A Conversation with Lisa Chait

Lisa Chait is a storyteller. Throughout the years her platforms may have changed, from teaching to radio and now founding Life Stories as well as hosting and producing SABC’s I Am Woman-Leap of Faith series, but her intention has always been the same, to share honest and compelling human stories.

How would you define yourself professionally?

I am a content creator and the content that I create, or love to create when I am able to, ideally has some sort of benefit and touches people. I am very interested in the journey of people’s lives and in content that moves us and that makes us feel more human.  What excites me is content that people don’t often talk about. So I guess essentially it boils down to discussions that deepen our sense of life and who we are in it.

Who or what inspired you to pursue this creative career?

My mother said that I was born asking questions. She is an editor and there was a lot of support in my family when I was growing up and even now for ‘story’, history, a sense of ancestry.  I always knew that if I took a story to my folks they would engage with it.  It gives you confidence I think.  Luckily I went to a school where we were encouraged to explore our natural leanings, so I did. I know its sounds a bit weird but everything is interesting in essence.  I do find though that good content is often hyped, rather than offered simply with trust in its innate interest value. I think audiences can be very responsive depending on the way the content is shared and I really don’t think you need to dumb down as so often happens. Then the thing is to hook up with other people who get excited and say, “Let’s do this.” There is nothing nicer than feeling like you have a mission especially with other people as your side, and you at theirs. It definitely makes your life feel more fulfilled.

As you’ve gone on in your career, you have redefined what you do. When you were in school, what did you think you were going to be?

Doing exactly what I am doing now. Sharing stories, communicating, making things interesting for other people, engaging in conversation. There was always that feeling from when I was younger.  I taught history and I would get excited when we’d have discussions and do worksheets on the various topics.  I got a real kick out of watching the students get engaged in the content, have an opinion, become animated. It’s that feeling, and in essence it doesn’t really matter how it is done. I worked as a teacher first and then in radio for many years, news casting and talk-show hosting, and then that changed. They changed the line up so I had to find a new way to do what I wanted to do. I started the Life Stories project which is basically about recording memories and stories for future generations. I call it my ‘heart project’ and its all about ‘talking across time’ to future generations that my clients will never meet. I am filming on Monday.  I’m going to sit down with an 87-year-old man who is going to tell me about growing up in post-war Germany.  I just sit there and take it all in and it’s always fascinating.  The good part is he, his wife and I are doing it together as a project for his family, so the stories wont be lost.  I get to do my hobby for a living.  Then I got involved in co-producing television content for a TV series about women.  It really doesn’t matter whether it is radio or TV or even written, it’s that same feeling of interesting content moving people. Hopefully.

Lisa with Gerald and Rene Kleinman having completed Gerald's Life Story.JPG
Lisa with Gerald and Rene Kleinman having completed Gerald’s Life Story

Your work has evolved as the content platforms have evolved. 

I think the reality is that I needed to find ways to keep singing the song. When the radio lineup ended and there weren’t other opportunities in that field I knew that I couldn’t stay in one genre. I wanted to go into other things too so I guess it was a blessing it disguise. I found out that the SABC was looking for a TV series about women and then was lucky to seek out and find amazing partners in Lauren Groenewald and Miki Redelinghuys from Plexus Films and we put it all together. Life Stories had already started so I did both.

What was your favourite part about working in radio?

The immediacy, the ease.  The fact that you can come across something that draws you in and get it on air very quickly. It’s as basic as that.  It’s that same feeling as when I was standing in front of the history class age 22 teaching 18 year olds. People were conversing and talking about things that interested them and it was our job to keep that alive.

What did you find most challenging?

Nothing. The medium is great. In radio, or anything really, it depends on who you are working for and what the context is. You are often working for other people but now I am working for myself which is much more freeing, harder most definitely, but much more freeing. There is less of a feeling of others holding your destiny in their hands. You are charting your own destiny I guess. More in charge of your own life. In terms of the actual dynamics of radio itself, there is nothing too hard. You just use your brain and your heart and your personality and you are fine.

What was it like being a woman in that world? 

I was there form the beginning of when CapeTalk started and for a while I was the only woman in the lineup. I didn’t really think about it from a gender perspective though, and there were a lot of women in executive positions at the company from early on so that was good. I never felt less or maybe I blocked myself off to feeling that way. I’ve never felt like I was on the back foot because I was a woman. 

How did I am Woman come about?

I heard that the SABC was looking for a series that focused on  the spiritual journeys of women. The wanted a ‘kaleidoscope’ of different women from around the country. I wanted to do something where the ‘spirituality’ was experienced through their humanity and life journeys as a whole. I also wanted to share stories where women had taken a leap of faith, whatever it meant. A leap, a pivotal moment of change, a reckoning. Women who have been forced to do something new or have decided to of their own volition.  Women who have had to recalibrate their life in some way and leap.  I think there is something very powerful that we can all relate to about a leap of faith.  Initially we wanted to follow stories in real-time but the budget didn’t allow for it, so it turned into telling retrospective stories. Just as powerful. I didn’t have any experience with television, so through various steps and meeting an amazing director, Llewelyn Roderick, who so sadly has passed away since, things started to take shape. I wanted a man to be involved and he said “You’ve got to go to Plexus Films.” So I went with him to meet Miki and Lauren and they worked the project in such a skilled way. I knew radio. They knew film and television. We are co-producers of the series. I do the research, appear in the episodes, write or co-write the scripts and of course do the voiceovers. It is the most amazing team. Everyone is very strong in their own ways.

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Would you say that starting this has been your personal leap of faith?

I think the leap was about deciding that I don’t want to be employed anymore (or couldn’t be) and the leaps of faith have been to keep looking for things to do that can earn me a living and still be part of my core interest. Its about working the deals that can make this happen, setting up the structures from nothing. I love starting things from nothing.  It’s such hard work but it’s incredibly stimulating and if it works there’s no feeling like it.  Life Stories was a hobby that became a business for example. The TV series was about building something that didn’t exist into a body of work that includes 65 documentaries all available onlineThe leap of faith is having the confidence to go for it, and to weather the really tough times when things aren’t going so well.  I knew I could do radio, the leap of faith was to go into really new territory. I learnt something: I always find good people.  It’s the key. People say to me that I have ‘redefined’ or ‘recreated’ myself but that’s not true. Some people say “oh you’re constantly redefining yourself.” It’s not true. I am not redefining myself, I am exactly the same. It’s just the expression or the structure in which the stories are being told that’s changed. I am exactly the same as when I was in university or when I was a teenager practicing doing talk-shows in the car or calling up people to interview them or being deeply moved and humbled interviewing Holocaust survivors as a UCT student. The essence has not been redefined at all. The leap is to keep finding ways to do it and not to go and take on other jobs, unless I have to of course.

When I was researching for this, I found that, over the course of a few years, you spent a week where you lived on top of a tower to raise money. How did that idea come about and what was it like?

I was working in radio at Goodhope as a newsreader and eventually had a show on the weekends. We did the Tower Project for 6 years.  It was a 10 day, 10 night fundraising ‘skop’ each year where I lived on top of a tower and didn’t come down until I raised enough money to reach a target for charity.  I had a loo and a shower up there so I was well covered.  It started when a guy came into the Good Hope studio for an interview and he was about to go and live up a pole at Constantia Village Shopping Center at the time.  He came in as this mad character and I was the producer for one of the DJ’s shows. I would go fetch the guests and I read the news as well. This guy was wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, I’ll never forget, and when I took him down I said, “If you want to do this in a big way and make people notice, you’ve got to put a woman up that pole.” So he looks at me and says “Cool let’s do it.”  So we did.  I would live up there and they would fax the news to me and I would read it using a mobile broadcasting set-up the radio guys had installed. A pharmacist, for example, would pledge R250 and I’d challenge others to equal or better. I would literally be on the phones calling all day and every year it got bigger and bigger. It was amazing. 

What did the structure look like? 

It was a 10m high scaffold on Market Square at the Waterfront where the ferris wheel is now. The first couple of years the tower was a simple scaffold with banners all over it and a square living platform at the top. I would live in a tent and read the news bulletins from up there. The DJ’s were amazing and would ask me, “How are you doing, are you still alive?” I would refuse to come down until I had raised the target. In truth I would raise some money before I went up just to cover myself (and my reputation).  Over the years I started to think, “We’ve got to have themes.” So I became Rapunzel stuck in the tower with a long yellow woolen 2 meter long wig which I made myself. It had detachable plaints that were about 6 meters long. Then the following year I turned into a mermaid and we had a tank with fish where I would swim. The last one we did was ‘Robinson Crusette,’ I was on stuck on an island with a tower behind me. We raised 1.2 million over the 6 years for the prevention of child abuse. Such fond memories.

I don’t know how you did it. Heights are my biggest fear. 

Lisa Chait, Show Host I Am Woman SABC3.jpeg....jpeg

It was great. I felt that if people could laugh at this ‘mad person,’ if it brings joy into raising money for something so serious, then it would work. The content was very powerful but I refused to come down and it lightened everything up. It gave a space to tell some powerful stories but also to be a bit crazy. People wanted to see ‘the lady in the tower.’ It brought out the childlikeness in people and of course in me. The thing long term and back on terra firma is to be able to create projects that engage you which can also be your living. I’d say only 5% of my friends are employed with salaries. The rest of us are having to create and create all the time.  If you are lucky enough to find or create a structure within which you can earn a living and enjoy your passions then that’s the ticket.  Your spirit stays alive. Sometimes your spirit can die a bit while doing it all because it is hard, really hard, but overall you are in on the right track. 

As a content sharer, do you think that there are enough opportunities for women currently? 

There aren’t enough opportunities. There need to be more radio stations, there need to be more television platforms, there needs to be more money put aside for women, or anyone doing projects. There is not enough of that happening so that women can be supported to do great things. People are starting NGO’s and projects and it is hard. We need more win-win partnerships.

What is one way you think we can solve this?

For far too long in this country the NGO sector has carried the weight in so many spaces including the arts. It should be a key function, or at least a decent part of the government’s remit, to do so. People have gone out on their own, started developing things, started NGO’s that speak to the arts or women’s development, or to social welfare and they have had to go to corporates to look for the money. Which is all well and good, and there can be great win wins there but the state is too absent. If you look elsewhere, support and funding for projects that move society along comes in part from government. Some governments more so than others. They put a value on the human experience and its importance in society.  There is also a much bigger culture of private support and endowments. If you go to Scandinavian countries or other countries like the Netherlands (I think), there are prioritized funds available and government partners in a more pro-active way.  They encourage public private partnerships to leverage the arts and development projects that are seen as ‘nice to have’s’ elsewhere.   It’s never enough, but the value placement is there. NGO’s and stakeholder groups get commissioned to deliver bigger and more far-reaching initiatives. There is recognition.  They aren’t sent off to the lottery and not guaranteed a decent level of sustainable funding. In terms of the arts, and the pure arts, pure storytelling and expression, I have no doubt this is a crucial part of our mental, emotional and social wellness. Yes, of course a house for someone without shelter or food for someone who has not eaten is more important than a piece of art or a narrative of some kind, but the latter should never simply be relegated. Our spirits depend on it.  If you look at a country like Bhutan, they have ‘Gross National Happiness’ not Gross National Product [GNP], to yardstick how well the country is doing.  It integrates economic development with human contentment. It recognizes that one of the key quotients for ‘success’ is the happiness of its people. Their expression. It’s not quite the cliché of ‘happiness’ as we understand or expect of it, but as a friend who works there reminds me it is a more nuanced sense of fulfillment and how they feel about themselves, what they are doing, their attitude to their country, their neighbours and of course their expression. Its how are they engaged, how they feel. It’s a long discussion this, and there are no easy answers, but it needs to be on the table at the highest level of decision making.

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

Currently I am really impressed with the Pretty Pride Art ProgrammeThe ladies who are part of it didn’t know anything about art a short while ago and today I have their work hanging on my walls at home.  Their home circumstances are tough but their spirits are alive thanks to Anchen Bamford and her team who had a passion to facilitate confidence and esteem though art.  The women have just blossomed and today they are selling their work.

You can watch episodes of I Am Woman-Leap Of Faith by clicking here.
Special thanks to Lisa Chait and Hannah Baker.
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