Penelope Youngleson is a theatre-maker, designer, writer, composer, stylist and educator working in Cape Town. Her Award-winning play, Sillage which was just nominated for a Fleur du Cap Award for Best New South African script, will be presented by Rust Co-Operative as it returns to the Alexander Bar. We sat down with Penny at the Alexander Bar to chat about Sillage, her childhood experience of growing up in the theatre and the one question that she constantly gets asked.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I grew up in Durban and my mother was in NAPAC which was the old sort of provincial theatre company. She worked in costumes so I grew up watching a lot of shows and being backstage a lot, which I really loved, as well as getting to listen to people in the theatre, getting to listen to audience members in the auditorium, and getting a sense of what was and what wasn’t inspiring. There were two performances that were integral to me starting my career, the first was The Friendly Giant at the Playhouse in Durban. I went to see it and in the ceiling there were these little rolling clouds and these little lights that looked like stars. I remember going there and looking at them and thinking, “Oh, that’s nice” and then the play finishing and then going outside and it being sunny and being really confused and realising that there was a way to change your reality, which for me, filtered down much later. The second one was The Nutcracker. A company in Durban did The Nutcracker and after about 25 minutes of watching really intently and looking around really intently, in a very quiet moment, when everyone else was silent, I looked up and said very loudly, “When are they going to talk?” I realised that there were these rules and there was a way that the theatre worked and what you are and aren’t allowed to do and ways to precipitate change in that as well. Those were two things that really stick out in my mind of being the beginning of wanting to make my own work and also shift the way that work is being made.
What has been your perception about the evolution of South African theatre?
I think what has been really interesting is seeing the rise in independent theatre directly as a result of lack of funding and lack of subsidy, which is a good and a bad thing because it gives the power back to the producers’ hands. It also takes away a lot of freedom of expression because you don’t have the budget to play with. There’s lots of role players and variables as to why things are shifting in different spaces. I think what is very exciting to me is that we are seeing different voices. We are seeing different languages on stage. We are seeing different kinds of theatre-making practices being more and more prevalent. That is the direct result of the stalwarts who have been making theatre over the years. I don’t think it’s fair for any one kind of theatre-maker to claim anything because we are all working together. I certainly was incredibly influenced by Marthinus Basson and by Mark Fleishman and Jennie Reznek at Magnet Theatre. I have been very influenced by a couple of theatre practitioners and certainly also by theatre journalists. I think the shift towards more interesting independent work being made is only a good thing and I would argue that a lot of it is actually economical, which is fantastic because a lot of time in theatre we are trying to provoke. We are trying to provoke the status quo and make things new. To rely on a very stagnant process is very counterintuitive.
What can you tell us about Sillage?
It’s essentially a story about a mother and a daughter who are packing up the family home. They are packing up boxes and deciding [on] those piles that you make; keep, recycle, donate. If you try to distill your life, what do you keep? What is a lifetime worth? What does a lifetime accumulate, not just what you keep with you but what is important? And then on top of that, once you have made those choices about what you keep and what’s important to you, what is the distillation of what your life has meant over the years, which is a very emotional thing to do. I’ve packed up a couple of houses, my grandparents’ and recently my mom and dad’s. Before I wrote the play I actually helped them move and this whole idea of getting older and moving smaller and pairing down and what that means is a very tenuous thing and it’s a very emotional thing. On top of that there is another layer of them both being women, both being white women in South Africa, both come in with quite a lot of privilege and quite set identity pathways and how they layer themselves on top of those.
It’s a show about two women and written and directed by a woman, and it’s coming back for another run and has done incredibly well. I wanted to ask you where do you think the female voice in theatre currently fits in?
I can’t speak for all women and I can’t speak for everyone’s experience being women. A question I get asked a lot [is], “What is it like to be a playwright who writes for women?” I can’t do that. I don’t know what that means. That is assuming a whole bunch of things about what a woman is and what my work is capable of. My work appeals to a very specific kind of person, I’ll be honest about that. I used to be a part of a company called Rust Co-Operative which dissolved last year. Our company was called Rust Co-Operative because we cared about rusty things, things with a story that have been left outside that were a bit weathered, things that weren’t perfect. We weren’t and we aren’t interested in perfection because there is not a lot of give in it, you haven’t seen or experienced enough. In that sense, to be a female playwright and to write and work for women, I very rarely work with men, by choice, although there are some very talented performers out there, is because I am interested in the texture of women’s lives. I am interested in what it feels like. I am interested in what it feels like to be in this country right now. I had a fair amount of criticism with this play around it being a story of privilege and around it being a story that is exclusively white female, English-speaking South Africans which I’m not going to deny that it is. But it’s a story that I understand best because it’s one that I come from. I think there is a place for that as well and a place for all of us to resonate with it. I hope I write for everyone who wants to listen to what I have to say. I hope that I continue to work with really talented performers. I hope that the stories that I am sharing are not exclusive. I think that [it] would be really sad if we ghettoise ourselves because the whole point is that women have been excluded from the industry for so long. To further contain what it is that we can be by saying, “I am only going to do this” is a real shame. I partnered up with the understanding that I do tend to stick to one sort of vain, but in doing that it shines a bit of light on what the broader picture is around wanting to blow open the industry.
I think it’s interesting that you mention that you get posed that question because that doesn’t seem to be a question that’s ever posed to men.
I could be very wrong but I’ve certainly never been asked this question as a man because I am not one but I don’t think many men are asked what it’s like to be a man at all because it is assumed that that is the common experience. To be a woman working in this industry and a woman working as a playwright is peculiar. It’s interesting and that’s why people ask. That is what’s so sad to me.
There’s still very much a double standard even though we are in 2017.
I think it’s important to mention at this juncture that it is not just one gender or the other. There are multiple genders. There are multiple identities happening and there is very little representation happening outside of male or female. On stage there is very little representation outside of male or female in terms of writing, directing, being at the reigns of a project, and I think that is a huge oversight that so many of us are making, myself included, in terms of who we are working with and why. What stories are being told and how? And who are the gatekeepers and how do we get them to let go of the gate without appropriating stories that don’t belong to us? If I am a woman then I understand that there is already a small gap for anyone else to get a chance, by me wanting to tell women’s stories in a way that I do, am I perpetuating the gatekeeping? Am I being part of something that is even more toxic and even more problematic by not acknowledging experiences outside of my own purely because I think I am doing the work?
What is something that you have found to be your biggest challenge?
A very big challenge of working in independent theatre is that a lot of what is required of you is to subsidise the dream, so as to make your own way. I love the autonomy of it but it means that there really is only space for this dream. It’s very difficult to do multiple things, it’s not impossible and I do know people who are doing it. I wonder sometimes around which dreams are more or less valid and around how much space we are allowed to occupy and what those spaces look like. A challenge for me, first of all has been money, just getting shows up and running. Bankrupting yourself multiple times. You are constantly struggling. There is never a time of rest or peace and the older I get, the more I value rest and peace, the more I value my family [and] the more I want to be involved in healthy, safe processes. I want performers to feel calm and loved. If I want fair, equitable, nourishing spaces I need to make them. And I need the resources to make them and I also need to care about self-care because I believe it trickles down.
What is something you are most proud of?
I think I am most proud of my relationship with my family and how I have moved away and come back and moved away and come back and they have expanded and contracted and we have moved in different directions and we have all found each other. I have a 17 year-old dog who I love very much. I have a mother who I have really grown close to in the last year in particular. I have an amazing sister and brother-in-law and a niece and a nephew. And the more I am aware of how much people need each other, the more I am proud of the fact that I have a family who is kind and who is good and who actually love me. And that is very rare.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I think that to choose a career in the arts, in general, is incredibly difficult. I think to choose it as a woman is very difficult particularly as a woman growing up and getting older. I think the women who have been at it, the women who have been doing it for years and possibly without reward. I met a couple of women at the conference last weekend who have been doing the work for decades now, beyond a place of recognition, beyond the half a million to a million rand budget, beyond the awards and the panel judges and the people falling at their feet, and they keep on everyday doing the work and writing new shows or designing new sets or throwing their thoraxes open on stage and saying, “I am going to be vulnerable. You can take what you like from this performance.” I think that’s a very brutal thing that we keep on doing to ourselves but it’s a vital thing as well because we are trying to change the story. We are trying to change the South African story of what it means to be a woman. I think, without examples, it’s incredibly difficult for younger people to be able to latch onto something that is outside their experience. I would say definitely anyone who is an artist who has been at this for more than 10 years is a hero and should be canonised because it is very very wearisome but it’s also very rewarding.
You can follow Penny on twitter.
All photos taken by Sophie Kirsch at the Alexander Bar on February 6th 2017.