Jennie Reznek is multihyphenate. She is a performer, theatremaker, director, choreographer, lecturer, co-founder, trustee and director of Magnet Theatre. She has also worked as an aerialist and clown in the circus. We sat down with her at the Magnet Theatre offices to discuss her career, the challenges of founding a theatre company and the moments that have inspired her.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I think it was a little bit of a private madness. My mother was in amateur dramatics when I was growing up, but I didn’t really look at it and think, “Oh I really want to do that.” I always sort of feel that it was always imbedded in me. Since the age of 6 I wanted to be an actor, and then I think as time went on, opportunities and events led me to the people who kind of inspired me. I studied at UCT with professor Mavis Taylor and ultimately the way that she worked through improvisation and through play was an important catalyst. There was the People’s Space in Long Street but what she created was a traveling company called The People’s Space Roadshow that would go out to area’s that were the least resourced to create performance in those areas. We were having to perform to audiences that were English-speaking, Afrikaans-speaking, isiXhosa-speaking and we were finding that we had no language. We had no way of communicating and no way of creating work that was not excluding of a second language group. Growing up in apartheid we really were committed to finding a theatrical language that didn’t exclude people. Then I sort of decided that I wanted to study this thing and I want to try work more with image and with mime and physical theatre and there wasn’t really anybody who I knew in South Africa who trained like that. I heard about Marcel Marceau, did a bit of research, didn’t think it was the right place for me and then I came up with this man Jacques Lecoq who really kind of changed my life in the sense that I feel like he gave me the gift of myself. After studying at UCT, and being trained to be an interpretive actor and interpreting someone else’s text, he taught me that I could make work from my own stories and from my own questioning and my own obsessions and it was a huge breath. He was really a big inspiration. In terms of South Africa artists, Andrew Buckland is someone who really inspired me. I think particularly to have the courage to make my own work and to stand up solo on the stage. I think his example made it possible for me to think about doing it.
How did Magnet come about?
It came about really because when I came back to South Africa, I had been away for two years and I actually went to Mavis Taylor and I said, “What must I do now? No one knows me.” And she said, “Make a piece of work.” And so I did. I made the first work called Cheap Flights. It was a solo work directed by Roz Monat and the National Arts Festival, where we were hoping to perform, asked for a name of the company and I looked outside at the street where we were staying. We were staying with Basil [Jones] and Adrian [Kohler] from Handspring Puppet Company and I looked out and there was Magnet Street. The funny thing about that is, in a way, the name has kind of come to mean something significant as an image for what we do here. A magnet is something that pulls people together or pulls things together, and I think of this place where people come together to make theatre. Also a magnet has a field, we work out in the townships, we work in the rural areas and the Cederberg so there is also a field that Magnet has around it as an organization.
Magnet has become such a staple in the South African theatre industry, how do you feel you have evolved in the context of this theatre evolving?
It’s [been] 30 years. There is a lot of evolving. I think that I feel I, just personally as a theatremaker, have grown hugely. I feel like I have grown so much in understanding a lot of things. Each work that you make grows you in terms of the journey that you go on. Each production that you make and the territory that you explore with, kind of becomes part of you. You grow from that very much. Magnet has morphed a lot. As funding comes in and out, the organization expands and contracts. We’ve been very lucky for the last 9 years to be able to keep quite a big structure of programs going. We’ve got a culture games program going in the townships with about 250 kids, we’ve got a program in the Cederberg with about 1,000 kids and we have basically 22 people, every day for 2 years, on a full-time training program. That has changed me a lot in terms of understanding my teaching and understanding what we do here and how to make it have an impact. They teach me a lot. They teach me how to teach all the time. We’ve kind of had to adapt a lot to changing funding structures. I think it’s changed me being part of an organization where there are a lot of people who come together and we engage in their lives. We are not just teaching theatre, we are teaching lifeskills and understanding what people are dealing with in their lives.
I’m glad that you touched on that because I feel like teaching can often be quite a thankless job and in the context of these interviews, there have been so many women who have been influenced by you, specifically as a teacher. Are you aware that you’ve…
…taught a lot of people?
That you’ve influenced so many lives.
I mean it’s funny because Mark, Mandla [Mbothwe,] and I were just having a conversation about that yesterday. This issue often comes up because we actually have impacted a lot of people’s lives but we don’t want to claim it because it is theirs yet it is important that the link is acknowledged. It has come up, this issue of how to historically acknowledge the people who have had an impact on you. I think it’s important as Magnet we can’t really force it on people. In a way, we want to be invisible because that is what you have to do as a teacher. You are trying to midwife somebody else into being.
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve been given?
As a person or as an actor?
Let go, from my very dear partner, my co-artistic director and husband. Let go. I would say that is probably a really good theme for me. I think I’m someone who really likes to think that I can determine how things are. I have quite a strong sort of warrior spirit that will fight to make things happen and then it’s actually important to say, “Let go.” And as a performer it’s the most important skill you need.
You and Mark have successfully run Magnet together while being married. Do you have to structure your life so that the work stays at work?
I think we’ve learned over different periods of time. When it was just him and I, when we did The Show’s Not Over Till The Fat Lady Sings, we did say, “Listen, let’s leave the rehearsal room behind us and let’s actually make space for something else.” I think we’ve had to understand, and now with the kids, they do not like us talking about work when we come home. They feel excluded so we really make a big effort not to discuss it and to make meetings. We’ve vetoed it in the bedroom. Sometimes it slips up and it’s really quite disturbing if suddenly there’s a conversation about money and budgets and things when you are trying to have a relaxed, chilled time. We have had to be quite strict. The children have made us be stricter. Having said that, the work is at the heart of our marriage. It really is part of who we are as a couple as well.
Your one woman show I Turned Away and She was Gone was the first scripted show to come out of Magnet. What was the most rewarding thing to come out of that experience?
I just loved it. I had such rich experiences of performing sort of exclusively to a room full of teenage girls who were in that moment of kind of changing from young girl to young woman. You can see in their eyes that they are in that moment themselves. I think it was just a very rich encounter and because I had chosen to perform on three sides, that sense of encounter, of connectivity with the audience was much more powerful. There is always an encounter but because it was so much my own intimate story, it felt very rich to share it with people and be able to look in their eyes and see and feel a resonance and recognition and an empathy. My daughter had a workshop with Penny Siopis and Penny was saying that the materials that she plays with are “the glue, the ink and myself.” That is kind of how I feel about I Turned Away. It’s rewarding to work with yourself and the layers. I felt very privileged to be able to do that [and] to be in a craft that allows me to do that.
Did you ever have a moment where you considered just quitting the industry?
No. It’s like food. I moved away when I had both babies, I didn’t work as much [and] I did more teaching. I do think it’s hard to stay in love with an industry. We’ve been around for 30 years as an organisation and is it possible to stay in love with an industry for that long? I think maybe what has helped is that I have been able to determine, pretty much, what I do. I think if I were a jobbing actress going to auditions and dealing with all of that, I might not have lasted and turned to something more inward. Because the theatre work I make here has somehow allowed me to deal with that which is more inside, it is kind of enriching. It’s thirst quenching work. I love the teaching. I still find it mouth-watering exciting to meet a group of young people and open their boxes and what they’ve got inside with them and work with them for 2 years and see the shifts and the changes and the elasticity that comes. There is no doubt that I’m tired in the sense that I would like to give up the pressure of what takes running this organisation. There are things that I love, which is the teaching and the creating of work and all that is all the sustaining stuff but I spend probably 75% of my time on that chair writing funding proposals and trying to convince people what the value of the programs are that we run. That part I would happily walk away from. I don’t know what I would do if I walked away. Nothing else really turns me on. I often have thought that I’ve had such a straight path. I do ask [the] question, “Is my identity as Jennie separate to Magnet?” I do think my identity is very much tied in with what happens here and what happens here and the actions that we and I make.
Over the course of your career, has there been a performance that stands out in your mind as being particularly memorable?
Lots. I think just in terms of within Magnet, I think Medea was a real groundbreaking moment for us working with Jazzart. I remember sitting in the rehearsal room and watching this run-through that we had. I remember thinking that the whole room was sort of electric and levitating. It was really exciting. I think that there is a lot about young performers here in South Africa that work very physically and emotionally engaged, very strong connection with their bodies, and with their feelings. That is a particular kind of hallmark of a lot of the solo performers in South Africa that I really value and feel proud to be part of. I saw Mahabharata, Peter Brook’s sort of 9-hour epic in his theatre in France. That was quite a game changer for me because it was so without anything other than the power of the human spirit and space. It was very unflashy. It was just human beings really powerfully telling the story and interconnecting with each other and with the audience. I remember thinking, “Oh! One can be so simple and so powerful.” It was a big thing for me. And what really changed things for Magnet was watching work that was for under seven year-olds in festivals in Europe and in Africa. Suddenly it just opened my eyes to the possibility that one could work with young people in a way that creatively satisfies yourself. It was like watching performance art for babies. [It’s] really powerful, rich stuff that doesn’t talk down in any way. That was a big life changing moment for me particularly watching Replay which is an Irish company making work for moms and babies under the age of 12 months. I sort of see a thread in what I’m saying, the work that has always inspired me is how powerful human beings can be in the space.
Who are South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Lara Foot, on a lot of levels. I think in terms of how she kind of makes personal political and political personal. Mavis Taylor was a big influence on Marc and my life. I think Faniswa Yisa is one of the best South African actresses there is. I’ve been privileged to teach her and work alongside her. I think she is really brilliant. Ina Wichterich is a choreographer that Magnet has worked with a lot. She is just an incredibly inspirational choreographer. Mamela Nyamza. Yvette Hardie. Janice Honeyman is a big inspiration in my life. She directed me very early on. There are things that she told me when I was a young actress that I tell [students.] You can never forget them.
For a list of upcoming Magnet productions, please click here.
All photos taken by Sophie Kirsch at Magnet Theatre on 26th April 2017.