A Conversation with Wynne Bredenkamp

Wynne Bredenkamp is a multi-hyphenate artist and the latest recipient of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective Emerging Theatre Directors Bursary. Her 2014 award-winning play, Salt received critical acclaim and captured the attention of audiences across South Africa. Her latest work At The Edge of the Light begins performances on November 6th.

How do you define yourself?

At one point I thought it was cool to call myself a slasher but it’s got a bit of a scary vibe. I describe myself as having fingers in every pie. I am first and foremost a director but I’m also a tutor, an art director, a casting director, playwright, social media manager and just sort of anything that has just linked to my love of creative directing and organizing. It just sort of happens and I think it’s an aspect of being a creative person in Cape Town. You can’t just be one thing. Not if you want to eat. It’s a survival tactic at the end of the day. I don’t think that I could ever work in a desk job and sit in the same room 9-5 because when I actually do that my life falls apart. I can’t do the things I love to do and I can’t live the lifestyle I prefer to live. I far prefer doing a little bit of something than one thing. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I would say it was my mother. She took me to theatre shows since the age of 3. I come from Joberg and there was a children’s theatre there and I remember seeing Charlotte’s Web. She’d take me to the State Theatre and to the Civic and we’d watch Janice Honeymoon’s pantomimes and the ballets and every single time when we went overseas, she’d take me to a musical or a children’s production. For some reason that just inspired my imagination and I just became in love with it. I loved telling stories and then I did well in English and I wrote little novels and creative stories all the time. At the end of the day when I had to choose what I was doing, I wanted to be something that I could create and continue using my imagination to create things and that just happened to be theatre. 

I wanted to ask you about your experience as a female director in South Africa. Do you feel that there are currently enough opportunities for women? Or do you feel like gender doesn’t play a factor? 

I think gender does play a factor. I think when people think of directors they don’t immediately think of a woman. I am never asked or it’s never presumed that I am a director or that I’ve written a play. It’s always ‘the pretty girl who should be on stage and who doesn’t have that technique’ or wouldn’t have that interest in the technicalities of it. It’s still a very male dominated thing. I think because it’s a very technical sphere and because it’s traditionally a male sphere, weirdly enough, and there’s more male acting roles, male stories and male leads are more in demand than female leads, I think there’s still a subtly sexist assumption on men being the drivers behind the scenes. There is growing support with The Artscape and The Baxter. There’s a concerted effort to push female stories and female directors. I don’t think they discriminate but I do think within the industry, men and women tend to trust or go towards male technicians, male directors, male writers as an authority. It’s not mean-spirited or anything. Most of my lecturers were male. Only at the end of my theatre-making course, my director’s course, did I have a female director teach me and the difference was noticeable. The way that she looked at the theatre and the way that she came to it was completely different to how my male lecturers looked at directing and theatre-making. It was incredible and it was almost like a breath of fresh air that she brought in. I did have other female lecturers of course but it was really interesting to suddenly see that difference. 

That is so interesting. 

Even in the workshops they were all men and in wardrobe they are women. So they follow very typical lines. I think it is changing. I see The Baxter is teaching up female technicians a lot now. 

What do you think needs to be done to proactively make sure that women are getting to where they need to be?

I think women need to be harder. I think they need to push themselves because if I think of myself, I could be pushing harder. By harder I mean it’s going and making the networking that maybe I feel shy to do because no one is going to do it for us. There are opportunities, I can’t sit here and say that there aren’t but I think women tend to come across as less confident and less pushy and I mean this is very typical Sheryl Sandberg Lean In. I read that and I was like ‘oh my goodness yes!’

It should be a reading requirement in high schools. Every woman should read that book.

Yes because I found myself at varsity questioning why are these guys sort of, they are not better than me, in some ways I am smarter in one or two things or more efficient in one or two things but yet they had a greater profile within the course. It was because they believed in themselves. It might have been a misplaced belief at times but they really believed in themselves. It wasn’t about your ability because ability can be learned and it can be made but it was because they believed in themselves and they put forward their own agenda which I don’t think women do. I know I don’t enough at all. 

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Wynne. Photo Credit: Jesse Kramer

What is your process like with writing? Where do you start?

Usually an idea twigs in my mind. Generally it starts with some sort of image and develops over a process of time. I’m not very quick, I can’t go ‘this is the concept. This is the image. Write it in a few days or a few weeks and it’s done and dusted.’ It usually takes quite a long time to germinate and develop. I’ll maybe write a paragraph here one day and then I’ll write a paragraph there one day. It’s never in a linear fashion. It is completely unhelpful to myself but it’s very organic. It depends how I’m feeling that day which part I’ll write and then only at the end do I sit down and really go ‘ok. It’s time to make this coherent and understandable.’ I believe that if you are feeling it then write it. Don’t force it. I’m very sort of visually orientated. To me it’s more about the visual and the aesthetic and what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to come across at the end of the day. More so than how fitly and finesse the words are. 

Are there any particular subjects that you gravitate towards? 

I think I gravitate towards female issues because there’s something I can speak to and I can speak from. It’s something I have an authority on and I feel I can explore and that still needs to be explored. It can come across in a multitude of ways. It doesn’t just have to be the typical ‘bad, scary stories’ and I think that’s nice that you can challenge how women are perceived. Besides for that, women’s issues; environmental issues. I just did a play called Warrior Green which was set in the future if we didn’t have any trees and all of this was a Mars look-alike and there you have a strong female actress who is wielding this ninja stick around at the most absolute skill. So I always sneak it in there. Why not? 

Do you feel like there are any writers who have influenced your work at all?

I wouldn’t say writers but I would maybe say style. What I admire is the British and American way of saying it how it is. Where it’s short sweet little sentences and they get to the point and it’s snappy and it’s really smart. At the same time, text for me and writing, is only the first layer. It’s just the cement and then you start to build the bricks which I feel I take from my training at varsity where we had a lot of physical theatre training and bringing a lot of African storytelling and the concept of the visual and movement and the body as the ‘primary text.’ The text is only so you can leap off whereas bringing in a lot of the visual elements and paying close attention to physicality of body is really important to me. I like to think that I get the nice snappy text from the European’s but I hope to bring in local flavours and the local diversity that we have in our storytelling as a part of it as well. 

Which I think you do because just off the research that I did, somebody said that you ‘fold the intensity of movement into the drama of text.’ 

That is very beautifully said. 

Do you feel like that is an accurate summary of what you are trying to accomplish?

Yes I think so. I think there is something very intense about physical theatre. I was a very awkward teenager and very highly sensitive to what people were feeling around me. I was so awkward that I decided that I would learn body language so that I could tell my friends if a guy likes them or not. There was a book and it was very basic observant skills of people’s body language and what I read in that book as a young kid and then what I saw was fascinating. I could suddenly tell how awkward people were feeling or how interested they were feeling based on the way they were sitting. I think that peaked my interest. Then the beauty of movement. We did movement at Varsity and I think I just fell in love with that there is a pure sentiment in movement that text can’t get to. You could say “I’m so angry, I’m boiling up inside” but if I hit you I think that’s far more to the point. It gets to the point and it shows feeling in a more honest way than text does. I always try to get the truth of the pain through movement. 

I think it’s often separated. You are either an actor or a dancer or a Musical Theatre performer. It doesn’t seem to cross over very often into ‘straight plays.’

At UCT  we had a large component of movement, during my time, which was balanced with the acting. There was very much a belief that the entire instrument needs to be used especially in a South African context where physical theatre is the backbone of a lot of our theatre history whether it be traditional African storytelling or protest theatre such as Woza Albert! It was considered part of our history and so a respect to the history to learn to use your body as the only instrument. There are performers and some of my peers have been able to go over to the musical thing because they have the physical understanding of the body but there aren’t many who can do that successfully. With the play that I am doing now, it was a challenge to go ‘I need an exquisite actress who can also be an exquisite dancer.’ It was difficult and that’s why I’ve used my one actress, and I want to use her all the time, Emma Kotze because she is an incredible dancer and she is a wonderful actress at the same time. 

She was in your last play Salt. 

She was, where she was just mesmerising.

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Photo Credit: Jesse Kramer

Can we talk about what you are doing now with the Theatre Arts Admin Collective?

Yes. 

How did this all come about?

The Theatre Arts Admin Collective or TAAC, have for a few years now put together an emerging directors theatre bursary that they get sponsorship from various individuals or at the moment they are also partly being sponsored by The Baxter. This year they happened to have four spots available. They give you a budget so that you can pay your actors which is a big thing for us. They give you a rehearsal space and they give you a platform to show a new piece of work or a directors piece of work. I applied with a, it had to be a one page artistic statement, which was difficult to explain a play in one page but I gave it in and thankfully they accepted my proposal. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your play?

It’s a play between 2 women, a grandmother and a granddaughter. It’s about how on one-hand in families we inherit behaviours that are not always good and somehow by passing it from mother to daughter or father to son, these behaviours if unchecked can lead to horrible things and in a way that families can, we are very blind to our behaviours. We are very blind to how they affect generations below us or how we have inherited them. That is the basis of what it is about. We find ourselves with girl comes to gran’s house after something has happened at home and it is basically the process of the perception of the different sides of the family as to what is true and what is real and how we can be so blind to ourselves and to each other. It follows that whole ‘we all become our mothers’ or you suddenly find yourself doing what your gran did without even realising it because those behaviours have been passed down whether good or bad. You need to recognize them and how they affect you. It also has that little cusp of magical realism which I love to work in or augmented realism as I like to look at it which just brings a magical element into it which seduces the audience to relax and enjoy something a bit removed from themselves where they can take in deeper messages or harder facts but coated in this other worldly sense so that they don’t feel sort of in danger. 

That’s come up in a few interviews actually. That you want to get a point across in a slightly more removed way so that people don’t feel bombarded by the issue. 

I imagine in American or England which is a very contained society where a murder will make the front page of the news for the next 3-4 weeks and months down the line so their need to shock is very much there. They almost seek to be pulled out of their well run lives whereas here because we are shocked on a day-to-day basis whether it is stepping out of your house or driving or on the news or what you see or what you experience or what you hear, we are constantly in a state of post traumatic stress. When people do go see theatre, and it’s proven over and over again, is that comedy and live theatre is what people chose to go and see. They don’t want to go and feel bad about themselves or feel challenged at 8pm at night after a hard day of being a South African. The challenge is as a theatre person who wants to talk about these issues, you have to be able to bring the audience in, make them feel entertained and safe whilst also opening up the space for them to hear important things and to think about important subjects because that is what I believe we as theatre people have to do. We can’t just do pantomimes our entire lives. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

I could say all of the lecturers at my university. Liz Mills, Clare Stopford, Lara Bye, Jennie Reznik, Jacqui Singer, these are the store part of our theatre industry and they have done incredible things unfortunately I was not of an age to appreciate that. So in between them and now, there is not someone who sticks out for me. It does sound very bad, this is why I put disclaimer after disclaimer but there isn’t someone who my mind immediately turns to. It’s kind of like saying “what is your favourite food?” Well I have a whole lot of foods that I like but I can’t necessarily say that I’ve got one that I champion above all the rest. 

I think that maybe with this question there seems to be an expectation that people have to answer and it has to be this profound answer when in fact you shouldn’t have to be apologetic. 

It’s interesting to interrogate because now as I look at you I am going through the file of people that we were taught about at varsity and the current theme of decolonisation which is very valid and there that also goes to de-patriarchalisation because if I think of all the cool people we were taught about, they were mainly male directors and by that I mean overseas. I think that, at least white women, have had quite an impact on theatre in South Africa, they have been there and they have been around. I guess also theatre has moved on quite frankly. Theatre has moved on and there needs to be a new generation of pushing the boundaries. There is a lot of women I can see in my age group that have a lot of potential and who are inspiring in their own way of their potential but I think there is a missing gap of those 20 years where everyone was asleep. I think theatre was asleep for a while as well. But there isn’t any that I feel, that I know of which is another point because we don’t know about each other. Joberg and Cape Town, we don’t know about each other. We don’t even know about Durban. We don’t know about what is going on in the country so just because I say that I don’t have anyone, doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone awe-inspiring waiting for me to discover them. In a way it can be as much a part of my own fault than a lack of role models.  

You are creating so much and putting so much into the world. What would you like your legacy to be? 

I would love to leave work that moves people who wouldn’t have expected it. I would love to leave pieces that help our national dialogue, whether it is whatever issue, but something that they are productions that anyone can enjoy whether you have seen theatre for the first time or you are seeing theatre for the 50th time. Whether you are 16 or you are 60. I know it’s very broad but I would love to leave pieces that inspire with their beauty but encourage with their honesty. And who am I? I am but a speck on this planet doing little scribbles in my room and if it doesn’t go anywhere and if it doesn’t leave a great legacy “oh well that’s unfortunate” but I will try my best to go somewhere. I think that’s the thing, whether it be 3 pieces or 30 pieces that you could look at them and you could go “this is honest work. It wasn’t seeking to be pretentious” and that you can really identify with. 


All information about The Edge of the Light performances and tickets can be found on the poster below. 

Cover photo: Jesse Kramer. 

Sarafina Magazine and Jesse Kramer maintain all copyright over images. For usage please contact us. 

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6 thoughts on “A Conversation with Wynne Bredenkamp

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