Vanessa Greenway | Performer of the week
Receiving its first Chicago production courtesy of Griffin Theatre, Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path is a heartfelt tearjerker about British Royal Air Force bombers in World War II and the women who love them. Starring as the new wife of a Polish count, Vanessa Greenway gives a dazzling performance as Doris Skriczevinsky, capturing all the fear and anxiety of a woman who doesn’t know if her husband will come home alive. A native of Eugene, Oregon, Greenway started performing in community theater as a child and worked at a local dinner theater in high school, coming to Chicago to attend the Theatre School at DePaul. She’s been here ever since, becoming an artistic associate at Griffin and winning two Jeff Awards, one with Griffin for her performance in The Constant Wife. She teaches Pilates and other alignment and posture techniques at a private studio during the day, and has recently started teaching Pilates as an adjunct professor for the Theatre School’s movement program for MFA candidates. Greenway speaks to us about how she fleshed out her character’s backstory, how her movement background plays into her acting work, and what she appreciates about having Griffin as an artistic home.
What was your first reaction when you read Flare Path?
I thought it was a beautifully written piece. It’s an old-fashioned play; you’ve got these well set out acts and everybody is fully fleshed out. There’s no one in the show—even Percy the bartender guy, everyone has a fully fleshed out character. There’s nobody you would double cast, everyone’s a real person and existing in their own right. Which was exciting for me to read. And it’s another play set during a war, but it’s a small, personal story about the war. All these little personal stories going on that you get to watch, and just what goes on behind the scenes during the war.
What kind of research did you do for this part?
We did quite a bit just in process with Robin [Witt, director], there was a lot of dramaturgy coming in. But for me, just looking at what the actual statistics were for the RAF [Royal Air Force] during that time. We’re talking one in five pilots did not make it back; it was those kinds of odds. So for Doris, my character who is married to one of them, it puts a different spin on how you live your everyday life. Because every day your loved one is going out, they may not get back, and that was actually the case. It raises the stakes all around for her and for the people that are staying home as these guys are going out. I also do a lot of looking at images from the time. 1940s images of the bombers and the guys going out and the women who are with them and what they look like sitting and drinking and trying to live bits of normal life amongst this really strange activity that they’re doing, going out and risking their lives every day.
What was the biggest challenge of the role for you?
I tend to play characters that have a certain presence, have a certain amount of—who look like they know what they’re doing and have things together. I tend to be cast that way, partly because I’m 5’10” and I look the way I do, have some sort of authority. And Doris doesn’t have that. Doris is kind of soft—I don’t mean soft in spirit, but soft around the edges. She’s extremely kind, and there’s a slight sloppiness to her in how she carries herself, which was very challenging for me to find because I couldn’t fall back on my own sense of sounding like I know what I’m talking about all the time. Doris doesn’t have that. So that was really different for me and took quite a while to find. To figure out where that was and just be comfortable sitting in that, including physically. I teach movement, I tend to approach things that way a lot, from a movement basis. And Doris doesn’t sit up straight and she isn’t always poised and she isn’t always in full control of where her body is in space. And that’s a different spot for me to approach a character from, I’ve never had to do that before. It was really challenging but very interesting.
I was very impressed by Doris’s palpable sense of fear when her husband is away, but also her attempts to hide that under this front of strength. How did you work with Robin to create that?
It was tricky. There were many places in the play where I would say, “Is that too much? Is too much showing there? Should I pull it back?” And she would say “yes” or “no.” Or she would say, “Mmm, we need to see a little more of what’s going on underneath there,” or, “We need to see a little less.” And we played it like that. As an actor, you’re always trying to figure out what’s going on underneath. But with this play and who Doris is and where they were in this time period, plus the British stiff upper lip, it was a constant trying to find the right balance of letting the audience see what Doris is going through but also how much she would actually show and let herself show. We worked really closely with that, and Robin was very helpful all the time in helping me find the balance to keep it appropriate and as real as it would be.
What kind of work did you do to flesh out Doris’s backstory? Did you talk to Gabe Franken about working out the history of Doris and the Count’s relationship?
Yeah, we did, actually, because he got research on when the Polish squadron would have come in and joined England. We set the play in August of 1940, so it’s pre-Pearl Harbor. I know in some of the program notes it says it’s in 1942, but that’s actually when the play was first produced. So in our story it’s actually in 1940, and as an actor you try to figure out what would be the most likely, and then you make up what would fit your picture best. So we decided that for us, we’ve probably only been married maybe a month, only known each other two months, so it’s very new. Just from the timing of when the Polish squadron would have come and when they might have been able to meet when they were off at this aerodrome, it gives it an even more different feel, because they are still trying to get to know each other. Very much in love, but still getting to know each other with their language gap. They have a very strong tie that people question, but is still there.
With your movement background, how do you apply the techniques you use in your day job in your own acting?
It’s been an interesting thing with Doris, because I teach alignment and posture all day and how to help people find some support through their core. For Doris, I had to shake a lot of that off. Like I said, Doris doesn’t sit up straight, and Doris’s shoulders do hunch when she’s worried about things. That started to feel more authentic than someone like me who has a lot of training in not doing that. Because I’m thinking about bodies all day, I’m working with bodies and people, and a lot of what I do is help people work out of pain. I get people with back problems, I do mainly private training and try to help them work with back issues and knee issues and things like that. When I’m looking at a character, I do think a lot about how they feel when they move through the world. What do Doris’s shoulders feel like in the morning, what does her back feel like? Heck, what does the Count’s feel like, for that matter? And how does that make them move through space? It’s the kind of stuff I learned years ago in theater school, but I think about it more and more now just because of what I do during the day. I’m always watching people and trying to analyze and help them find a more efficient pattern of movement.
What do you appreciate about having Griffin as an artistic home?
The Griffin has grown so, so much. I’ve been an associate there for about ten years, I did my first show out of school with them, Ella Enchanted. It’s grown a lot, but the way Bill [Massolia, artistic director] tends to pick plays and collaborates with people to pick plays that really say something about the human condition and touch people on a personal level, it’s a beautiful thing. Being affiliated with a company is a funny thing because there was a long period in my twenties—I’ve really only done five shows with the Griffin, and part of that is because we do a lot of shows that are about young people coming of age, and there are only so many times you can play that young person’s mother. (Laughs.) I’ve looked the way I look since I was about 12, so I’m never going to be that person coming of age.
So there was a period, especially up until the last six years or so, where I wasn’t able to work with them quite as much, just because of the stuff we were doing. That time period actually pushed me to go out and work around the city and meet other people in other companies, which I think has made me a more well-rounded performer. But it’s really lovely now to have a place where they do think of you. Griffin does audition everything, so you’re still auditioning just like you would for any other show, but at least they think of you first. And Griffin is going to be renovating the police station on Foster, turning it into an arts center. This is an example of how much the Griffin has grown over the past years. I'm very excited and proud to be affiliated with the company right now.
Griffin Theatre’s Flare Path runs through February 24 at Theater Wit (1229 W Belmont Ave, 773-975-8150). Read our review of Flare Path.