Bianca Le Grange made a name for herself after competing on the first season of South African Idols. A few years, and a lot of hard work later, Bianca has become a full-fledged Musical Theatre leading lady tackling roles in David Kramer’s District 6 Kanala and Blood Brothers, for which she won a Naledi Award, Anita in West Side Story and most recently, as the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. We sat down with Bianca before one of her final performances of Joseph to chat about the role, her return to Anita and her Musical Theatre journey.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
My mom had a music school in her house. She taught piano lessons. My mom had over 100 students that she would see in a month. I remember always feeling obligated to entertain those kids while they were waiting for their parents. We’d put on these productions. I had my own little costume room with my makeup and a velvet curtain that was probably an old velvet curtain that my mom had. My best friend and I from when we were small were the funeral and wedding singers growing up. It was always a part of my upbringing. I went to an arts school and studied classical piano and violin. My mother wanted me to become a concert pianist. I still love the piano but there’s something about getting into the dressing room with the lights, putting on a lash, putting on a fishnet stocking and a heel. That is where I am home. Performing arts was always there, it was just inevitable that I would go this route. Even primary school, all the shows, from choir to the orchestra, every aspect that had to do with performing arts, I was there. I was always first in line. Music was always the heart because of my mom. It was always what I wanted to do. It was always what I was born to do.
How did your journey with South African Idols come about?
I remember when the first UK episode had come out because I had just come from missionaries and you are told at missionaries “Do not worship Idols.” I came back home and I decided that I was going to study Musical Theatre. It took two years to make that decision. My mom and aunts drove all the way to Pretoria and basically threatened me if I didn’t sing for the judges. I never entered. I never wrote my name on an application form or anything so I didn’t even know how I got there. Later it was revealed that my mom forged my signature. That whole experience is a forgery basically.
And Musical Theatre?
It took 12 years before I could do my first Musical Theatre production which was Blood Brothers with David Kramer, and how fortunate could that be? A leading role with one of our greatest playwrights in this country. I think I was also fortunate with the name that I had built during those 12 years. I did do two Janice Honeyman pantomimes, so I had an inkling of what it was about but as an actress, no clue. I would go for castings and get told “you were a terrible actress” to winning a Naledi Award with David Kramer’s Blood Brothers. How he pushed me in that role was just phenomenal. I had to become Evelyn Johnston. She didn’t have a first name, I gave her my granny’s name. That is how close the character was to me, how I made her so personal to me. Purely organic, there was no study, it was purely through experience. David Kramer drove me through the streets of District 6. I had to sit with old ladies and check out their mannerisms. It made me look at actors and actresses in a whole new light. It is the hardest thing in this world to portray or become somebody else. It is tough. Then the scrutiny, the judgement, the critics, and everybody else’s opinions… You are so vulnerable in front of people. You are basically bare and then people turn around and say you were shit. It’s unfair and sad and it’s cruel but at the same time we still do it and we still love it. I always thought people became performers for the applause. I know I get nothing out of the applause. It’s great when the audience can enjoy themselves but I think I get a much greater joy seeing the audience cry and really feel than to be entertained. You have got to find meaning in what you do, otherwise it becomes a job. And if it becomes a job then I am not interested in being a part of it because life should not be hard. I really love what I do very much and I love the person that I have become because of it. I am more passionate and more open towards all sorts of things. The world is big enough for all of us to have our opinions and to live.
Your run in Joseph is coming to an end. Reflecting on this whole experience, how are you currently feeling about that?
I feel great. I feel like I set out to achieve something. I didn’t realise how challenging this role was going to be for me vocally. In the beginning it was a lot harder, as time went on it got easier. I feel proud. I feel happy that I got the opportunity. Opening night in Joberg, Anne Power was there and Richard Loring who played it many years ago in the 80’s and Anne played it 10 years ago. So it was these three generations of narrators. I remember Richard coming to me and saying “It’s a tough one, isn’t it? It’s a hard-sing this one.” And I was like “Somebody knows what I am going through!” At the same time, I am happy to leave because it has really been taxing and I get to really just rest and go and see my family for a bit. I am going to miss it. I am going to miss telling it. I am going to miss doing it but mostly I am going to miss the people. You become family. I am going to miss the boys. They are drama queens all of them. I am going to miss them a lot and that’s the thing about this industry is that, when you work in a bank or in a company, you work for years and you make these long lasting friendships over years. This happens overnight. Those years of friendships happen in like six months and then you have to say goodbye and that is always the hard part for me because you are never going to have that exact same dynamic again. It’s always great to be in a cast that is so professional and accommodating and nice. They are really a bunch of nice people. As much as I say the applause doesn’t mean anything, I am going to miss seeing those kids just wide-eyed. It’s those little laughs. When Jonathan Roxmouth comes out and they see him in a dress and you just hear the boys in the audience cracking themselves up. It’s those moments that you are definitely going to miss.
What are you most looking forward to about returning to your role of Anita in West Side Story after 18 months?
It took me forever to do the accent and work around the accent which is so close to how I actually normally talk. I didn’t want to sound like Bianca, I wanted to sound like Anita, which is one of the greatest compliments that Vinette (Ebrahim) gave me. She came to see Blood Brothers and said “Only at the end did I realise that was you playing because we didn’t see you. You were nonexistent in the character.” That for me is always the driving force, is that people don’t see any element of you in it. That you become that character which is a hard thing to do but I am looking forward to doing “I Want to be in America.” I enjoy working with Lynelle (Kenned.) I am really looking forward to working with her again. Obviously that gorgeous hunk Chris (Jaftha) is a phenomenal, besides person, but just performer, he is so dedicated but also his passion for theatre is just so alive in him. That dynamic between Lynelle and Jonathan, those voices! If somebody blind comes to see the show or you just listening to it, you would be so entertained or just so blessed by the beautiful voices. I remember the first time we got to rehearse with the orchestra, I had goosebumps. I had the most fulfilling feeling inside my soul. We have a full on orchestra and we are doing the most intricate rhythms. The dance rhythms already with Louisa Talbot’s choreography is just insane but the Sondheim was a genius!
Sondheim is my favourite. I have his lyric books and you just sit and read it and think “How is one man capable of literally setting poetry to music?”
And how he takes the poetry or the lyric and makes a story and then puts it into the way the music is done. People who understand music really enjoy it but even if you don’t, it is such a powerful piece. I am looking forward to the enormity of it all. It’s practically a full on rugby field that we work on. I have still got to do a lot of body work before then but I’ve got time, which I’m happy about. I’ve been doing the contemporary every Wednesday. Look at that prep. You have to do contemporary classes six months before the show. I am looking forward to getting back into that accent. It’s just beautiful to work with. I have never done accent work before. It was wonderful to sound like somebody else and be capable of doing that.
What is something that you are most proud of in your career?
I think one of the hardest things to do, especially in South Africa, is to remain relevant and to have a good enough reputation that people can go “How about Bianca?” And everybody goes “That’s a great idea! Let’s give her a call.” Throughout this year I have gotten calls like that and I have had to decline because of me following my dream which is Musical Theatre. I think one of my greatest achievements is meeting Nelson Mandela and him knowing who I was and having to be a part of his first 46664 concert. That for me was incredible. Walking into the Nelson Mandela Foundation and he is sitting there and he goes “Bianca!” Being known and getting recognised is great, it’s great to be known, but sometimes it is not so great. I never wanted to be famous. I always just wanted people to clap their hands and stomp their feet and cry, that’s what I wanted, and to belt out a note. More than that, I am most proud of still doing what I love to do. It’s been 35 years of doing this, professionally 14 years. I think I came to the Musical Theatre industry to try and learn how to make every single aspect beautiful and how to present it to an audience.
Did you ever have a moment in your career where you thought “This is it. I’m done!”
I did. Many times I do, all the time. My recording part of my career wasn’t that great. You were constantly favoured by other people, “Your budget is cut because it needs to go to a bigger artist.” When I came into the industry I was seen as a coloured female, always trying to be boxed, it isn’t what I wanted and in those moments I was like “I can’t. Let me go work in a bank rather.” I am ready to really attack this industry… there are not enough women who are producing. There are not enough black women that are telling their stories. There is not enough money being put into art or the art industry. Where is all this money that the government is supposed to give to Arts and Culture? It goes to culture or it goes to sport. Where is that money? Why isn’t it coming to our theatres? Why are theatres in Kimberly and PE being renovated for six years? Who is eating that money? Where are those performers? Where are they performing? Where are their subsidies? It is questions like that. Why aren’t artists constantly working on their craft? Why aren’t they working on the business aspects? Some artists can’t even send an invoice or write an email. It breaks my heart. As much as I am a performer, I am also a business woman and I look at those aspects of it. I really want to be an advocate for change in that regard. I’ve been saying it for years. I started my company in 2005, I corporatised myself and still struggle to pay the tax and still struggle to get through the monthly bills but at least I understand what it is to send an invoice or go and negotiate. That is something I really want to look into. Unfortunately it takes so much of your time doing this, if I had more time I would probably be going to more SAGA meetings.
I think it’s incredibly necessary that the industry is finally coming together to demand more. It’s about time. I remember reading about the Generation’s cast members who demanded more money together as a group and they all got fired. There is no protection.
Even with that, not even their fans stood up. “You love me so much, you follow my character so much but you can’t even stand up for me when I had to demand what I am worth.” That has got to change. There’s a cultural shift and mentality that we have to change. It’s a mentality from the artists that we first have to change because we have been treated (this way) because we have allowed it. We allow this treatment. Somewhere along the lines, someone decided that it was 20% for an agent. What does an agent do? These are things that I couldn’t understand when I got into the industry. 40% of my money was being taken until I questioned it! “Oh sorry it’s supposed to be 10.”
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Tannie Evita definitely inspires me. That character that has been with us for so many years. I love what Pieter Dirk-Uys has done with her throughout the years, the controversy, the issues that he always tackles, just how he made her grow. We grew up with her. She is one of my ultimate women of the arts that I admire. Somebody that people would never expect was Brenda Fassie. I got to meet her before she died. She was just a powerhouse diva. When you look at Madonna, and everybody just accepts Madonna for who she is, it’s the same type of character, Brenda Fassie. Shaleen Surtie-Richards has been my industry mother for quite sometime. She has also been through the mill and back. She’s been an actress in the 80’s and I feel like she paved the way for non-white actors in this country and stood up for a lot of things. Younger actors, Terry Pheto, I love her work and then Hlubi Mboya as well. I definitely love, Kim Engelbrecht, I’ve had a crush on her since high school when she was on Take 5. I completely love her. In Musical Theatre I would say, Lynelle Kenned is somebody that I love and Angela Kilian, what a voice, what a professional, what a diva. She is beautiful and poised and every role she takes on is perfection. I love Mama Yvonne and we got to bump into each other in Germany when I went to sing. As a singer and an advocate for the arts and so many things, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Mama Africa who has also left us now. My first production that I ever did, the money that we raised was for her Miriam Makeba home for girls. These are the women I inspire to. They’ve not only had adversities and really difficult careers but they have really made a difference.
You can catch Bianca in The Fugard Theatre’s production of West Side Story beginning on the 24th of January at The Joburg Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here. Bianca can be found on twitter and facebook.
Special thanks to Bianca Le Grange, Jesse Kramer and Hannah Baker.