A Conversation with Mari Borstlap

Marí Borstlap is a theatre director, writer and designer. Following a successful run at the Vrystaat Arts Festival earlier this year, her most recent directorial endeavour, Winterboom, begins performances at Aardklop on October 3rd. We sat down to chat about the show and her perception on the current climate for female theatremakers.

To read this conversation in Afrikaans please click here.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I think I’m deeply connected to stories. I think it ties into my whole philosophy on life. I believe that we are souls having a human experience and I think this time around, I’m concerned or passionate about what it is to be human and how we deal with everything we have to face as humans. I think [that] the world and the people I encounter, not just my friends and family, but everybody, even this moment here, is a continuous inspiration for me. That’s the first thing that came to mind but obviously I’ve been deeply influenced by many other artists. I find artists to be extremely courageous to really pursue this. You need to have a lot of courage to really make a living out of the arts because it is hard. It’s not just hard to make a living, I think it’s hard because I truly believe that as an artist you have to be honest and sometimes it’s very difficult to be willing. I was greatly influenced and inspired by Marthinus Basson who was also my mentor when I was a student at Stellenbosch. He is focused on detail. He is also a fine artist. He is not just a theatre director and he was an incredible actor when he was younger. Jaco Bouwer is one of my big heroes.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

I’m glad that you mentioned Stellenbosch because it seems like they are cranking out game-changing theatremakers. How was your time there?

I had an incredible time there. I studied language and culture as a pre-grad and am very happy that I did that because it gave me a broader perspective. I took a gap year after I finished, and then I went back and did my honors and masters in directing with Marthinus. It was a very fruitful and inspiring two years of my life. It’s an old institution with a lot of history and amazing people have walked through the doors of that department. To have the opportunity to work with Marthinus and to be guided by him for two years was incredible. I’ve been making theatre since I was nine years old and I didn’t come [in] wanting to make it as an actress. I’ve always wanted to be a director. I acted as well but it was always that thing of, “I would prefer to be on the other side of things.” He saw that in me and he really knew how to guide me when I was very green and allowed me to explore my talent but he also gave me a certain sense of confidence to trust my instinct. I’m grateful for that time at Stellenbosch and like any student, I have amazing memories.

What was it about Winterboom that attracted you to the production?

I’ve worked with Cintaine [Schutte], who is one of the actors in the play, on another production that I directed. I think Cintaine and I are starting to find a collaborative relationship and we really get along well on a creative level but also personally. I think there is a beautiful trust between the two of us. I’ve known Jaco [Nothnagel] for many years but I haven’t worked with him. When Jaco approached me and he said that Cintaine was going to be part of it and that they are getting Wessel [Pretorius] to write and I thought, “Ok. This sounds very interesting.” It was nice for me to get an opportunity to do something more traditional because Winterboom is a full-on family drama. My work for the past few years has been very much centered around site-specific stuff. I guess because I am also a designer, I love the idea of using the environment to tell a story, and this was a big challenge for me because I had to go back to the drawing board in a more classical sense by designing and directing a play that has been written for a specific company. I guess it was just easy for me to say yes because it was the right people who were involved. It’s difficult subject matter to address. I am fascinated by what we need as humans in order to feel loved, in order to feel that we have a purpose, in order to feel we matter, and in order to find our tribe. Sometimes it’s complete strangers that make you feel at home. That’s why I said yes. I was drawn to the subject matter but also very much to the people that are involved.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

What are you looking forward to during this next run of the play?

It’s always a big blessing to open a production and then have a few months for it to just settle, especially if it is a new play. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s going to come up. It’s almost like marinating something. To see what comes up once we revisit but not just in a “how did the actors grow in their process” [way]. I think it was important for me as a director to also just take one step back and look at it. Often with festivals, the first time you really see the work as a complete image is on opening night. We don’t have the privilege of previews. I’m also looking forward to tweaking things. I definitely feel like we have the opportunity to expand on what we have created.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

As a theatremaker, but specifically a writer-director, what is your perception on the current climate for female writers and directors?

Because I’ve always felt like I didn’t really have a choice and like I was born to do this, I never thought, “Maybe this is not a good idea because I’m a female and there is no place for females in the industry.” I never had that conversation in my head. Thank god I didn’t because maybe I would have decided not to do this. It’s been hard. You are constantly met with challenges because you are female. It’s almost like you can’t really grasp why. There is this thing. I’d hate to feel it’s obvious and that there is no space for women in the industry. I don’t think that’s the case. But, all of a sudden it just seems like all there is a sense of confidence and courage among the female creatives around me. People are courageous enough to say, “I am going to pursue this no matter how hard or how impossible it seems.” I think it’s a great time. I spent four years teaching at UCT and working very closely with theatremakers. The female theatremakers that I encountered during those four years really gave me hope and I realized that there is a big future for female theatremakers. I just think it is a matter of persisting. I did a lot of work with Lara Bye who I have so much love and respect for because she has been doing it for many years [during] a time where the idea of a female director was almost foreign. She was the one who said to me, “You just need to let go of all the noise about what you can and can’t do and you just need to do the work. The work will eventually speak.” I think maybe that is what it boils down to. You have to find a way.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

It’s come up in quite a few discussions recently that the Afrikaans theatre industry seems to be more embracing of having women in key roles. What is your opinions on that?

We also have incredible females in high positions in the Afrikaans arts set-up. Two of the major festivals are run by females. Woordfees by Saartjie Botha and Alexa Strachan is the head of Aardklop. Maybe it also has to do with when you have a female right on top, there’s a better chance for younger, upcoming, unestablished females to get the opportunity because they understand the value of that balance. It’s also that thing that the female perspective on things is completely different. Definitely in the Afrikaans industry there is a sense of acceptance towards female theatremakers but not just on the theatre-making side, producers and people making the calls too.

What have you found to be your biggest challenge?

Because of the nature of our industry being very small, everybody is basically fighting over the little bit of funding that is available. There is always this challenge of money but that is not the biggest challenge for me. The biggest challenge is allowing yourself the grace to fail. It seems like we have gone into this mode of everybody expecting everyone else to always create masterpieces. If you go and you look at the artists through history that have really been inspirational, not everything that they turn out ended up being a masterpiece. You look at someone like Sam Shepard. He was an incredible playwright and artist. He has this volume of plays that he wrote over his lifetime and he is well-known for three or four of them. The challenge for me is to give myself the space to continuously work at my craft without feeling like I am not good enough. Sometimes I would just like to create something and it doesn’t have to be the absolute best thing that has ever been created. There is a lot of pressure to always create a masterpiece. I find that is interfering with the creative process because you can’t just do your work. In the end this is what I do on an everyday basis and in some other way I have to make this work. This is my life’s work. It is not just a job. I’ve heard things like, “This better be brilliant.” That is really hectic for any creator to hear. What is brilliant? I’m not just talking about the energy or attitude or the commitment towards a project. I’m talking about allowing yourself the grace to just create something beautiful.
 

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

I think this conversation will resonate with so many people because often women aren’t allowed to articulate something like this.

Yes and to add to that, I think it comes back to your question of, “What is the attitude towards females in the arts?” I think that pressure is even more so because of the fact that there are so few of us who are really doing this. I think it’s sometimes insane the level of pressure that we experience but I also feel like we are busy with more than just turning out another play. I would really like to think, at the end of my life, my work contributed on a bigger scale than just a list of achievements in the sense of how many plays I’ve directed, that at some point your work becomes influential and inspires other people to pursue something. You often hear that thing of, “Would you encourage young people to do what you do in the arts?” and very often the answer is, “No. Just don’t” And I hate that. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” Do you love what you do? Yes! Yes it’s hard. Yes sometimes you have to hustle and have to do something that you don’t necessarily like. Sometimes you just have to do whatever comes along. I’m also very involved with Tienertoneel which is a big thing in the Afrikaans community. I don’t look at my involvement in that as less important. I try to bring everything I have to that particular moment whether it is something commercial or a passion project. That is important for me to look at it like that.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

What is something you are most proud of?

Since I was young, I really had faith in the calling of becoming a theatremaker and I’ve made incredible work without a backup from the beginning. Knowing that I’ve been able to continually create out of a desire to create. I did a play that I am very proud of with three matric learners three years ago. It was the darkest time in my life. It was the last few months of my mother’s life. She had cancer and I moved back home to take care of her while I was directing this. I wrote it as well. During the day, when I was at rehearsals, I would just focus all of my energy on this work and we had so much fun but it was also brutal. The three actors were absolutely incredible to work with because they were young and fearless and they didn’t question. They just went for it. But then I would go home at night and I would be taking care of my dying mother. The product of that process is something that I don’t know how to recreate because it was an example of how creativity and how being committed to your work and using whatever is in your life, to create something that you believe in, will transform everything else. I look back at that year and go, “It was the worst/best year of my life.” I am very proud of that play. You are supposed to create even during the worst circumstances.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer

 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Tinarie van Wyk Loots is a big inspiration from an actress point of view. Lara Bye, who I mentioned earlier. I think she is doing amazing work but she is also a big inspiration for me because she cares about transferring her knowledge. She is so keen to share what she has learned throughout her life. I’m touched by someone like Bianca Flanders. She is an incredible talent and to work with her is so easy but every time she goes into that mode, I’m always in awe of how brilliant she is. I have a big thing about interacting or working or creating with people who are kind humans. I find that in our industry, often people with bad reputations get put on pedestals and I am so tired of that. I don’t think there is any excuse to not be a good, kind fellow human being and you can still be brilliant. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a bad reputation in order to be a brilliant artist. Of course I sometimes lose my temper in the moment, as well, but I really strive to be an example. I think it’s important, as artists that we have the responsibility of taking care of each other as a community. I’m always struck by fellow creatives that have that soft, gentle kindness. Someone like Cintaine. She is hardworking. Nothing is too big or too small. She is an incredible artist and incredible actress. She is someone who will phone me and say, “Can I help you to pick out costumes?” I remember I was pregnant when we did a show and she just arrived and she got up on ladders. She was just an actress in the show and did not have to do that. I have a lot of respect for people who commit on that level. Koleka Putuma! She is not just an amazing poet, she also has an incredible energy as a theatremaker.


Winterboom begins performances on October 3rd and runs until October 7th at Aardklop. For tickets, click here.

Special thanks to Hannah Baker, Maria Vos, Jaco Nothnagel and Chris de Beer.

Afrikaans translations by Maria Vos.

All photos were taken by Chris de Beer on September 12th 2017 at The Company Gardens.

Sarafina Magazine and Chris de Beer maintain copyrights over all images. For usage or inquires, please contact us.

 

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