Sylvaine Strike is an award-winning actress, director and theatremaker as well as the artistic director and co-founder of Fortune Cookie Theatre Company. In 2012 she received critical acclaim for her direction of Molière’s The Miser. In the last month, she has won a SAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Those Who Can’t and received a Kanna nomination for her direction of DOP at the KKNK fees. Her latest production of Molière’s Tartuffe has just launched on its national tour.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I don’t have a lineage of performers in my family but I was always very drawn to performing in order to be seen. I suppose the visibility, as a child, was important to me and the heart of it lay in humour and making people laugh. I think I quickly understood how one could get that sort of attention by being the funny one. That was how it began for me but I’ve always had a deep love of theatre and it is my first love. I think what also drew me was being inspired by the work that I saw around me as a young child when I was growing up in the apartheid days. It was the theatre that mattered that I was taken to see very often. We have a legacy of that in this country. I was drawn into making a difference as well.
I wanted to touch on the time you spent studying in France. What was that experience like?
I’d done a drama degree at UCT which was wonderful but I felt that it lacked a specialisation which I really wanted. I was very drawn to movement-based theatre. Two of my teachers, Mark Fleishmann and Jennie Reznek were teaching at UCT at the time and I was deeply inspired by the way they taught and the difference that they made to my understanding of theatre through gestural impact. I was very fortunate to get a bursary from the French Institute, which is actually a wonderful full circle because they are sponsoring and producing Tartuffe. It is wonderful to be working alongside them again and to give back what they gave me which was a two year bursary to study at the Jacques Lecoq School… it changed my life on many levels. I went at 23 and I was just very taken by Jacques Lecoq’s vision of the word and how simplified it became and how unintellectualised it was. That spoke to me very profoundly. I entered this world where gesture was everything, where the silence before we speak or the silence after we have spoken became the most important thing. For the first five years after Jacques Lecoq, I experimented a lot with silent work, not so much with mime but minimal dialogue and now I find myself exploring classical texts which are incredibly wordy but I am very inspired by the basis that Jacques Lecoq gave me. It had a massive impact on my life. I think it also steered me towards direction very clearly. I was very much a performer without really knowing that directing would be the thing that I would specialize in. Understanding the psychology that occurs when an actor is stimulated by a director was fascinating to me and I set about opening my own company when I came home.
What was it about this specific play that made you want to do this production?
I was asked by The French Institute because I had already done The Miser. On the grounds of the success of how that went, I was asked to do another Molière and I was struggling to decide between The Misanthrope and Tartuffe. The Misanthrope is a story about a man who loses faith in men and starts to despise the human beings around him, and I thought that it wasn’t going to be enough of a statement. It becomes a very personal story although it’s universal. Tartuffe, right now in the world, is making perfect sense. We started working on Tartuffe long before Trump, long before Zuma Must Fall. Here we are in a place [which] to be honest, globally, is feeling like it is run by charlatans. Tartuffe is the story of a man who enters this household as an impostor pretending he is a very pious man. He finds a hook in Orgon and slowly wheedles his way into the household posing as a pious man who is very poor and humble and needs to show Orgon how to live life to the fullest without expense and extravagance and wealth. And all the time [he] is swindling from him. I suppose what fascinates me is how blinkered we are. It is like these nations of Orgons voting for Tartuffes. It was a choice to take Tartuffe now, in this time, because it is making sense. It is such a joyous, wonderful, dark topic that I think we all relate to so much.
Because this production is touring, what differences have you noticed between the audience responses?
We’ve only played in Soweto, which was fascinating. It was a very difficult thing to get going for logistical purposes. It felt quite hard to try and sell it to this place that had never heard of Molière, and, “Who are we to barge in with this?” But when we opened in Soweto, and I think we played to three schools, I was completely fascinated by how profoundly they had understood why we were telling this story. I haven’t had more experience than Soweto. In the past, playing Tobacco to Joburg and playing Tobacco to Cape Town was a very different thing. It is a very different beast. I think that the nature of my work is quite transient and it adapts. If it is a laugh a minute in Joburg, it might not be that in Cape Town but it is going to be perceived in a different way and it is going to be absorbed for where they are at, at that point. It is not prescriptive and I think the duty we have as theatremakers is to allow the morphing to start setting in. After two weeks here, the show would have grown some more and so we’ll take it to Durban and it would have gathered along the way different aspects of different people and different cultures. Playing Soweto was extraordinary.
I don’t like when women are asked ‘How do you juggle all the different things?’ but because your work spans between so many different mediums, how are you able to nurture all the different specific aspects in your career?
It is a very important question because it does, to me, certainly seem that women in this industry, whether they have children or not, are juggling aspects that men aren’t juggling for some reason. I think every actor, male or female is juggling to survive. I guess I am quite blessed because I love switching between mediums. It keeps me on my toes and it keeps me aware of what others also need. If I am playing for television, it gives me a completely different feeling to be in front of the camera and directed by someone who specialises in TV whereas directed on stage is a different feeling as well. Staying a performer and not only a director keeps me completely tuned in with where actors need attention, where actors need to be held. Sometimes you can tune out of that and demand stuff of actors which is sometimes not the right time to do that. A lot of the time switching through mediums is really a question of survival. When I was a featured artist in Grahamstown in 2014, I literally couldn’t get by financially in the year [that] I was doing the most theatre. It’s ironic because when does one actually survive on it?
It’s interesting that you say that because when I told some of my friends that I was sitting down with you, most of them completely lost their minds. I think the newer generation of actors and theatremakers put the previous generations on huge pedestals. We see the product and not the process. To us, it comes across as something that we need to strive for but feels so difficult on an individual level.
It is important to recognise the right of passage that one needs to take and yet if we didn’t have those people who we look up to, then how do we get there and how do we believe it is possible? Who is it that keeps us going? For me, Lara [Foot] and Yaël [Farber] were the example that it was possible to have children and a career that could make an impact on many levels. I think what we have lost are the performing arts centers which we had before. [They] were good for one thing which was to allow you into a hierarchy and an apprenticeship that was completely necessary whether you were stage managing and then you get to play a part with one line and then you get a second lead and then you get a lead, those things can’t happen anymore. A lot of the time the younger generation are literally switching between everything without crafting, without getting the chance to become really really brilliant at something because they have to survive, but also it is a much more instantaneous generation who want it now. I see that when I teach. Tartuffe has been a year and a half of pre-production, raising funds alongside my sponsors, pitching, going into the room, creating miniature scenes to convince people who have money that they should take us, things that were sometimes humiliating, exhausting, not what I meant to be doing but understand that I have to be doing it because I am the voice who is going to be creating it eventually so I have to gain their trust. All the legwork that goes on behind something cannot happen instantaneously. In fact, [it] rarely does. If you are directing or creating your own work, you have to have an entire side of yourself that is going to be prepared to work unseen and unthanked for a long time. That visibility that we have as artists is often not always what we get and that is fine. You get to a stage in your life where you understand that but young actors are not quite there yet.
I hope you don’t mind if I quote you but I was reading an article where you were featured and you said, “Theatremaking is not a very discriminatory job.” Could elaborate a little bit about that?
I think I was asked if it was easier for men to make it in this industry. I don’t think it is. I have had many times where it has been difficult to convince people that I can produce something that is worth a certain amount of money. When money is concerned perhaps you have to work a little bit harder. It is feeling as if those scales are balancing out. It also varies between cultures as well. The Afrikaans culture has a very strong male direction. Male directors, Marthinus Basson, Jaco Bouwer, Christiaan Olwagen and then the English have quite a strong female presence, Clare Stopford, Lara and Yaël of course, but I think it’s quite equal in terms of black directors. I think for me it is a question of who has the ideas. Who has the creative compassion, the creative capacity to hold something in a certain time? It feels sometimes that a lot of men are getting a lot more interesting parts but I never felt threatened by that. I love directing men and women. I have a real passion for that. DOP was a project that was sent my way and it really is a man’s world. There is nothing I am more attracted to than to actually enter it from a female perspective because I think it almost allows my feminist thinking to creep into a world that is stereotypically two men at a bar, Afrikaans men, in very different places in their lives. If a man were to direct that and impose his sense on that as opposed to enter it from a place from the heart, I think it would be less vulnerable. I think we make the mistake of thinking a female director will direct a female piece better than men because “she gets it.”
Is there a question that you wish you were posed that you don’t tend to get asked?
I am always fascinated by the fascination attached to a director. They are seen as a kind of unity with their cast and during the process it is that and it is completely magical. I fall in love with everybody I work with and the work that they make but I often don’t get asked, because I don’t think people realise it, what it is like to step out and let them be and pull away. Maybe it is because I feel so attached to the performance side of things that I feel like I am almost still there. To step away, at the end of this week for example, and let them be and work for another week without me is something I have been doing for ages but there is a severance like you are leaving a child behind. It is incredibly hard and I find it very painful. With every process I do, half of me stays behind. I haven’t ever been asked, “What is it like to pull away from a process?” It is not at all about the control that you get because you don’t. It takes its own shape. You give notes and you kind of visit it again but it becomes really lonely when you are out there watching. It becomes very hard but it is also magnificent.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
There are lots of them. They range from all kinds of ages and professions within the arts. In terms of performers, I think Sandra Prinsloo is extraordinary. She is extraordinary because she has a generosity that is quite unparalleled at times. I find her infinitely watchable particularly in the last work that she’s done that I saw which was Oskar en die Pienk Tannie. I thought she was extraordinary in that. Naming Sandra seems like a cliché but it is amazing how she has withstood the test of time and grown and pushed herself in terms of performance. I find Lara Foot and Yaël Farber huge inspirations. I feel a little starved of inspiration directorially. I wish there were more of us to nurture each other. I think Lara Bye also does very interesting work. There is a wonderful performer, Masasa Mbangeni. She was recently in Nongogo. I think one of the problems is that we don’t see enough of each other’s work particularly when we are buried in process. Jennifer Steyn goes without saying, is extraordinary. A huge beacon for me in terms of the variety of work that she does and the variety of reinvention that she enters very courageously. Motshabi Tyelele, also creative and uncensored. A very powerful performer. People I grew up under, Lilian Dube. She is amazing. Jennie Reznek also has always been a huge inspiration.
Additional National Tour Dates:
JOHANNESBURG – Joburg Theatre, Fringe Theatre. Performances from May 31 to 25 June.
All photos taken by Candice van Litsenborgh at Baxter Theatre on April 17th, 2017.