Chantal Stanfield is an actress and singer who has featured in a number of South Africa’s leading television and stage productions. In the last year, she has charmed South African audiences by featuring on local Television soap operas Sewende Laan and Getroud met Rugby. After completing a run in Rock of Ages at the Lyric Theatre, her one-woman self-written show From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach makes its Cape Town debut at the Baxter Theatre following a successful Joburg engagement. We sat down at the Baxter to chat about her career, being labeled a “Soap Star” and finding the courage to create her own work.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
The interesting answer to that would be Oliver! That was the very first stage work that I did. Growing up, I did a lot of creche stuff [and] annual performances but then as soon as I moved to Muizenberg Junior in Sub B, that was the first staging experience I had. It was all the Junior kids from Sub A to Standard 5 and we all had different parts to play. In Sub B, we were the urchins and I remember being a little orphan with my little styrofoam bowl and pretending that this was the most disgusting gruel on the planet. I was really into it and in my little 7 year-old brain trying to figure out how to feel about this and feel about whoever the head of the orphanage was. I think that’s when it started.
What was the catalyst that sparked you to write From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach?
I think the catalyst was two-fold. On the one hand, it was experiencing a culture, religion [and] background that was so completely foreign to anything I had experienced before and knowing that other people might also find this as interesting as I was finding it. And on the other hand, I wasn’t working. In that year, I wasn’t being cast in anything. There were no roles that I could audition for and the ones that I was going for and that I did get, there would be a contractual thing and I’d have to leave it. It was a year of disappointments and sometimes I didn’t have enough social media followers or I wasn’t popular enough in that realm. I got to a point where I was questioning what in the world I was doing in the industry. If the years of experience that I had wasn’t enough, why was I doing what I was doing? It became a matter of writing the piece as a catharsis. I wanted to record what was happening with experiencing this different culture but also remind myself that actually I am creative and I can be creative and this is what I’m here to do.
How interesting is it that this came about because you weren’t getting any work and now, in this year, it seems to me like you’ve just exploded professionally.
It’s ridiculous. It’s like night and day. It’s been crazy. It’s pretty cool looking back and remembering what that year was like and how absolutely depressing it was, to where it is now. I haven’t really had a chance to even go out and have a cocktail or hang out with friends. It’s been a bit of a learning thing where it’s great to have all the work but it’s been interesting trying to figure out what the sacrifices are for that and who will understand and who will get it. It’s been interesting to see with the “success” and with the work, who now stays. It’s great you were there when I was crap and nothing was going right. Were you there for that, and now that things are going well, are you there for that or are you stepping away because it’s too much for you? I sense with some people in the industry [that] it’s been ok for me to kind of coast along with them but now that this year has happened with all these really cool things, suddenly they are not quite as supportive. I think I might be wrong but there seems to be an element of professional jealousy where people are ok for you to stay stagnant and to stay in the box that either you’ve presented before, or that they’ve placed you in. Suddenly, when you are like, “Actually that box is too small for me, let me see what else is out there.” Now it’s like, “I don’t know if I want to be around you.” That’s the vibe that I get.
Do you feel as though taking that step to be so proactive with your career by creating your own work has led to all this success that is happening now?
Absolutely. This is something that came up with my best friend that I mention in the piece. We became best friends at a very young age and are basically brother and sister from another life. We understand each other’s struggles from where we grew up but we understand that the road to the success that we want is going to mean sacrifice. This year, for both of us, has been that year. He applied for a master’s at Oxford and got in. At the same time that he was doing that and learning and expanding in an incredible way, my year became a similar parallel to the point where we were having coffee and one of us came up with this quote: “The universe will meet you at the point of your sacrifice.” That has been a throughline for both of us but specifically knowing that this piece is going to be at the Baxter and realising the struggle and the sacrifice and the path it had to go through and myself as well. If you are willing and able to give up on some comfort, the universe will meet you. It’s been a testing phase where I stepped out, I wrote a thing [and] I approached Daphne [Kuhn] and Megan [Furniss]. I was scared shitless but I was like, “Let’s just do this and see what happens.” The reward was that it was a really great success in Joburg and I got to show people a different side of me. I was like, “Nobody is casting me in anything. Let me show them what I can do.” I think from there, the confidence that came with that has maybe inspired everything else to happen. It’s been a really good year. I don’t take it for granted at all because I know the struggle. The struggle as a performer is real and going from wanting to leave the industry, to having this really bountiful year has been great and very humbling.
Do you mind if we touch on wanting to leave the industry?
It tends to come up in a lot of conversations. What has navigating that experience been like for you and what is it that ultimately convinced you to stay?
I think what happens is a disillusionment. When I wanted to leave, I was like, “I don’t understand what is it that the industry wants from me.” There are incredible actors who don’t necessarily have the training. I understand that you don’t have to have training but I’ve got the experience also. I was really confused and disillusioned. I could not figure out what it was and which direction the industry was and is going in. Also, I was a new transplant in Joburg. I moved to Joburg in 2012. The year of disillusionment and wanting to leave happened in 2014 going into 2015 but I thought that I had built up enough of a rep in the industry. I think the process of wanting to leave the industry comes from the confusion and the disillusionment and then a self-discovery has to happen. It’s a different level or layer of self-discovery. Turning 30, already there is a whole new layer that comes and a confidence and an idea of self that comes. I had that kind of, not ballsiness but inner something and then suddenly to now realize that is not enough. The entertainment industry is wanting more. It’s wanting followers all of a sudden? What does that even mean? Surely it should be about the talent and the face and the body that embodies the story and embodies the character? I wish I could pinpoint exactly what is happening in the entertainment industry. I think it’s specifically happening with TV and Film. Suddenly you see people somehow get 300 000 followers on Twitter and they are being cast simply because they are a “name.” They are a face that people recognize and there is no talent there. I’ve watched it and I can hear it and it’s so bad. It’s bad acting and I’m like, “Why are we celebrating mediocrity?” I think that is what got my back up. I’m not saying that I’m the world’s greatest actor but I’ve got some kind of performance integrity and to see mediocrity getting awards or being celebrated or getting the roles that I should have gotten or someone else should have gotten is disheartening. It’s great to get back into the theatre world and realize that in theatre you can’t be fake. Nobody really cares about your Instagram followers or your Twitter followers. 10-1, you are going to get the role because you are good for it and you are the best fit or you just write your own damn piece and do your own damn thing and pay your own damn self for a role that no one else will give you. That’s what I did.
That seems to be the obvious solution for young actors but I think there is still that element of fear of actually initiating that.
It’s scary because you don’t know how someone is going to react to your piece. When I eventually got the courage to approach Daphne, I had actually been writing for another entertainment website, Musings and Musicals, that a friend of mine started. Instead of getting paid for these things, we were going to theatre a lot. In that year when nothing was happening, the only thing that was happening was going to watch theatre in exchange for writing about theatre which is weird because I’m in the industry so I feel like I have a certain eye and attitude towards theatre. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it for much longer because I feel like it’s damaging to your career to go and watch other people’s theatre and judge it and have an opinion that is public. I had been watching theatre for a few months and I had gotten to know Daphne because I had been to the theatre a few times, enough for me to ask Daphne for coffee. I had three play ideas, one was from Koe’siestes to Kneidlach. It had a different name when I presented it to her. She was like, “Go off and write about this one for a bit but perhaps think of this title.” She is the one who gave the piece the title. I think it took balls and I don’t think I would have had that amount of chutzpah if I hadn’t gone through the hard knocks. I basically had nothing to lose.
I just realized that between Daphne, Megan and yourself, this is quite a prominent female team.
Was that conscious or did it just work out that way?
I think it just worked out like that but the main thing is that I approached Daphne because I thought about the space and that theatre is beautiful. It is just so lush and velvety. I was kind of superficial in my approach. I was like, “I like the look and feel of this theatre. That’s what I’m going to go for.” And then obviously it helped that she also has a Jewish background. That was super important to me as well. I had been starting out my little feminist wave thing, which I’m still on, obviously. I think she is the only theatre owner that’s female. I stand under correction but I don’t know of another theatre space owner-managed by a female. It’s a different energy which I was latching onto. I picked Megan because obviously she is a woman, she has the Jewish background and she’s got the Cape Town experience. If I hadn’t had Megan, I don’t know what kind of piece it would have been. I don’t think it would have done the piece justice to have anyone else but Megan. It might have suffered, actually, with a male director because there is so much nuance in it that would have been lost with anyone else but Megan. It really has become this “female force” because we all have this ballsiness within the industry itself to go out there and do what we are doing. We are all very headstrong and forceful females who don’t even think of shutting the door. We are continuing this theatrical fight for women in the industry. To use a Captain Planet quote, when our powers combine, it’s really powerful.It is just so great and I think it sets some kind of precedence. I’m not sure what the precedence is but in the theatre industry, there are so few female directors, female producers [and] female writers who are getting recognition. I could name them on two hands. I’m looking forward to the day when I can’t say that, when you can list it.
Is this your first one-woman show?
It’s my first one-woman dramatic piece. I had done a one-woman cabaret called Ladies First that was a celebration of female musicians who had made a musical impact. That was really cool and that was directed by Natalia da Rocha, another doyenne of the theatre world. This is the first dramatic one-woman piece and it’s daunting and it actually gets really lonely on the stage where your audience becomes the other cast member. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Cape Town audience reacts. The amount of Cape Townisms that they’ll get is pretty vast. I’m looking forward to playing with them and seeing that interaction play out.
This year you’ve been on two soap operas. I’ve heard rumblings about how fans interact when they see a soap actor in person. What has your experience with that been like?
Recently I was in Rock of Ages. Usually when the show ends, it ends off with Don’t Stop Believin’ and by the time the last chorus plays, we are already backstage, we are out of breath, we are taking clothes off and hanging them back on the rail. I was doing exactly that, out of breath and in my bra and my dance skins. Suddenly, out of the darkness, I hear some man’s voice, “LINDY! LINDY!” I ran so fast towards the stage managers desk. I couldn’t believe the audacity of someone getting on to the stage from the audience, looking for this character who is on TV. They were accosted by the stage crew and then they waited for me afterwards. It’s seriously bizarre and I obviously didn’t want them to see me in my underwear. When I first did Sewende Laan, people would come up to me and ask me questions and I would get highly annoyed like I had this superiority complex. A fellow actor observed this one day and was like, “Why are you so rude to the auntie? She just wanted to say hi. You’ve probably had this a thousand times but it’s the first time that she’s seen you.” I took that to heart and I realized that I was being mean and I was being dismissive. It’s something I’ve had to learn and undo. It’s still tricky. Luckily I’ve never been slapped. I have been called, “You bitch!” When it comes to soapies specifically, our image on-screen becomes part of people’s every day life. You become part of their family and their routine. I think for a theatre actor to go into that is quite a jarring experience because as a theatre actor, you are not supposed to want to be famous. I think wanting to be famous is maybe a small portion of why some of us are in the industry. There’s that validation and recognition of the work that you do but the being famous and being recognized thing isn’t something that is part of the training. It’s a completely different world to get into and your theatre training will not equip you to deal with 200 people trying to get ahold of you…and the random Facebook inboxes. What is interesting to me with this piece, in all the press that the Baxter has redone or that people have picked up on, I’m not just Chantal Stanfield, I am now, “Television Soap Star…” And I’m like, “What does that even mean?” I don’t mind it. You can run with it if it gets more people in here because I guess that is also part of the draw card but it’s bizarre. That isn’t why I do what I do. I do what I do because I have to. This is what I’m here to do.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Obviously, Megan just because she has such chutzpah. She is incredibly strong-willed and strong-headed and highly opinionated. I love that. I feel like I am maybe sometimes too careful or too precise with interactions with people in the industry whereas I feel like who she is who she is. There is no falseness. There is no mollycoddling. She is real. I hope to be like that one day. Sandra Prinsloo directed me in my very first TV series called Geraldina die Tweede. It was great to be directed by a female for the first time on TV and also to be directed by someone who is such a legend and realizing why she is such a legend. To see how faithful she is to the craft is very inspiring. Because I’m now squarely in the Afrikaans market, I’ve got a very unique view of how Afrikaans artists are viewed by an audience. What I love about Sandra is that she doesn’t care. She is not about maintaining someone else’s idea of who Sandra Prinsloo is. She is not going to sit in someone else’s mould of her. That is really inspiring because she is a real artist in the best sense of the word. I tend to be heading towards people who have directed me, Natalia da Rocha. She is one of those people who forged a path for other coloured performers in the industry. She was one of the first artists of colour to study at Stellenbosch University in the 70s/80’s which already is a huge thing and then to go off and be one of the most respected cabaret artists in the country. She literally forged such a path and [is] obviously fabulous to work with. What I find inspiring about her, right now, in this part of her life, she’s started an initiative called The Applauz Arts Initiative that is about imparting and educating young performers on the flats. It’s almost a full circle moment where she isn’t being selfish with her talent. I always think [that] if you happen to be gifted a talent or a something, you can’t just hold onto it yourself. You have to somehow educate and impart knowledge or uplift. That is exactly what she is doing. It’s highly inspiring. I sit there and I’m like, “Ok Chantal. What have you done to uplift someone in the community or another aspiring artist?” I hope to correct that and get to a place where I have something to show other than just stuff that I did for myself.
Special thanks to Chantal Stanfield and Chris de Beer.