Megan Furniss is a writer, director, improviser, teacher, playwright and performer. This year Megan not only performed during the Cape Town Fringe Festival in The Finkelsteins are Coming to Dinner, but she also directed Niqabi Ninja. Written by Sara Shaarawi, Niqabi Ninja tells the story of one woman’s experience with sexual harassment in Cairo and her plans to fight back. It is an extremely empowering and important piece of theatre that Megan bravely and unapologetically brought to life. We sat down with Megan at the Alexander Bar to chat about her journey as a self-proclaimed theatre-practitioner.
How would you define yourself?
I think I kind of consider myself a theatre personality or a theatre-practitioner. The funny part of that story is that when I was applying for a bond to buy a house, never thinking that I would get it ever because I’m a freelancer with no track record or credit record, on the forms they asked my husband and I what our professions were and I said theatre practitioner and they sent all the documents back with ‘Doctor Furniss.’ They assumed that I meant operating theatre.
That is so funny!
I know. We never said anything and we took the bond and they haven’t said a word since which to me is the funniest story. That’s why I’ve stopped calling myself a theatre practitioner and more sort of like a theatre all-rounder.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
As a very young child, the woman who lived across the road from me ran drama classes. I think I was invited to see one of her shows, I must have been 5 or 6 and I completely fell in love and I had complete and total access to her so I literally used to go across the road. It was fantastic because she was an amazing teacher and she was an improviser. We would do productions and we would never learn a script. We would make up the words and then just get familiar with the story. And then every school holiday I was in production. It was more a way of life really than a career choice.
During the Cape Town Fringe Festival this year you not only starred in The Finkelsteins are Coming to Dinner but you also directed Niqabi Ninja, which we will get to. I wanted to ask you about doing both of those at the same time.
The challenge of it was opening both of the shows on the same day with Niqabi Ninja at 6:30pm and a performance of The Finkelsteins at 8pm. I found that really challenging because I couldn’t watch the opening performance of Niqabi Ninja. I felt like I had to do an enormous amount of work to get it to that point and it felt to me, even though it wasn’t true, that I was abandoning it and that I had to shift my focus into performance mode. But because we had never performed The Finkelsteins ever before, I had to switch off Niqabi Ninja and switch on Finkelsteins. After that first day, it kind of settled down into its proper perspective but that first day was very anxiety provoking.
I wanted to touch on Niqabi Ninja first because of the message that it has and that it was written by a woman, directed by a woman and has an entirely female cast. What was it about the piece that made you want to direct it?
That was also quite an interesting process because what happened was that I met Sara Shaarawi, the writer, when we had the Women Playwrights International Conference that was hosted by South Africa and hosted at Hiddingh Campus in 2015. I was invited to direct a couple of staged readings of excerpts of some of the international playwrights and Sara’s play Niqabi Ninja was one of them. I thought it was an extraordinary text and I thought that she was fantastic and I had a sense already then that I would have liked to direct it. We spoke about the possibility and then other things happened and I landed up doing other things. Then the Rhodes University Reference list story happened and I suddenly realised that the timing was really perfect to do a piece that spoke out a lot of the silences. I approached Sara and asked if I could direct it and she said “yes, do whatever you want.” I literally just moved from that place and once you’ve made that decision, then it is very easy. Then you just go and do it. As we progressed we realised more and more the power of the piece and what we were really saying and what we were really doing and how wide the net was of the word that we needed to spread and we were wanting to do. We did a run at The Alexander Bar which was really successful and that was when Rob Murray, the Artistic Director asked us if we would want to do the Fringe. I already knew that I was going to be performing The Finkelsteins and I approached Loren (Loubser) and Bianca (Flanders) and they said that they were keen and we thought that it was a good place to broaden our audience.
From my understanding the theatre community is quite small and seperated. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of working together for something bigger than an individual production…
There is no money and there are no audiences so there is nothing to tap into from a theatrical point of view. I think that SAGA is quite a nice organization and certainly I think where there is community and there is traction, is in the film industry because there is financial gain. In Cape Town we do have a successful theatre community but it is absolutely tiny and you need to be super realistic that it’s not ever going to make money. What we don’t have is theatre subsidy. There is nothing to subsidise theatre and we don’t have theatre patronage. So everyone has to ‘skommel’ for everything and the problem with that is that you end up asking your friends to do favours because you are comfortable asking them to do shit for free.
Something similar along these lines actually came up in my conversation with Lara Foot and she mentioned that even the Baxter doesn’t receive very much funding.
We haven’t solved the problem of audience development at all and part of that is because we haven’t solved the most basic problems that we have inherited from Apartheid. For example, beautiful heritage festival happening at The Artscape. Two amazing productions brought from Joberg in a double bill. The first one starts at 7:30pm, it’s an hour and 10 minutes and then the next one starts at 9:30pm. First of all 7:30pm for a black audience in Cape Town is tough because black people needing to come into town to watch theatre are coming from the townships and using public transport. No one could stay for the double bill. They could not stay for the second show. They had to leave and so until these kinds of issues are addressed it’s very difficult to consider the possibility of audience development. If you look at the numbers and the figures, afternoon shows on the weekends are well attended because there is transport. So it’s simple things that we haven’t begun to consider yet. We are still working off a very skewed same old same old audience that they are trying to attract into the theatre and those are your theatre goers from before and that is a traditionally white, traditionally middle class audience.We have to keep plugging away at it. We have to make theatres in the townships and we’ve got to make good work that people want to see in areas that people can get to.
I wanted to jump back to Niqabi Ninja. I found myself so deeply moved by the piece, and you were actually sitting in the audience in front of me, that I couldn’t go up to you afterwards. I really wanted to but I needed to process.
Thank you for telling me that. I think a lot of people have found the piece quite triggering and some people have terrible triggers. Some of them are rape and bad assaults and horrible things but I think they’ve managed to come out of the piece with a sense of outrage instead of that terribly paralyzing fear of victimisation. It’s incredible for me how everything is slanting towards this piece right now with I mean, Donald Trump is the perfect example of how normalised and completely oblivious men are to what women have to deal with. It’s beyond comprehension.
I was talking to a man at an event last week and I was telling him about Sarafina Magazine and he turned to me and said “why are there so many things for women all of a sudden? Come on, what about us guys?” And I had to tell him off very nicely.
He got a very very polite response. I would have told him off in no uncertain terms.
I think because I’m still new here.
I think that is one of the problems that we are always looking for nice ways to break the news that men are completely oblivious. It was very interesting for me talking to men after Niqabi Ninja. Men were shattered by the piece. They were absolutely shattered because they didn’t know. There was so much importance in that piece that they had no idea was happening. Every day with the most boring regularity, they have no idea that women, their friends, their family, the women in their lives were going through this. What was very interesting for me was how some of them made what they felt about it, made it about them. So they were emotional-wrecks and they felt guilty for every man on the planet. Not all of them but a lot of men had this bizarre cathartic response that made it all about them.
What was it about The Finkelsteins are Coming to Dinner that made you want to be involved?
Nicholas from The Alexander Bar approached me at the very beginning of the year and said that he received this play and there’s a character that he thought I should read for and we did the reading. Right in the beginning there wasn’t this enormous investment, we were just doing a play reading because Richard Kaplan, the playwright, this is his first play. He had never written a play ever before. He wanted to test it out. We did a play reading at The Alexander Bar and we loved it and the audience absolutely loved it. Nicholas came on board and helped Richard co-produce and dramaturg and make sure the production happened. He helped find a director and he was very clear after the first reading that he wanted the same original cast. It was a gift. An amazing gift.
I loved the show.
It’s been an extraordinary experience. It’s been such a beautiful experience on many levels but working with Adriaan Collins, the director, has been so fabulous because he was very strict. He is very modern. He is very clear and he had an amazing vision for the play and he would not let me go near the stereotype because that is where you want to go. You want to play her full on stereotype and he would not let me. That was an amazing process. I really had to find her truth and her meaning and her feelings which was quite challenging because she is not real.
As an audience member you are kind of conflicted who to side with because at first she comes across one way and then you realise that she is his coping mechanism.
She doesn’t want him to get hurt. It’s very sweet. It’s a series of gifts. Working with those boys, they are magnificent. They are absolutely magnificent and I love being on stage with them. I feel so unbelievably supported and it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a scripted play with other people. Ironically, the last thing that I did that was a script, was a play that I wrote for myself which is a one-woman show and she was also a ghost. Which is interesting.
What are the subjects that you as a writer and director tend to gravitate towards? …Ghosts?
As a writer I think that there is definitely an element of that. What is quite interesting, even if I am writing short stories or whatever I am writing, there are recurring themes and one of them is car accidents and one of them is ghosts. Those are themes that are preoccupations for me. I don’t know why. And of course that is in The Finkelsteins as well because she dies in a car accident.
Do you want to hear something really spooky? Two weeks into rehearsals, with a week and a half to go, my mother died.
On a Saturday morning, I am rushing to the airport and sending my cast and director a message “I am so sorry. I am going to Joberg because my mother has died.” It was very weird timing but extraordinary as well. Utterly extraordinary to go on stage and have kaddish said every night. I didn’t have a great relationship with my mother. She was not a fabulous woman at all and she was not a very mothering mother at all and it’s very interesting to play a mom now with all of that emotional stuff behind it. Sorry I saw that I shook you up a bit.
I just don’t understand, as a performer myself; and everyone says the show must go on, but I don’t understand how you can do that. I understand to a certain degree that it might be healing…
For me it has been a lifesaver. It’s actually held me together in the most extraordinary way and it has been its own process. I am playing a dead Jewish mother so it resonates on every single level. I think if I was in something else, it might be a little different. I might have felt like I was a little less in it or that I would have to be in it so completely differently. The line is so direct.
Thank you for sharing that. I wanted to ask you because you have had quite an extensive career…
I don’t think it’s a career and it doesn’t feel like a career. It feels like I’ve been very busy doing stuff and none of it makes any sense and not one thing leads to another and there is no sense of linear development and there is no sense of anything. There is only one thread and that is tenacity. I just haven’t really wanted to give up or stop and I’ve been pig-headed and I’ve been quite stupid about it sometimes and I think I also hold on to a certain naïvety that I will somehow manage to keep going. But it’s not a career. I don’t know if it can be in South Africa. I think we really need to be realistic, really realistic and just own up to the fact that we can dabble in this and we can give our heart and soul and our entire lives to it but it doesn’t constitute a career. I think that if you think it is going to be a career, it’s going to be a terrible disappointment.
Do you feel as though you only consider yourself an artist when you are working on something or do you feel like you are always constantly living in that state of being one?
Because I do so much stuff I consider myself a practitioner of arts. I am someone who practices it. It’s what I practice. I think that the label artist is quite dangerous because it infers a certain amount of giftedness and I think it can certainly apply to a lot of people but I think more than anything, is the giftedness is secondary to the tenacity and to the practice. You practice. In Afrikaans rehearsals are repetisie, repetition. That’s what you are busy doing. You are repeating what you do and you get better and you learn short cuts and you carry on doing voice exercises and you practice. I don’t know if I like the word artist either. I don’t know if I ever feel like an artist. The only time where I feel like an artist, or part of an artistic framework of creative stuff is when I understand how dangerous and how bullshit competition is and that when you are making stuff whether it is improvising or a play or directing or performing, the most dangerous thing is comparison and competition. That’s when I think I tap into the emotion of artist.
What have you noticed has changed with women’s roles in the theatre…
Nothing. The only time I noticed a change in women’s roles in the theatre is when I am improvising because then we do whatever we want and then we play whatever character’s we want but mostly I think that women’s roles in the theatre traditionally are exactly the same. They are the same archetypes. They are nauseatingly predictable and men’s roles are everything, anything is possible. Women are archetypes: mother, ingenue, girlfriend, victim, whore, nun or barren, a barren politician without a womb, raped, refugee. Women are archetypes.
What do you think can be done to combat this?
Niqabi Ninja. Niqabi Ninja for me is a wonderful voice. It’s an alternate voice. The woman characters are quite shocking and masculine but not, they talk about clothes but they’ve got a masculine energy about them that is wonderful to play. They are fantastic characters to play female voices. And lets exclude men. Lets exclude them from certain things. Apparently the last Shakespeare in the Park was an all female Taming of the Shrew. Do that. Turn things on their heads.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I’ve worked over the last 10 years with an extraordinary actress, theatre-maker mainly in industrial theatre called Ntombi Makhutshi. She starred in London Road and she is a phenomenal actress. She is a chameleon and she has the most extraordinary brain and I am very excited by her. Bianca Flanders and Loren Loubser for me are the best gift because I am utterly inspired by them and how they perform. They thrill me. Then there are people for me that have always been extraordinary voices, like Heather Mac who is a singer and used to be a part of this outrageous band in the 80’s when I was in university, Ella Mental. I am completely attracted to all the stuff that is in her head. I think she is amazing. Who else do I love? There are people who I have an enormous soft spot for, like Janice Honeyman, sometimes she just completely gets it right, sometimes she absolutely doesn’t but that’s ok. She’s had to carry us for a long time just in terms of being who she is and stuff. Liz Mills but she is just the best voice teacher in the world.
Do you feel like there are enough opportunities for female writers and directors right now in South Africa?
I don’t feel like there are enough opportunities for any writers and directors right now. I don’t even think it’s a gender issue. I don’t think there are enough opportunities and I think the only way that can be combatted is if you actually just forget about it and just do it. Just shut up and do it. I think that’s the best thing. I also think it is a challenging question considering our very particular state of white privilege in general and that there is actually only one thing you can do and that is to go out and do it because opportunities becomes a really challenging word talking about the unique demographics of our country and how people in general have no opportunities at all.
Cover photo by Jesse Kramer