At first glance, most may know Taryn Sudding as musical theatre royalty but there is so much more to this talented performer who has truly earned that title. Currently starring in Annie, a show that has come full circle for her during her career, Taryn takes on the role of Grace Farrell. We caught up with Taryn in her dressing room before a performance of Annie at The Artscape Theatre.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I am from Zimbabwe originally and my mom wanted to be either an actress or a dancing teacher. My sister and I grew up watching all the musicals, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, West Side Story. I became an actress and my sister is a dancing teacher so I think my mom lives vicariously through the two of us. That’s how I started, watching all these magical performances and actresses. My mom said I was singing when I was in her stomach. My sister couldn’t get me to shut up. I would just sing and sing and sing. As a child growing up, my dancing teacher funnily enough, Miss Lynn, she saw Annie twice and her husband Harmon, who is a camera man, and I used to play dress up for Harmon. I was Miss Piggy and I would say he was Gonzo and I would put on a little show. I guess it was in me from a very young age.
What was it about Annie that attracted you to this production?
I’ve done Annie four times in my career. We moved across to Port Elizabeth from Zimbabwe and the performing arts scene is quite big in Port Elizabeth. There are a lot of performers who come from Port Elizabeth that are still currently working in the industry. I auditioned for Annie when I was in Standard 4 and I got in. Then in Cape Town I did Annie a couple of years later and then 16 years ago I played Grace at the Civic Theatre. Here I am thinking I was too old for Grace and I am blessed enough to still play her. It’s been a big part of my journey. I didn’t know that this was a contemporary different kind of take on Annie, I thought it was just the traditional look and feel, so it was a bonus when I discovered, “Wow, it’s actually a whole different production.”
Do you still find yourself, and maybe because you have come to it in so many stages of your life, but do you still feel challenged by the piece? Do you learn something new each time?
I am the kind of actress that approaches things organically. I am a trained dancer in ballet, modern and tap from the age of four. I’m not trained as an actress. I work from what I feel. I work from a heart space. I connect to the energies that are around me and I connect to what other people are creating and then I make magic from that, hopefully. It is not a paint by numbers for me. This production has got so many interesting elements, personalities and the three different Annie’s are so vastly different from one another. I feed off of what they give me. Neels (Clasen) as Daddy Warbucks is incredible and amazing to work with. We worked together on Annie 16 years ago, he was in the ensemble and I was Grace, so we have a wonderful rapport with each other. When I played Grace all those years ago, there wasn’t really any kind of romantic feeling between Grace and Warbucks in that production so I very much feed off of that. It’s a completely different experience. I think every performance, even though you are needed to be very much in the moment in terms of how you have been directed, what the structure is, and what you do, if you are connected to being in the moment then everything should feel fresh. I go back to my script and I find new angles and new clues. I don’t ever stop finding another door for Grace to step in that makes her uniquely different in that moment and what she was the night before. I try to do that as much as possible.
Grace is very much a nurturing and maternal figure to Annie and obviously you are working with younger children. How do you approach it to make sure that there is still a professional sense of working with them but still maintain….
A play aspect?
How are you able to make this still a fun, happy, safe environment for them as well?
I understand what you are saying because obviously that is the space that I have started in. I think it’s really important to approach it from the fun aspect of what it is that we do because there is a lot of fun to be had, but I think I sometimes can be a little intense in my approach because I take it very seriously. This is what I do for a living. This is my job. From a professional aspect I don’t muck around backstage. When I stand for my first entrance the orphans are behind me and there is silence and it is something that was never actually said it’s something I established from the word go. For me it’s very much when you step across onto the stage, into the stage area, its work. It is not play. It’s not how everybody approaches it. I think that I need to find a bit more of a balance but I think it’s good for them to experience that even if it is coming from just my character or me as a person. Other people playing around is great and wonderful but for me I think it’s important for them to understand that it is a discipline and that we are working now. Then when we come into our dressing room areas, we can play around there and in the green room and things like that. For me that is a very important part of it. And to all connect with each other. Even if it is just a little tap on the shoulder or a, “How’s your show?” or something like that, that I’ll do backstage. I’m not the kind of person who can crack a joke and then step onstage. I try to stay in character as much as I can without being too, you know, puritanical about the whole thing.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge of your career?
I started when I was in school, I was 17 and what is challenging for me is often getting people to understand me in this career, understand my choices, understand my attitude, etc. I am incredibly positive, I go with the flow, I don’t worry about things. I have absolute faith that I am always looked after but the people around me worry a lot. “Have you got work?” “Did you get that voiceover?” “Did you get that commercial?” I find that to be quite difficult but I understand that is part and parcel of what I am supposed to experience and what other people are supposed to experience in terms of being at peace with me and what I have chosen to do. I say this to the girls as well. It is not an easy career choice and people are always coming from a place of, “When are you going to get a real job with a company car and a medical aid?” Obviously, also just staying on top of where you need to be. You’ve got to keep on with singing lessons, you have to keep at it and keep being passionate about it because if you lose the passion I think people will pick up on that as well. It’s such a divine question you have just asked and I could probably come up with 10 different ways of answering that. It is a challenging business.
Reflecting on your career, if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career what would it be?
To slow down and to trust that all the right opportunities will come your way without you having to be in a state of panic or lusting after something that isn’t actually right for you but better for somebody else. Be more open to the little opportunities that may come your way and don’t rush in there. It’s quite nice to be under the radar for a bit so that people look forward to seeing you in your next role and not like, “Oh, her again.” I like that very much. You can do a little bit here and a little bit there and maintain yourself but not necessarily be bashing down the door with desperation saying, “Please hire me,” which I think is so tricky because it is quite automatic that we should feel that way because we are supposed to express an interest and a passion in what is coming up next. For young performers I think it would be quite nice to just relax and know that your time will come and it is going to be amazing and you are going to be amazing, not go into self-doubt and all that stuff when you get rejected. It’s a tough one.
Do you have a favourite role you have every done?
I think Bombalurina in Cats surprised me because when I first saw the DVD I didn’t really want to be a part of the production. Then I auditioned for it and I was part of the first South African company in 2001. Then I did it again and we did an international tour. I was involved with it again in 2005 with the Australian company in Athens and in 2009. Then last year I went to South Korea. Each time I have done that show there has been some new magic that has come alive because it is not something that you can explain to people but I think every performer, if it is part of what they want to do, should be part of that production because it is a spiritual experience, it’s a growing experience, it’s physically the most demanding show you will ever do. When you are onstage you have those big thick Yak hair wigs and there is nowhere for the heat to escape, so the sweat literally drips from your face. Your unitard is soaked with sweat and there is no feeling like that really. For many different reasons I would probably say Bombalurina in Cats.
Is there any role that you would still like to do?
Of course. Eponine was a character I always wanted to play but possibly maybe Fantine? I love that role as well. Roxie in Chicago maybe?
As more publications develop that aim to ask women more important questions, what do you wish you were asked more?
I think that I am the kind of person who if you ask me a question, I’ll give the honest answer. I think that there is such a stigma attached to this industry that it is all about the beauty and the glamour and the glorification and everything else, but there is actually another side to this industry that is very tricky for us and we don’t often feel supported. We kind of feel like we have to drive everything ourselves. If you have a fantastic agent then you are A for away, if you have a producer that loves working for you then you are A for away, if your agent is good at negotiating then you are A for away, you have got to have all those things to instill a sense of feeling safe in what it is that you have chosen to do and often there isn’t that safeness. It is kind of flying by the seat of your pants sometimes. Sometimes the money is very poor but you are doing it for the love of it so you go, “Maybe the next job will help.” And I think that side of the industry isn’t often spoken of and I had a moment, because I was quite sick prior to the opening night, and I had a moment on the Friday night where I was trying to struggle through the show to see if I could get through the next couple of days and I rushed forward for my bow wondering if my performance was good enough and the audience just erupted with applause and cheers. And I was completely blown away. There is the support. There is the recognition. We have this little isolated journey that we go on where we analyse everything that we are doing and hoping that it’s ok. You rush forward, complete strangers embrace you and go, “You are amazing,” and then you go home and you go, “Why do I feel so tired all the time?” I have been doing it for many years and there is a part of me that would like to feel like I am 100% financially on top of it, but there is always this, “What is happening next?” And thank goodness I am so positive. Thank goodness I invest in faith, in myself, and in what the universe has in store for me that I can actually just continue. You get people, especially people who are starting out, that it is difficult. It is not always how you envisioned it to be. There are people out there, who are trying to put food on the table for their kids and their wives, and I’m a single person and I am making my way in the world in the best way that I can but I wish that there was more support for actors in this country.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I’m very inspired by Michelle Maxwell. We are kind of soul sisters. She has been on this journey for a very long time and she has been very consistent and very passionate. She has remained very young at heart and not jaded. She is just somebody that I am really inspired by. I worked with Keith Grenville, Lida Meiring, Graham Armitage, Michael Atkinson and Diane Wilson, I did a production of The Diary of Anne Frank many years ago and I think if I could have been given the opportunity to work with a better group of people I don’t think it’ll come across again because they were all so committed and dedicated and disciplined and they took their craft very seriously. The Diary of Anne Frank is a very heavy story, when we finished the show we all walked to our dressing rooms in silence with respect to the fact that we had this journey together and the audience had experienced something that was quite sacred. There was just this understanding amongst all of us that we were part of something special. I think everybody has their journey and why they still do what they do. I think I would be inspired by anybody who is still passionate and dedicated in what they have chosen and isn’t sour because they didn’t get the opportunities they would have liked, they have taken it all in their stride and for me Michelle is one of those.
Annie is now playing at The Artscape Theatre until January 8th 2017. Tickets can be found here. You can follow Taryn on twitter. Special thanks to Allison Foat, Chanel Katz and Hannah Baker. A big thank you as well to Taryn Sudding and Delray Halgryn for letting us invade their dressing room.
Cover photo by: Chanel Katz