Theatre legends Diane Wilson, Kate Normington and Michele Maxwell have joined forces to star in The Fugard Theatre’s production of Funny Girl. With over a century’s worth of experience between the three of them, they have graced South African stages playing all the iconic roles that theatre has to offer, all while collecting every top accolade along the way. What is interesting to note is the bond that has formed between these three women during the run of the show, leading us to believe that the “sisterhood of the poker ladies” will continue to live on far beyond this production.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Diane Wilson: My drama mistress when I was nine [was] Joan Brickhill who was quite a legend at one time. She directed a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at school. She cast me as Puck, the same role that she played when she was 10, and I was 10, and it was a great success. She said to me, “You’re an actress.” So that’s what I was from then on. I have never done anything else. I’ve never done a job of any other kind in 61 years.
Michele Maxwell: Fortunately or unfortunately, I was born into a theatrical family. My grandparents were dancers, actors, directors, lighting designers. My mom was also an actress and she is also very artistic. My first bit of work that I ever did was actually at the Masque Theatre in Muizenberg in about the late 1950’s I was a prompt.
Diane Wilson: You’ve never done anything else?
Michele Maxwell: I’ve never done anything else. I am also a musician.
Kate Normington: Have you ever heard Michele play?
Michele Maxwell: It’s a moveable feast sometimes there, sometimes not but between acting, music and teaching, I scootle.
Kate Normington: You scootle? What is scootle?
Michele Maxwell: I skedaddle. If the music is there, if someone wants to learn something, I’m there.
Diane Wilson: She is brilliant.
Kate Normington: The other night after we were done warming up, Michele said, “Come. Let’s do a song.” And I said, “Ok give me some expensive cords.” And she got to it!
Diane Wilson: It’s your turn now. You’ve got to say how you got started.
Kate Normington: I can’t remember the exact moment but I was always going to do this one way or another. You don’t choose this profession, it chooses you. It’s a virus that bites into you.
Diane Wilson: It’s true but there are many actors, that I know, who are doing other things. They are teaching because they can’t make a living.
Michele Maxwell: It is a moveable feast.
Kate Normington: I think sometimes people make decisions to not stay in it because the rewards and not always there.
Did you ever have a moment when you contemplated leaving the profession?
Kate Normington: All the time.
Michele Maxwell: Often. If one is vaguely sensitive, which if you are going to be in this business you are laden with sensitivity, generally speaking, sometimes it is just too much. One’s vulnerability and one’s sensitivities just go, “I can’t. I just want to be in a place of peace. No competition. No more proving myself” It’s the reinventing of the wheel every time. It gets exhausting.
Kate Normington: I think it’s like that in any kind of profession really, sort of trying to tread water and having to prove yourself. You are only as good as your last job so you have to stay afloat and deliver and sometimes it can be a punishing schedule.
Diane Wilson: I did give up. I gave up after 2012. That was my swan song which was a play we took to Dublin. It was a two-hander and there were a lot of lines to learn and I thought, “I’m not learning anymore lines. I’m too old to sit there.” I’ve done a lot of one-woman shows and a lot of two-handers and the drudgery of learning those lines…90 pages of monologue is not a joke when you are my age. I thought, “No that’s it. I’m not going to learn anymore lines. I’ll do television and films but I’m not learning lines for the stage.” And then Charl-Johan Lingenfelder phoned me about a few months ago and said, “Are you still working?” And I said, “Not if I’ve got to learn a lot of lines.” I got the script and I liked this part. I thought this part was me because she is a miserable bitch. She is tactless [and] pushy [and] I thought, “Yes I like this woman.”
Kate Normington: You are not a miserable bitch.
Diane Wilson: No, but she is amusing and tactless and insensitive, rather like I am.
Michele Maxwell: She says it like she feels it.
Diane Wilson: She is like Taubie Kushlick. I based it on her. She was the doyenne of South African directors in the 60’s and she was exactly like this.
What was it about this show that made you want to be involved?
Michele Maxwell: I was just offered it. I was supposed to be doing something else completely. I was supposed to be on a luxury liner looking at historical castles and gardens and doing five shows a night. That is what I was supposed to be doing so I didn’t audition for this at all and I thought, “What a pity. The dates all conflict.” And then I got an email saying, “We are delighted to offer you the part of Mrs. Meeker.” I said, “Can I read the script?” They said, “No you can’t because we are still working at it.” I wasn’t able to read the script so I said, “Is it a nice part?” They said “Oh she’s lovely!” I did the maths and realised that actually working from the rehearsal time to when we were ending, would be financially more viable and then it just sounded beautiful. I hadn’t read the script until 2 days before we started rehearsals. I took a gamble.
Kate Normington: I did too because although I had auditioned for it up in Joburg, I then sort of forgot about it and then Charl also got hold of me and said, “How would you feel?” And I said, “Yes, let’s give it a bash.” There was no work on the horizon, I was questioning the meaning of life and I thought this would be fun and it is.
Diane Wilson: It’s a lovely cast…
Michele Maxwell: It’s a great cast…
Diane Wilson: …Lovely crew, Lovely cast…
Michele Maxwell:…and well cast as well.
Kate Normington: It’s so funny because you start rehearsals and you go through these painful pockets where you forget that rehearsals can be tricky and there are bumpy sections. Once it is up and running you sort of forget what you’ve been through and often being creative in a creative space can be really uncomfortable so to finally get there and to find you can sort of smooth the edges off of it, it is always such a relief. It happens in front of the bloody audience, doesn’t it? The previews [are] where you sort of start relaxing instead of technically attacking it. You can relax and have fun because you are trying to entertain a group of people and that is where it starts really coming together.
Michele Maxwell: Sometimes in rehearsals, one also goes through vulnerable patches where it sometimes takes a while to be free to do things in front of the whole cast when you are working on a scene and you are not quite sure what you are doing. It is often freer when you get to an audience.
Kate Normington: What do you think Di?
Michele Maxwell: She doesn’t care. She just does.
Diane Wilson: I read Mrs. Strakosh, I read the lines and knew exactly how I wanted to do it. I learned the lines and the songs before we started rehearsals. I’ve done that for, I think, 20 years. I never go to the first rehearsal unless I know all the lines because I’ve watched too many old actors not make it. I’ve watching it over the years. They don’t make it over time. That is not going to happen to me. I know the lines before rehearsals start and then you can do more and you are not thinking, “What is the next line?” I don’t arrive without knowing what I am doing.
Michele Maxwell: It’s wonderful to have a sense of your character before you start. With Cabaret, Fräulein Schneider was just somebody that I just knew. It was so familiar to me that rehearsals just flew. It’s nice to know who you are playing.
Considering this is Ashleigh Harvey’s first time leading a show, did any of you share any advice with her along the way?
Michele Maxwell: She hasn’t needed it. Just support and love.
Diane Wilson: The first time I heard her in rehearsal I just went up to her and said, “You’re brilliant. Just go with it.”
Kate Normington: She is older than her years and she is enjoying this so she is just taking it in her stride and having fun and we are all going along with her. It’s infectious.
Diane Wilson: It’s wonderful to see that. This has been the most exciting thing, to just see her just take off. I haven’t seen her go through any periods of “what am I going to do?” I’ve never seen that at all.
Kate Normington: She was quite relaxed and even if there were moments, she and Matthew [Wild] would discuss it but she was never frayed around the edges about it.
Diane Wilson: She got a lot of encouragement.
Michele Maxwell: And she did the whole rehearsal in a moon-boot! I don’t know if that just tempered her or kept her grounded but she was just extraordinary.
To reflect on your own careers, do you have a favourite production that you’ve been involved in?
Diane Wilson: So many for me. I mean 61 years! There are so many. I would say the one-woman shows that I have done that have been highly successful in every way. This show, is on [Ashleigh’s] shoulders. When you carry a show, and it is successful, that is a wonderful sense of accomplishment. For me, I would say, Shirley Valentine and also Zelda Fitzgerald who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s schizophrenic wife that I did a lot of and Conversations with Virginia Woolf which was my own play that Roy Sargeant directed. Those three, I would say stand out in my mind.
Michele Maxwell: I would say my first professional theatrical production that I did in 1973 with Bill Flynn, a two-hander Tennessee Williams Out Cry. And then about 30 years later, again with Bill Flynn in Death of a Salesman playing Linda Loman. That was very special. I loved Cabaret playing Fräulein Schneider. Another one-woman play I loved doing, Diana Vreeland who was the big Vogue editor who published the first photographs of plastic surgery. One-woman plays are very challenging. Those are just what came to mind.
Kate Normington: Bombshells which was down here at Theatre on The Bay which was a one-woman show. It was lonely but it was very challenging. And Sister Act which I did in Joburg that only went on at the Johannesburg theatre. And then in London I was in Sunset Boulevard and understudied one of the main roles and went on one hallucinogenic night.
Diane Wilson: Did you enjoy it though?
Kate Normington: I did! The lovely sound guy there recorded it for me so I couldn’t believe it. I played Norma Desmond at the Adelphi Theatre with the orchestra so I have it immortalized. That was a highlight. And Into The Woods. But this company, being here, they are all special. Each production has some strange little tug at your heart.
Diane Wilson: Well not each. I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve known some that didn’t have that much tug.
Is there anything still on your professional bucket list?
Diane Wilson: Definitely not. This is definitely my swan song.
Michele Maxwell: Darling don’t say that.
Kate Normington: My land lady was actually raving today, “Diane Wilson is amazing!” And I was saying, “Yes she is.” I wanted to say, “And what about me?” She loved you.
Who are some South African woman in the arts that inspire you?
Michele Maxwell: I would say Estelle Kokot as a singer, pianist, composer.
Kate Normington: You know who was playing the other night in the theatre who I just love? Judith Sephuma. I love her. Her stuff is just magnificent.
Michele Maxwell: I’m inspired by everyone that I work with and that is absolutely the truth. Everybody has something that one can learn from.
Diane Wilson: Quite frankly the most inspiring woman that I can think of at the moment is Ashleigh Harvey. The way she coped with what she went through in rehearsal with her pain and everything else and what she’s accomplished, I think she is a wonderful inspiration to anyone in the business. She is brave, she is feisty and I think she is absolutely amazing.
Kate Normington: She’s courageous and she works her ass off.
Diane Wilson: She is tireless. She is almost super human. Even in the interval, she doesn’t relax. She is at it all the time. I think anyone would be inspired by her and whats she’s accomplished.
Training: 60 years as a professional actor
Theatre: 14 theatre awards since 1963 Notably 4 leading actress Fleur Du caps for Twigs and Spare Room, Grace and Glorie, Shirley Valentine” and Glass Roots: Molteno Lifetime Achievement award for theatre in 2009 and Dublin Gay Festival best actress award for Careful in 2009’
Musical Theatre: Original production by Sandy Wilson of The Boy Friend in 1957, 3 productions of Sound of Music playing the Baroness, for Capab Opera. 2 productions playing Miss Hannigan in Annie for Capab Opera, Boy meets Boy for Capab, Vera Charles in Mame for Capab Opera. Parthy in Showboat on 4 European tours
Film & Television: Artes Best acting performance on television in 1980 for “The Giaconda Smile”
Latest TV: 26 episodes of award winning television series “Vlug na Egipte” and “Terug na Egipte”
Training: Diploma speech and drama UCT with two extra years at music college UCT. Further studies at The Actors’ Institute London UK.
Theatre: Bulawayo Boogie (actress, singer, pianist) Cabaret (Fraulein Schneider) C’est La Vie (solo cabaret) Jumpers (Dotty) Death Of A Salesman (Linda Loman) Mame (title role) Cowboy Mouth (Cavale) Popcorn (Farrah) The Cherry Orchard (Varia) One woman plays Family Secrets and Full Gallop, Major Barbara (title role) Absurd Person Singular (Eva). Musical director and pianist on Side By Side By Sondheim and Marat Sade.
Film & Television: ”Jerusalema”(S.A.) ”Hoe Duur Was De Zuiker” (Holland) For the BBC ”The Sisters”, ”Wild At Heart” and ”Jamillah and Alladin”. For SATV ”Scandal” (Abigail) ”Isidingo” (Bubbles) ”Streaks” (DeeDee) ”Fishy Feshions” (Mrs Fischer) and personally featured on ”My Jazz Indaba”and ”Free Spirit”.
Training: Speech and Drama, Wits, Johannesburg
Theatre: Sister Mary Amnesia, Nunsense; Joanna, Sweeney Todd; Niki, Sweet Charity; Josephine, Romance/Romance; Guinevere, Camelot and Eliza, My Fair Lady; Tell Me on a Sunday; Janet, The Rocky Horror Show; Irene, Crazy For You; understudied and performed Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard; The Baker’s Wife, Into the Woods; Rose Vibert, Aspects of Love, Hampshire; Grace Farrell, Annie; Miss Bell, Fame; Soapstar, Menopause; Bombshells; Velma Von Tussle, Hairspray; Miss Darbus, High School Musical; Tanya, Mamma Mia!; Norah Ephron’s Love, Loss and What I Wore; Fraulein Kost, Cabaret; Marjorie Houseman, Dirty Dancing; Mother Superior in Sister Act; Six Characters In Search of an Author; Aunty Silly, Babes in the Wood.