Actress and Artistic Director of Teatar Prima Vista - Interview with Petra Vukelić

"As for my vision for me as an actress, I want to be able to keep on challenging myself, raising the bar and making myself leave my comfort zone as much as possible"

Firstly, congratulations on your amazing work of producing/acting/directing /writing of „Kutija od ogledala“! Play had its premiere on 16th of February in Theatre Knap. Can you tell us a bit about the show "Kutija od ogledala" and the process?


Thank you so much! „Kutija od ogledala“ (Box of Mirrors) is a bitter - sweet dark comedy drama about a woman trying to recover from a narcissistic abuse she's experienced in her previous relationship. Although a whole year has passed since she got out of the said turbulent relationship with Max, Eva still feels imprisoned in a box of his hurtful projections, a box of distorting mirrors that pull her away from seeing her true self, so instead of feeling better with time, she only feels like she's slowly fading away.


Using a narrative that starts at what is usually perceived as a classic happy ending point, the part when the victim leaves her bully partner, and deciding to tell the story from that point on was something I decided to do because I believe that walking away from an abusive relationship is actually just the first step on a long and often everything-but-linear road to healing.


„Kutija od ogledala“ is actually a hero's journey of a woman who finally decides she's not giving up on herself. It's an empowering story of learning to love oneself even when the others, and sometimes even your own mind, tell you not to.


The process of making this show was unlike any other I've experienced before. Being the author and the performer, as well as the director and the producer of a show has, of course, it's perks as well as its downsides.


It was first and foremost a beautifully creative process as I had limitless opportunity to explore the chosen theme and different ways to portray it on stage (well yes, sure, the producer part of me obviously imposed a limit or two, but you know what I mean 😊 ), and that was a very privileged starting point for putting on a show, but the process was of course also extremely challenging at times as the topic is really heavy and although this play isn't autobiographical I still felt triggered all the time as I did meet a fair collection of narcissistic people throughout my life. It's really not an easy role to play, but I feel happy every time I do it as I get to convey this strong and important message of hope and empowerment to the audience and at the same time get to conquer a demon or two of my own. 😉



The play deals with themes of identity, female and male relations, anxiety and self-consciousness, but also freedom. How did you approach exploring these themes through your writing?


I did a lot of research before even stepping a foot near my writing desk. I read a lot of books about narcissism, watched a ton of documentaries and listed to numerous interviews of people who were romantically involved with narcissists. I wanted to explore as much as I could about the causes and symptoms of this condition and what repercussions a victim of a relationship with such people can have when it comes to their mental health. What fascinated me the most is the strong effect a narcissist can have on a victim’s sense of self, their identity and even their perception of reality altogether. It's really scary how they can penetrate their victim's psyche and mess things up.


After that I focused on exploring the victim side: what would motivate a person to fall in love with such a person and later, after having experienced the abuse, how do they regain the wholeness of their now fractured sense of self. Lots of strong emotions are obviously included in this process: feelings of distrust, sense of abandonments, grief, guilt, shame, etc. -  all of which are extremely painful to endure.


Once I started writing about all of the above it soon got really dark and heavy and I remember thinking to myself: I don't think I'll be able to endure this suffering for almost an hour on stage, let along the audience watching. So, I decided to add some dark humour in the mix. I realized that what was missing was the try and error part of the character's healing process – Eva had to go through different life situations on her journey and some of them are hilarious because desperate times often call for desperate measures, and that usually equals finding oneself in absurd and funny situations.



Was it a complicated and time-consuming process for you to write a script and to bring it to the life while also being an only actor in the show (and a producer)? Who or what helped you the most? Can you tell us more about the team of the show (except you of course)?


It was a rollercoaster ride! You know, some screams were there definitely out of pure joy, but some were shrieks of being scared to the core. I didn’t know if any of it would work, I didn't know if the message I wanted to convey with this piece would come out properly, I didn't know if people would like it, I didn't even know if I would like it, but I just kept on going because I felt this will all make sense in the end if I just persevere. And it really did!


Luckily, I wasn't all alone in this process. I had a great help from my wonderful colleagues Ivana Gudelj and Iva Srnec Hamer who were the much-needed extra set of eyes and ears. Dramaturg Ivana Gudelj read all of my script drafts and helped me with her numerous expert advice on the play's structure, and  director Iva Srnec Hamer attended most of my rehearsals and truly help me a lot in that stage of work.


I am playing a lot of different characters in this play so I always joke I'm not alone on stage -  my characters are my ensemble!



The set and costume design for the play are visually strong. How did these elements contribute to your performance?


Since the very beginning of working on this project, I had a very strong idea about what I wanted my set design to look like. I wanted it to portray physical as well as mental journey of my  character. As this is Eva's mental health story after all, I wanted my set design to reflect that journey as much as possible. There is something tremendously ecstatically pleasing in portraying one's troubled psyche through the use of different shades of blue and green coloured light, distorting mirrors and smoke effects. I wanted to capture that somnambular state of walking through life only half-awake and unable to perceive oneself or the world outside the nightmare a person is living at that moment. That half-life is really scary and the set design arranged accordingly really helps me get in that mood during the performance. It becomes some sort of an instant portal into Eva's world.



Your character experiences a lot of personal growth and development throughout the play. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced privately while portraying this character arc? What do you hope audiences will take away from it?


As I've mentioned earlier, it hasn't been an easy process but at the same time it has become truly rewarding in the aftermath as I get to play a full-blooded character with all of her ups and downs and struggles and triumphs. It does take a lot of energy to play this role so I tend to have as much rest as I can get on the day of the performance.


What I hope the audience will take away from this play is the message of hope and empowerment and if they happen to be in a similar situation to Eva’s, I hope they learn to forgive themselves for their misjudgement when it comes to their toxic partner. And most importantly, I hope they give themselves another chance. Or a hundred if needed.



How does experience in „Kutija od ogledala“ compare to your previous work? Can you share any memorable moments or experiences from the rehearsal or performance process?


I can't say that it does compare to my previous work as I never before had so much creative freedom and so much creative responsibility at the same time. The play was actually supposed to be a two-hander in the beginning, but as time went by, I realized that I didn't like that approach and at some point, I got desperate because I didn't know what to do. Ivana Gudelj told me to take it as a sign that it was obviously meant to be structured as a monodrama. I remember almost screaming on the telephone: „Are you insane? Me doing a monodrama?! No way, ain't gonna happen. Nope.“ Two months later – I was on stage, alone. Well, ok, not alone - with Eva and al of her friends and foes, of course. 😊



You are also Artistic Director of Teatar Prima Vista. Did you open your organization out of necessity or fulfilment? Do people see you now with different eyes, being an actress and producer/artistic director? Would the show be possible without Teatar Prima Vista? Is it hard for you to manage your acting, writing, directing and producing?


Both, actually. I've founded Teatar Prima Vista out of necessity for fulfilment. I wanted to be able to work on socially relevant topic and to have the much-wanted freedom to explore those topics in my own creative ways.


I can't really say how people see me, but to be honest I'm more focused on what my next project is and how to make it as good as it can be. We all love to be acknowledged for the work that we do, of course, and I do keep getting great feedback for „Kutija od ogledala“, as well as generally for the work I do in Teatar Prima Vista, but I take all that simply as great guild lines for my future work.


Would this show be possible without Teatar Prima Vista? The short answer? No. I think „Kutija od ogledala“ is what it is because it was created in a specific moment, in a specific place and under specific circumstances. If I was writing it for someone else's theatre who knows what the process would look like and what the end result would be, but one thing's certain -  it would definitely be a whole new show.


Managing acting, writing, directing and producing was and is definitely a challenge but as I mentioned it is also a liberating experience in so many ways so I think the creative freedom part balances out working 24/7.



You are very productive in Teatar Prima Vista. You are now preparing an international workshop with a casting director Luci Lenox. Can you tell us more? How did this cooperation happen?


Teatar Prima Vista’s mission, in addition to putting on theatrical performances, is to also offer numerous professional workshops by domestic and foreign experts in the field of performing arts. Two years ago, Teatar Prima Vista organised Hollywood casting director Paul Weber's workshop live in Zagreb and on the 18th of March this year Luci Lenox in coming to Zagreb to hold a masterclass „Self-tape & online casting in the digital era“. Luci is a renowned and awarded casting director known of her casting work for the movies „Vicky Cristina Barcelona“, „Victoria“, „Perfume“ and many more. In this 1-day masterclass Luci will give the actors the insight on how to get more work as an actor in a digital era. Luci Lenox will explain the process from a casting director’s point of view and she will share tips on how to prepare and work with each actor individually to get them up to speed.



How important for you were the experiences of workshops? Specially the international that you attended a lot?


Workshops are a brilliant tool for actors to polish their skills as well as to keep up with the latest trends and demands of the ever-growing and ever-changing business. I think actors should never stop working on their craft and one of the ways to do that is to attend masterclasses of great tutors. I travelled a lot in pursuit of quality workshops and one day I thought this is all great but we need great tutors from all around the world to come to Zagreb as well, not just to London, Rome, Vienna etc. So, I decided to contribute in that way and bring international performing arts experts to Zagreb whenever possible.



What kind of projects or performances do you hope to work on in the future? What is the vision for you as an actor and what as an artistic director?


The next project I'm working on is a quirky comedy #Zombie #Apokalipsa. It's a satire about how people often make ridiculous and reckless choices in life just for the sake of holding their own ground even if it costs them their own lives.


My vision as an artistic director of Teatar Prima Vista is to keep on working on aesthetically pleasing projects that deal with socially relevant topics which offer the audience a lot to take away from. At the same time, I want to keep on working on the educational part of the Teatar Prima Vista's offer and bring more high-level experts to share their knowledge with the local talent.


As for my vision for me as an actress, I want to be able to keep on challenging myself, raising the bar and making myself leave my comfort zone as much as possible. I think all of that is a must if one wishes to evolve artistically.

Courtesy of Petra Vukelić