Welcome to part 2 of our interview with Susan Danford, Lesoko Seabe and Claire-Louise Worby! Click Here for Part 1
I’ve taken up a lot of time so I’m just going to ask you a few about your career…
Susan Danford: Well you see it’s unusual for the women’s narrative to be wanted so much that we can’t wait to share.
I was putting the piece together and I said to someone it’s already 800 words and I haven’t even spoken to them yet!
SD: I know.
So hopefully people will sit down with a cup of coffee…
SD: Well you must do what you need and there could be a longer version on page 5 or whatever.
We’ll publish like a whole Harry Potter type manuscript of the conversation!
So…who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
SD: You want to make me cry because my mom is no longer with me but she just always supported whatever my choices were and I really indirectly, I mean I keep saying I stumbled into acting but I didn’t really and she must have known that. There was never one block. She never blocked me and it was…she was her own woman and I think without naming it she just paved the way for me to be my complete self. Whatever that means. To find some destiny in my choice.
Lesoko Seabe: I would say my mother’s side of the family is very musical, so is my dad’s but no one is a professional anything but you just go from one family function and everyone is an incredible orator, particularly growing up in the church in the Eastern Cape, but I remember a moment, my mother and my father would always read to us when we were kids. They either read to us or we had to tell them a story every single day and I remember this one day where I felt like my mother was like magic because she gave every single character in the book, whether it was a flower or a tree or a caterpillar, or a whatever, a different voice, and she was able to transform line for line and I just thought that this was the most magical thing that’s ever happened. So definitely my mom and dad for encouraging us to just to live in story. Story was always a part of how we grew up and my grandparents, my maternal grandparents were particularly, when we would go visit them every single, it was like a ritual, gosh it’s so funny, thank you for this question. So the TV would go off at 6 O’Clock. At 6:30 there would be family prayers and every night someone was assigned to say a prayer and then after prayers all of the young grandchildren would go for an hour to our grandparents bedroom while they were getting ready for bed and plait their hair and massage their dreads and everyone would make up a song or a play. So we’d spend the whole day preparing these mini performances.
SD: It’s like you grew up in a theatre company!
LS: Absolutely. So my parents and my maternal grandparents I think.
Claire-Louise Worby: Every since I was little I was just a storyteller. I used to go to preschool and I would have a picture book before I could read and we had a dress-up box and I would make everybody a character and make them act out as per the pictures.
SD: Were you bossy?
CLW: I was so bossy! I was so not popular. I also made up my own stories constantly. I won’t tell you all of them because I think at one point my poor parents were called in to social services. I’ve always been a storyteller but where the beauty of that comes in, I was never told ‘take it down Claire-Louise, you’re at a 10 and we need you at a 4.’ My parents were extremely celebrative of who I was and my artistic side and in fact I lost sight (of it) when I was a teenager. The American school system was not serving me and I was a mess and in that regard I have to thank my father because he was actually the one who cornered me and said ‘is this what your life is going to look like? What do you want to do?’ And I just said ‘I want to be an actor. I want to be studying arts, I want to be artistic. I don’t know how to get there.’ And he literally just picked me up by the scruff of my neck and kicked me out into the southern east part of Devon, which is in the south coast of England and said ‘study. If that’s what you want study. Go ahead and prove yourself and study.’ And so I finished my schooling there and that’s when it just, I was able to focus and he really, I have to say was incredibly kind as a parent because I know that it would have cost them to take their teenage daughter and to send her away for her own artistic love and so I was very fortunate to have parents who just said ‘if this is your life, thrive. If this is going to make you alive and keep you wanting to wake up everyday and get out there then we will help you do that. Whatever that looks like…you can still go study law after, if you want to be a doctor you can still do that we’ll support you.’
LS: I kind of chuckled when you asked the question and everyone has a very personal response to this question but why I chuckled was because for a long time I thought it was my choice to be an artist, actor, performer, storyteller, whatever and it’s not. It feels, without being esoteric, it really honestly feels like a calling. In spite of myself, in spite of whatever, I can’t not do this. Whenever I’m not doing it my life feels unbalanced. I feel like something is missing. I feel depleted. There’s something magical when artists get together and our only cause is to serve the story and to tell the truth no matter how uncomfortable that truth is and it’s difficult. It’s very very difficult and I don’t know anyone who would not think it’s crazy to choose that for oneself. I can’t help it. It’s something else that’s working through me and I’m just in service of the story.
I have to call my mom after this.
CLW: Yes. This is a message to everybody: Go and call your mom!
If you could go back and tell yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career what would it be?
SD: ‘Relax. It’ll be fine.’ But sorry more seriously I think there’s no right or wrong. There’s no right or wrong because you get presented opportunities in the moment and you think that the others are better ones and whatever but there’s no right or wrong. One step at a time.
LS: I’ve just come out of doing some teaching and engaging with young women. There is so much fear around making the wrong choice and feeling like you don’t have enough. I think it was the whole just ‘trying to figure out who you are. Am I enough? Does he like me? Do I like myself?…am I enough?’ And I think I would just tell myself that no matter where you are on the journey, you have enough to get started. No matter how cluttered or fearful or whatever, whatever is going on, the set of circumstances that you have in the moment is everything that you need in order to get you to the next thing. You have enough to get started.
CLW: I think I would say ‘you are valid.’ I wasted a lot of time in my early twenties. I was in LA, I was by myself and I wasted a lot of time there trying to be something that I wasn’t, trying to be marketable, trying to be…I don’t know…all of that bullshit…sorry! Children?
Probably not reading a publication about women in the arts…
CLW: You can put some asterisks in there. All of that just complete removal of self. I spent way too much energy at the beginning of my career and I’m really only at the ripe age of 33 now that I’m here now, and especially in theater, it’s a lot easier because you have a beautiful creative process and it’s about that. When you are so focused on television and those things at a young age, you feel so much pressure to please people and to be the face that they want and be the body type that they want that you completely lose focus on actually You as an artist are valid. And not getting a role because you were that shape or that size or you look like this or you sound like that or you’re too tall, too short, too whatever, then fine. Just swipe that to the side and focus on who you are, what’s important to you, what your strengths are, how you are an individual and beautiful and how you have a lot to give as you are. And I think if I could have spent more time in my early twenties talking to myself that way and reaffirming that, I think I would have found a much healthier, and I would have gotten more work, I would have found much more work if I was really just being more authentic to myself, rather than try to be something in order to succeed.
SD: It’s hard. The industry is not easy on women. So it’s understandable that that’s what you’ve offered because you do sit in that dilemma.
CLW: I mean I still do.
SD: I must say I was so relieved when I entered my thirties because the twenty-something actress is so under the voice of non-women writers.
CLW: Yes! It’s hard not to feel objectified. It’s very difficult not to feel objectified and you feel like you have to live up to a certain image.
SD: And the roles aren’t there in your twenties…
SD:…other than the objectified roles. I mean they land up being indie and so when you have to write, and you write?
Well, amateur. I’m an actress.
SD: No! No! You’re a writer!
LS: You are valid! Are you not writing any of this down?
SD: Take it in! But women’s voices you know the voices of women, we feel gifted by Norris’ writing. The work we do, the genesis of it begins with a writer’s voice.
SD: So if those writers are women who are writing the women’s narrative, women’s internal landscapes are being explored.
This is great to hear. I got out of acting school about 3 years ago, and we had a lot of female teachers who were actors themselves and were not happy with their careers so they sort of lived to make our lives hell. A lot of the time we would get put down, one of our teachers apparently came into one of the classes and told everyone “none of you guys will ever work in LA because you’re too fat.” But we had this one teacher who shared this quote that I love and kind of, it made me survive acting school and it was ‘you are enough, you are so enough that it is unbelievable how enough you are.’ And I think without that, I mean a lot of my fellow classmates stopped acting after school, just stopped completely. So it’s interesting and I feel like a lot of people might benefit from hearing these pieces of advice.
SD: I think there are different ways of approaching the same thing. Why does it have to be destructive? The entry point does not have to be through destruction for talent to bloom.
SD: Being a parent, I’ve seen it. I experience it on a day to day level, it’s through nurture.
LS: What’s also interesting for me is that the top actors in the world are all the wrong type. Whenever you hear them tell their story, no one goes ‘well you know I was 6ft5 and I had the right hair etc.’ So all of the types that people are trying to squeeze you into and say ‘if you follow this we can get you there,’ they all have extraordinary journeys. Meryl Streep was told that she was ugly, Kate Winslet was too fat, Salma Hayek had the wrong accent, all of these things that they were told were wrong about them are now the things that make them so special. So you just have to look at the people who are at the top and you see that they aren’t archetypal in any way. They are all full of selves.
CLW: They are authentic. They are themselves actually.
Who are some of the women in the South African arts that inspire you?
CLW: There’s so many.
SD: I think an organisation that I am particularly fond of it, it’s in the arts and in theatre, is called Assitej, and that’s the acronym and it’s actually all around the world but they promote quality youth theatre and the work that they are doing is all about, it’s a hub for it’s fellow artists, so it’s reach is far and wide and through a lot of outreach work. So that organisation and it’s Yvette Hardie, Jaqueline Dommisse and their reach is through the country and I think they touch a lot of people’s lives through storytelling and quality theatre.
LS: I’m really inspired by, there’s actually, I think a dearth of black female directors just across the board, film, television, theatre, so women like Amy Jephta are incredible. She’s a full time academic, she’s a screenwriter, she’s incredibly acclaimed, honestly, sometimes I look at the work that she’s producing and how she’s able to keep a full-time job going and a marriage going and and and and. I feel like she’s working on Beyonce hours, it’s a complete marvel to me. So she, and I’m really interested in her because she’s a playwright and a screenwriter and she’s producing the kind of material and writing into this space where it feels like there’s a void or a dearth of the roles. Koleka Putuma,
Who I’m actually referencing in my final question!
LS: Yeah she’s a good friend of ours and she’s young and she’s feisty and she’s just making it, she’s not even finding work, she’s making her work her own way, its wonderful as a playwright as a poet as a content producer, she’s contributing to the cultural landscape, the current cultural landscape which I think is divine.
CLW: It’s hard. I’ve seen quite a bit here. Coming to South Africa was very much a healing time for me from being in LA for 4 years and then going to London again and just kinda being like ‘I just can’t do this anymore. This is just…’ and then coming here to get back into trying to find a new place of the industry. I have found people here, you know I am a very big fan of the Alexander Bar, because I feel like the work very often that goes on in there is, people just really put themselves on a limb. And there’s this one particular woman who I’ve discovered this year whose really, and everybody else I don’t know how to pick and choose, and I met her last year and her name is Daneel van der Walt and I’ve seen her do a couple of her self-written shows and she just, for me, and this is just something I observe when I watch her perform, I watch her do her self-written work, one woman kinda with a keyboard pianist but she is performing and it is just so out there. It is just courageous and for me, that is one person who has really stood out for me in the last year as someone that I have looked at and gone ‘that’s what I want to do! I want to be as authentic and daring and not shit-giving as that woman is.’ And even if it’s not true, even if she comes off stage and goes, “Ahhhh it was terrifying,” because when I watch her, I see her just go ‘whoa’ and for me that is, she is just somebody who has just stood out for me incredibly in that instance. An incredible performer to watch because it’s just completely grounded in herself. I think. She would be one who I would say has just been completely inspiring this year.
I actually stumbled across some of the work written by Koleka [Putuma] and she wrote an article but it was more of a collection of essays and one of her essays struck me because it was all the questions she was sick of being asked as a women in this industry and especially as a black women in the arts. So my question to you is as more publications come out, what do you wish you were asked more of?
SD: I think it’s to do with the craft of our profession. It’s not, you’re not sliding off the pavement and it’s not about being recognised, I’m not talking about that, but it’s about a knowledge of what it actually takes to deliver a performance, whether it’s on television, film, poetry, whatever it takes, to understand the craft of a storyteller beyond issue.
LS: My head is going to fall off from nodding so much!
SD: Because often when you, certainly in plays, and we really appreciate the investigations especially with theatre. Doing film, I’ve been fortunate enough to land quite a few international shoots and we don’t get local media exposure and certainly as, whenever we do international work it doesn’t get exposure. We are just considered as fillers for international roles and the local media don’t, certainly with the questions, do not involve what it takes as South Africans, we are being given the nod to play with the Clint Eastwood’s and you know from living in New York in film and television, it’s not about the size of the role, there are sometimes you are competing with international artists and it’s, I even look at my M-Net TV Guide and on the cover is a new series that was shot in Cape Town called Cape Town, whose on the cover because Universal is doing the thing…The Finnish and the American actors and it’s full of South African actors. Jam packed! The series is being carried by South African actors and it’s like ‘oh well.’ The media, the marketing thing is these are our stars they are carrying the leads. I think the film industry, in particular, has noted for decades that we are offering a great service internationally. We’ve got the crews to die for, the world will use our crews no matter what and it seems to be an emerging thing and awareness like ‘oh guess what? There’s talent in the country!’ Hello? We’ve got extraordinary drama schools, extraordinary talent and I don’t know, with a level of social consciousness because of the environment you’re studying in, engaging in, we can bring in an element to a role that I don’t think if you are living in a very protected environment you don’t necessarily have an opinion on. Anyway. What the profession is really about, being what you’ve asked. Thank you.
LS: And until those spaces in the media start to open there will always be, the questions will always lead with the things that I can’t change. I can’t change being in the black world. I can’t change, I don’t know what it’s like to be anything other than a South African actor in this time and in this place and in this body so people ask me about these things and they’ve never, but if I were to be asked it would feel ridiculous and I remember being out of drama school for a few years and just battling to find how do I get to the next thing, what’s the next step? And trolling the internet about South African actors talking about their work, the journey and whatever and I couldn’t find it. There’s nothing. Maybe you find an interview that Susan Danford did on Cape Talk because they had a podcast but then it’s just about the production but never about Susan Danford the artist. What it’s taken, what she’s read…
SD: It’s usually attached to a press release.
SD: So if you do a TV series, it’ll be in a magazine. If you are young enough you might be on the cover of a magazine because it’s the whole media machine that goes with film and television. Particularly television for South Africans. But the longevity of what we do sits in live performance, certainly from my experience, but of course with the TV, with the writers and things, where are those voices being interviewed? And does it always have to be attached to the next MNet or SABC project? But that’s how the magazine sells so often.
SD: But anyway, yeah we have to have breakfasts. I once went to a breakfast that a women scientist gave and it was a charity breakfast and her talk was on truly the difference that men and women’s brains were being studied scientifically and all sorts of reasons including that it was men doing the experiments up until a certain point and so she was talking about the differences and one of them is that there are huge areas of the male brain that is very linear so sort of like the corporate structure it’s a very linear structure and it’s very male, and women do tend to gather and collect and sort of without being overly generalising, so she ended her speech with ‘so women go to lunch because that’s where your boardroom sits!’ And I always feel that about women artists in our industry, I just don’t think, we don’t have enough lunches because we all have to operate as individuals. We don’t work on any one shop floor. So the collective for us, it’s hard to, that’s what’s so delicious about getting to work in an ensemble with 2 other women. It’s amazing. Usually theres one woman and we are either very young or very old so to be able to share the women’s space and on we can go. Let’s go to lunch!
Clybourne Park will run at The Fugard Theatre, from 16 August until 1 October 2016 Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm. Please note: Strong Language, recommend 14 years and older.Tickets, ranging from R120 to R240 are now available and can be booked through Computicket on 0861 915 8000, online at www.computicket.com or at any Shoprite Checkers outlet. Bookings can also be made at the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554. There is a generous 15% discount available for the Friends of The Fugard members.
Special thanks to Susan Danford, Lesoko Seabe and Claire-Louise Worby for giving so generously of their time and their thoughts. Thank you to Jessica Ross, Christine Skinner, Lamees Albertus and everyone at The Fugard.
Production Photos courtesy of The Fugard.
Other Photo Credit: Jessica Ross.