Ameera Conrad is a writer, director, actress and one of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective Emerging Young Director’s bursary winners. Currently she is starring in The Fall at The Baxter, a play which she also helped workshop and co-directs. Her new play Reparation, which she has written and will direct, will be produced later this year. Her resume is already impressive but what may surprise many is that Ameera graduated from UCT less than a year ago.
How do you define yourself?
I consider myself a theatre-maker. That sort of takes the form of directing, writing and performing.
I was so surprised when I was researching for this to discover that you graduated just last year and yet you’ve accomplished so much.
I am the youngest for the Theatre Arts Admin Collective bursary this year which is kind of intimidating because obviously having your name with Mahlatsi [Mokgonyaya], Jason [Jacobs] and Wynne, who are so accomplished as young directors, and then for me being the newbie, but also then taking that by the horns and saying “yes I am the newbie so I’m going to stake my claim in the theatre.”
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was actually never going to be in the arts. I was on the path to becoming an engineer and then when I was in Grade 11, we did a 30 minute version of Macbeth and I played Lady Macbeth. Christopher Weare, who was then the director of The Little Theatre and now is at AFDA, came and saw it and he said to me “you should consider doing theatre professionally.” I laughed at him and I said “theatre is not a real profession. It’s a nice hobby but I’m going to be an engineer or go into commerce and go and make money and become a slave to the capitalist machine.” And he sort of said to me, “No. Give it a try. You will be surprised.” I gave it a try and I’ve been very surprised.
You are the first person I’ve interviewed who has decided to pursue this almost later in life.
I’ve always been a bit of a drama-queen and performer, diva type of thing. When I was 6 or 7 I used to make my mom introduce me into rooms. I wouldn’t enter a room unless my mother had said, “Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Ameera Conrad.” I always had those little performer tendencies but growing up and being taught that the theatre and the entertainment industry is not really a viable career choice and then to be told, it’s not just a fun hobby you do after school, you can actually make something of it if you work hard enough.
Let’s chat about The Fall. Can you tell us a little bit about the show?
The Fall basically tracks the student movements from #RhodesMustFall in March of 2015 all the way to #FeesMustFall and #Shackville at the beginning of this year. It is workshopped by the cast and we came from very much personal experiences talking about how we lived through the movement last year and where we are now. It’s a very personal cathartic experience for us and we’ve been getting a lot of really great audience responses as well.
You are co-directing and also starring in it. What is that like to balance the two?
It is very difficult. Myself and Thando Mangcu, the other co-director, who is also acting in it, we’ve been very lucky to have worked with Clare Stopford who is acting as our facilitator. She’s been acting as another outside eye because it is difficult when you are in it to see it from above and what the picture looks like and how the other people are moving when you are supposed to be focused on acting. Clare has been very helpful to us in that sense.
As a writer, what subjects do you tend to graduate towards?
I tend to lean towards things that I have almost sort of experienced in a sense. It’s difficult. I like to write about politics because I feel like there are not enough women of colour voices in politics being expressed in the entertainment industry. I also like to write about love and love stories of people trying to make the most out of bad situations because as a woman, and particularly as a woman of colour, you kind of have to make the most of a bad situation sometimes. I like to write strong women characters who are bolshie and take no prisoners and are kicking butt and taking names kind of women. But at the same time you have male counterparts who give space for that kind of woman.
Do you feel that currently that there are enough opportunities for female writers and directors in South Africa?
I don’t but I think that there are opportunities being made. It’s just a matter of knowing where the opportunities are and going for them. The Theatre Arts Admin bursary is an amazing opportunity for young directors of all kinds; male, female, non-binary, any race etc. I think that there’s an energy in the theatre industry in Cape Town in particular that is very dominated by men, and white men in particular. I think that is changing and with women coming into directing most strongly and with their voices demanding to be heard and not just saying, “Ok it’s fine, we’ll let the men do their thing and we’ll just do our thing on the side in independent theatre.” With women saying, “No we demand to be in the very public eye,” that is changing and hopefully I will be one of the women who will help change that.
You mentioned the Theatre Arts Admin Collective bursary. Can you tell me about how that came about?
I had seen for a couple of years that it was floating in the ether and had known about it but because I was at drama school I felt like you couldn’t apply for it while you are at school because you have to have a certain amount of training and expertise, you have to be an emerging director, and then last year, I saw the call for applications that had gone out and I thought “I might as well. I know I have just graduated and I don’t have that much directing experience but who knows what might happen? I’ll send in a strong proposal and just see from there.” It’s been really amazing, Caroline [Calburn] and the people who run TAAC are incredible and very supportive of young artists and independent theatre-makers as well. To know that I am going to be showcasing work after Mahlatsi, Jason and Wynne and knowing that these are people who I personally am quite inspired by, is amazing for me as well. It was one of those shot in the dark type of things and I didn’t back myself in the beginning and when I found out I had gotten it I was quite surprised and weirdly sort of honoured to know that me and these three others, and to make work that I want to make, not that I have to make.
Will you tell us a little bit about your show?
Reparation is a satirical look at what the potential outcome for this country might be. For some people it could be very pessimistic, for some people it’s very optimistic but effectively what it is, without giving too much away, four people who are in the process of creating a festival to celebrate the birth of the new new South Africa post revolution. It is set in about, not this next election but the election after that, so probably about 6 years in the future. A new party has come into power under the leadership of the supreme Cadre, who is a fiery feisty black woman and she and her political advisor are planning a festival to usher in the age of the reparations which effectively is black people in the country saying “debt is owed to us because of the history of this country.” The three debts are land reparations, economic reparations and blood reparations. Reparation is the third reparation which is the blood. Every time I explain it my heart breaks a little bit because I realise how crazy it is but it’s crazy in the necessary sense. It’s one of those things that people will see it and they will be shocked. When we did Anthology, there was one line where the whole audience collectively tensed at and I thought “this is what it is. This is what it’s about.” It’s about getting that natural response from an audience and making everyone slightly more uncomfortable because of how close it is to where we possibly might be going but also hopefully not where we are going.
Because it’s not that far off, like you said 6 years?
It’s been the weirdest thing seeing the student movements unfold now having been involved in them last year and seeing some of the different things that have come out. And Reparation being so close to a lot of the discourse that is currently happening. I heard this voice note that someone up in Joburg had sent out saying that “a white person has to die for Adam Habib to see how dire things are and for the country to see. Maybe we need to shed some blood.” Reparation is literally that. It is the unfolding of what the blood shed would be. It’s life imitating art and I don’t know how I saw the future in that sense but hopefully I’m not seeing the future.
With Wynne, we spoke about how with her play she uses an element of magical realism because she finds that audiences in South Africa are almost living in a state of post traumatic stress and that it is challenging to try to find a way to bring your audience in but still bring these issues to the forefront. How do you feel you are able to do that?
I think I take the opposite approach. I’m very much inspired by the writings of David Mamet and the South African version would be Louis Viljoen and also Christiaan Olwagen now that I think about it as a director, and they are no holds barred, full throttle the whole time. Nobody gets away with anything in their plays and I think that is the approach that I take of going, “Things are hectic. Things are dire. I’m not going to pretend that they are not. I’m just going to go full throttle the whole way through and if you don’t like it, shame but this is the state of the world that we currently live in.” I’ve gone the more punch, punch route as opposed to the magical realism route.
What would you like audiences to take away from seeing Reparation?
I’d like people to be a bit more conscious about what is going on and where we could possibly be headed. Like I said, Reparation is a look at what one of the potential outcomes of whats currently happening might be. It’s really a call to people to say “look, if we aren’t careful, this could happen.” We need to honestly look at the systems that exist in our country and change them so we can avoid this. The idea is for Reparation not to become a reality in this sort of world. It’s like a warning flag.
It’s come up in a few interviews now about how in South Africa we have a problem with audience development and integrating our audiences. How do you feel you are able to make sure that all kinds of people see your work?
The idea for Reparation after this first showing of it is to take it as far as it could possibly go. I’d like to tour it and I’d like for it to be taken up by the bigger theatres, who would then want to produce it. I think on a bigger scale, what we need to start doing is find funding for audience development. I was taught by Mark Fleishman and one of his big pushes is instead of just funding the theatre, we also need to fund audiences to get them to the theatre. People who live in the outskirts of Cape Town who don’t have access to these kinds of works need to be given access but it is difficult to take a piece into Manenberg or into Khayelitsha where there is no infrastructure for the work but it is less difficult to take the people and bring them and show them what the work is. That being said, we also need to make the infrastructure in those areas because for somewhere like Khayelitsha or Manenberg to not have proper theatre spaces or proper art spaces is heartbreaking because the arts shouldn’t just be for those who can afford it. The same way that education should not just be for those who can afford it, especially in this country.
How do you think that can be solved?
I think the biggest issue is that currently we are in a bit of a financial crisis in the theatre where there is not a lot of state funding. There is not a lot of private funding for new theatre works. Even places like The Baxter have had their funding reduced dramatically by government. I think at its core it starts in the private sectors and public sectors. Private funders need to be willing to say “look we have excess money and let’s push it into theatres and art because that is a way for us to educate people and change the very foundations of this country in a way that is not violent or oppressive or is not any of these things that we have been subjected to throughout the years, but can be quite uplifting and cathartic for people.” On the other side of the coin there is government who needs to stop cutting funding to the arts and make more opportunities available for young theatre makers and assist with more bursary themes like The Theatre Arts Admin program. I can only just image what it would be like in the next two to four years when they have opportunities for 8 different people to make new work. That would be the goal.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Some of the women that taught me; Jacqui Singer, Clare Stopford, Jennie Reznek, Amy Jephta, Mfundo Tshazibane and Thenji Stemela who is up in Joberg and on Expresso. Those are the women who I really found incredible. Koleka Putuma is, I never tell her how inspired I am by her because I feel like it’s a weird thing to say to someone who you are mates with but really she inspires me so much. Nadia Davids is the female writer that I have looked up to. When I was in first year, I read At Her Feet and I sat in the library and I cried because as a Muslim woman in the arts, it is so rare to see women like me being portrayed. What Nadia does, and did with that play was to show the different facets of what it means to be young, Muslim and female and old, Muslim and female in Cape Town. It just hits you at your core and it reminds you to tell yourself everyday that you are not what people say you are. I think that the more work that gets made like that, not just for Muslim women, for all people, to tell you that you are not what the stereotype says that you are. We need to empower people through the arts. Nadia’s At Her Feet did that for me at a very young age.
Because you are just at the beginning of your career, and you have so much to look forward to, what do you hope for your future?
I hope that my work will continue to be able to be made and that in me being able to further my career, I can also further other people’s careers. So it becomes less about me being successful and more about me being able to create a collective of people who can go on and also become successful. The actors that I work with are very loyal to me and I am very loyal to them. The other writers that I’ve sent for feedback are also very helpful. I would like to be in a position where I can also be helpful to the next group of people who are coming up. I also want to make money, I don’t just want to be poor for my whole life, but after that I’d like to then help other people. I’m a socialist at heart.
You can catch Ameera in The Fall at The Baxter running until 29 October. Tickets can be purchased here. Reparation runs from the 27th of November untill the 3rd of December. Tickets can be purchased on 021-447-3683 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Chanel Katz.