Cornelia Baumann has very kindly allowed me to interview her about her work as an actor and her association with Arrows & Traps, the theatre company that she has been most associated with in the last few years. So without further preamble, let’s begin…
When you were growing up, at what point did you realise that you wanted to be an actor? Did other people notice your skills and encourage you?
Quite late I think. Acting wasn’t really considered a viable career path in my family and as drama wasn’t a subject at school in Germany, there weren’t many opportunities. But I had a really good English teacher in my last years at school and we ended up putting on some Shakespeare. I guess that is when I realised I would like to pursue it. But I then still chickened out and ended up studying medicine for a couple of semesters first before moving to the States and studying acting and theatre there and eventually here in London.
Within the creative fields, who has been influential to your development as an actor and performer?
Well, there were obviously teachers and actors you admire that are inspirational but also people who give you opportunities. Ross McGregor has certainly been that with Arrows & Traps. But I have also worked several times with other directors and writers in film and theatre and I always feel that you develop when you work with the same people again because they are more likely to give you a chance to do something different.
Do you feel that it is necessary for a professional actor to follow the more traditional route into acting such as drama school and college etc or do you think that an openness to exploring yourself is a more honest approach and entry point to the profession?
I think there are many ways to do it and it probably depends on the individual, on how you learn and how open you are to exploring. Drama school or university give you an opportunity to explore, immerse yourself, learn the language and develop voice and body. And you get to
work to a certain standard. If you can find that outside of drama school or university then that is probably equally valid. I do think you learn most by doing it, ideally working with good people, playing good roles and keeping a level of self-reflection and drive to get better. Unfortunately that isn’t easy to find.
Prior to your many roles within the Arrows & Traps theatre company, what other roles have you played for other companies?
Prior to Arrows &Traps? That seems a long time ago! One of my favourites was probably Amanda in Glass Menagerie. I did some Shakespeare with Grassroots Shakespeare and some new writing with Acting Like Mad. I was also lucky enough to perform at the GAM theatre in Santiago, Chile with a new piece of writing that we had taken to Edinburgh first.
As an actor, do you have a preference for certain roles or do you view each offered role as an opportunity to be explored?
There are different reasons for taking a job. Every role is an opportunity and a challenge but of course you want something to get your teeth into, something that challenges you or something you haven’t done before.
Another aspect is believing in the project as a whole. If a role is perhaps similar to something I have done before, I would still want to do it if the project as a whole is interesting or you get to work with certain people. I’ve been very lucky to have had so many amazing, different and challenging roles with Arrows &Traps. It’s particularly nice when you get to do something that is very different to what you have done before. Renfield in Dracula certainly provided that.
When did you join Arrows & Traps and what is the nature of your relationship with the company?
My first role was Baptista in the gender-swapped Taming of the Shrew in 2015. Arrows & Traps works with a group of actors that return for several shows. I am one of those company core actors.
I have seen a number of your roles within the Arrows & Traps group and I have been captivated by your versatility as an actor. Your performances can be nuanced, a downward stare or more extroverted such as Renfield in ‘Dracula’. As an actor, how do you prepare for a role? What acting approaches do you use? Please can you explain to me how you developed the character of Renfield. You had the play script but you managed to convey a character that the audience was both repelled by and also paradoxically felt tremendous sympathy towards. I wanted to give the character a hug at one point.
I don’t know if I have a particular approach. It depends on the role. I usually look at the core purposes and self-images of a character and then apply it to each scene. But I also find that a lot comes from just exploring in rehearsals with the other actors and the director, agreeing
on what is important in a scene or a character. For Mary Shelley in Frankenstein I did a lot of research and read about her. I loved that aspect of preparation but I am not sure how much of it ultimately ends up on stage. In the end you play the version of the character that is in the script not necessarily the real person. The character is created by you saying the words in the script and whatever happens between you and the other actors on stage in the moment. Research and other knowledge sometimes helps you to get into a certain mindset perhaps, but it might not always be the right mindset.
I am glad you felt like that about Renfield as I wanted people to feel disgusted and intrigued at the same time. With Renfield the initial approach was more physical. We discussed her physicality being influenced by the animals she eats and I worked on that with Will Pinchin, our movement director. Early on in rehearsals Ross mentioned that scenes worked particularly well when she became child-like and gleeful. The more fun she could have the better. That then became a bit of an anchor for me and maybe why I enjoyed it so much. Obviously she had to do horrible things but she was damaged. Going insane was her way of coping. But to her it all made sense. She was just in a different world to the people around her. All she wanted was to be loved and respected. She just went about it the wrong way.
When you are performing repertory theatre as you are at the moment, how do you compartmentalise the plays that you are learning, separating the two roles? Your roles in ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘TARO’ are very different. As an actor, is it more straightforward to perform one role, in relation to memorising lines and line retention?
I really love this experience of being in two plays and tackling such incredible roles at the same time. Playing different characters often happens even within one play so a lot of actors are used to that. Working like this is just more workload in a shorter rehearsal time. Because they are so different - the roles, but also the plays and the styles of the plays- it isn’t hard to switch from one to the other in performance. In rehearsal the challenge was making sure that both get the attention they deserve. It was easy to get a bit lost in one of them because we rehearsed it for a few days in a row.
I usually don’t sit down and learn lines. Working on the scenes helps me to absorb and remember the dialogue. As we had to work quicker with this project there wasn’t always the luxury to do that so I had to spend more time simply memorising. I found that slightly difficult as it felt harder to make the lines my own.
It did help that both characters are so rich and intriguing and that the plays were so well written. It gives you a lot of motivation to want to do them justice.
Of the many roles you have performed, which have you most enjoyed playing and conversely, which has proven the most challenging?
Renfield in Dracula was certainly the most fun I have ever had on stage. It was very enjoyable and freeing because she could basically get away with anything. It very much felt like playing the whole way through. I also adored playing Lady Macbeth, of course. And Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. And Gerta (Gerta Pohorylle/Gerda Taro in ‘TARO’) is quite fun as she becomes such a warrior.
I think all of them are challenging. I never really know at the beginning how it’ll work out. Even with Renfield I was unsure as I had never really done anything like it. I had an idea of how I wanted her to be but no idea how to execute it. But that is partly why you want to play a role.
Olga in Three Sisters was challenging as she didn’t have a clear scene where she reveals how she actually feels about everything. I was worried she would come across as one-dimensional. But sometimes you just have to trust that the audience puts things together and fills in gaps. In a way that makes it more fun for the audience because they can perceive characters differently.
Your roles with Arrows & Traps have involved a great deal of movement. Are you trained as a dancer or do you learn the movements or dances you need to perform, in a similar way to the methods you use to learn dialogue? I remember one of your roles in ‘The White Rose’ as a gas mask wearing Nazi soldier, moving like a spider with a sense of diligence and menace.
I don’t have any training in dance in particular. When studying acting you have a certain amount of movement and physical theatre training and I always enjoyed those aspects of performance. In terms of learning the movement it really is down to rehearsals. Particularly as it is often done in a group or in connection with other actors. But having worked with A &T on several productions I feel like I have learned a lot because the productions are often movement heavy. We have Will Pinchin and recently other movement directors, like Roman Berry and Matthew Parker, help us to bring physicality into the character and I have learned a lot from them. It is fascinating how much can be communicated in that way.
Please tell me a little more about your roles in ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘TARO’. I enjoyed seeing the interplay between Lucy Ioannou and yourself as the young and older versions of the same main characters. The mirroring of mannerisms and movements. To what extent did you develop aspects of your roles throughout the rehearsal process or were there indications within Ross McGregor’s scripts as to how to use body language.
It was certainly something Ross, Lucy and I discussed. I think we watched each other, and when we made physical discoveries or noticed mannerisms developing for our character we shared it with the other actor.
It was very helpful when Ross at some point said that the two Annes (Anne Lister in ‘Gentleman Jack’) aren’t necessarily the same but rather Lucy’s Anne ends up where mine starts. That way we only had to make sure they overlap in some aspects and at certain points but they don’t have to be identical.
In TARO this was slightly different as the theatrical device and set up of the play allows us to be different versions of Gerta/Gerda (Gerta Pohorylle/Gerda Taro in ‘TARO’). The mirroring of what Lucy does in her flashback scenes with Gerta’s father for instance very much happened later on when Lucy had already developed her physicality. I feel like I am still discovering that in performance but I think that is almost what it should be because of how the play and our roles are set up.
Ross McGregor has indicated that he wishes to put Arrow & Traps on hiatus. How do you feel about this decision?
In short, heartbroken. But I have been part of the company for long enough to totally understand why Ross is taking that step. It is necessary. I will miss Arrows & Traps in its current format and am incredibly grateful and honoured to have been part of it. I have had so many wonderful opportunities to play amazing roles, work with so many incredibly talented people and be part of wonderful productions. I have learned a lot and I have also made some very good friends. Ross has created something quite unique but it is always best to go out on a high and have people wanting more.
And without death there can’t be rebirth.
Do you have any future goals that you would like to fulfil within the theatre world or outside of it? Any roles that you would like to perform?
Of course, there is always more to find and explore. I think I am very lucky that I have been able to tick some of those bigger roles, like Lady Macbeth, for instance. (Although I wouldn’t mind playing her again.) But there is always more. I would love to go back to some Shakespeare if possible. And I would like to do some Tennessee Williams and Ibsen. It would also be fun to do some more work in film. And I certainly hope that I can be part of whatever form Arrows & Traps will return in. I know that will be a challenge and a great experience.
Thanks to you, Cornelia for making the time to answer my questions, whilst you continue to perform in ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘TARO’ at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.
Barry Watt - 3rd February 2019.
Photos (Thanks to Cornelia Baumann for allowing me to use these photos)
Cornelia Baumann as Renfield in 'Dracula'
Cornelia Baumann as Anne Lister in 'Gentleman Jack'
Cornelia Baumann as Gerta Pohorylle/Gerda Taro in 'TARO'
Many thanks to Cornelia Baumann for taking the time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions and for making fly consumption seem like a pleasant way to spend an afternoon as Renfield in ‘Dracula’ (Please do not eat flies at home and no flies were harmed during the making and performance of 'Dracula.)
Arrows & Traps are a theatre company who continue to astound me with their eclecticism and physicality. Their website is:
‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘TARO’ are currently running at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre in London until Saturday 16th February. You really should go to see them if you can:
All works and characters in this blog are copyright to their respective owners. Likewise with the theatre companies mentioned.