A Conversation with Mel Jones

Mel Jones is a mother, comedian, award nominated producer, MC and entertainer. She is currently starring as The Enchantress in Enchanted*, a new international cirque production which runs for a strictly limited season at the newly constructed Enchanted Spiegeltent in Green Point.  

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

I never really considered comedy as part of the arts until I realized how much goes into it. People just assume that if you have a fun job, it’s not that much hard work but it’s actually a little harder because it’s terrifying going up on stage and baring your soul to the audience. I think that the reason I started pursuing it was because people always told me [that] I was funny. I was always the class clown and then my mom found out that they were running [comedy] workshops in Woodstock. I went to go check out the workshop for a few weeks and then the guy who was running the workshop said, “Listen, you can’t just sit here all the time. You have to try out some stuff. Put some material together.” I went to go try it out and they loved it and put me on an open mic spot at the Armchair Theatre, which still runs now. The crowd loved it and I was hooked from day one. It’s one of those things, you either love it or you hate it. I became addicted from the minute I got on stage. 

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer
What was it that made you want to be part of Enchanted?

It was being in the right place at the right time, one of those serendipitous moments. I was performing at The Cape Town Comedy Club one night. I think I was standing in for someone so I don’t think I was even meant to be there and the executive producer decided to come and hang out at the Comedy Club. He caught me and chatted to me a little bit afterwards. I didn’t think much of it at the time until about two weeks later [when] he called me and he said he was busy with this production and asked me to come and chat to them about being part of the production. It was fate, I guess. I went to go and chat with him. He asked me to do a script reading which I had never done before. I don’t do scripts. I’m not one of those actors turned comedians so I’m not really familiar with scripts. I’m not comfortable with scripts but I thought, “You know what? Opportunities come your way once in a lifetime and when they do, grab them with both hands because they happen for a reason.” I gave it a shot and here I am. [It’s] ne of those classic cases of being in the right place at the right time.

Did the production team create the Enchantress persona that you portray?

Yes. The wheels had been set in motion. Most of the cast had already been cast. I believe that my role had been cast tentatively and then, and this is the story I was told, when they saw me they knew the role would be perfect for me. They must have known what happened in my life and my bad luck with romance because that is essentially the character that the Enchantress plays. She’s had really bad luck with romance. When I found out about the role I thought it would be perfect for me and it would probably be a bit of a stretch for me to move out of my comfort zone but I was ready to do it. The role was predefined and I filled it but I kind of bring my own little twist to it.

And it’s obviously quite different to anything you’ve done before…

Yes, it’s incredibly different from anything I’ve done before. I’m used to doing my own thing [and] writing my own “script.” I do very observational comedy. I do very personal comedy, things that have happened in my life or things that I have experienced or things that I’ve seen or has happened around me. This is just outside of that. This is a predefined role so it’s very different. I have to fulfill the role of a character which is very different but when it comes down to making people laugh, if you are passionate you’ll find a way to make it work no matter what the role is.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer
What was the rehearsal process like?

Grueling! We had long hours. We have a really good team. We have a great team of people and the cast is amazing. We have an international cast and for some weird reason we all just click. This is a group of people who actually just got along from the word “go” which made it so much easier and so much more comfortable coming to rehearsals. Sometimes we would have to do early mornings and we’d have to do not only the rehearsals but PR interviews and all those kinds of things. We had to do everything all rolled into one and work out all of the kinks before we were ready to go onstage but it was so much fun. I never knew that hard work could be so much fun. I really thoroughly enjoyed it and it’s one of those experiences that you can kind of tick the box and go, “Yeah I did that and I think I did a fairly good job.”

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer
It looks like you are all having so much fun up on that stage. 

Yes, we are. We also have a bit of dancing in the show which came as a bit of a surprise. I love dancing but going to a club and shaking your booty and then dancing to a choreographed piece is very different. It was really difficult trying to pick up those moves. A professional choreographer came in and did it. That was also another new experience for me. It was also fun, also incredible and also another one of those things that I can tick off on the box. 

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer
You are the first comedian that I’ve sat down with. How do you find the current climate for women in comedy?

I get asked that a lot. I think that women in comedy isn’t the problem. I think there is a perception around women in comedy and that is a general perception. Historically, women were not meant to be funny. I didn’t know this otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gotten into comedy. A lot of the women who are in comedy at the moment were never told that they were not supposed to be funny. They are historically funny. They are genuinely funny. They are funny in conversation. The one step that is missing from people who are funny in conversation is a step of taking it to the stage. I think that for women to pursue a comedy career is incredibly brave because there is that perception [and] there is that audience perception that women aren’t funny. It is not as prominent as it was before but it is still there. Sometimes, not just men, women go, “Ok here is a woman. Don’t expect much.” Sometimes it is not even a conscious thing. Sometimes it’s one of those subconscious things. People still have those preconceived notions and with comedy it is no different. People have a preconceived notion whether they know it or not. So we have to fight all of this and break the glass ceiling. We know the glass ceiling is still there…can we not talk about it anymore? Let’s just try to shatter it. There is this preconceived notion that women aren’t funny and we are trying to break down that barrier and just make it an even playing field. It’s like if you look at the first female doctor or the first female lawyer or the first female astronaut, jobs that were previously male dominated and women are trying to infiltrate. Watch out guys, we are coming for you! It’s a long and tedious process but we have to pave the way for women to come. I’ve spoken to a few of the younger comics and when I say younger comics [I mean] women who have started recently and they don’t know how much of a schlep it’s been over the last decade. People like Shimmy Isaacs who have been doing this a long time, people like Tumi Morake and Tracy Klass, we’ve been doing it through the climate of “men rule the stage and women take a backseat.” We tried to make as much stride as possible, not by walking out there and waving banners and flags and burning bras. We’ve just gone out there and had to prove ourselves like ten times over. Sometimes it is easier and people are more accepting of you but sometimes you go onstage and you still have to dispel all of those myths. We are doing our best to make it go away and it will eventually. We are still in the process.

Do you feel as though you have to work a lot harder than your male counterparts in order to headline at the bigger venues?

Yes. Absolutely we have to. But like I said before, if you are passionate, you make sacrifices. Sometimes the audiences are easy and sometimes they are welcoming and inviting and accepting of you and they’ll be your best friend. Sometimes you’ll hit a brick wall and you’ll have to break down that brick wall before you can get to a space where it is not us against them, it’s more like we are all in this together. We do have to work ten times harder but it’s not as hard as it used to be. When I started doing comedy, I didn’t realize how hard it would be and I’m glad that I stuck by it because there are many more women doing it now and I’m grateful for that. Let us do this and prove how funny we are.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer
At this stage in your career, do you still get nervous?

Absolutely. Every single time I get onstage whether it is a production like this or whether it is a regular standup comedy show. I’ve just come off the Jive Cape Town Funny Festival which happened at The Baxter Theatre which was a whole different audience. Whatever the audience is and whatever the platform is, comedy is still terrifying because you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know whats out there. You don’t know what your audience is going to be like but also, it’s good for me to experience a little bit of nerves just because then I am a little bit more focused and I have a little bit of that adrenalin rush and I kinda get the job done.

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Photo credit: Chris de Beer
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be and why?

I give myself this advice now because it happens constantly, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I think especially as women, we overanalyse everything. We put ourselves down a lot more because I think a lot more is expected of us generally, not only in the comedy field. Generally, as a society, women are put in a position where a lot more is expected of them. A lot of the time we have to play the role of mothers and wives and business women and sometimes in the business world, people assume that if you aren’t a bitch, you are not going to get anywhere. There are all of these common misconceptions and myths that we have to dispel. The advice that I give myself on a daily basis is, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You have already come so far.” I do motivational talks for schools and I tell the girls, “You made it to wherever you are without doing too much harm to yourself so don’t be so hard on yourself. The best is yet to come. Stop judging yourself by society’s norms.”

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

I recently did this thing called Legends which was at the Artscape Theatre. I got to MC with a bunch of incredible artists who have been doing amazing work and Sophia Foster is one of those women who has overcome so many obstacles and so many barriers and she is still successful. She was one of those singers and performers who did incredibly well through an era that wasn’t meant for her to shine. When I met her, I was in awe of this woman who had so many obstacles and so many barriers and not only overcame then, shone through them. She still sings beautifully and she still dresses impeccably. This woman is a costume design phenomenon. She is one of my absolute favourites. I also recently got back in touch with Amy Kleinhaus. She is just a regular business woman now. She is a regular mother with kids but also, because you are in the spotlight and because you are in the public eye, you have to kind of deal with a lot more than most people have to and she, I think, has dealt with it really well. Sylvia Mdunyelwa is also one of those beautiful artists who has done amazing work not only throughout her own career but has also taught and passed down to younger women who can now carry that through.


*10 November 2017 Update: Due to unforeseen circumstances, the run of Enchanted has been cancelled. Our hearts go out to the cast and crew affected. 

You can keep up with Mel via Twitter or Facebook.

Special thanks to Allison Foat and Chris de Beer.

All photos were taken by Chris de Beer on September 15th at the Enchanted Spiegeltent.

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

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