A Conversation with Elizabeth Akudugu and Awethu Hleli

It’s that time of year again…Maynardville makes its triumphant return, this time tackling Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night directed by Geoffrey Hyland. Earlier this week we sat down with Twelfth Night’s two leading ladies, who are both making their Maynardville debuts; Awethu Hleli who is portraying the role of shipwrecked twin Viola and Elizabeth Akudugu who is playing Olivia. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

Elizabeth Akudugu: I guess for me it was my drama teacher in high school. I always loved acting and when I attended high school in New Jersey I had a really amazing drama teacher and she really encouraged me and made me believe that I could do it and that it was something that was tangible. 

Awethu Hleli: My family says I’ve always been a performer. I used to imitate all of my mom’s art from the age of six when I was still in primary school. Until high school it was just a hobby. I never did drama at school. It was only in my community, there is a guy called Loyiso Damoyi, who actually sat down with me and said “listen you are really good. Why don’t you go and study for this?” And then we had this festival at The Baxter called the Zabalaza Festival and met Thami Mbongo and he just spoke life into this whole thing and I was like “Ok I can do this.” I then started watching theatre pieces. I watched people like Chuma Sopotela, Faniswa Yisa and I was like “wow there are actually young women who are actually inspiring, who I see myself through them.”

This is both of your Maynardville debuts. Were you familiar with Maynardville before? Had you seen any previous productions there?

Elizabeth Akudugu: No. 

Awethu Hleli: No. I had never seen any show there. I had heard about it but I’ve only realise now how big it is when people’s response has been “you are performing at Maynardville! Do you realise how big that is?” 

What was it about this specific production that made you want to be involved?

Elizabeth Akudugu: For me it was actually kind of interesting because the first production I did in high school was Twelfth Night but I played one of Olivia’s ladies in waiting. When I saw that they were doing it I thought “wow my first potential professional debut being Twelfth Night.” It’s kind of funny in a way.

Awethu Hleli: And now you are playing Olivia! 

Elizabeth Akudugu: I know. 

Awethu Hleli: For me it was Geoff [Hyland] because I never knew there were any auditions happening whatsoever. He gave me a call and said “listen, come through” and I thought “Maynardville? No. No.” Because I had worked with him before at drama school I was like “there is no way that I can’t work with him again.” I just had to. He is the only person who has made me fall in love with Shakespeare. I love his work. 

Awethu (left) as Viola/Cesario and Elizabeth as Olivia. Photo Credit: Pat Bromilow Downing

One of the things that I really love about Maynardville is that it is going to be a lot of school children’s first time seeing Shakespeare on stage. How do you feel about that?

Awethu Hleli: I had done a Shakespeare setwork book before but a Xhosa one at The Baxter, which was my first professional production. I am kind of excited. It is very interesting. It is so much different than a normal audience. I am quit excited to see the response. 

Elizabeth Akudugu: It’s very interesting because he [Geoffrey] has cast so diverse that I think it is lovely for kids of all racial backgrounds to actually see themselves on stage. The majority of us are actually quite young. Some of the cast members are only just entering university so I think it’s quite nice for them to also realise that it is something they can aspire to if they want to. And of course Shakespeare is cool. 

I found it quite interesting that the cast is filled with so many newbies and then you also have a couple of veterans sprinkled in there. Was that intimidating at all?

Awethu Hleli: A lot. For me it was scary. I was like “how am I going to do this? What have I gotten myself into?” Because we have Marc [Elderkin], we have Nicholas [Pauling], we have David [Johnson] and here comes this little girl from Khayelitsha trying to find her way into the industry and then boom… in Maynardville. It was quite intimidating in the beginning but the way that they have just made the space so safe and comfortable for us to explore and also learn from them, that’s what I really love because they were opening up for us to ask questions and help when we need help. 

Elizabeth Akudugu: I have to agree with Awethu. Before I started I was so nervous about it. It was quite intimidating but after a while, first of all they make it so comfortable for you to get used to them and to get used to the process. They are very understanding and patient. I think one of my biggest things was that I wasn’t used to this and what if I mess up? But they are so patient and understanding that you feel at home with them. You learn from them. 

Awethu and Elizabeth. Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

Often a lot of people think of Shakespeare as being very intimidating because of the text. Have you had to approach this differently to how you approach other material?

Awethu Hleli: Yes. You never get used to Shakespeare but you just have to learn to fall in love with the language. As Geoff always says “it is just a language.” It’s just a language. Otherwise it is still acting. You learn every time. It does get quite difficult at some point if you get stuck somewhere, somehow and you don’t know how to move on but that’s why Geoff is there. The text is really intimidating especially because English is not my first language to start off with. You learn how to speak the language and also it is heightened. 

Elizabeth Akudugu: First of all I agree with everything she said and also, obviously this is my first professional production so I am not sure how in-depth one works with a vocal coach in other productions. For this we have Claire Watling who has been drilling us and kneading the words into our mouths because it is quite difficult and like she said, you have to get used to the different way of speaking. It is not something I can do in my sleep but it’s gotten easier. I think we have all improved from when we first started. 

This is a completely new take on Twelfth Night. What do you hope audiences take away from the production?

Awethu Hleli: When I first had the conversation about the whole play with Geoff, I got the sense that it’s all about gender and sex. What is gender? Olivia falls in love with Cesario who is a girl. For me it meant that we fall in love with people, not gender. That is why Shakespeare is questioning gender. And also with Orsino, he has this thing and thinks “am I gay? what is happening.” Because he falls in love with this person. I think how Geoff has shaped everything, what he is trying to say is that you don’t really fall in love. We are human beings, sometimes sex or gender is not…

Elizabeth Akudugu: … You kind of fall in love with the spirit of the person. 

Awethu Hleli: Yes. 

Elizabeth Akudugu: And hopping off of that, especially looking at the climate of South African, particularly in the universities at this time and just in general, I think in a way it also shows that Shakespeare isn’t as dated as we think it is. It is also very relevant regardless of culture. His stories are relevant regardless of culture. I know that historically it’s always done a certain way and it is always cast a certain type….but I think that this is also to say that we can actually take that and make it our own. 

Awethu. Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

What I think is so great about this being your first professional production is that these are incredibly complex female characters. 

Awethu Hleli: Yes!

Nothing is stereotyped. It’s a great way to start your career. 

Elizabeth Akudugu: Definitely. It’s a blessing. It really is. 

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

Awethu Hleli: Jennifer Steyn! I would also say Chi MhendeChuma Sopotela and Koleka Putuma. I’d love to see more female theatre-makers because our directors and writers are male dominated and the women are always on stage. I’d love us women to actually create our own work, write, direct. I was looking at the list of directors who have directed Shakespeare at Maynardville and 90% of them are males. I’d love to see a Shakespeare production directed by females from their perspective. 

There was an incredible production of The Tempest a few years ago at The Baxter directed by Janice Honeyman. I don’t know if you saw it but it was phenomenal. 

Sophie Kirsch (photographer): Also Lara Bye

Elizabeth Akudugu: Yes, she did Richard the Third. I think The Tempest was actually the first Shakespeare I saw. For me I would have to say Jennifer Steyn, Lara Bye, Clare Stopford, Jacqui Singer, Koleka Putuma as well and Namisa Mdlalose.

Awethu Hleli: Can I also add one more? Jennie Reznek

Elizabeth Akudugu: Yes!

Awethu Hleli: I used to hate her physical theatre classes. That was in first year. But by third year everything just made sense. You are using those exercises that she used to annoy us but you go back and you watch her and you go, “Oh my god woman! Where do you come from?” She’s amazing.

Elizabeth Akudugu: I have two more. Jacki Job and Lesoko Seabe

Twelfth Night at Maynardville runs until February 25th 2017. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here. Unsure about how to survive your theatre under the stars experience? Click here to read Maynardville tips and tricks by our friend Georgiaonyourmind.

Special thanks to Shihaam Domingo, Hannah Baker and Sophie Kirsch.

All black and white photos taken by Sophie Kirsch at Artscape on January 17th 2017.


One thought on “A Conversation with Elizabeth Akudugu and Awethu Hleli

  1. Pingback: A Conversation with Tarryn Lamb, Carmen Maarman and Zandile-Izandi Madliwa – Sarafina Magazine

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