Velma Speaks! An Interview with Terra C. MacLeod of Theater League’s “Chicago”

BY CARY GINELL

Terra C. MacLeod was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec. Her experience in the performing arts started when she was four years old, when she began taking ballet lessons. She got her theater arts degree at AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy), after which started getting roles such as Cassie in A Chorus Line. Terra has traveled around the world as a performer; today, she calls Vancouver, British Columbia home, and has performed in such shows as Damn Yankees, My Fair Lady, and She Loves Me. This weekend, Terra comes to Thousand Oaks performing one of her favorite roles, the sultry murderess Velma in Theater League’s production of Chicago. We talked to her from the road and she gave us some fascinating insights into her character. 

VCOS: You’ve been in Chicago for eleven years now, is that right?

TERRA: On and off, yeah. I started in 2003 with the French premiere in Montreal, and the whole goal was that if it went well in Montreal, they would take us to Paris, and that’s exactly what happened. So I was part of the original French company. When we were in Paris, the producers from New York came up to see the show, and they knew I spoke English, so they said, “Keep working hard and hopefully we can get you in New York.” And the following summer, I was. I went to New York and it’s just been one of those journeys that, at some point in any given year, the tour goes out or the Broadway contract comes up, there would be an opportunity to go to the West End, so it’s just one of those opportunities in my life that just keeps showing up. I call it the gift that keeps giving. Luckily, I get to do it for a few months with Theater League. Then I go away and do another show and come back, refreshed, and it’s really been an amazing experience. 

VCOS: So Velma is kind of a safe haven for you, isn’t she?

TERRA: Safe haven. Huh! Well, every time I go back, I never fall into this comfortable zone, because with this kind of work, you’re always trying to redefine and reinvent and find a new layer. So I’m comfortable in the sense that I know my body and the physicality of what the job demands, and that I can do it. But as far as the growth of the character, and coming back to it and trying to reinvent something, that’s always exciting and challenging. It’s like a new step in the discovery of Chicago. It’s not a cookie-cutter kind of show. You keep going and discovering more and more. 

VCOS: What kind of new layers have you discovered about Velma?

TERRA: I think that as I’ve gotten older and wiser, I think there’s a sense of humility to her. When I first approached the character, you get the impression that she is tough, she’s the reigning queen, the queen bee, and just gets jealous, and I think that that’s not really her story. I think this is someone who is a very strong-willed character who was wronged. And because she was wronged by her husband and her sister, she’s developed this really tough exterior. It’s a matter of survival for her. At her core, I think she is kooky. I mean, Velma was a vaudeville star, and you couldn’t be a vaudeville star if you didn’t have a little kookiness or silliness to you. But I think that’s a layer that she hides until she’s so desperate that she has to bring it out to get Roxie to come into her world – and use her to her advantage. And I think that as the years have gone on, I seem to think that she is far more vulnerable than one would assume. We just don’t see that layer. 

VCOS: What part of her is most like you?

TERRA: Kooky. I’m very kooky and silly, naturally. Her steely heart, that’s not me whatsoever. But I think that because of my physicality, in my whole life growing up, people would look at me and think that because I walked like a ballet dancer and because I was tall and because of my bone structure that I was a bitch. People would literally say that, and I’d think, “Really?” Because I’m so not that person! It’s worked in my favor as far as getting cast in these commanding and dominating roles, but I’m not that at all. I’m a survivor in many ways, like Velma is, and I’m a go-getter. And I never give up, and I always find another angle to get to where I need to go. 

VCOS: I’ve always been a big Bob Fosse fan. Can you tell me how his choreography enhances Velma’s personality?

TERRA: Everything is very subtle with Fosse and you don’t have to do much with his choreography to get a message across. And I think that’s Velma; the way she stands, the way she walks, the way I hold my upper torso when I play her. All it takes is a flick of the hand. That’s enough of a statement. Especially in songs like “All That Jazz” or “Hot Honey Rag,” which, nowadays are his signature pieces. Very little is said, movement-wise, and yet the message – there’s still a sly sexiness to the choreography, whereas when I’m doing my bigger number, the sister act, where I’m trying to get Roxie to come on board, well, that is really where you see his showmanship – the kicks and the cartwheels. There’s that side of his choreography that’s very showy. And you definitely see it in two of Velma’s numbers. But as far as the rest of the pieces where she sits, I think more nuances and subtlety come into play. 

VCOS: In Chicago, it’s really hard to find someone to root for. It goes against the grain of most Broadway shows because there is no hero, there is no real love story, everybody is dislikable, and any kind of sincere emotions are frowned upon by the characters. It’s all about cynicism. So what is the attraction for this show? What makes it appealing to audiences?

TERRA: I think Amos is probably the only truthful character in the show. He is kind of the heart of it because he’s just a bystander who gets pulled into all these lies and corruptions and manipulations and he just wants to do things out of love. In all the chaos and madness, there is still some honesty and those that want purity. I try not to look at characters as “bad.” I think they all have a goal and it’s up to the audience to determine whether it’s right or wrong. For Velma, she just wants to get the hell out of  jail and go back to her life. To say we have to root for these characters is…well, I don’t know if I would root for murderesses, but in society today, we read the National Enquirer, we go on TMZ, we watch these gothic channels because there is something sick about us wanting to know about all the crap. I don’t know why, but we just do. 

VCOS: So is Chicago kind of voyeuristic?

TERRA: It is voyeurism. Even Facebook is that way. Look at what people do on Facebook. They won’t comment, they won’t “like,” but they know everything that is going on. They are voyeurs. You’re watching this but you have no say. I think that’s the cynicism and that’s the manipulation and the corruption in the show. I think people can relate to that even moreso today. We show interest in things that really don’t matter. And here are these murderesses trying to get off. It’s definitely a poke at the judicial system, of celebrity, of the press, and the power and magnitude they have on people’s impressions.

VCOS: Have you ever thought about turning around and playing Roxie?

TERRA: Oh yeah, I think she’s great. I don’t know if I would do that in the production. I’d love to do it somewhere regionally where I could do a different take on her. They are both fabulous characters. I’ve played against some Roxies that really turn the audience around and fall in love with her because she’s that good in manipulating them. 

VCOS: So when this happens, how does this affect the way you play Velma?

TERRA: I think Velma knows she has Roxie’s number from the beginning. And she knows how clever she is. And Velma is also smart enough to realize that she can’t get out of this without having someone on her side. So whether I like Roxie or not, I got to get her on my side. I think there is an admiration for Roxie. I don’t think she hates her, I think she can’t believe how low this person will go. 

VCOS: There is kind of a mutual admiration society going on there, isn’t there?

TERRA: Absolutely. Oh my gosh. And I hear people say, “Oh, they’re jealous.” I don’t think so. I think of them in that Velma is a long distance marathon runner and Roxie is a sprinter. In a heartbeat, Roxie is a game-changer, whereas Velma goes to her cell, thinks about things, comes out, and says, “Ha! I’ve got an idea.” Then Roxie comes out and tops it. That’s the way my director explained it to me. Velma will go in her cell and have her game plan and have a chart, and then she’ll go for it. Roxie just thinks on her feet and beats Velma to it. So they both learn something from each other. 

VCOS: Of the shows now playing on Broadway, is there one that you would like to step into right now?

TERRA: I’ve always loved Cabaret. I always wanted to play Sally. Kander and Ebb’s musicals just resonate with me. There’s always a message behind their shows and their music always fits so well, not only in the story but in my range. I’m bummed because it’s closed now. Now, there are more theatrical experiences that I’m leaning towards. But I’ve been very fortunate with Chicago and I think when you work with a team like this, they really are masterpieces of the art.  With Kander and Ebb, you can constantly grow. There aren’t many shows that you can stay in for years without losing their spirit, but I’ve never felt that way with Chicago. The wheel keeps turning and I’m constantly unraveling layers. That’s what a masterpiece is. 

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Chicago plays at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza beginning Thursday, April 9 for four performances. For dates, showtimes, and directions to the theater, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.

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