Lara Bye is a prolific and versatile theatre director and educator whose work travels extensively locally and abroad. She directs across genres from opera to physical comedy, large-scale outdoor events and more intimate dramas in both English and Afrikaans. Her latest directorial project, the stage adaptation of Mark Behr’s best-selling novel Die reuk van appels is now playing at The Fugard Theatre.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I would say my mom and my dad. My family is everything to me. It’s my most important resource and inspiration. I grew up in extremely rural KwaZulu-Natal in a funny little house. My mom wanted us to have culture. She was a potter as well as being a full-time mom. She’d take my sister and I out of school on a trip to go to the Durban Film Festival… I remember being very young [and] seeing Sons and Lovers, How Green was My Valley and also crazy European, deeply inappropriate movies when you are 14 and 15. It’s something that is imprinted into my brain. Back in the day, they would have banned movies. I remember going in and forging my signature because you had to have your ID that you were 18 or whatever to actually go and watch this one screening of a movie. Just the sense of art as a really powerful means of communicating and storytelling and just being saturated by a world of images. There was also local stuff like the Bat Centre in Durban which was very much a community based organization at the time. I remember, as a school kid, going to see everything that was on at Durban University with [my] mom as well. Watching Harold Pinter, Dario Fo, outdoor Shakespeare, there was a park that had jazz Sundays. I don’t know what her mission was. Maybe because there wasn’t a lot of culture… in the sense of art culture. Where I grew up was incredibly beautiful. We’d have a lot of power failures because we were the end of the grid. Our lights were always the last ones to go on and we’d put out the paraffin lamps and tell stories and read books. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do. It wasn’t just being an actress, it was telling stories or somehow being involved. My dad was a businessman and travelled a lot and he did Herman Charles Bosman at family gatherings. He would put on the hat and the mustache and everyone adored him. I just felt very loved in my choices and not judged at all in terms of wanting to pursue this which is really lovely. It was never like, “You could do better.” It’s just what I’ve always done my whole life in whatever capacity. And my gran as well. We shared a bedroom and she was an amazing storyteller. She was a very evocative storyteller about how she grew up. I used to go to sleep at night with these stories and characters in my head.
Did it surprise your family at all when you decided to join the circus?
Probably not. I left home quite young to come to Cape Town with my boyfriend at the time and [I] had no plan particularly. I did my Honours here. I was the first to leave home and travel. I just think I always had quite a strong self-determination about what I wanted to do even though I didn’t know where it was going to go. I had been working as an actress doing a lot of physical theatre work. That relationship ended and I just wanted to burn everything. I had been with this person most of my youth. I wanted to learn the trapeze. So you just mention to people, “Where can I learn the trapeze?” I got a phone call saying, “Oh we hear you want to be in the circus.” And I was like, “Not really but sure.” I met with the two guys and they knew that I could horse ride and they were looking for a bareback horse rider. At that point, my life had been reduced to a bachelor flat. I just got rid of everything. It wasn’t such a huge shift to move into a tiny little caravan. I think it made sense to the family somehow because I had been very unhappy. When you reduce everything to a bag, it becomes easier. Then when I went overseas… Because why not? You are tipped out of your worldly belongings. That was with Mark Fleishman and Jennie Reznek back in the day. Jennie was a trapeze artist. We lived for six months in caravans in Green Point.
You are the third woman who I’ve interviewed that studied with Jacques Lecoq. What was that experience like?
I had worked with Jennie, I was before Sylvaine [Strike] and Warrick Grier who is also an amazing theatre-maker and artist. At the time, South Africa was very isolated from the world. The first time I went overseas, I was 24 and on one of the first flights that could fly across African airspace. Things were starting to open and a lot of South Africans were going to England. Just like the circus, I just wanted to be somewhere unfamiliar and strange and out of my depth because I feel like that’s how you learn and grow, by being uncomfortable. Having worked with Jennie and with Ellis Pearson, I just defined what I wanted to be and a place I wanted to be. What I learned at Lecoq and what I tell my students, is that life out there is where it’s shitty. This space is where it is beautiful and where we come on holiday to work. I went there and I had no funding but an au pair job that fell through. I arrived and had nowhere to sleep that first night in Paris but I had 2000 Francs at the time. I remember sitting on my luggage crying. I’ve had angels along my way. I believe in that. This guy comes up to me at the train station. He took my bags and I said, “Run off with my bags. I don’t care.” He took me to his friend who ran a student backpackers. He left me there and I never saw him again. I was like, “Maybe it is going to be alright.” It was this determination to make this thing happen. I had one phone number at the time, Denis Hirson who was a South African writer living in Paris. I phoned him. He and his wife fed me and clothed me. He had a small little studio and he said, “You can have it for one month.” I just cried the whole time and he said, “If you haven’t sorted yourself in a month…” I made a deal with Madam Lecoq that I’d pay monthly. My classmates used to hide me because she’d walk on this thing at the top looking for me on Fridays. That struggle to be there really defines what you want. I had to wash dishes in an English tea room. I was a street mime, I taught English and walked dogs. The harder it gets, the more determined I become. It’s just an extraordinary experience. I deliberately chose not to sit with the English clique because I wanted to learn French. I think that this desire to communicate has helped me if you think about it because in my work I don’t have much support in terms of design teams. It’s very freelance work so again there is this purity of communication between [myself] and an actor and then through that to the audience. It’s just an extraordinary feeling. As South Africans, the body is a big part of our storytelling theatre style. Apart from big companies who have the set, the body has been the primary carrier of meaning, I believe, in much South African theatre whether it be physical theatre or solo shows or poetry or whatever. I think that is the fascination with Lecoq. The body is not just the face. He believes that actors need to be architects of life. You are constructing a character and a scene in the same way that an architect constructs space. He has passed now. They still keep that same pedagogy going but I am very blessed to have been taught by him.
How did you first get involved with Die reuk van appels?
Rudi [Sadler] and Johan [van der Merwe] phoned me in, I think, November last year. They had got into the KKNK. Because I am teaching now full-time and I have a family, I have to think very carefully because I, like most people, get consumed by a project. It is not just something you take on lightly. It felt with the book having such a history, you have got to really do it justice. We had spoken about actors and availability and I really wanted Gideon [Lombard.] He just has this timeless age about him. I could picture him. I read the book and was immediately terrified by the challenge which is always then what makes me interested in a project. The moment I feel, “Oh my god, this is too much?” I’m like, “Why is that too much? Why do I not want to go there? What is scaring me about this?” So you go there. Just the politics of the play, the deeply offensive language, potentially, how do you stage this in a way that is not offensive and that is not misconstrued? It could be easily celebrating something. It’s a fine line. Where the story goes is shocking. It’s almost like a betrayal when you read the book because you don’t see it coming. Then you reread the book and all the clues are there from the beginning. Then I just saw it. I saw the whole play. I saw Gideon. I saw his outfit, the little shorts that are too short, this neat little boy. It felt like I could see him. Of course you go, “How are we going to stage this?” The moment that you start being able to picture it, and the fact that it was so scary, is always a good sign. What happens in the play is a mother’s worst nightmare so I need to actually do this in a personal catharsis kind of way as well. I think that 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been as impactful as it is right now with where we are as South Africans. It just feels where we are at the moment is, “How did we get here? What happened?” This particular story of the 1970s is one that hasn’t been told like this before. Often we have a cliché or the racist Afrikaner but the fact that this is a very middle class, wealthy family in Kalk Bay, it’s a lovely home which makes it more shocking. Gideon is shooting [Suidooster] every day. I’m teaching all day. It’s him and me. It’s very personal. We would work in his lounge, we’d work at AFDA in the lecture room. We have to tell this story. We have to do it justice. We can’t cut any corners and he brought exactly that same commitment, which I think he would do with any play. He is the ultimate professional. We really cared about this little boy. He became so real for us. It was an amazing time. Then Johann Smith came on as the adapter and we all inputted what could be in and what could be left out. For me, it was really important that the mother’s voice was really present. He came to Cape Town and we spent three days at Beleza Coffee shop, from 9am to 5pm. We had breakfast, we had lunch and then wine, thrashing through the stage adaptation. Cutting and making sure that the text is Mark Behr, that every word is his. There is no rewriting with someone else’s language.
On the surface, this story can come across as such a uniquely male story but it seems to me like this would have been a completely different play if it had been directed by a man. What do you feel you’ve brought to this piece?
Sensuality. It’s the softness of the mother, and with all the Lecoq work…Gideon is an amazing physical actor so we experimented a lot with contraction and expansion. The fleshly masculinity of the dad and the mom’s voice is pitched in a certain way. You know those women who are suppressed and they actually don’t breathe enough into their lungs? We spent a lot of time and every time there wasn’t enough of ‘mom’ following through the story, I’m like, “No.” Because it is a very patriarchal world and there is a real tendency to focus on the military and the guys with guns and I’m going, “Tannie Karla has to be there. We’ve got to have Ilse’s burgeoning political awareness.” When it came to music choices [and] finding the mother’s voice, we went and researched music because women sang differently in the ’70s, the quality of that Afrikaans voice. We spent forever looking. And that idea [of] having a son that has an active imagination, really working on his world as a mother, his neatness, his pride, his room, his desk, his curiosity, his seriousness. Children are complete beings at their age and with philosophy and attitude and world views and perspective. Approaching him from that way of knowing a lot of boys at this age and knowing how fascinating and curious they can be but also how they are such sponges. They will just repeat. That thing between a child believing that they know everything and that idea of the unreliable narrator. We are going, “But you don’t know.” Working with the students as well who think they know everything there is to know about acting and then they come back and go, “Oh crap.” It’s that lovely place of intimate knowledge coupled with that age group and a deep respect for research. You cannot just take a story at face value. The colour of green on the chair is a 1970’s green. One thing I insisted on is that we made our own chair. We had discussions and I was like, “It is not just a chair. It’s a chair of the theatre.” We’ve got one chair. It’s not a chair that you would have in someone’s lounge. To make Gideon’s size look awkward in the space because we have to make him look smaller. He is already a strapping adult man. I think it’s all of that. I don’t know if a man or woman…. but I’m saying that is my particular quality and also not being afraid of love and yearning and of nostalgia when he climbs into his mother’s arms, when she sings to him. It’s just me, Gideon, and a mat. That’s all you’ve got to work with, the tools of the actor as a storyteller and because he is so musical, often when we’d get struck we’d say, “What is dad’s beat?” And he would drum it and find his rhythm. He becomes like an orchestrator. It’s not just that as a woman you go for the soft, that’s a cliché but that is me. I can’t speak for anyone else but it’s also going for the fierceness. The first scene at the border wasn’t in the original version of the adaptation and I was like, “It has to be there.” It’s situated in the play where Mark Behr put it in his book. You are busy reading and then, “WHAT?!” We can’t not put that in there and then all the issues around nudity and what is appropriate and I’m like, the whole point of the play is corrupted masculinity and this boy who had his masculinity cut off and what it is to be a man. This completely disconnected relationship that he has with himself. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s deeply ugly. I don’t know if it’s as a mom of a young boy [that] I’m very aware of how vulnerable boys are to influencers. Maybe that is my journey at the moment approaching what terrifies me the most. It felt like an opportunity like this, you can’t say no to.
What has your experience been like as a female director?
There are all these layers of privilege and access [that I have] compared to the vast majority of theatre-makers in Cape Town. I can’t complain. I am very aware of that. I think it’s hard for most people, to be quite honest. Even if you look at the men directing, there are few of them that are doing everything. It’s a handful. You have astounding male directors who, for me, should be getting greater access as well. Do women have it harder? Maybe. I just bang on. I am very blessed that my husband is also in the industry, so I have that support. I’m not on my own. It’s a deeply lonely place to be. The older you get, the more lonely it becomes. You come out of drama school and everyone is coming up together and you are excited and fired up and then they fall by the wayside. They just do. They go travel or they get a job on a TV series and you find that you are the one holding the manifesto. You can’t be masochistic either. There comes a point where you go, “This is just too hard.” Having Gaëtan as my rock, my anchor… I sometimes come home when I am so mad after work and the day and I literally lie on the floor. We have a pug and he comes and it’s like, “Someone! Give me some love!” Because you feel like you are just banging away. I’ve always wanted to be Ariane Mnouchkine and have a space, a room, actors, costumes that get collected and you can make beautiful things and people can come and eat and watch the work. That is my dream. It hasn’t diminished. Sometime, somehow, maybe one day. I think you have to have some bigger vision. I’m not knowledgeable to speak about government funding. It’s hard everywhere. I’m grateful to be teaching because now I can do plays with more than one actor. I can’t out there. If I look at other women who come from less access than I have had or made happen, maybe because of my education it’s given me more confidence to go and bang on doors. From the get go, I never had the fantasy of it being easy, not that anyone does but I always worked. When I was 30, I got a waitressing job when I came back from overseas. The plan was bigger. You just have to hustle.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Where do you start? I have to talk about the people I have worked with; Sandra Prinsloo, Robyn Scott, Jennifer Steyn, Mwenya Kabwe, Faniswa Yisa. Fearless, all of them. It’s like they would never go for the comfortable route. Jennifer just brings and brings and brings. And Robyn Scott, just her level of research! She doesn’t stop. You just know as consumed as I am, they are. I did Yellow Man with Mwenya Kabwe. I still remember it. She walks across barefoot as the older version of her character, very slowly and her first line is, “There is a fluidity to the heat in South Carolina.” And you feel hot. She is hot. Her level of preparation…she is so emotionally and physically fit. These women are fit. When Sandra Prinsloo and I did Oskar en die Pienk Tannie, she had really bad sciatica. I was doing my Masters at the time with Jacques Lecoq and the poetic body and applying that to the acting process. I asked her if she would be my guinea pig. We are working with all this Lecoq slow motion, playing with rhythm and I would ask, “Are you ok?” And the stage manager is pulling her leg and she’s going, “I’m ok now. Let’s go!” I can’t ever come in and say that I’m having a bad day because she is a channel. All of them are. They are not just good actors. Gideon is that, Mbulelo Grootboom, I’ve worked with magnificent men as well, Godfrey Johnson. This place of vulnerability where you open up for an audience from skill. And then behind the scenes people, Ina Wichterich is the most extraordinary choreographer. Just to sit in a rehearsal room with her in opera and Fiona Du Plooy. Women who have been doing it for a while and have lots of things going. You do whatever it takes to set up a life for yourself [so] that you can then be a creative being. Ina is heading up Young Blood. She is a single mom. Barbara Mathers runs Brett Bailey’s company Third World Bunfight, taking shows and traveling around the world. The logistics and having three kids… managing to manage with a husband and three kids and to go and open a show in Marseilles and Germany and the juggle. I think anyone who embarks in this but particularly where I am at right now, even that inspiration of Malika Ndlovu, people who are mothers and creative beings. Karen Jeynes who is the head writer at ZA News. She’s employing so many actors and also a mom. It’s a big juggling act when you have a kid. You can’t take it home with you but you do. That’s why we are all awake at 3am. Liz Mills, who is my head of department. Susan Danford, actress extraordinaire and one of my longest friendships in our industry. Sue Mitchell, actress, casting director and fellow mom. Our boys were born a week apart. To see so many incredibly extraordinary young women, you just go, “Go for it.” This generation of 20-somethings is really fighting with a lot of passion and clarity. Even if the structures that be don’t change, they can be part of building something new. You have to just hang in there.
All images were taken by Chris de Beer on October 25th 2017.