Theatre-maker and performer Dara Beth describes herself as “first and foremost an angry, Jewish feminist”. She is one half of the cabaret duo Plumsong, which she has been performing as since 2011 with her mom and fellow performer, Sharyn Seidel. A recent UCT graduate, Dara has written and performed in Just a Song and a Dance with co-performer Sharyn at the Alexander Bar and the National Arts Festival. Dara has also worked as a stage manager on Wessel Pretorius’ Klara Maas se Hart is Gebreek and Die Ontelbare 48, Ameera Conrad’s Reparation and Jon Keevy’s The Underground Library. Dara also makes up one third of The Furies, a womxn-centric artistic co-op, who are responsible for presenting her latest original piece, Nasty Womxn, which makes its return to the Alexander Bar for a limited engagement following its triumphant success at the end of last year.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
There are so many womxn who have inspired me to pursue the arts. I think I’m going to work backwards from the most recent which was Tinarie van Wyk Loots. When she was my neighbour very many years ago, she invited us to come and watch one of the shows in The Mechanicals summer repertoire that she was performing in and I was just blown away by how a text could be transformed by a body on stage so easily. Before that, my mom is a musician. She’s been performing for over 30 years as a singer and started out in a musical revue called Junk ‘n Jive. While I was in the womb she was performing in rock reviews and then when I was born, I was running around backstage with all of the musicians who weren’t onstage at the time. Being in that environment, I think, set me up for the expectation that life is like that. I am someone who doesn’t take, “No” for an answer so when I found other paths that didn’t after that type of space and energy, I was like, “No, I’m going to pursue somewhere that reminds me of home effectively.” My great-grandmother was a performer for the troops and I’m named after her and I felt it was almost fitting that I should follow in some theatrical form when I found out about her.
You went on to UCT to study Theatre and Performance, specialising in Theatre-making. What was your UCT experience like?
There were some magnificent experiences and there were some atrocious periods of time, if I’m being honest. It all comes down to the chemistry between the people in the space, whether they are students, whether they are lecturers, whether they are mannequins because sometimes you aren’t always performing with people. I think most of Third Year I performed with a chair. I did a lot of dancing alone with a chair and a lot of crawling around the Little Theatre which was fascinating in a very interesting way and probably one of the more disastrous, stressful but really satisfying times. It was very challenging but if I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be where I am now in terms of the growth and the understanding of what is expected of me and what I have to bring to the table when I make work. I think a lot of what I got out of the degree was, “Here is what we hope you achieve, now you have to find the right course to do it yourself.” It was challenging in a good way, mostly satisfying and I’m sure in 50 years time I’ll fervently agree that I definitely enjoyed it.
Did you find that creating work came easily to you after graduating?
I think the hardest part after graduating was justifying setting aside time to make work when no one is paying you for it. At the moment, I now have 29 scripts in different phases of development on my laptop and I produced two of them this past year and found that different forms of work come more easily. Working on Just a Song and a Dance with my mom, because it was based on our personal experiences, generating the material was a breeze. We practically made the script overnight. With Nasty Womxn, it was a lot harder. I think it’s because the ideas that generated the play were so specific. I couldn’t just create material to fill in the space. I had to wait for the right material to fit into it. Even now, as I’m working on the next two new pieces that are scheduled for this year, I am finding it really hard to justify working on them when I need to be making money. I think the hardest thing at the end of the day is believing that the time you take to create is valid. The material itself comes in bursts so usually I just have to wait with a bucket under the sky and hope I catch it when they fall.
Do you find that you give yourself an expectation of how many productions you are supposed to create within a year?
I think after last year I learned a very big lesson in setting a goal of creating work and I realised that art can’t be rushed. We know this. We tell this to ourselves but then we find ourselves in the field and unemployed and now we need work so we need to produce work. In the past year, trying to create work to achieve a numerical goal wasn’t healthy. I think where I am sitting now is this realisation that I just need to achieve being happy with producing work. If that means I only produce one, that’s fine. If it means I produce nothing but I develop three out of the 29 scripts a little bit further, that’s also fine. I think it’s just achieving enough to make me happy.
You split your time between theatre-making, producing, directing and assisting. How are you able to juggle all of those different aspects? Do you enjoy all the other things that you do?
I love stage managing. I really love making to-do lists and crossing everything off my to-do list and throwing the to-do list in the recycling bin. If I believe in a piece of work, then I believe that every aspect of it should be done well and if I can help bring any little part of that piece of work to life, if that means I’m designing the lights, if that means I’m fixing a costume that’s ripped, if it means I’m cutting confetti for two hours every day over the course of a week for a festival, then I do it because I believe in it and I love it and in that moment, it’s the only thing I need to do. When it comes to directing and writing, I am afraid to direct more than anything. I don’t enjoy it as much yet because I don’t trust myself whereas with my writing, I can put it down on a piece of paper and if it doesn’t work, I can pass it around to other people who can put their feedback on top of it and then I feel a little bit better. Directing is such an intangible thing that even taking the feedback on can be hard to apply. I guess the process of learning how to direct is learning how to utilise feedback and how to see the feedback that needs to be given to you before it’s actually given to you. I think in terms of trying to find the time to do everything, a lot of it is done between 10pm and 2am because that is when I’m most functional. Then, when I get into a structured schedule where there is rehearsals that I need to attend and things like that, you just make do. If you enjoy it then you find the time.
2017 was quite a big year for you. Let’s start with Just a Song and a Dance. You partnered up with your mom to create this new piece. How did that idea come about and how do you feel the piece has grown throughout its journey?
The idea actually stemmed from the duo that we have which is Plumsong which started when I was in High School as a means of getting me out of my room because I was in a really bad depressive slump and my mom was like, “You need to do something productive but not draining and I need someone to just be standing in the background doing some singing and dancing.” We had so much fun at that first event that we were like, “Well let’s do this together again” and we were like, “Let’s call ourselves Plumsong.” We’ve been performing ever since. I think halfway through First Year, when I was working on a lot of productions as part of the technical crew, my mom was coming to see the shows and going, “It’s really cool to see so much work being staged. Plumsong has such a rich history, we should find a way to make it a piece that we can travel with and show it as a singular entity as opposed to us performing.” We sat down at the beginning of last year and we’re like, “Ok we are going to do a cabaret about our life.” My mom has moved 34 times. At that point in time, I had moved 20. We had immigrated between America and South Africa three times over. We thought we had a pretty rich history between that and my mom’s history as a musician and having owned somewhere between 10 and 15 pets of varying characters and thought, “There’s definitely something we can talk about here.” We tried putting that together as a script and then inserting songs into that and it was really kitsch and contrived and we were both like, “This is a mess. Let’s try this again.” My mom was like, “Let’s just be us. That’s the story that we want to tell.” We wound up staging a gig as a play. When we do functions we often get very weird requests. We thought the different things that happen in our gigs behind the scenes that the audience never sees were the most enjoyable parts… and we wanted to share that with an audience. It grew from a piece that had to fit a mold into a piece that perfectly fit us instead.
In terms of the work that you’ve created, you’ve managed to stay true to who you are as a person and as an artist. Nasty Womxn feels like a very organic development from you and it’s now coming back for its second run. Has the audience reaction surprised you?
I had no idea that people would enjoy it as much as they did. The first piece that I wrote for it was the Medusa piece and I didn’t know that I would be writing it for this piece. I just have this fascination with Medusa’s story and the parallel with so many womxn who are survivors and this monster identity that gets thrust upon us. I just wanted to rant about that really more than anything. Then I found myself sort of ranting about other things but from an outside voice to my own and so the Persephone sketch was born. I wanted to just talk about things that fascinate me and that I understand. I can talk about things that fascinate me that I don’t understand but I never feel certain enough to give my opinion on it. I just ask a lot of questions. I often say that my work is mostly a bunch of questions that I don’t have the answers for but I felt like for once I could speak about what my truth was and what my answers to questions were. I think one of the big themes of my piece is the concept of gender. Gender is such a fluid construct at the moment and it’s constantly undergoing investigation that however many ways you can articulate the variety of the same concept, the better. If I can just add my voice to that mix and someone can understand it, that is what makes me happy. In the beginning, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is super technical and really academic and people are going to watch it and eyes are going to glaze and people are going to go, “That’s great and all but why am I watching it in a theatre piece?” Then when I staged it, I found so many people who had actually enjoyed it without expecting to. It was really exciting for me to see that I could speak about what I know in the language that I speak it without having to adapt it too much. For the longest of time, I’ve always had to sort of adapt my conversation so that I can actually converse with other people. Not because I’m smart or anything but because I speak in a very specific way that people are like, “You speak lovely but it’s really boring.” I was really very surprised to see how well-received the piece was because I expected it was going to be heavily academic and a lot of focus and effort for people to enjoy it but it seemed that people enjoyed it with ease and more than that, that they embraced the themes that were being discussed even if they weren’t necessarily themes that were relevant in people’s everyday lives. I got a really good response from a male audience which I personally don’t write for. It’s not that I’m not writing for them, I’m just writing for a womxn audience. To get a response from men being like, “That was really fascinating. That was a really cool way of presenting that information,” that was very exciting for me. To know that despite having made my focus group specific, it could still reach other people.
Your work has really centered around womxn. Do you feel like there is an expectation around what you create next? How do you stay true to creating the work that you believe in?
I have this fight with my brother almost every month because he always goes, “Will you never write for males ever again? What if males need work?” And I’m like, “I’m not concerned about that because there is work out there. I don’t have to be the single person providing the answer for people if I am not asking the question to them.” I think in terms of expectations, the only expectations are the ones I’ve already set up and made a promise to. I think that I’ve spoken quite loudly about how I want to do womxn’s work and I want to bring womxn’s voices and marginalised voices to the floor. I think it’s important that even when the opportunity arises that might be a wise career choice to divert from the path, to always keep in check why it was that I made the promises to myself that I made and what it was that I was trying to achieve. For me, casting is a very big thing. It’s not diversity casting, it’s making sure that the cast is equally representing the audience that I want to engage. It’s making sure that the stories aren’t just honest to a small group of people but they reach further and I think that as long as I’m constantly engaging with the people around me, not just within the theatre community, although the theatre community is probably one of the more woke communities of Cape Town. It’s funny, you step outside of the theatre community and people are far less ready to engage in topics of gender, topics of politics, topics of race because they don’t have to engage in it for their day-to-day work. Their day-to-day work is business or being a vet but for us, we have to create work about stories about people. You can’t do that if every single person is the same person. Otherwise it’s just one story and it’s an extended narrative of theirs. I think I’m just trying to make sure that I tell as many stories I haven’t heard yet as possible.
It’s so unique for someone to have such a strong voice and be so certain of the message that they are trying get across at such an early stage in their career.
The way I balance it is by taking on work that I believe in that might still not be part of my storytelling. As a stage manager or as a producer, to be able to be onboard to help other people’s stories. I did a lot of work last year for Wessel Pretorius as a stage manager for Klara Maas se Hart is Gebreek and Die Ontelbare 48. I believed in those stories and they were beautiful stories and they weren’t narratives that I was going to tell so I felt as though, if I could get my hand in that way, then I’m still extending the narrative but I’m staying true when I create my own work in how I focus.
Do you have any advice for people in the industry about how to stay true to the work they want to do?
I think it’s such a hard question and we ask it ourselves everyday. I try to avoid performing because I overthink and analyse everything so even going into auditions, I’ll spend two days thinking about how many ways I could have fixed it. I’m sure everyone does that because if you’re not constantly asking yourself what you could have done better, then you clearly have the answers or you are not there to grow. You always have to ask yourself what you can be doing. When it comes to taking on roles, if you are struggling, you are struggling. There is no choice around that and if the role is going to make sure that you can pay rent and you have food in the fridge and you have electricity and you have running water, it’s ideal. After that point, and it’s a privilege to get to after that point, you have to ask yourself, “Does this piece represent me well? Does this piece or this character portray someone that I believe in? If I had to look back at the end of my career, would I be happy that I did it?”
You are about to jump into rehearsals for the first all-female production of Taming of The Shrew at Maynardville. What are you looking forward to in regards to that process?
I’m really looking forward to enjoying Shakespeare again. When we were sitting in on the auditions, it was the first time in years that I had been able to hear the text spoken aloud and enjoy it. I think it comes down to working with womxn. It felt like such an epiphany for me. Watching men perform male roles in Shakespeare and knowing that Shakespeare was quite a perverse guy, you often see the men and you are like, “Ugh, they are just performing with their ego and their penis.” They are performing with their manliness and it is so in your face and sometimes it is really hard to absorb the text because you are just watching bravado and you assume that it is a layer on top of the text. Then you watch womxn perform the exact same text and there is this sense of clarity and you realise the men were never performing their own bravado, they were performing their interpretation of Shakespeare’s text which has in it already this bravado and this manliness and this in your face way of making sexual jokes and sexist remarks and crude statements. When womxn perform it, you suddenly understand, “Oh that’s what the text is saying. Now it’s not just the actor doing it.” I am really excited to get on to the floor with so many powerhouse womxn who will not only make this text a fabulous performance but bring the essence of the text to life in a way that hasn’t been seen in Cape Town. Having an all-female cast is a first for Maynardville and I think it’s going to be a first of many. I’m also just really excited to learn from so many womxn. I know that I’m the assistant director and that I will be working under Tara [Notcutt] in a capacity more than I was last year, because I worked as a stage manager for her briefly, and I am really excited to see her process, understand how our processes match up and see where I can expand my process having watched her but also to work with an all-female creative team as well. Having worked in festivals for the past year and with predominantly male technical teams, there’s so much time spent trying to explain yourself and explain that you already know what you are doing whereas within this team, there is faith. There is so much faith that you grasp what you are doing beforehand and there is this wonderful expectation to come to the table. You are being asked to come to the table. You don’t have to pull up a chair. The chair is there for you.
Who are some South African womxn in the arts that inspire you?
All of them. I get so happy to see every single womxn that is doing things and is making things happen. I am really happy to see that Mamela Nyamza is the featured artist for the National Arts Festival this year. When I saw it, I did a little dance in my room. Ameera [Conrad] excites me all the time because she messages me being like, “I have this idea.” And I am like, “When are we going to make it? How are we going to do it?” Buhle Ngaba is such a beautiful soul to watch perform. Koleka Putuma! Having known her for so many years and just seeing how much she’s done in so little [time] I’m just like, “Joh.” Dianne Simpson who is going to be in the Taming of the Shrew. We watched her in The Sister’s Ugly recently and there is something magical about a performer whose energy never makes you want to stop watching them, ever. She is magical and I’m really happy that I got to see her recently and am going to be working with her again. And also, Tara for multiple reasons but at the moment for believing in me.
*Dara has elected to use the spelling “womxn.”
All photos were taken by Sophie Kirsch on January 8th 2018.