Over the course of her career, stage and screen actress Jennifer Steyn has gifted audiences with some truly iconic performances. Fresh off her recent Fleur du Cap Theatre Award win for her role as Sara in Lara Foot‘s The Inconvenience of Wings, Jennifer is back on stage, this time tackling the role of the strong-willed painter Galactia in Howard Baker’s Scenes from an Execution. In addition to her work as an actress, Jennifer is also a director and a voice and performance teacher. We sat down with her at the Baxter Theatre to discuss her new production, her career and the moments that have inspired her.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I suppose, ultimately it was my mother. She was an am-dram actress in George. She was the doyenne of The George Arts Society but she was really like a complete natural. I was also the youngest in my family and I think I got my needs met by clowning. I think I tried to keep everything light and happy and funny by sort of clowning. It wasn’t really “another actor,” it was something that came from my internal need as a child. It was like survival.
What was it about this production that made you want to be involved?
I worked with Clare [Stopford] on Green Man Flashing and before that, most importantly, on David Hare’s Skylight. There was just an enormous amount that she taught me in Skylight. We’ve been friends for a very long time. She asked me, she said that if I do it, she’ll do it. And of course I said yes. When she spoke of the fact that there would be some students involved, I just thought what an extraordinary opportunity in a great play to work and teach at the same time. I do sometimes teach and I’m sure that they’ve learned a lot on how to do things and also how not to do things.
It’s almost like trial under fire for them because they are sharing the stage with you, Graham Hopkins and your husband, Nicky Rebelo, who are all such veterans. How has the process differed working with a mix of students and veterans?
It’s fascinating in that, as an older actor, you get to absolutely see the things that you’ve taken for granted that are so key to your technique or process. You just kind of think that it is always there but it isn’t. It is something that you learned. That you have honed and toned and tuned over the years that now it sort of feels natural but when you work with younger actors you can see various things they know, that they’ve been taught but it is just not completely in their bodies yet. And then one is wanting to teach, you are wanting to share but then there comes a point in the process where you just have to let the play and the director lead. There was a lot of teaching and sharing. You are never finished as an actor. The process of learning carries on. It never ends. They come with certain things that they haven’t finished and in their freshness of their process and their approach, you are reminded of beautiful things. The energy where you kind of get spoilt because you are used to working in professional productions and now you are working in something that is lower budget, more explorative in terms of this mix between young and old performers and they just get on with it. You just see [that] they just get on with it. It’s a very good reminder that if you need a prop or if you need something, just get it. Make it happen. If something isn’t happening, just be in the story. That is the biggest thing that I have learned in this process. If things are perfect, just stay in the story and commit to the character.
Galactia is such an incredible and complex character. One of the lines that stuck out to me the most was when she said, “Try not to think of me as a woman, think of me as a painter.” What is it about this character that speaks to you?
One of my favourite lines of hers is, “I am great because I concede at nothing but utterly was myself.” The process that we all go on, everybody, to sit in your soul’s code, to sit in your truth, to find your way to live in your truth is extremely challenging as a human being, woman or man. I love the fact that she just does not compromise. She doesn’t compromise on her work. She doesn’t compromise for the doing of her work either. That could be a feminist thing but it would be the same for a man. For men and women it’s the same. I love that about her. And at the same time, she is a human being so she is torn and she does compromise because she is in love and she is in love with somebody who is much younger than her and that gets her all caught up and tripped up, behaving at times in a way that is not what she should be doing. That is what she grapples with. She is fiercely fantastic and fiercely flawed and that is what makes her a real human being. The whole issue [with] Nicky’s character, Suffici the Admiral, is that she (Galactia) struggles to paint [him] because he is this sensitive guy carrying a gun. He speaks about, I forget the line now. It is such an important line. “The avoidable war and the unavoidable war.” That is a very difficult thing to argue with because there are revolutions and unfortunately there are violent revolutions. I am a complete pacifist but I know that it seems to me that history holds relentless violent journeys. The other thing that I love about this character is her speech about capitulation. To capitulate to what is. Some time ago I did some work with Tossie van Tonder, the dancer and just amazing woman. My impulse was a response to my country, to leadership, to global ways in the world which just feel like we have to go, “Well that’s just the way it is and unfortunately there is nothing we can do about that.” I just feel like, “No.” Do not waste you to proceed in this world believing that I have to capitulate because this is just the way it is. As an artist, one is always trying to tell stories to suggest that there are other ways to approach things.
It’s been an incredible year for you in terms of theatre work. You’ve gone from A Doll’s House into The Inconvenience of Wings and now Scenes from an Execution. What I’ve noticed is that you seem to be absolutely fearless in the work that you do and the roles that you choose. How do you go about choosing the work that you want to do?
In this country we are jobbing actors. You don’t always get to choose. I’ve been blessed beyond belief going from the Tennessee Williams to A Doll’s House to The Inconvenience of Wings to this play, and I feel quite emotional about it that I have had lots of lovely work. Throughout my career, I have had a wonderful balance between theatre, film and television, and long moments of unemployment, which just makes you hungry and makes you want to refocus. When I came to Cape Town, one of the reasons we came here was because I just wasn’t doing theatre in Joburg. Although the Cape Town audiences may have seen me in a lot recently, there was actually quite a drought in theatre before that. Then to come here and be offered these roles. I suppose I might get to choose now. I don’t know what will happen after The Inconvenience of Wings, which we are doing again. I don’t know what I’ll be offered. I have a sense that I should do something small. I have a sense that I should serve in the next piece that I do. I would like somebody, [a] fellow actress, contemporary, somebody who is in my same category, somebody younger, somebody older, it doesn’t matter, where I can serve and be the supporting role and be serving because I have received serving in these last four productions in an overwhelming fashion. When you get to explode, like I feel like I’ve been exploding, fearlessly and ferociously, sometimes indulgently, sometimes I can be a monster. Everybody says that I am not a monster, but I think they are just being kind. I take my space in the rehearsal room. I grapple and fight and battle and struggle, so that always feels like everybody else has to wait for me to go through that process. So hence I would very much like to serve in perhaps the next thing I do.
Did you ever have a moment of doubt in your career where you thought about stepping away?
Yes. Completely! It was a long time ago. In fact, it was the year I met my husband, well not met but the year that we actually fell in love. I just thought, “I can’t.” I had done work, and I won’t denigrate anybody else’s kind of work but I didn’t necessarily want to get stuck in that kind of work. It was the 80’s. I wanted to do South African work. I wanted to be part of the process of the dismantling of apartheid, whether the work we did had any role to play- one hopes it did but…. So of course I turned work down and then of course sat unemployed for some months waiting for that kind of South African play that I wanted. In the process, I applied to a small computer company because I thought, “I might as well go into computers.” But of course the minute the play came it was back on. From that point on it was like, “That’s it.” Every time I’ve felt like “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know where the next job is coming from. How can I survive like that?” I just go deeper in my craft. My husband in my career has been an extraordinary pillar of strength, not only as a person but he has created work for me. There have been times when I’ve been down and out and he has created work. Molly Bloom way back in my career, a lovely show called Apparently…or so I Heard which was his writing. An amazing piece, I wish we could do it again, called Street-Woman by Herman Charles Bosman. The playlets that had never been performed before, Nicky fixed it and wrote a monologue in the middle to expand it which just sounds like Bosman. When unemployed and not, just [go] deeper, poorer, teach, direct something, make something, wait, borrow money, go into debt, and have faith.
Going off of that, if you could give your younger self one piece of advice at the beginning of your career, what would it be?
It’s a very good question especially because [I] am working with young people now. It’s so beautiful to see that they can jol and come to work. We can’t do that anymore. They are all still finding partners and Nicky and I have been together for 29 years. It’s just so lovely to be reminded of all that stuff working with them. I think it’s something to do with the ego. One never has one’s ego completely in line but I think I’ve learned to be strict with my ego and I think I’ve learned to know and befriend and speak with my ego firmly. I think my ego is fairly well in place, I hope that I am not lying as I say this. I think the placement of your ego when you are young is a part of growing up. It’s like understanding how to fight for yourself, how to bring yourself forward and the older you get, the more content you are with just waiting and allowing things to be. I am not finished and I am not perfect but I think that is a shift and I would have said to my younger self, “Just be still. Be still and be not afraid.”
Do you have a favourite production or movie or experience that you’ve witnessed during your career?
It’s so hard because there are so many. I’m just going to be truthful to the moment. There was a moment with Sandra Prinsloo opening up the shutters in Uncle Vanya and as I sit here I can just remember the whole breath of her. I can remember her body, I can remember her carriage, I can remember an aura, the light around her as an actor… and Grethe Fox as Sonya being so plain and so diminished carrying that quality so intensely. That’s what came to me today. I remember that very clearly. I think it was probably even the same year, it must have been a very significant year, was John Kani and Winston Ntshona in Fugard’s The Island. It was an awakening of my empathy of pain for my fellow South Africans. It was a deep wake up for me. I don’t care if this is cliché or not but Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. The pain of that moment of her having to choose between her children and the skill of her performance. There are so many others. A very important significant moment for me was my first year at university, coming back to my mother. She was always very glamorous and beautiful and she played all the Terence Rattigan and Noël Coward [plays] and always looked exceptional, and I came back from drama school and I had left the term before and said to her, “Ja but mom can you shift now? Can you do anything else?” Arrogant! I came back and she was in a play called All My Sons and she was sitting like this, with no makeup peeling peas and she was absolutely transformed and plain, working-class. Just special.
What is something you are most proud of?
I am proud that I strive for some kind of integrity. If I say I am going to do something, I do it. If I can’t do it, I try to say I can’t do it. If I don’t do it, I try to apologise honestly and truthfully. And I suppose what follows that is that I am proud of the fact that when I fail, I forgive myself. I do and maybe that keeps me alive. I don’t know whether I am proud but I like that notion in my life.
What is something you’ve found to be your biggest challenge?
This is challenge as in a challenge in the midst of a gift, and the gift is that I have three stepchildren that I shared custody with their mom from when they were very little. The gift is that she shared her children with me unconditionally. I suppose somewhere the success is that I never pretended to be the mom. I always hoped to be a good stepmom. Raising someone else’s children and honouring those children and their mother and their father is a challenge from where you had no children to suddenly having three. And then the challenge of parenthood, to have the integrity that I speak of and hold so dear, to have the same integrity with children whether they are a year and a half old or whether they are 18 or whether they are 25 or 32 and now to hold that same integrity with my little step-granddaughter of five. To treat all my stepchildren with the utmost respect all of the time. I could do a whole interview on the amazing journey I have been on with my husband’s ex-wife who is my fellow woman and my stepchildren who are the most loving, forgiving, open-hearted stepchildren you could ever wish for. They have never ever made me feel that I am the other and that is exceptional. And because I didn’t have children of my own, how lucky am I?
Thank you for sharing that. Just to end off, who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Tossie van Tonder is somebody who inspires me hugely. When I was in Johannesburg, Dorothy Ann Gould was kind of a mentor of mine. And then there’s Marina Abramović, the performance artist, and Maya Angelou, she is exceptional.