Donna Cormack-Thomson may be the new kid on the block but she has already taken the Cape Town theatre scene by storm. In her one short year since graduating from the UCT School of Drama, she has performed in Monster at The Cape Town Fringe Festival, The White Whore and The Bit Player at the Alexander Bar and now she is putting her spin on ‘Melody’ in The Fugard Theatre’s smash-hit return production of Bad Jews.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I started doing drama when I was about 8 years old and my aunt Nadia, she actually did it before me, always used to teach me accents and stuff like that and I started extra-mural drama with a woman called Merle Feldman. I did drama with her up until matric and she really inspired me to pursue acting. Probably since the age of 12 I’ve had my kind of plan. I worked quite hard to get a scholarship to a school that had a really good drama department. I then auditioned for UCT and got in and then I graduated last year.
You are jumping into the cast of Bad Jews. What was it about the piece that attracted you to the production?
I watched the play last year and it is an exceptional comedy and also a really nice piece of straight theatre which you often don’t have the opportunity to perform in, in a commercial sphere. I suppose it reminds me a little bit of my own family. I’m not Jewish but I do have Italian family and there are similaries but (it’s) just a stunning text. A really fantastic comedy and I enjoyed the show so much when I watched it.
What has it been like jumping into the company that has been together for so long?
It was quite nerve-wracking and quite intimidating as well. I have just finished drama school. This is my first big production. I have done a few plays this year but obviously Lara (Lipschitz) and Glen (Biderman-Pam) and Oli (Booth) and Greg (Karvellas) are quite experienced. It was nerve-wracking, but I was very prepared which was just something that I needed to do so I came on the first day of rehearsals and had my words down which was a good thing because obviously they have done the play for 16 weeks. They have been the most welcoming cast. I haven’t for one second felt like I am new or uninvolved at all. It has been quite high pressure but Greg and the other actors are quite amazing to work with. They have really looked after me and helped me. It has been a very good experience.
What is it like tackling the role of Melody?
Melody is interesting for me. She comes across possibly as not quite intelligent but I think there is a certain amount of emotional intelligence and I also think that she hides her own intelligence in a way. She was brought up with a certain idea of what young women should be possibly. I suppose its been about trying to find that combination of her humour and the comedy that comes out of the character and also that it should be sincere and there are parts where you do see her complexities come through. She is quite a pivotal role as a character in the argument and I think there are certain arguments that she poses which are interesting as well, not necessarily arguments that I agree with but it’s important for that for the narrative.
What are you most looking forward to about being in this production or playing this character?
I am so excited to be on The Fugard stage. It is an absolute dream. It is every actor’s dream. I am excited for the long run and just to work more with Lara, Oli, Glen and Greg. I suppose the difficult things that I’ll have to look at is maintaining the character throughout the run. It is the longest run of a performance that I have done thus far. That’ll be a tough one to try and maintain it but to also keep it fresh every night. I am excited for the challenge.
I saw you in Monster this year during the Cape Town Fringe…
Yes. And I had to sleep with the lights on after the show. I wanted to ask you about being part of that.
Kei-Ella (Loewe), the director, it was her final theatremaking piece at the end of our fourth year and we collaborated and devised the play together. We looked at the idea of loss because we had lost quite a close friend, one of my best friends, a few years ago so we wanted to explore something that we hadn’t felt ready to explore up until that point. It’s a tough play. It’s tough on the body and the mind and they are very complex issues that we dealt with but I think it was very special for us. It was a passion project. It didn’t make a lot of money off of the Fringe but it was really worth it and really something quite special for us. It is really one of those plays that either you love it or you hate it but I really enjoyed performing it.
Because of the way that play was structured, did you have to approach it differently to how you approach other projects?
Yes. It was the first production we had workshopped so we didn’t start with a script or anything like that. We started with an idea of some characters and we improvised and then through those improvisations we created scenes. Last year when we performed it it was only 20 minutes long so for The Cape Town Fringe we had to extend it quite a lot. The process was quite different. It’s very different to getting a text and sitting down and then you have something to work with for your character as well whereas we were creating as we were going along. It was very interesting and very organic.
When I was researching for this, one of your projects that I didn’t see but I am quite intrigued by because of the title is The White Whore and The Bit Player. What was that about?
The play was based on a character based on Jean Harlow or Marilyn Monroe. Essentially the play is set in the 10 seconds between when she commits suicide and when her body actually dies. It kind of followed her experience and it was an interesting thing because obviously Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow were big sex symbols at that time. It explored how one becomes a sex symbol. From Marilyn and Jean’s background they started out in very conservative homes, they were quite religious and then thrown into that industry and made into something. The ‘white whore’ and the ‘bit player’ were the two sides of, so Jazzara (Jaslyn), the other actress, we both played the same character but we both played different sides of the character. The one was the ‘whore’ side which was the sex symbol side and the other was the ‘bit player’ which is actually a nun side. It was about that internal dilemma, her loss of identity and within the loss of identity finally about how she lost hope and committed suicide. It is a non linear play, also a really beautiful text and a comedy but also quite sad. It was interesting and that was my first production out of drama school.
I wish I had seen it because I feel like there are so many things you can explore.
There are really so many also because we did get asked these questions; “Do we think that it is still relevant to perform now?” Which is something that a lot of people really do ask and I felt like it was extremely relevant because women are still objectified in the film and TV industry. Those things resonate from that point until right up till now.
Like you mentioned with the objectificiation that does happen and is very prevalent right now, you are at the beginning of your career, what do you do to ensure that you are not exposed to that?
I would say I always have the mindset of saying that my work will speak for itself. I like to keep a professional relationship with my contemporaries. I suppose there is, for a lot of younger actresses, the idea of going out and drinking with directors and getting close to them in a sense might get them jobs. Maybe it does but I think if you work hard and you apply yourself, that should be enough. I don’t know how one isn’t exposed to that but I think it is about not buying into it and rather letting your work speak for you.
I feel like, and this might be a generalisation, but with the younger generation of actors there seems to be a sense of women starting to stand up for themselves and their worth by demanding more without fear of consequence.
It can be tough because I suppose it is still quite a male dominated industry in many ways. I think it is changing a lot and like you said, a lot of younger women are setting their boundaries and going for what they want which is not to be objectified. I feel like that is changing what we are doing but on the other hand it is also quite difficult because we don’t always have choice in terms of what we do. I know for myself I do a lot of castings for the typical dumb blonde vibe which is not what I want to be doing but that is my look I suppose for the moment. I think it’s just about keeping your integrity about your work and choosing wisely.
And remembering that you do have a choice.
The minute we start putting our integrity before our careers is the minute we start to see change and it is not going to happen until everyone puts that before the money or the recognition.
Exactly because that is the problem. If one or two actresses can say no but there are a million others who will take the job then that doesn’t change anything. The more women that choose integrity before their career is when that will change completely.
I wanted to ask you about your new coffee and art bar Ground.
Oh yes! My parents moved down to Cape Town in June. My brother moved down in May. My mom is an architect and my dad has been working in construction for many years. They lived in Pretoria and they finally decided to move down and pursue a dream that they have always had which was to open up a restaurant/ coffee shop. They wanted a coffee shop but also wanted something a little bit different. I have a lot of friends that are artists and I have been quite interested in that area as well so I suggested possibly doing a micro-exhibition wall with the main purpose of nourishing young artists. We only take on young artists and the shop helps them in terms of paying for framing because there are a lot of young artists who wouldn’t be able to frame their works or have them presented in a professional sphere. That is going really well. It is very exciting. The new exhibition that is up now is Amy Ayanda, her stuff is beautiful and also very feminine which is lovely because the coffee shop does have quite a masculine feel to it but it is very beautiful and colourful.
Now at the beginning of your career, with so much to look forward to, what are your hopes for the future?
I actually just got my first international series job which will start after Bad Jews. This year I’ve done, this will be my fourth production, so I’ve spent most of my year doing theatre. Next year I would like to do some more film and series work. I don’t have a lot of experience in that and it is a whole other type of acting that I’d like to explore. I hope I’ll be able to book more jobs like that. There are a ton of directors and actors that I would really love to work with. I also have a few ideas and productions that I would love to create. I hope that I will. I’ve been very lucky in the work that I have received thus far and I hope that will continue. I suppose my dream is to be successful and well respected in this industry. Hopefully I can get there.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Emily Child is definitely one of my favourite actresses. Bo Peterson is also really incredible. Susan Danford is also an exceptional actress. I performed with Daneel van der Walt in Anthlogy which Louis Viljoen directed and she is also an absolutely incredible actress. She gave me a lot of advice this year that was really helpful to me. One of the things she said was “when you are stressing about getting the roles or not getting the roles or who is booking the roles remember that not every story is yours to tell.” I’ve kept that in mind throughout this period, if I do lose work, that not every story is yours to tell.
Cover photo by Justin Munitz.