Buhle Ngaba prefers to simply define herself as a storyteller. She is an award-winning actress, theatre-maker, author of The Girl Without a Sound and founder of KaMatla NPO and Maru Factory. Currently Buhle is starring in Nadia Davids’ What Remains which begins performances in Cape Town following a sold out run at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. We sat down to chat about her career and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I just always wanted to tell the stories. As a little girl, when my mom or my family had guests I would always have prepared a show of some sorts for them to watch. I think I liked that interaction between audience and performer and as I got a little bit older, I think I started to understand what this thing meant [and] what you could do with it. By the time I was in Grade 3, when we all started reading out loud, I was the only kid who loved it so much. We’d read a book and it became a thing where I would just read the whole book because nobody wanted to and I just wanted to. By the time we were in Grade 5 and we were having to write our own orals, I remember that’s when I started using this weird device where I would turn myself into whatever the theme or the subject of the oral was. Sometimes I’d be a nature conservationist, at some stage I was Elvis Presley. I’ve always liked that. It feels like a very human thing to be able to do and not just from a performer who is giving a performance but the willingness of the audience to listen and then you having to figure out, “Ok, I have their attention. What am I going to do with it now?”
I read that you prefer to define yourself as a storyteller as opposed to an actress.
It changes all the time. I do think overall storyteller just because it is so limiting as a South African actress. There are so many of us who do so much but they give us so little for it. I went to the University currently known as Rhodes and I worked with the Ubom Eastern Cape Drama Company after that and we made the sets, we carried the sets, you are the body, you are the thing. We wrote stories. We made things as a cast. It’s not so much the titles I don’t like, I have to be willing to say that I am far more than what I am because I represent so many more people who don’t get to step on a stage. I think particularly in this time, I am not willing to just be one thing when there is so much for me to do. Sometimes I’m the person on the stage, sometimes I am the person writing the story, sometimes somebody has to be the one who is going to get up and move the set and do that without ego. For me, it is about trying to widen myself also and not be fearful to anticipate that the roles will come if I stay deserving of them.
I feel like the last 18 months have been insane for you and the only logical way to keep track of everything you’ve done is to try to go in some sort of chronological order. Let’s start with the book. Casually you published your first book, The Girl Without A Sound. How did it feel to hold your book for the first time?
It still confuses me. I haven’t caught up completely. Every time I pick it up, I look at it and it doesn’t feel like it’s real. I only realize it’s real when people talk to me about it [or] their experience of it. It is weird because it doesn’t feel like ‘my’ book. It does so much all the time- it continues to. It will long after I am dead. That is the point of it as a vehicle and I try to grant it the respect that it deserves minus Buhle. What I do love about it is that it did come about because I am an actress. I didn’t have money….I had time though. I had the time, I had the story and people often talk about resources which I find interesting but I literally had exam pad and a pen. Those are resources. That excites me because it helps me to understand how it is that I do so many things that can often all feel so different but they are not. Ultimately I know that they are not because at their core they are bigger than me and I have to stay safe and grounded in that. It isn’t about me. It can look like it’s about me but it’s not.
What can you tell us about your non-profit organisation, KaMatla?
I was doing Missing at the State Theatre at the time and my gran had passed away and it was just really difficult. I started looking at women in history and what that means in South Africa as a whole. Susan [Danford] and I started talking about that a lot. Susan and I started KaMatla productions together as two actresses who wanted to do something and wanted to do something more. We started to realise that we are the ones on the floor doing the job yet who don’t get to be in those boardrooms who decide who is deserving of what. It is empowering to give yourself a structure of some sort because bureaucracy is so exhausting. I think part of empowering yourself as an actress, as a storyteller, as a writer is figuring out, “How do I get myself into that room? How do I make sure that I am part of this conversation?”
I’m amazed that, to you, it sounds so simple and just like a natural extension of who you are. How are you able to just fearlessly pursue everything?
I trick myself. I think when you are at the edge of the cliff, don’t look and contemplate too much. We get very caught up in what we think [and] what we feel. We get so caught up that we forget the part that we like is when you get to jump and in that split second you are flying. Sometimes it’s a belly flop and that happens but sometimes it is soaring and that’s beautiful. You have to land and then you go back into rehearsal and you work it out and you earn that moment to try to fly again. Just jump. Don’t think so much because you know when you get that feeling? It’s an overwhelming feeling. They are your thoughts that you think of yourself that scream at you that tell you are bad or that judge you. Then there is that very quiet voice that is very calm and very simple and all of us know what that voice is because that is the voice that sounds different to the other voices because that is the voice that is the most calm. That’s the one that is quiet and has very clear instructions and never complicated. It is never whole sentences and whole philosophies that tell you why it is that you were put on earth. It is always as simple as, “Go on stage they are waiting for you. You are ready. Try.”
Last year you won the Brett Goldin Bursary. What did the process entail and how was the experience?
What people don’t often talk about is how I went there for the second time. I won it this time but I tried for it before. I like to tell people about those things because we only get to see the fun stuff that is happening. I tried for it two years before and I had wanted it so badly. I did everything right. I learned my things, I felt them. I learned it, got into the top 6, did the last showcase, killed it, loved it, felt like I had left blood on the stage. I had done everything and I didn’t get it. I learned then that sometimes you can do everything right but it just wasn’t your turn or you just weren’t quite what they were looking for. It doesn’t make you any less phenomenal. Fast forward to last year. I pushed myself further and found work that would challenge me even more. I am so grateful and now I understand why it was that it had to be last year. I wasn’t as ready as I was when I did get it. I wouldn’t have done as much as I did with it. I think I would have gone in there less strong and less sure which makes a huge difference. It was crazy to me that I could be having an amazing experience where I was learning so much as an actress. You never stop learning. You are never ever too good to learn as an actress. As soon as you feel like you are too good to learn, stop, you definitely suck. As human beings, we have such a capacity to feel. You cannot tell me that you can play all of the feelings. I think I say that so confidently because I have been really lucky to work with some legends. I get to watch really big people do really huge things and the thing that I have seen in all of them is that they all love what they do and they’ve taught me that there is always more to learn. The point is that if all we really want to do is tell stories, there is no real competition. There is space for all of us. I also feel like every space right now is a theatre. I learned that now at KKNK in a container which was the best thing to have ever happened to me. Now it means I can go anywhere. Give me a container, give me a tiny dark room, I’ll give you a show.
You took The Swan Song to the KKNK and ended up walking away with multiple awards. What was it like to bring a show to the festival?
I started writing The Swan Song while I was at the RSC. I was feeling so emotionally torn apart and I was thinking a lot about Brett. I had seen so many ends to a lot of things in my life the year before and I felt this overwhelming need to do something about it. I remember it was a Sunday and I went and all the theatres were locked for the day. I found the Ashcroft Rehearsal room and all I did was put on a camera. I knew I needed to let out stuff so I just spoke. Then I sat with a pen and paper and wrote something. It was a process. Then the KKNK came to me and said they had this collaboration with The Netherlands called Uitkampteater, you can perform a 20 minute something. So they were like, “Do you have something?” Always have something because you do have something. As a maker of a thing, there is always something. I was there at the RSC [because] this real person had died and somehow I had gotten there. I was staring at all of these swans and the idea of a swan song as a final gesture before a performer dies, It all just kind of made sense. I said yes and I understood how hard it was going to be but my experience of it was something else. The beautiful thing about doing things that are really meant for you is that you get to a stage where you are not even being brave anymore, you are just doing what you are supposed to be doing. I think once you start to see it from that point, it is easy because then it isn’t a question of “Do I want to? Am I going to like it?” It is my job. This is what you do. Awards and things are very nice but the world is burning. There is much more to do.
What has the process been like in bringing What Remains to life?
It’s been a very rewarding, insane process to be able to sit in a space with such incredible people who I have admired for so long. Firstly there is Shaun [Oelf] who I get to work with very directly. He is the most incredible dancer. He is a true definition of the body as a text and the chance to work with him has been more than incredible. Then there is Faniswa Yisa. I always dreamed that I would work with her and now I am. Then there is Denise Newman who I grew up with on my TV screen. In terms of having a stellar cast it has been absolutely crazy. They have pushed me to push myself to do better. As for Jay, I am so fortunate at this point in my career to have been able to encounter him now because Jay makes possibilities where there are none. Stylistically the way he works with multi-media, with dance, with visual art, with real live actors bodies and manages to combine them all to create a language which is so distinct in the play, is beyond amazing. Nadia really is a magician of words. The first time I picked up the script I was overwhelmed by it but I didn’t know that wasn’t where the real work began. The work was when I had to figure out how to lift what is already so beautiful off of the page and put it onstage and something very real and very visceral. All in all it has been an incredible experience.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Lara Foot, Chuma Sopotela, Faniswa Yisa, Nadia Davids, Koleka Putuma, Ameera Conrad, Genna Gardini. There are just some incredible people doing some really incredible work. Klara van Wyk is doing such amazing things for teens. Right now it feels like we are in a time where everyone is doing what you are called to do. Lynelle Kenned, I’ve known her for a very long time. For me, she is a star endorser. I met her when we were doing Blood Brothers and since then she has really been around for all of it. She just breaks boundaries without even trying. Janice Honeyman is so great. I can’t believe how much she loves what she does. She gets so excited every damn time. People are amazing and it is a really great time. Mamela Nyamza is another one. She is something else. It’s a very exciting time. It’s not an easy time but it’s good and it’s alive. For a while there I thought that we would all just not care and die having not done anything but now it is hard but we are doing the things.
Buhle can be found on Twitter.
To purchase Buhle’s book The Girl Without a Sound, please click here.
All photos were taken by Wynne Bredenkamp at Artscape Theatre on May 29th 2017.