The dynamic Kansas City actress is a recipient, with KC Rep, of a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship for Exceptional Merit.
Over the past decade and a half, Vanessa Severo has emerged as one of the hardest-working actresses in Kansas City, appearing in “Lot’s Wife” and “Cabaret” at KC Rep, “Venus in Fur” at The Unicorn and “Annapurna” and “Blackbird” at The Living Room.
And much more. Severo played in “The Miracle Worker” at The Coterie, “Black Pearl Sings” and “West Side Story” for Spinning Tree Theatre, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” with KC Actors Theatre and “Twelfth Night” with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.
She is a dynamic presence on stage, often taking the audience by storm. In “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” the Unicorn’s last production this season, Severo did not play a starring role, but performed as part of the ensemble, in a featured secondary role as the wacky mail-order bride desperate to entertain. And that she did. Her frenetic energy, her over-the-top accent and her top-of-the-bar gyrations were comedic highlights of the show. One simply couldn’t imagine anyone else with the chops for it. She fully embodies each of her roles and is always memorable.
In 2017 Severo directed “Shipwrecked” for Spinning Tree, and she has been writing her own play, “Frida . . . a Self Portrait,” for the past few years. Still in development, the play was produced a few years ago at The Living Room, directed by Katie Kalahurka with Severo starring as Frida Kahlo. Now it has a very promising future: Earlier this year, Severo received an award that will provide her with the resources to fully realize the “Frida” project — and perhaps others.
In February, Severo, in association with KC Rep, was awarded a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship for Exceptional Merit.
It’s one of the few programs in the country dedicated to the artistic and professional enrichment of theater actors and rare in that it directly supports individual actors. It is funded by The William and Eva Fox Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national service organization for theater.
Since 1994, the Fox Foundation has awarded more than $2.8 million to 335 actors “with a serious commitment to the theatre.” Severo was one of only six recipients in the latest round of awards, which support “intensive study, research and training.”
Severo’s “Frida” project was a major impetus to KC Rep’s grant proposal for the Fox Foundation Fellowship: “Vanessa’s journey on her one-woman show, ‘Frida . . . a Self Portrait,’ will be one important indicator of the success of this residency,” the Rep stated.
Per the Rep’s proposal, “Frida” will progress through a series of workshops at KC Rep. The workshops will be open to the public and community feedback will be encouraged. If KC Rep is pleased with the process, “Frida” will be scheduled in its OriginKC new works festival. Severo performed a small piece at OriginKC in May 2017, and the response was very positive.
Severo’s background is as diverse and fascinating as the roles she’s played. Her entire family is from Brazil, where her mother was a professional ballerina and Severo was on her toes at four years old. From age 9 to 16 she lived in Germany, where a small British theater she passed on her way to school grabbed her attention. At 12 she worked up the nerve to audition and was cast in the chorus for “HMS Pinafore.” Thus was her career born.
Severo’s college training was at Missouri State University in Springfield; she also studied at The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and UMKC. It was there she claims to have fallen in love with Kansas City and “the new developments happening in all artistic avenues. I found it to be a small-town city with big-city ideas.”
With her range as dramatic actress/dancer/comedian/playwright, Severo can be cast in nearly any role, and indeed has been — often when she was a surprising choice. Walter Coppage remembers her audition for “Black Pearl Sings”: “Vanessa just walked in and drilled it.” She has described herself as “mischievous” and “mysterious.” Obviously, it serves her well.
At the Rep, Severo has worked frequently with Marissa Wolf, director of New Works, who sees the actress as essential to the future of the Rep’s OriginKC: New Works Program.
“As a vocal, passionate and smart artist, Vanessa will be at the forefront of our artistic conversations about new works and collaborations with artists of color and artists with disabilities,” Wolf said. “As we build out our OriginKC: New Works Program and our education initiative, Vanessa is the perfect artist to engage audiences and artists in Kansas City and beyond with her electrifying work.”
Severo returned the optimism, saying, “After 13 productions at KC Rep I am thrilled to embark on this journey.”
Wolf, who in her first two years with OriginKC: New Works program has overseen four festival world premieres, two workshop productions, three mainstage production world premieres and 19 new play readings, is also known for her penchant for indie projects, making her an ideal partner to complete “Frida” and more with Severo. Who better to dramatize Kahlo’s life than these two strong, successful women role models in the arts, who are also working mothers with small children. (What Frida most longed for was children — she risked her life to have them.)
“Frida was a woman ahead of her time — rebellious, openly bisexual, brave, angry, bold, unapologetic and honest about it,” Severo said. “I wanted to bring Frida into today, and I wanted women to walk away knowing that today is a good day for your voice to be heard.” o