Amy Jephta is a playwright, columnist, screenwriter and director. Recently, her play Kristalvlakte was nominated for a Fleur du Cap Award for Best New Script. A self-proclaimed word nerd, Amy has written several full-length plays, many of which have been published. We sat down at the Book Lounge to discuss her exciting year ahead and the current climate for female playwrights.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was reading since I was about four years old. The first toy I ever had was a book. I feel like my parent’s commitment to making me a reader when I was very young made me interested in the written word. It was only when I got to high school where I started realising that I could write for the stage and that there was something magical about putting the words in live people’s mouths instead of words only being on a page. I could actually have them spoken by real people. But I definitely think it is my love for reading that started the whole journey.
Was there a book that was particularly impactful in your childhood?
Not one but a series, I loved Ladybird books. Those were my first books. I would get my pocket-money and every month I got to buy a new Ladybird book. I had a massive collection and the way I learned to read was by memorising the tape. I would listen to the tape and memorise the story and be able to repeat the words verbatim. I couldn’t read when I was two or three but I could memorise and speak them back and pretend to be reading so I knew when the pages would be turning. I think that whole series made me fall in love with reading.
You were the first recipient of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s Emerging Young Directors bursary. I’ve sat down now with Caroline and last year’s two female recipients (Ameera and Wynne.) What was that experience like and how did it work as a catalyst for your career?
It was really great because it was the first commissioned project that I was given coming out of university. It’s a struggle when you study theatre, a lot of young theatremakers wonder what’s your first job going to be. What is great about the bursary is [that] it gives you an immediate professional supportive environment, a budget to make work, a cast, a creative free rein. What that did for me was give me confidence. It was the first time that someone had invested in me as a theatremaker, as a playwright and that gave me confidence to go “Ok, I can do this for a living.”
Recently you were nominated for a Fleur du Cap Award. How does it feel to have your work recognised?
It’s obviously an honour. It’s always exciting when people have seen your work or people have heard your work. I don’t do it for acknowledgement or awards. I was doing it for a long time before. This is my first Fleur du Cap nomination and I’ve been doing this for about eight or nine years. It’s nice that the work that I put a lot of investment into and a lot of myself into got recognised but it’s not the end being for me.
You’ve been mentioned in a few interviews. Lesoko Seabe said, “I feel like she is working on Beyoncé hours.” Bianca Flanders said, “I don’t know when she sleeps because she just quietly rules the world.” To answer their questions, firstly when do you sleep and secondly how do you manage to get it all done?
I do sleep. I can’t function on under eight or nine hours a night. I have to sleep. I think how I get it all done is [that] I am very protective over my time. My time is how I make my money so I guard my time quite viciously. I don’t extend my energy unnecessarily. I give time to things that I think are important. I compartmentalise quite a lot. I set hours to work on the things and then I cut it off and I move onto the next thing. Working like that has really allowed me to be quite efficient so I am able to shift focus many times a day because I am always juggling three or four or five different things but it is about being vicious with your hours.
I wanted to know a little bit about your process. Where do you start when you first get an idea for a script?
I usually like a play or an idea to germinate for a while before I begin anything. I feel like I run out of steam quite quickly when I go to the page immediately. When I have something that I want to write, something that niggles in the back of my mind or something that feels like it should be on paper, I try to let it sit there. I always feel like if you come back to that idea after weeks or months and it is still there and it is still asking to be written and it’s still urgently needing to assert itself, then it is a valuable idea. Letting things germinate has been my process for a long time. Then, when I finally sit down to write it, the idea has been knocking for so long that it is just about me opening the door and it comes quite easily and quite quickly after that. I can usually write a play or a draft of a play in a couple of weeks but before that it is a lot of work and sitting with the idea six to eight months or however long it takes.
What is the type of work that you feel you gravitate towards?
I write a lot about my personal history which is tied up to my politics. I always carry my politics around in my body. I write about womxn* of colour. I write about things that I see in my community, things that I grew up with, things that affected my childhood. I write about my country. I want to make work about South Africa. I want to make work that is tied to this social-context that we are in. I never want to make work that is about nothing or about no time/no place. I feel like it is my obligation and my duty as a writer, to reflect my world.
What is your perception on the current climate for South African womxn writers?
I think it is promising. A few years ago I would be hard-pressed to name any young up-and-coming playwrights, authors, poets and now I feel like there is a change especially with womxn of colour starting to write their stories. They are starting to grab their identities, they are starting to realise that their stories are necessary to the world. I am really optimistic. I am really hopeful for a lot of young writers that are coming up now and the established ones, that I at least am seeing, are producing more work and the visibility is a lot higher than it was a few years ago.
I know there was recently a conference for womxn playwrights. Does there seem to be a very big support network amongst that community?
Womxn want to support one another, which I always find really inspiring. My work is an advocate for womxn creatives. I think of myself of an enabler. I think of myself as a person who makes connections between people and in doing that kind of work, I have found that womxn really do support and want to see other womxn succeed. The easiest way to get to the top is for us to grab hold of one another and lift ourselves together. It is kind of impossible to do it alone. There is a support network and through my various contacts and being involved in various organisations, I have found that womxn generally do want to see other womxn succeed.
Do you feel like there is anything that can be done by the public or the government to ensure that female voices are being heard?
We know that in this country there is an economic disparity. The poorest of the poor and poor black womxn especially are still at the bottom of the socio-economic strata and there is still so much work to do to enable those womxn to be heard and for them to speak for themselves, for their stories to be brought to light. As an artist, my contribution to that is to make those stories heard in some way to enable those womxn to tell their own stories to enable their stories to reach a broader public but there are lots of other things that need to be done on a more practical level to ensure that economically those womxn are brought up to the same standard, politically that they are held in the same regard, that we are all held in the same regard and I guess I see my job as an artist as a contributor to seal part of that.
I recently chatted with Marlene le Roux and we spoke about audience integration and she said that it was something that would probably not be something that would be solved in her lifetime. It’s depressing to hear that it isn’t as easy to solve as we all think it is.
Structural inequality is not something that can be fixed. You can’t fix years and years of decades of oppression of our legacy as a country or apartheid, you can’t fix that in 20 years. 20 years is a tiny smidgen of time to try and fix something that is so deeply embedded in our country. It is like a structural thing. You can’t really shift that in any significant way in such a short amount of time but I do think that individuals can contribute at least trying to force that earthquake to happen in your small sphere of influence, the tiny networks that you can reach, you can begin to make some form of change.
You are a role model for a lot of up-and-coming female theatremakers. To you feel like you have gotten to a point where there is an expectation or pressure from others towards your work?
Sure. I always feel obligated in some sense and because I see myself as existing in a multiplicity of identities, like I fulfill many identities, I am coloured, I am a coloured womxn, I am an Afrikaans-speaking coloured womxn. All those boxes obligate me to speak for a certain community or a segment of community and sometimes it is difficult because I feel like I can only tell my own personal truth. I can only put my truth into the work. I can’t always be thinking about the politics and the ramifications of what I say to everyone and how it is going to read for everyone. I can’t report to speak for everyone like me, even people who are in bodies like mine, we can’t ever share the same realities. I can only be subjective. There is a little bit of a pressure but I think getting older helps with that. As I get older, I start to let go of that expectation a lot. I don’t feel the need to please everyone or speak for everyone. I realise that I just can’t. It’s not possible.
What is something that you are most looking forward to?
This year I’m doing three things that I personally felt were career goals and it’s very exciting that they are going to be accomplished. The first thing, I just did, was directing for live TV, which I had never done before and has always been a thing that I wanted to do. I just directed the Fiestas. The second thing I wanted to do was write a screenplay by myself and have it produced and filmed. I’ve written two films but always with a team. This is my first solo screenplay and it is being filmed now and is being released in March next year. The third thing I wanted to do was write a musical. It’s always been a thing that I wanted to do and I’m about to start that with a great support structure and a great producer. I am really looking forward to it.
What have you found to be your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge has just been looking after myself. I have, in the past, over-stretched myself a lot. I have said yes to too many things. I have taken on too many energies from various projects and people and I guess I am starting to realise that my greatest asset is to just stay healthy to protect myself, my mind and my psyche. The challenge has been to start saying no. It’s been a struggle for a long time because I don’t like people to feel badly about me and I feel like I need to please everyone all the time but now I’ve learned that saying no can be a positive thing and a healthy decision.
What is something you are most proud of?
I’m most proud of being the first person in my family to complete my master’s. That was quite a big step in my family and my extended family. It is a piece of paper but symbolically it meant a lot more. To my family, to my extended family, that master’s degree meant that it was a generation that had gone beyond what the previous generation had done.
What advice do you have for young theatremakers or young artists?
My thing is always, if you are not going to give value to yourself, no one else is going to value you. That value is economic value. Value your contribution. The work you put in is worth money. Don’t work for free. Don’t work for favours or exposure. Value your time enough that you demand being paid for it. Value that the thing you are doing has meaning and that the work you are making is contributing to the world. If you see it as just a hobby or something to just pass the time while you are waiting for a real job, no one else is going to ascribe the value to your thing. You need to know that what you are contributing is worth something.
Who are some South African womxn in the arts that inspire you?
I am inspired by Faniswa Yisa and Warona Seane. They are fearless. To me they are some of the bravest womxn in the arts I know because they are not afraid to say whatever they are thinking or feeling. That braver is something I really aspire to. I value Lesoko (Seabe) who I know is a friend of mine so I am slightly biased but she is taking her industry by the balls. She is everywhere and not a lot of people know it. She has infiltrated everything.I look up to Kelly-Eve Koopman and Sarah Summers a lot. They have somehow also quietly managed to build up something of real significance and start a really valuable conversation with their documentary.
This conversation with held at The Book Lounge in Cape Town.
*Amy has elected to use the spelling ‘womxn.’