The Arts Initiative interviewed Shelley Virginia, leading actress for the upcoming production of LULU at Columbia Stages.
Arts Initiative: Can you give us a bit of context on the show? What is it about? What do you love about it?
Shelley Virginia: Lulu is about a woman who is born into the sex trade, plucked from the streets at a very early age and trained by men to be their perfect object of desire. She navigates the world the only way that she knows how, using her body and her sexuality to ensure her survival.
What I love about Lulu is that as a play it works on so many different levels and has so many layers. On its most superficial level it is pure entertainment. It has it all: sex, death, comedy and tragedy. On a deeper level it is a comment on a societal structure where anything can be commodified, including young girls and women, and is just as relevant now as when Frank Wedekind wrote it over 100 years ago.
AI: How did you get to know (Columbia MFA Directing Candidate) Osheen Jones? Is this the first time you have worked with him? If not, what are some previous projects that you have done together?
Shelley: Before working on Lulu I only knew of Osh. I was in the class above him here at Columbia, so I was familiar with who he was, but had never had the opportunity to work with him. I had, however, heard amazing things about him, from both actors who had worked with him and other directors who know his work. My audition for Lulu was about an hour of working with Osh on sides from the play and a monologue that I had prepared, and by the end of that I knew that I wanted to work with him, and would have an amazing experience if given the opportunity to. I wasn’t wrong about that. Working on this type of material can be very frightening on many different levels, and Osh has filled the room with talented, trustworthy actors and managed to create a working environment that is safe and supportive.
AI: What role are you playing in the show and what excites you about this role?
Shelley: I am playing the role of Lulu in the show, and there isn’t really anything that doesn’t excite me about playing her! Or scare me for that matter. It is all the things about her that make her exciting to play, that also make her a frightening character to get inside of. She is the ultimate femme fatale, eventually causing the demise of all of her creators and herself. Amoral, manipulative, narcissistic, highly sexual, utterly a product of her upbringing and environment …and a hell of a lot of fun to portray.
AI: How has your participation in the show helped you grow as an artist? What is the one aspect of the role you found the most challenging? What about what came to you most easily?
My job as an actor is to approach every character with absolutely no judgment and with utmost compassion for who they are and the events in life that have shaped them. In this way, I feel that every character I work on helps me to grow not only as an artist, but as a person. What I am doing hopefully, is expanding my ability for empathy and compassion, not only for fictional characters, but for all human beings. The basic underlying human need to be loved and to feel like we have some kind of agency in our lives was the easiest aspect of Lulu for me to connect with and where the process of building her as a character for me began. On the surface Lulu’s behaviors and actions are quite difficult to have compassion for and it was initially challenging to find the nuggets of sameness inside both Lulu and myself. It is a scary thing to acknowledge similarities within yourself and someone like Lulu. No one wants to believe that they are capable of the kind of behaviors she exhibits, and actions that she takes…but ultimately, there is a little Lulu inside of us all, and I had to find mine.
AI: Anything else you’d like to share with us about your experience working on this show?
Shelley: A few days ago a woman came to watch the show who works for an organization called GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) whose mission it is to “empower young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking to exit the commercial sex industry and develop to their full potential.” Working on this show, and being introduced to organizations like GEMS has lead me to a greater awareness of the sex trafficking epidemic around the world and personally ignited within me a desire to get involved in this issue and do whatever I can to help. For that I am forever grateful.
LULU is playing Feb. 15 – 18th at The Riverside Theatre. Tickets are FREE with a CUID or any student ID. More info here.
– Meropi Peponides, Theatre MFA, 2013