Stage and screen actress Denise Newman has been a professional actor for over 30 years. Throughout the course of her career, Denise has managed to move seamlessly between the mediums of theatre, film and television, picking up multiple awards along the way. Currently, she has revived her acclaimed one-woman show Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September, for a short run at Alexander Bar. By day, Denise is starring on Suidooster. We sat down to chat about the complex life and death of Dulcie September, the demands of performing in theatre and television simultaneously and the advice she’d give to her younger self.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I think I was a bit of a lonely child and would always just create my own entertainment. It was always something that I wanted to do but we are talking about the 70’s so the chances of me actually pursuing a career as a professional actor was minimal in South Africa. In ’73/’74 I was an exchange student in the States doing an equivalent of Matric and the high school had drama and film studies. That is when I sort of started my formal training but when I came back, it was ’74 and what would a black South African actress do with a drama degree in South Africa? So I went and started a degree in social work. It didn’t last very long because at that same time in the 70’s, the Space Theatre was started. There I found a space that I thought, “Here people are telling stories with a mixed audience and a mixed cast. They are just telling stories.” [They did] international classics, contemporary work, local work, and Fugard work and that for me was exciting. I hung around there for a year or so, as a groupie, every weekend, doing anything and everything. Brian Astbury, who was one of the originators of the theatre said, “You are young, you don’t have any big financial commitments, you don’t have children. Jump. See what happens. If it doesn’t work out you can always go back to being a social worker again.” I think that was the best advice that anybody ever gave me because it gave me a platform to just explore what it would be like and what it is like. This was 1979 when I turned professional and when I started earning a salary even though it was a meager salary. I only knew theatre. I didn’t really know film or television. Television was just starting in South Africa and then in 1980 my first film role came and that was again a big shift for me because I had never expected to move into film. I got this fabulous opportunity and the rest is history.
I know you have been involved with this show since it’s creation. What was it that made you want to tell this story?
I came to Basil (Appollis) and I said, “We have got to start telling stories about people who are part of history that are being forgotten and not being written about.” I came to him with three or four stories and of those he picked Dulcie September because he said it is such a dramatic story and an assassination/murder mystery. We can’t answer those questions but let’s explore the life. The timing was perfect because her sister Stephanie has subsequently passed away. A lot of the other people that I talk about have passed away. People that were involved in the trial are all in their 80’s. They are in those age categories where we must start collecting this information. It’s [about] how you tell the story, what is important to our version of the story, because there is a lot that one has to leave out.
How do you feel the piece, or even yourself, has evolved during the various incarnations of the production?
It was very raw in 2014 but it was already very well written. I think Sylvia (Vollenhoven) and Basil did a really wonderful job because it has a kind of poetry to it. That is why I wanted a writer. I didn’t want to just write from our research. Basil and Sylvia worked out the structure of how they were going to tell the story. She wrote most of it and Basil wrote some of it as well. We didn’t have the fancy AV and stuff like that as part of the story yet. Then Basil and I produced it at the Baxter theatre and there we could bring in the stuff that we wanted to. The Baxter theatre has a really lovely venue. It is quite intimate but it is not quite as intimate as the Alexander Bar. Then we did the Market Theatre in 2016. Each night, each audience, you play a different show. It is never the same show or rather that is my role as a performer, I can’t recreate last night. I have got a framework and I just have to communicate the story. That is what I have to do. On opening night you are always hyper-nervous and super conscious of everything because it is the first time your technical person is actually running the show with lights and sound and everything. There is always that nervous edge on an opening night. You always doubt yourself. Actors are always very hard on themselves. They always want perfection and of course we forget that we are only human. Working in film they always cut and you can do it again whereas on stage you can’t. If you fall over a word or you stumble, you just have to keep going.
Personally when I go and see a show, I like to pay attention to how the performer chooses to bow. With this, I feel like the character still kind of stayed with you. How are you able to tell the story every night? Do you have to shake it off before you go home?
Yes. You learn tricks. In the beginning you have a lekker stiff dop and that always helps to take the edge off but because I am also an acting coach at times when I have the time, I teach them a trick. It is a conscious thing. You consciously have to shake it off. You can visualise her walking out of the room or say goodbye or whatever but for me, I just physically shake it out. That is why it can’t happen automatically straight after the show into the bow. She is still so much and I think because her picture is also there, for me it is never about, “Wow! Look at how great I was.” I want to honour this woman here.
I feel ashamed that I didn’t know who she was.
Don’t be. Many South Africans didn’t know who she was or don’t remember. We are talking pre your time. You were not even born in 1988. Don’t be skaam about that. It is a fact of life and that is why I say it is important to keep these histories alive because if we don’t we are doomed to repeat it. It is honouring those people.
I’m not sure that people know that you are currently pulling double duty at the moment between filming Suidooster in the day and then performing the show in the evenings. What is that process like?
It makes me feel alive. I keep telling myself that it is just for a short period. It is not going to go on forever. Because I find that the story is so important and because I find I want to tell it and I got that opportunity at the Alexander Bar, I gear my head around it it. I use my trip in the car, I play specific music that gets me into a particular state of mind. The only time I sing is in the car when no one else is there. I am not a singer but it just puts me in a different frame. I play specific music to get me into that mood. It’s the political struggle songs and then by the time I get there, I’ve gotten my head into that frame of mind because I am going to be telling a political story now but a human story. When I do my stretches and my warm-up I breathe her in. I don’t run the play in my head because if I’ve done it already and I lose my place I think, “Have I been here? Haven’t I been here?” The last time I run it is probably around 4pm in the afternoon if I have the time because then when I start, I start at the very beginning and I am on that ship. I start weaving the story from there.
Is there anything still on your professional bucket list?
Many things. Actors can’t retire. We can only stop what we are doing when we can’t remember words anymore. Then we shape shift into something else and I would probably become a director or a teacher. I won’t ever be a writer. That is such a discipline. I can’t sit still for long enough to sit and write. I can conceptualize but I will always be up and down pacing. Bessie Head is definitely on my bucket list. We did that story in 2016 in Grahamstown and we haven’t done Cape Town. We haven’t revived her yet because it is a two-hander. I didn’t want to do another one-hander, it is lonely. Cissie Gool, and then there is a wonderful book Achmat Dangor wrote called Bitter Fruit which I think would just make an excellent film. I want to do Dulcie’s film as well. I think it would make a dramatic story.
If you could go back to the start of your career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t doubt yourself so much. Trust your instinct. I’ve had to learn that over the years. As a younger performer you can’t judge yourself or your talent so you only ever judge yourself from what other people are saying. Sometimes they are not very kind. It is fine to be critical but to be constructively critical. Because I didn’t study drama, I had to learn my craft as I navigated the industry, there were wonderful people along the way, wonderful courses that I took with people and master classes and things that really just helped me engage with the performing arts more technically. You need the technical skill to be a professional performer. I had to learn that along the way. What I tell a lot of my students [is], “Rehearsal is the time to try things out.” A director once said to me, “Don’t come into my rehearsal room with a performance. I want to see you trying different things every time. If it doesn’t work, I’ll tell you and then we can try something else. Don’t settle on a performance on day one.” That is what I would tell myself: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Try different things because you never know what you’ll discover along the way.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Antoinette Kellerman, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Vinette Ebrahim because she is also doing this. This is the first time that I am actually doing a daily soap. I’ve only ever been a guest artist on a soap because it was Johannesburg and I didn’t want to be away from home for so long. This affords an actor a regular salary which at my age I said, “Thank you very much I will take it.” But I also love the variety of doing different things and different characters. That is why, for me, theatre is important. I get a chance to play a different character. I can exercise my craft. Television acting, especially a daily drama, is quite a sausage machine. You work very quickly from text to performance to filming and then it is done and you move onto the next scene and tonight you have to go home and learn tomorrow’s scenes. It’s a quick industry. And yet I am enjoying the financial freedom that it is awarding me right now doing two things at the same time. There are many women in the arts that inspire me. Thembi Mtshali Jones. I admire Marlene le Roux who is now head of Artscape, because I admire those women who do extraordinary things despite physical handicap. People who move beyond the little box that people try to put you in. In the 70’s and the 80’s there were extraordinary actors, Nomhle Nkonyeni, Nomsa Nene, Yvonne Bryceland, they are all women who did extraordinary work in this country in this industry and they are still operating. They have proven that you can have longevity.
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All photos taken by Sophie Kirsch on April 21st 2017.