Theatremaker Tara Notcutt is a director, writer and producer. Her debut production, …miskien took the theatre industry by storm and won her a Fleur du Cap Award for Best New Director, cementing her as a prolific theatremaker. Since then she has helmed multiple award-winning shows including The Three Little Pig, The Gruffalo, Mafeking Road, After Dark in the Groot Marico, just to name a few. We sat down at Alexander Bar to chat about her career, the success surrounding her debut production and finding ways to fall back in love with her career.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
My mom is a dance teacher and my dad is a drama teacher so I don’t think there was any escaping it. In Grade 11, we did house plays and I directed our house’s play and the lead actress got really sick so then I stepped into that. I also wrote it and we got ‘Best Play’ and ‘Best’ everything so I sat my parents down on the couch and I went, “I think I want to go to Drama School.” And they were like, “We can’t tell you not to because that is exactly what we did but you’ll have no money.” And I was like, “But I’ll be happy!” And they were like, “Are you sure?” And when you are 17 you don’t understand the existentialness that comes with being 30 doing this. That is basically it. My sister is a choreographer and a hip-hop dancer so the whole family is in performance. My brother works in the church which is a whole a different kind of performance.
How do you professionally define yourself?
I would define myself as a one-man-band. That would probably be the best description of myself. I like to be able to do a lot of different styles. I like the fact that I can do all of my own admin and I can tech my own show. I think it comes out of necessity where you don’t have the resources to go, “Ok cool, I’m going to pay a Stage Manager,” so you take on a lot of different stuff yourself. But I think it makes a lot of people in South Africa better theatremakers for it.
I wanted to ask you about …miskien, but I’ve just noticed your tattoo. I was wondering if you could tell me the story behind it?
We did the show in 2008. It was my graduating piece. In 2009 we did it at The Intimate, I got a Fleur du Cap for Best New Director, and I was also nominated when we did it again five years later as Best Director which was kind of this really lovely full circle thing. It is the thing that single-handedly changed my entire life. My three best friends in the whole wide world are the three that we made The Pink Couch together and the show together. I always joked about getting a tattoo and for my 30th birthday Gideon [Lombard] got me a voucher to get a tattoo and I was like, “Ok!” My next one is actually going to be a line from the show. I think I’m going to get one every birthday from now.
Did you feel any pressure surrounding all the acclaim …miskien received?
Yes. The second thing I did, I got the theatre arts admin bursary, and I did a show called Between You and Me. I remember reading something someone wrote and they were like, “I expected great things after …miskien.” I think the thing with …miskien, that I’ve always thought is, if it’s the best thing I ever make, I’ll die pretty happy knowing that I made that. It’s a very special play to me, but it was also a very special play to a lot of other people. I think that is lucky, I don’t think that comes along everyday, and I don’t think that comes along for everybody. It’s very weird that you ask that at the moment. I didn’t direct anything for a year and a half because I had a bit of an existential crisis. I got to a point where I was like, “I don’t even like theatre anymore,” which, when you’ve grown up with it your entire life, is really difficult. You don’t do it for the money. You do it because you like it, at least. You should do it because you love it and there is a lot to love about it, but I got to a point where I was completely out of love with all of this. That led to music and dance and all other kinds of things and now that I’m starting to come back to it, I’m starting to rediscover the things I liked about it and re-appreciate how difficult it is. Because when you go from a university environment, you make something like …miskien, you get to go to five different countries with it, and that leads to a whole bunch of other things in a very short space of time, I think you get a particular kind of perspective on what the theatre world really is. I’ve never been under any illusion that it is not incredibly difficult but I think I’ve had a very easy road. Not to say that I don’t work hard but a lot of people work hard and I think a lot of the success of it was right place, right time, right story in the right kind of headspace. I think I always carry pressure from that, particularly getting the opportunity to work with people who are older than me. There have been a lot of things that I have learned along the way. I think having this self-imposed hibernation has been really good to put everything back in perspective.
I think it’s refreshing to hear that because it’s important to talk about.
I remember going to the Women’s Playwriting Conference and seeing people who I hadn’t seen in a long time and they were like, “It’s so nice to see you! I haven’t seen you in a while.” And I was like, “No, I’ve been hiding.” The first thing out of my mouth was, “I didn’t do anything for a while because I really started to hate this.” I think a lot of people are in the same kind of place and think it’s weak to talk about it particularly if you are a woman. At the time, I had read an interview, there is a woman in Ireland, the article was called “Where are the forgotten women in theatre?” It was mostly about women who get married and have kids and then want to come back into performance or directing or whatever it is and how difficult that is because things obviously move on. You might have taken two years to go be with your kid and you pick up where you were but everyone else is two years on. It was a very interesting article and I shared it and it led to a lot of really interesting conversations with other people. What I’m doing at the moment, I want to start a once-a-month tea for anyone who identifies as a woman in theatre to come and hang out and just be around each other because I think it is a bit of a boys club in a lot of ways and in a lot of places. I think it’s important to have that kind of fellowship.
In terms of forming The Pink Couch, and then regarding …miskien, do you prefer working with men? Or do you maybe just feel like your voice benefits that world better?
I think that’s quite a nice way of putting it. At the time, it was a relationship that made a lot of sense and the four of us clicked in a way that I had never really clicked with anyone before. To say, “Oh, they just happen to be men,” is quite dismissive because I think the fact that they are men is very important to the story. If I could make plays about loneliness and intimacy for the rest of my life I would be very happy. That is my very happy place. I find that women like this conversation we are having now about how difficult things can be, [but] I think it is a lot more difficult for men to have that [discussion.] I think I am really fascinated with that and with cultural pressures of various kinds. We found a very important story to tell which could have been a guy and a girl which was the idea but then I didn’t want to make it too obvious that I was in love with my best friend so I made it a guy because I was also interested in queer relationships and how those are very difficult to manage. Human relationships are just really tricky anyway. …miskien could have been any number of people on any place in the spectrum and it would have been a completely different story for whatever different reason. At that time it made a lot of sense that the two of them were very alpha male, Afrikaans, white men, which said a whole lot of other stuff which I was also very interested in. Someone once asked me, “What kind of example do you think you are setting for young women? You work predominantly with men.” And I said, “1) That isn’t going to be forever. 2) That’s kind of just how it is at the moment and 3) Am I in myself not enough of a good example to what you can do?” I used to get really upset about it because I was very young and was keenly aware what I was doing was also important and valid and good and everything like that. I have a very tough relationship with it because if I only made work with Albert [Pretorius] for the rest of my life, I would be very lucky and I don’t think those kinds of working relationships come along every day. I have a tough oscillating thing about having some guilt and then not having some guilt.
I recently chatted with Sylvaine Strike about something similar and she said that often we make the mistake of thinking that women will do better directing pieces about women and women’s issues.
Oh ja. I know a lot of men who write really beautifully and sensitively and with a lot more knowledge and insight into women than I could ever. I have the opposite, there is a little keen or head space that a guy could be in that I can access maybe because I’m a woman. The same with a guy. Maybe there is an access he has into a certain aspect and understanding that I, as a woman, wouldn’t be able to get. It is very interesting.
What can you tell us about the Cape Town Edge?
The Cape Town Edge is a very special platform. People generally know the history behind it. This is the 11th year and we’ve changed the name to The Edge so we can incorporate shows not only from Cape Town but other cities as well. We have two Joburg shows this year. It is very special to me. …miskien was the first show I took to Grahamstown and I was given the chance to be on The Edge. I think a lot of doors that got opened were because I was sort of in that environment. This year everybody is committed to going anyway and I think that the raddest thing would be if people went, “Cool, I see the work that you are doing. Here is R300.” Or whatever you can spare. Even if 10 people give R100. A little makes a big difference up there. We are almost at our tipping point target but it is a great platform that has really changed my life. It makes NAF a lot easier, it makes the whole experience a lot less lonely, and that is an incredibly important thing because at the end of the day, if something goes badly, it is really nice to at least provide people with a bit of a home and a bit of a family so that the whole experience isn’t quite as difficult.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I would have to say Penny [Youngleson] definitely. I think her working relationship(s) with people is something I aspire to have a little bit of one day. I think she is noble and has an incredible amount of integrity and passion and is just very inspiring. I’ve tried to tell her that once and it came out all wrong. Janice Honeyman, I was lucky enough to be able to work with her on an opera and she is the kindest, loveliest person. She is this wonderful, motherly figure who gets these wonderful things out of people and who is very good at seeing someone’s limitations and going, “Great, I’m going to give you this one little thing that I know you are going to do amazingly and you’ll feel fantastic about it and bring the whole show up because you know you are doing a great job.” I’m going to be really corny and say my sister [Cleo Notcutt] because she is the kind of person who works in the arts that I would like to be. She is very passionate about and committed to community upliftment. Ameera Conrad and I went to the same school and she is super cool, intimidatingly cool. She is passionate and smart and very good. I think it is very exciting to see where she is going to go and what is going to happen.
You can keep up with Tara on twitter.
For information on The Edge, please click here.
Special thanks to Hannah Baker, Chanel Katz and Tara Notcutt.
All photos taken by Chanel Katz at Alexander Bar on April 24th 2017.
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