Candice van Litsenborgh is someone that is easy to obsess over. A multi-hyphanate, she is primarily a performer but has also formed her own production company, Canned Rice, where she seamlessly seems to do it all, from writing to producing to designing and even headshot photography. In the last few years Candice has become a staple in the South African musical theatre scene and has started producing her own work, the most recent being Court, a straight play which had a sold-out run at The Alexander Bar. Currently she is performing in Annie at the Artscape and is about to start rehearsals for her next big musical, the South African premiere of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I don’t think there was ever a choice any other way. I started drama classes when I was five because I’d already been in a little play and my mom always encouraged me to do speech and drama. She had done it when she was young and had always loved it. I was with the same drama studio from the age of six through to when I was 21 and then it was just a logical move to here. I don’t think there was anything else I considered except briefly opera but only because they used to have opera season on TV and apparently I used to sneak out of bed when I was three years old and go turn the TV on to watch opera.
Did you have a moment when you realised that you had this ability to sing?
Singing was never really a thing for me. I enjoyed doing it but I was always going to be an actress. When I went to UCT, I did the Musical Theatre course more so because you got to do the full acting course and I considered it an extra; you also got to do some singing and dancing classes in addition to the full drama course. And also it wasn’t a thing yet in South Africa. Cats only happened when I was in my second year I think. Until then Musicals weren’t going to be a primary focus for me. It was just, “I am going to be a performer and if a musical comes along I can do that because I have those skills.” But I just wanted to be an actress.
I saw you in Sweeney Todd and then Google stalked and saw that you do everything. You are never not busy.
I think that’s the only way you can survive in this business. You can’t be somebody who sits around for the phone to ring. You have got to be like “What can I do? What can I improve on?” So I went “I think I can write a bit so let’s try that.” “I’d like to maybe produce things as well so let’s try that as well.” With my partner, Richard, we started Canned Rice just to fill the gaps originally and then my photographic career as well just to start doing headshots and things like that so I could go “Ok I’m not going to sit around for a month and hope that somebody is going to call be and go ‘hey, we’d like you to be in a play.”
I love that you brought up Richard because I’m always intrigued by couples or families who have multiple artists living under the same roof. You formed Canned Rice together and created and starred in Vacancy together. What is that dynamic like and how do you establish when you are working and when you aren’t?
It is hard. We learn as we go and one of the things that we have learned is that we cannot make our home the workspace so we go elsewhere to work and then we come home and go, “Ok, it’s home time. We are just Candice and Richard. We are not producer and director.” We have had to decide exactly what each other’s roles are in the business. So if I am in charge of doing the poster, I am in charge of doing the poster. He gets to say what he thinks of it once I say, “Please give me your opinion.” I don’t interfere when he is directing unless he specifically says, “Please come in and watch a rehearsal.” We did From the Heart earlier this year when I was doing Sweeney Todd, and I wrote the script, handed it off, and unless they had questions about the script, I didn’t say a word until I was called in for a rehearsal. You have got to make those distinctions. You have got to say this is your job and this is my job, otherwise you end up blurring lines and then fights happen.
Within all those mediums that you work in the production company, do you have a favourite?
I am really enjoying writing. It is something that I have always done where I have three quarters of a play and abandoned it and never let anyone read any of it. I’m glad that I’ve taken that step this year to put that work out there with Court. I had attempted bits with Understudy Blues that we did a few years ago, just putting out little bits of script but to actually go, “All of these are my words. Please like them,” is a very scary thing.
I watched your audition tapes for Little Shop of Horrors and was completely blown away because that was the tape you sent in.
I had to. I wasn’t in the country. I was on Safari. I also didn’t have an audition lined up for it. I am not your typical Audrey if you look at me. They were calling in a lot of pretty blonde girls and established actresses who had played a lot of lead roles and I wasn’t on anyone’s radar for the role but I knew I could play it. I just decided “screw it” and I got my best friend Neil, he did me up, and Drew Bakker, a musical director from the states, he played for me, and Richard filmed. I got a hold of the director’s, who I had never met before, email and went, “I am your Audrey.” I couldn’t believe the audacity of it. Richard just said, “If you know you are right for something, you have to take that leap and you have to say: this time I know for sure I am right for this.” And I am so glad that I did because it was such a beautiful role to play but it was a little terrifying because this could have backfired terribly but instead it ended up that Steven Stead phoned me and went “Thank you for sending this.” I went off on safari and enjoyed some animals up in Botswana and when I came back I got a phone call and he said “send me those links again. I’m with Pieter (Toerien) and I want him to see it.” I think it was the next day, my phone rang and I still said “The understudy?” and he said “No. Audrey.” “I’m not the understudy? I’m Audrey?” and I just started crying.
Has taking that leap encouraged you to be more daring with the rest of your career?
I think definitely. A lot of things have actually turned out to be a lot easier than I thought. With The Alexander Bar this year we ended up doing three shows there. We fell into it very accidentally because a friend booked a theatre and then needed our help and we were just going to help out and then the next thing we were co-producers and I was writing and Richard was directing. The show From The Heart did so well that we ended up doing a second run. It was hard work but I didn’t expect it to be as doable as it was. I regret now that I didn’t start producing my own stuff far sooner because it is not that big a thing. It is a matter of being organised and knowing what you want to achieve and doing it. I think I had blown it up into something a lot bigger and I think a lot of young actors do. Everyone tells you when you are at varsity, “Do your own work.” And then you get out into the world and it seems a lot more daunting than it actually is.
There’s a podcast in New York called The Ensemblist that highlights and features the ensemble because it is such an unsung song. I wanted to ask you about the strangely negative connotation about being in the ensemble.
It is so bizarre because, like you say, they are the flipping heroes. I play five different characters in this show and I don’t even feel like I am working hard in comparison to the dancers. Within one number, NYC, I think some of them have three costume changes. They walk off that stage and everyone has a personal fan they have to hold to their faces just to be able to get into their next costume. I understudy Hannigan as well and it is a wonderful role to get to play but when I went on for my understudy track and did the tech rehearsal, it was like “I’ve got another 20 minutes before I have to do anything.” I was standing backstage going “I kind of miss doing this number.” You don’t see how much work goes in. Even during rehearsals your ensemble is called in all day every single day. And even more so, ensemble who have to understudy roles. Swings! Swings work harder than anyone on earth. We have got two female and two male on-stage swings and they have to know every single person’s track. I’ve had situations where I’ve been standing in a foyer and a child has walked up to me with his program wanting signatures and his mom has actually grabbed him and gone, “She’s no one.” And walked him away to go and meet a lead instead. And I’m like, “You know most of the ensemble has been leads in something else, will be leads in the next show you come and see.” And when you have poured your heart and soul into a production just as much as any other person in it, whether it be the lady doing wigs, the guy sweeping the stage afterwards, or the lead, it is so heartbreaking when a parent says something like that. It’s not just about being the person whose name is up in lights. The show doesn’t work if you don’t have every single person pulling their weight. I think you almost have to work harder when you are part of the ensemble to actually not be that person who sticks out like a sore thumb as the lazy sh*t in the back row who is playing third tree from the left. You have to be 100% committed without lines. Without any script to help you, you have to create something completely out of your own imagination and the circumstances of other people talking.
Some of the best performances I’ve seen on Broadway have been understudies and not only do they have to tackle this extremely challenging role, they have to convince the audience not to ask for their money back.
You have lost them, when that announcement gets made, “Tonight the role of whoever will be played by blah blah…” And yes, there are circumstances where your understudies aren’t the superstar that someone has come to see but I think in South Africa we have such a small pool of actors, everyone who is on that stage deserves to be on that stage. Everyone has worked their ass off through an audition process, through a rehearsal process, to get to where they are. And everyone is capable. Yes, stars are made from understudies like Shirley MacLaine, literally the lead broke her leg and the next thing she is on stage and a superstar, but we are all just trying to do a job. At the end of the day what matters the most is the show. If you have to go in and rescue, it ripples up. It is not just about the understudy who goes on and fills in. It’s also the ensemble member who has got to step into your role and the swing who has got to step into their role. You are seeing three or four new people who have stepped in and are doing something completely different on stage to what they are used to doing, and if you have a good company, you have people around you who are just supporting and helping and pushing you in the right direction when you are going wrong and helping you with changes you have never done in your life.
What is one thing you are most proud of?
I think I’m proud that I just try to be as nice as I possibly can. I can’t say that’s something that I’ve always been. As you get older, you learn and you grow, but now when I approach a show I try to remember this is work, this is a job, and you want to be the nice person in the office. You want to make it the most pleasant work environment that it can possibly be. Sometimes that is hard but I think I try to be somebody who is there to support if you need it, who tries to be a shoulder to cry on if you need that, but who doesn’t try to just be fake. I am not going to be something other than what I am and unfortunately sometimes people don’t like that, but at the end of the day I am here to do a job and I will help anyone that I can within a production to be as easy to work with as I can be. To be kind to, especially, the crew because they work far longer hours than we do and they don’t get the applause or that little moment of glory where someone basically says, “Thank you!” on mass to you every night. I appreciate every single job that everyone is doing here.
There is a Musical Theatre tag going around and I thought it might be nice to do a little speed round because you have done so many shows. It is called “Role Call.”
Role that was the most fun?
Audrey (Little Shop of Horrors)
Role that kicked your ass?
Probably Tawny in Court because it was my own words and having to separate writer from actor was hard.
Role that made you feel like a star?
Role you’d love to do again?
I did a beautiful show No Exit and I played Inez Serrano. I was a little too young at the time. I would love to do that show again.
Role you wish more people had seen?
Probably my own work as well, Court. We had a one week run and I think it is an important show and I do want to get it out again.
Role which was the most like you?
It is a weird one because it is not really a role per-say, it was Chess. Chess was very much about precision and getting the job done exactly and there was no room for error, vocally, physically, everything had to be very precise. It’s ensemble in Chess but it is one of the most gratifying things when you know that every single move has to be right and I think in my mind as well, I like to get things right. I like as close as you can get to perfection as possible and Chess has to be that.
Role that had the best costumes?
Audrey again. My costumes were all designed and they all fitted me perfectly and they were beautiful. It is nice when someone actually designs something to fit you and suit your body. Usually it is just like, “Here, some woman in the UK wore this and now you are wearing it.” And then you desperately try to wrap the yards around you.
Is there any role on your bucket list?
I would love to do as many Sondheims as possible. I have done two. I would love to do Into The Woods and I don’t really care what role. I think there are multiple roles that I could do in it so it doesn’t matter if it’s Little Red or The Baker’s Wife or The Witch or whatever and it depends obviously when it comes along how old I would be. I would love to do Company, again doesn’t matter which role. The only role that I would love to play specifically is Fosca in Passion. It is just an incredible score to sing.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Again I’m going to say crew. Performers do the same thing I do so I admire anyone that does what I do because I know what it’s like, but nearly the entire HRD and backstage department on Annie is female. Our stage manager, our head of sound, our head of wardrobe, our entire sound crew is female and I admire people who do something I can’t and dancers as well because I love dancing but it’s not something that I am well trained in at all. This ensemble is beyond fantastic. It’s hard to say because you don’t want to single anyone out. Growing up it was people like Diane Wilson, Kate Normington, and Judy Page that my mom used to point out to me and go, “These are the best. This is what you want to be doing one day.” I got to work with Di and she played my grandmother and it just came full circle. It’s this never ending line of all of us who will come through. It’s not something that ever ends and I think throughout my life, every show that I see I’ll spot someone else and go, “Wow, you did an amazing job there.” My childhood drama teachers Sharon Rother, Linda-Louise Swain, Marlene Pieterse and the late Lizinda Schrapler were my teachers over the course of my 17 years in Port Elizabeth. They really grounded me and made sure that regardless of whether I became an actor or not, I would have skills that would prepare me for pretty much anything. At 13/14 years old I was participating in workshops on AIDS, domestic abuse, animal rights with the Rother Swain Studio. The work both of them do on a daily basis is incredible. They never stop using theatre to improve the lives of others.
Annie is now playing at The Artscape Theatre until January 8th 2017. Tickets can be found here. Tickets for Priscilla Queen of the Desert can be bought here. You can find Candice on Facebook and Twitter. Special thanks to Candice van Litsenborgh, Chanel Katz and Hannah Baker.
Cover photo by Chanel Katz.