great director, she has an incredible sense of personal and artistic integrity, and a keen sense for story-weaving. I'd push a broom for her, too.