Actress Genna Galloway is currently performing in this season’s most anticipated musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Gate69. Born into a family of performers, one could say that Genna had extremely big (tap) shoes to fill. With her determined attitude and the combined inherited talent of both of her parents, Genna has been able to work her way through the Musical Theater ranks from swing to leading lady and is now starring as Yitzhak, a man and former drag queen in the first South African production of Hedwig.
You come from a family of performers, what was the family dynamic like growing up?
Madness. My parents met on The West End in the Drury Lane Theatre so they come from the same passion and energy and theatric insanity that now has been instilled in me. I grew up in a very lively household where singing was usual. My father subsequently passed away, so it’s just the 3 girls left. My parents were married for years and were incredibly hardworking and so passionate about what they did that it inspired my sister and I to want to be the best. They were very hard on us professionally and we trained with them which was interesting, amazing but tough. They had to be tough on us because they couldn’t be seen to have any nepotism and giving us free passes didn’t exist. We had to prove ourselves more but then my sister and I were and are incredibly close. She is my best friend in the whole world. It was magic, is what it was. Everyday. I remember when I was 6 years old they asked me what my parents did for a living and at that time my father was doing a show called The Fable Tree where he was playing a giant tree and my mother was a mouse so I would say ‘my dad is a tree and my mom is a mouse.’ Very unconventional obviously but very special.
Did you ever think about doing anything else?
I did. I was incredibly academic in school, not naturally, I worked incredibly hard. I am a perfectionist so I wanted to be the best at everything. I trained since birth and when I got to standard 9 I put a goal in my head that I wanted to come first in matric. I decided to put the dancing thing on hold and focus on my studies. I was interested in journalism and psychology and I kind of thought ‘maybe I’ll look into that.’ When it came to the end of school and I did come first in matric, I missed it too much and I needed to get back into it as quickly as I could and I did. I went straight back into studying after school but I still would really love to do psychology through Unisa, just for my own personal interest because I’m teaching drama now at college and the psychology that goes into teaching drama is vital, the understanding of the human dynamic and the human psyche. I definitely want to look into it at some point. I’ve always been so fascinated by human nature.
Since you mentioned teaching, I wanted to ask you if you enjoy it and what is one piece of advice you always try to instill in your students?
I love it. The Waterfront Theatre School is my parents college and at some point it will become mine, which is a gift and terrifying at the same time so I eased myself into it slowly this year by getting a feel for the place. I was very apprehensive because I still wanted to perform and not only teach and so my mom and Paul who is her business partner, have been amazing in just allowing me to balance both of them. I’ve become so in love with my students and they are wonderful, talented and brilliant young soon to be professionals. I teach emotional technique so I’m coming from a drama perspective as an actress. What I am trying to allow them to do or help encourage them to do is to tap into a place of vulnerability and not be afraid of judgement. To ask them to do that is really hard because everyone is really afraid. People put so many walls up in life and it’s not overly acceptable to be emotional. I am trying to make them not so afraid to feel and to be empathetic to each other and become a family where they can support each other and they can allow themselves to be vulnerable. That’s what I’m doing in my classes but in terms of the industry, I think the biggest lesson that I am trying to instill in them is to try to become an absolute sponge and to just absorb everything from everyone. To just keep learning all the time and doing it with a sense of humility as oppose to arrogance or over confidence. There’s a fine line between the two, of being confident and arrogant. Humility was always my dad’s motto, remaining humble at all times so I think it’s that but also being so observant of everyone because everyone can teach you something.
You and your sister, Jo Galloway, are both in the same industry, how do you feel you are able to support each other through all of this?
She is my soul-mate. From very young our parents instilled in us this kind of soulmate, best friend, camaraderie type thing. My sister has always been fiercely protective of me and she is my biggest fan and I am of her. We are also very different performers and we’ve become different performers as we’ve grown older. The beauty of it is that we would never be cast in the same role because we sound completely different when we sing. We have different attributes. My sister was the most magical dancer in her youth. I mean in her 20s she was a much better dancer than I was. That was her skillset and I found myself gravitating more towards acting and singing and then throughout my career I ended up honing my dancing skills and becoming a dancer. We’ve done it all but at different times and so we’ve never clashed or auditioned for the same role in our entire career which was amazing. I think because we love each other so much, if one of us gets a job, even if we both auditioned for the same role, it would feel like the other one did as well. It’s the level of support of us both wanting us to be successful for the other that it doesn’t really matter who gets it as long as we are both working and living our dream. Now Jo is living her dream in the most miraculous way in Los Angeles and has become, through continuously training and learning, the most brilliant actress which is something that she didn’t know was her strength till later in life.
When I was preparing for this, I stumbled across the two of you going to the Emmy Awards and I loved how supportive you were of each other.
We are lucky. The fact that we don’t live together is tough and the separation is hard but she is my absolute best friend. She knows everything about me, the good, the bad and the ugly and I know everything about her and if I didn’t have that it would be a lot harder, I think, going through life not having someone you just trust so implicitly and who supports you at every turn. I arrived at work on our final press night and she had filled my entire dressing room with yellow roses!
What has been your favourite role that you have ever played?
This. I’ve been so blessed because I have done so many different genre’s and varieties of shows and have gone from being a swing to being ensemble and then having bit parts to playing Rizzo in Grease which was the biggest highlight in my life. I loved that role so much. Then I got to do Cats and played a variety of roles in that. I’ve jumped all over the place and I know it can sound ridiculous to say but honestly every show that I have done has given me something different and I’ve grown and I’ve loved being a part of. It’s been so diverse but then this came along and honestly I’m one of those annoying people who do the #blessed thing. I am so lucky and I am that annoyingly happy and grateful. Every single day I want to burst with gratitude for this experience. I am so in love with it. By far this role has changed my life.
It’s amazing because it is such an incredibly difficult and demanding role and here you are looking so fresh and so happy!
Because it’s a gift. I went to bed last night and I was lying in bed and I was going ‘I think I’m the happiest person on the planet that I get to do this.’ When we have days off I can’t wait to get back to work. I am obsessed with work. I am obsessed with the show. I am obsessed with the character. I’m obsessed with my fellow castmate who is brilliant. This role is the highlight of my entire life. So far.
I don’t know if there is anything like it in Musical Theater. I wanted to know if you could talk about the challenges that you have found within the role and also, to spin it in a positive way, what have you been glad that you have been able to find?
When I auditioned for this role I actually didn’t think I quite knew what I was getting myself into. I had seen bits about Hedwig. I hadn’t seen the show at all on Broadway or the movie and then I made a choice not to because I didn’t want to copy. I wanted to make it mine and we were given the opportunity to do that with this show which was so lovely. We started rehearsals and from the first day I was just like “I’ve been given one of the greatest gifts of my life.” The challenge of it was that it is so far removed from me. I am not a male drag queen from Croatia who is in this emotionally abusive relationship with a transgendered man who has had a botched sex change. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what this must be like. Then the humanity of the story and the character is all so relatable. It sounds so obscure when you first see it on paper and then you get involved in the script and it’s like any other love story in the world. The details don’t matter. I can relate to it in so many ways having been through emotional pain myself and loving someone and not having it reciprocated the way you want it to. Everybody has had a story where they have felt that way and not being able to live your dreams and ambitions that you have always wished that you could and that being taken away from you. There’s just so many ways that you can relate to it. Then having to bring that truth, humanity and honesty and also maintaining the physicality and the honesty of being a man. I didn’t want to be seen as a woman playing a man. Yitzhak needed to be a man so I asked for a penis which they then gave me. It changes the way that you sit and stand and it makes you much more grounded in terms of physicality which helped. Also the shading and the makeup and changing my face. As soon as I have everything on with the wig and the makeup and his bits and the costume, I instantly feel like a different person. The physicality of it happened organically especially with what he’s been through and the pain that he has been through. I found myself starting to be a bit shut down with my physicality. I didn’t want someone to touch me. I didn’t want the hurt of it which became Yitzhak’s character, to be kind of round shouldered and a bit closed off and the body language of almost being protective. The challenge has also been a gift of trying to find a character so far away from myself and making him as real as possible. I’m not supposed to be a woman at all. It’s also very confusing for the audience and like ‘why is a woman playing a man?’ But they wanted to create the same throughline of blurring those lines of gender. Essentially it doesn’t matter who you love, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter what you want to be. The fundamental journey of trying to find your other half and the person that you love and want to be with is relevant to everyone in the world.
What do you think South African audiences are going to take away from this show that deals so strongly with gender identity and sexuality?
I think they first arrive and think they are watching a version of Rocky Horror or a silly little drag show where they are going to drink and laugh. Then it takes a massive turn and I think every single person who has left has been moved to the point of kind of needing some time to process what they have seen. I think fundamentally they all leave with a sense of sadness about the character. They feel incredibly empathetic towards the character which is a great testament to the fact that we have come into a society and a world where the things that were taboo, in this generation has now gone. It’s irrelevant. His pain and what he’s gone through is irrelative to the taboos we can’t talk about the fact that he’s transgender because now it’s suddenly something that everyone is discussing. We have Caitlyn Jenner whose proudly out and transgender and it’s become such a freedom. There’s such freedom in being able to discuss these things now. I love that I live in a world where it is absolutely accepted and it’s part of our everyday life that the story becomes so fundamental as oppose to the logistics behind the story. I think that the audiences go on this journey with him regardless of anything to do with sexuality and gender really because of what the story is saying which is relating to everyone in the fact that we spend our lives searching for that other half that was taken away from us. Even with Yitzhak, he is so in love with Hedwig and wants so badly to find that other half in him and he knows that Hedwig doesn’t love him. I think that audiences walk away with a sense of recognizing some of themselves in all the characters. They find bits of themselves in the story but also I think that they feel a sense of upliftment with that final Midnight Radio with Lift Up Your Hands. You can feel the audience take a giant breath and kind of release of ‘it’s going to be ok.’ Everyone is struggling and muddling through and everyone is fighting this world but in the end we are all going to be fine. The world is going to keep on turning and we are all going to support each other and it’s all going to be ok. It’s a huge positive end to the show which is definitely needed because if it didn’t lift the audience, they would probably leave with a much greater sense of pain and hurt. Now I think they leave with optimism and hope which is amazing for themselves and their own lives.
I think on top of there now being freedom in this country to talk about transgender and these kinds of topics, there is also now a willingness to learn.
I think that’s also so true. We are in a society where people are asking questions and the audience members, there have obviously been the ‘Wigheads’ who know all the words to the songs and are amazing fans and then there’s the 30-40 somethings who are fascinated by the story and then they will bring their parents or grandparents and they love it because I think you are right, there is an openness to ask the questions and go ‘maybewe can release the closed-minded nature of our lives in the past.’ People are saying that it’s not ok for you to not be informed anymore. It’s not acceptable and it’s not fair which I think is great. I am a big fan of that.
And to think that with the next generation this isn’t going to be an issue.
How magical is that? I love the fact that I can talk about anything to anyone and not have someone go ‘you can’t say that.’ We are past that now. We can’t be doing that. Also the beauty of friends of mine even in the last 10 years who are gay and have come out then and the fear and the turmoil that they went through versus my friends or younger kids that I am teaching who are going ‘I’m gay’ and it’s like ‘so? What are we having for lunch.’ Do you know what I mean? And their parents are also accepting and you can see the change in people’s acceptance and freedom. I love the fact that a dialogue is happening and people are no longer trying to hide anything anymore. It’s wonderful.
Which South African women in the arts inspire you?
I’m still a newbie in Cape Town so I’m still learning who these amazing women are. There are these women doing the Vagina Monologues at the moment who I am just obsessed with all of them. There’s this girl, Mikki-dene Le Roux who did a one woman play at the Baxter and she was playing an American fighter pilot. I saw that performance and I was utterly blown away. She is unbelievable. I haven’t seen an actress like that in a really long time. I am ridiculously inspired by her. The first major person that I ever got to work with that made me go ‘oh my god’ because I had just come out of college, was Samantha Peo. She played Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie which was my first show that I ever did in South Africa and I was just in awe of her. I just sat in the wings like a small child every night. She is just magic to me. Looking at young upcoming artists, Mila is one of them because she is one of the most hardworking dedicated performers that I have ever met. She never stops working on herself and on her body and acting. When we were doing Dirty Dancing together she worked so hard to be better and to learn the things that didn’t come with her training as a dancer. She was always working on her voice. That to me is inspiring, if you are the type of person who has got a really good work ethic and that you are constantly working hard on your craft. My mother and my sister are the strongest women that I know. My mother has had a remarkable career. She is an exceptional business woman and an amazing and brilliant performer. She is incredible at what she does and she inspires me to always be better. The fact that my sister has gone out to LA to pursue one of the hardest careers in the hardest city for television and film specifically and she’s been there for 4 years alone with no support system. She’s started her own production company and she’s making work happen. She’s creating her own work and she’s writing and producing things and teaching kids multi-camera technique at the same time she’s shooting films and TV series that she herself has got herself in the room for by hustling and networking. They are the strongest and most inspiring women I know. All the women that I have worked with have just been magic, Angela Kilian, Bethany Dickson. Beth is a dream to work with. That woman’s voice is just inspiring. There’s countless women in our industry, and loads that I have yet to work with, that I hope to. That are all wonderful and inspiring in their own right in many different ways.
Genna can be found on Twitter. Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs until 27th November 2016. Tickets cost R550 per person and include a welcome drink, a mezze platter, a hot bread service and dessert. Bookings can be made via the box office on 0715892915 or www.gate69.co.za. Strictly no persons under 16 years of age
Correction: An earlier draft of this post gave photo credit of Hedwig images to Julia Jansen vun Vuuren. The photos were taken by Pat Bromilow-Downing. Changes have been made to reflect that. More of Pat’s work can be found here