Sandra Prinsloo is a true doyenne of the South African performing arts industry. It was estimated that she has performed in over 100 different productions and with no signs of slowing down anytime soon, that number could very easily double. Currently, she is starring in So Ry Miss Daisy which sees her reunited with John Kani, 30 years after working together for the first time in the ‘controversial’ production of Miss Julie.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was involved with ballet from a very young age. My mother sent me to ballet for my deportment and then it become rather a passion. I loved dancing and although I was a very shy child, I found that I was quite good at acting out things in dance, more so than technically brilliant. And that really, I think was the first step towards perhaps what became a career because I hadn’t really envisioned being an actress. I went to university to study drama simply because it sounded a bit more exciting than just a straight BA. But then I started ushering at the Breytenbach Theatre in Pretoria and somehow the magic of the theatre was always there. Although, I didn’t really think [that] I would be an actress, it must have somehow rubbed off because when I was offered a contract initially with the, then PACT performing arts council, I actually turned it down because I thought “Oh no I don’t think I want to be an actress.” Then, I said “Yes, I’ll do two plays.” And then I started working with Marius (Weyers) and we were sort of an instant theatre couple onstage. From the moment we started working together onstage there was some sort of chemistry and Marius taught me so much. We did a lot of extra work. We worked at night when everyone had gone home and we would rehearse our scenes. I think he was a great inspiration to me.
I find that so interesting that you just sort of stumbled into it now having done, I think I read, 100 productions.
Oh now it is much more.
You were turning down contracts and are now one of the most well recognised stage and film actresses in South Africa.
It is funny how it panned out. Also, I was very lucky. I’ve always had good mentors. Francois Swart, who was at that stage the artistic director and he was a wonderful mentor to have in theatre. That was another thing that influenced me and sort of egged me on and got me excited about work. We were doing very exciting and interesting work at that time. We worked very very hard. I was forced into big parts from a very young age, probably sometimes being forced into playing roles that I wasn’t quite ready for but there is nothing like being pushed into something like that to give you maturity as a young actress. That was marvelous. Also, we played in different mediums; comedy at night and then during the day we’d be rehearsing a very tragic play. The range was big. All those things, I think, just contributed to realising that theatre is a family and it is not easy to say goodbye to family.
Going off of that family aspect, you are reuniting with John Kani in So Ry Miss Daisy. What was it about this piece that attracted you to this production?
A number of things. Working with John again, definitely. We had been talking about maybe doing something together again and we never got together. Very much like Marius and I had been talking about doing something and we hadn’t worked together in 28 years or something. Maybe longer. I’ve always loved working with Christiaan Olwagen. He is just a marvelous director. And Saartjie (Botha) who I know is a fantastic translator so I knew the script was going to be great. What was there not to do? I had to do it.
When I was researching for this, I noticed that almost every single interview makes reference to your first experience working with John Kani in Miss Julie and how you had to get escorted to your car every night because it was a very different time…
With bomb threats and things.
I saw you both walk out after opening night and it was such a warm response. I was wondering if you could talk about that shift and how it feels to be where you are now?
It’s wonderful because it’s strange, it’s almost with all that pressure gone, social pressure, political pressure gone, it is actually a wonderful relief. It is so nice. It is so nice that one can just do your work and not get involved in any of that stuff. I think at our age too, John and I are much more relaxed about everything and we just so enjoy telling a story together. That is the big thing about theatre, is telling a story. It is a lovely story with lots of nuances and delicacy. It is very gratifying to know that we don’t have to go through that sort of pressure again, we don’t have to fight those battles.
It’s wonderful and it is particularly wonderful working with a director like Christiaan Olwagen who brings it up to date and puts a modern spin on it, which I think it needs. He is not religiously in awe of the script, although we do stick to the script. Nowadays, you just have to cut, some of the plays are just far too long. Also, they can be a little stuck in time, I suppose. What Christiaan does is he has the courage, and it is a very courageous thing to do, to grab it by its coat tails and bring it up to date. It is not as if he doesn’t have respect for it, he does have respect for the original script and he doesn’t do any damage, I think, but for me it is very exciting to be working with a young director like that.
This might be an unfair question but out of all the productions you have done, do you have a favourite?
There are always favourites of course but there are many. I must say I loved doing Die Seemeeu. I loved doing Virginia Woolf but it was tough, emotionally [and] physically. It is a tough role. I love doing this and then I loved both my one woman shows. I loved doing Oskar en die Pienk Tannie and Die Naaimasjien. I remember years ago working with Marius and I were doing The Taming of The Shrew in Afrikaans. That was a production that was laughter. I always love what I am doing but there are some plays that are closer to your heart. This is such a joy to perform. It is such a joy, I can’t tell you. It’s marvelous to have the privilege to do that.
It’s a joy to watch.
I was quite surprised to go through that rollercoaster of emotions because you think you know the story but then to see it done in this way…
There’s subtleties and shifts. I think setting it in South Africa brings it much closer to our understanding of what is going on. It is instantly recognisable whereas if we had done it American…
…Then it becomes slightly more removed. Is there anything on you professional bucket list that you would still like to do?
I love my work and I love working and I would just like to carry on working. I’m starting rehearsals tomorrow for a new one woman show which was written by a very young writer/director in Afrikaans called Moedertaal. It is a beautiful script. The talent amongst the youth is just extraordinary. There is such a wave of brilliance coming through. It’s inspiring and I hope that I am going to be part of that.
I feel like a lot of young theatremakers will read that sentence and just die at their computers seeing that someone of your stature has such hope and acknowledgment for this new generation.
I think there is also a lovely knowledge. Actors are insecure, always. Young actors come to me sometimes and ask me “Do you sometimes feel like you are not good enough or you are not going to make it?” And I say “Yes, but that is not important because one must move the emphasis from yourself to the work.” Then you are not that afraid because if you are afraid that you won’t be good enough, that is not the question. The question is “What does the work ask of me?” Do the work honestly and properly and that is all you can do and go out there and share it. That is what we are here for, to share.
Did you ever have a moment in your career when you thought that maybe acting wasn’t for you anymore?
Absolutely. Three times actually that I was quite sure that I had to stop being an actress. One goes through those things and it has a lot to do with growth. You can’t just grow all the time. You grow incrementally and in steps. It happens that you grow for a while and then you stop. That is how we develop as people as well. Actors also develop like that and it’s when you are in those limbo stages where you feel like you can’t go anywhere, that you can’t go forward where you get a bit depressed. Nowadays, I just love the work. I just enjoy the work. I don’t worry about the limbo bits anymore.
What is your perception of the evolution of South African theatre?
Firstly, I think I must say that I think theatre is in a pretty good space. I think that there are some wonderful productions being done, wonderful work that is being done. I think stuff that can stand on the international stage any day and can be recognised is good. I feel as though we are still a little bit isolated in terms of sharing with the world on a bigger stage. It would be interesting if we, and I am not necessarily talking about, I’m actually definitely not talking about America or even England, I’m talking more of perhaps Eastern Europe and all of that, very difference influence. When I was at the Edinburgh Festival doing my one woman play, I went to all the performances on the main stream. It was wonderful to see the different approaches. You see how the Japanese do Macbeth, you see how the Poles do Macbeth. The influences are so fascinating to see. We are a little bit isolated but I certainly think that theatre is in quite a healthy space. We still worry about audiences and audition development but I don’t think it’s unique to South Africa. I think it’s a bit harder here but it’s not unique.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
There are many. There is somebody like Marlene le Roux who is the CEO of Artscape. I think she is a tremendously inspiring, energetic, brave woman. There are really many. There is someone like Rhoda Kadalie who I think is fearless. She is very interesting but I like to stay away from the personal scene a little bit. There are actresses that inspire me, there are artists that inspire me. I am very inspired by visual arts. I love visual arts and I go to exhibitions quite regularly. I’ve just been to an exhibition in Stellenbosch where they did “Bosch in Africa” and they got modern artists to reinterpret the idea of Hieronymus Bosch and what he was dealing with. It was just so incredibly inspiring and I always think “Where do people get these ideas from?” There are a lot. There are a lot of strong women. Helen Zille is a strong woman. There is Patricia de Lille. There’s Lara Foot and Lara Bye. I’m scared of naming them because I will probably leave the most important ones out. There are just many people who I work with that I so admire.
All photos taken by Chris de Beer and The Fugard Theatre on 16 March 2017.