Chloe Perling is an actress, singer and dancer. Currently she has returned to her role of Consuela in The Fugard Theatre’s production of West Side Story which makes its Johannesburg transfer. In her short time since graduating from The Waterfront Theatre College, Chloe has starred in three back-to-back Fugard musicals including Cabaret, West Side Story and The Rocky Horror Show and made her on-screen debut in Warner Brother’s A Cinderella Story: If the Shoe Fits.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Like most little girls, I started dancing when I was three years old. My nana sent me to ballet lessons and from a young age I absolutely loved it. As I got a bit older, I started doing modern dancing as well and then I also wanted to do tap. At school, I was always in the choir and drama plays and things like that. It started from a very young age and it was because I was sent to ballet.
When did you decide to pursue this professionally?
I think it was probably when I was about 16. I come from Durban and there is a young performers project and they hold auditions and do a musical every June/July holiday with high school students from all over. I auditioned for that and I got into the show. It was my first proper musical and you really get a taste of what it’s like to be in the musical theatre industry. It was then that I realised how much I loved it. Before then it was very much all dance and I used to spend my July holidays doing dance competitions which are quite competitive. Although I enjoyed it, it didn’t give me that same joy that I got from when I did the musical.
I wanted to ask you about your experience at The Waterfront Theatre College.
I was at TUT initially and we went through a bit of a difficult patch with the change of lecturers and a lot of the training changed there. I decided to move over the The Waterfront. I arrived and went straight into third year which was initially a bit of a challenge because I was this new person who suddenly jumped in, but moving to The Waterfront was actually the best thing for me because I had always been a really good dancer but not a very confident singer. Having had two years of musical theatre training in Pretoria, I went to The Waterfront with that behind me and I got a lot of positive affirmation about being a singer. It gave me a lot of confidence that actually I am a singer as well and I can do that too. The Waterfront was just amazing and I made so many different friends. You are in this tiny little building, it’s buzzing, you go from class to class. I absolutely loved my time there. You work really hard, in fact a lot harder than you work when you are in the industry.
Almost right out of the gate you booked your first professional production.
Before I graduated I went home to Durban for a holiday and there were auditions for West Side Story. I went and I booked the show starting rehearsals that September. I landed up doing all my practical exams in June in Cape Town and then I went and did West Side Story and I did my theory exams in Durban. I jumped straight into the industry which was exactly what you want. It was kind full-circle because when I first finished school I had a gap year and I did My Fair Lady with Ralph Lawson at the Playhouse. I had the intention to go and study musical theatre then, and my first production was West Side Story back at the Playhouse directed by Ralph. It was really cool to work in that environment again having had a whole lot of knowledge and gained so much more confidence as a performer.
Was the school quite supportive of the fact that you were going into the professional world before graduating?
They were. Because I had only spent two years at the college, there was a little hesitation from the teachers because I could have done more at the college in terms of doing my dance associates (degree) and things like that but because I had four years of training they were supportive.
It is quite a scary thing to suddenly leave that comfort zone of studying before graduating and have that confidence to know that you are ready to do this.
I think perhaps, I was definitely at a point where I felt ready to go into the industry. I felt like I was ready to do it perhaps because I had a little bit of experience, mainly children’s theatre and the one musical in my gap year, that gave me the confidence to know that I could do it even though I was a shy little mouse when I did my first production and very much felt like a child among adults.
It’s interesting to me that pretty much your last three professional productions have been with The Fugard. What has that experience been like?
It was such a blessing getting involved with The Fugard. I had just finished West Side Story and I had decided that I would move to Johannesburg because that is where most musical theatre work is, that was the impression I was under. I moved there and nothing was coming up and I started au pairing and teaching dance as a matric subject during the mornings. It was then that they were looking for a swing for Rocky Horror. I auditioned and I got the part and it was in Cape Town. I had just moved my whole life to Joburg and now it was off to Cape Town. The girl who was one of the phantoms in Rocky pulled out and therefore I became a phantom and not the swing. From that I went into Cabaret and then straight into West Side. The Fugard really is like a family. When I see Lamees (Albertus) and Daniel (Galloway), the team knows me. Iris (Bolton), the lady at the front of the house at The Fugard is really like a mother figure. Louisa (Talbot) and Matthew (Wild) are so creative. Charl-John Lingerfelder is just incredible. I’ve loved every minute of working with them. Its felt comfortable going back to it.
I wanted to ask you about the challenges that you face when you take on the position of a swing.
I did that for Cabaret. I was the swing for the six Kit Kat girls and I found it very challenging learning all the tracks but I found it difficult emotionally, not being able to perform as much every night. I was an onstage swing but my part was quite minimal. I didn’t do much dancing at all. I found that quite hard to stay feeling inspired but at the same time I had to know exactly what I was doing because at any time I could have to jump onstage. It did happen like that. I went to the show one evening and we had warmup and just before warmup Shelly, the assistant director came up to me and said “Chloe, you are on tonight for Lara.” That was when I found out. I left warm up and ran upstairs. I always took my laptop with me. I had a wide-view of the show on video and that for me was the best. I went and studied my video and I got ready and jumped in and it was crazy because there were lifts and partner work and things that I had never done before. I ended up going on for a week because Lara was ill. That was my experience of a swing. It was during that period that there were auditions for a German cruise line. I had to learn two German songs and three English songs, quite a lot of work, but I felt inspired and like I needed something to do. I landed up getting a contract to work six months on a German cruise line. That swing experience also gave me that.
You had your ship contract between West Side Story gigs. Was there any downside or challenge of making that decision?
I finished West Side in August and I had gotten the ship contract knowing that I would only be going in June the following year which limited me from auditioning for a lot of stuff that year which I found difficult to keep turning down. It made finding work in that in between gap quite difficult. It was in that in between gap that Cinderella happened. That was a huge surprise and completely something different. Working on the ship was the first time that I was ever employed as a singer. I think almost just having that title, I get emotional saying it, it was a big thing because I’ve always thought of myself as a dancer who can sing and act. To be employed as a singer was quite something. On the ship I had to sing half in English and half in German. It was a challenge to learn all the German. Just being able to get called a singer and feel like a singer did a lot for me as a performer in terms of my confidence.
I’d love to touch on that fact that in the context of our friendship we have had a lot of discussions about finding stability in this profession and how important that is to you. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing some of your thoughts.
It’s definitely a big thing for me and something that I find difficult about this industry and this career. I think since I left home when I was 18, I’ve moved probably six or seven times and haven’t really lived in the same place for more than four to six months at a time. It’s hard not to have a home base and I know, if I’m very honest, in life I want to have that stability and have family and friends around me. It’s definitely something that is high up on my list and it’s a challenge. I hope that one day I’ll be able to settle and for there to be enough work to do what I love and have a career in theatre at the same time as being settled in one place. If that means there is a show that is amazing and doing a tour for a bit? Yes. Majority of the time I would love to be stationed in one city. It’s a huge challenge in the industry and I am studying communication science at the moment through UNISA which I am hoping I can mix with the performing industry and perhaps, I don’t know but it’s a thought that having a degree and being able to do something more corporate as a filler might create that stability for me.
Last year you booked your first feature film, Cinderella. What was that like? You are trained in musical theatre. Did the process differ for you at all?
It was very different. To be completely honest, it all happened quite quickly. I think they had been auditioning for the part and hadn’t found anyone and I got a call from my agent to audition, I think it was the next day. I went not really knowing that this was a big deal and a big movie. I auditioned and I got it. Even the first day just going on set, I was completely gobsmacked by the way I was treated. I had my own trailer. I had a lift to set each day if I wanted it. It was completely different and I didn’t expect that. In terms of working with film rather than on stage, I found it very challenging, I think because I had never done it before. It is not what I know. I found it very difficult having cameras around you and a whole lot of people watching you all the time. I felt quite self-conscious whereas with theatre I feel that I am far enough away from people to kind of do my thing. With theatre, you are able to get into a role and have a bit of a throughline so you know where you are and it kind of makes sense. With film, most of the time I was doing a scene to a camera and not actually talking to a person and we did things out of sequence. It was jumping into something and I had to be on and give that emotion or the truth to what I was saying. It is very different to theatre and I wish that we had done more film work when I was training.
To spin this slightly more personally, because this is the first time I’ve sat down to interview a friend, I’ve always described you to people as being quite unfazed by the industry. You do this because you love it. You are able to jump in and jump out and you are very good at separating that. Is that a conscious choice to have that mentality and how do you maintain that?
Theatre is something that I love and I’ve always done. It is part of who I am. In life, I tend to try to be someone who doesn’t get fazed over silly things. I try to do the same with the theatre industry. I think it’s just the way I am. I love going to work each day. I go to an audition and do my best and I’m sure I want it just as much as most people, but when I first started auditioning and I didn’t get something it did faze me. I’ve gotten to a point, and I really do see that it is true, if something is meant to be it will be. If it doesn’t happen it’s ok because something else will come up and there will be a reason for that. You will learn from that experience of not getting something. You will learn how to deal with the in between and I think it is just a part of life.
You are now jumping back into West Side Story, 18 months after the first run of the show. What are you looking forward to about revisiting this role?
It will be the third time that I am playing Consuela and the third time that my hair is going to be dyed bleach blonde. It’s the same material but we have a lot of new cast members which is exciting because there is a fresh energy. The last time I did West Side Story, I had a very bad back injury. I found the run quite challenging dealing with that and keeping it under wraps every show. I continued performing but I was taking Cataflam and going to physio. I tried to prepare my body this time by doing some core exercises and feeling fit and ready going into rehearsals. I am excited to revisit Consuela, being free from pain, and to really dive into it. She is really feisty and has a lot of chutzpah. I want to try play that more and make her really sassy and just have fun with her.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
There are so many names of people who I have heard of and look at their CV’s and what they have done and that I find inspiring but I haven’t actually met them on a personal level. I find that generally in life it is not about accomplishments, it’s how you are as a person that inspires me the most. Jenny Stead is so inspiring for me. She is a mom to twins. We used to go to Rocky Horror on a Saturday and her kids would come and play. I definitely want that one day, to be able to have a career and balance being a great mom. I find her very inspiring not to mention that she is also an amazing actress and performer. Also, Taryn Sudding. I went to watch Annie and she is just flawless. Her voice and the kind of person she is shows so much through her performance. She is just a warm gentle person. What always stuck out to me was that I was an extra nun in The Sound of Music and one day we did a dance class and she noticed me and asked me my name and I introduced myself. The next day she was like “hello Chloe!” She remembered my name and I commented and I said “that is so amazing. I can’t believe you remembered my name.” I’ve always watched her in the industry and been so inspired. She is amazing. There are so many more but I will stop there.
You can catch Chloe in West Side Story now playing at The Joburg Theatre until March 5th. For tickets click here. For more about West Side Story, read our conversations with Chloe’s co-stars Lynelle Kenned, Bianca Le Grange and Ipeleng Merafe.
Cover photo by Jason Hardaker. All photos given with permission by Chloe Perling.