Melanie Burke is the chairman of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. Originally based in the corporate world, Melanie was appointed to her position six years ago. She serves on the board of many NGO’s but it’s the Fleur du Cap’s that have broken her “three-year volunteering rule.” A fierce and formidable presence in the theatre industry, we sat down with Melanie at the Baxter Theatre, the upcoming venue of the 53rd annual Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, to discuss her journey as chairman of South Africa’s most coveted theatre award. For a list of the nominees, please click here.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
My father was a musician. He was actually one of the few black musicians who had a band in South Africa and he had a recording deal. I’ve always loved theatre. I’ve loved what I think it does. I come from an incredibly creative family but I obviously didn’t want to have a career in theatre, but I have done a little fannying about on the planks. In primary school, I remember playing Lady Gwendolyn in War of The Roses. In high school, I think most of my stuff in theatre happened by accident. I went to a boys boarding school and we were the first intake of girls. We had House Plays and suddenly everyone had to do something because there weren’t enough of us. Then, I think I got a little bit more serious and had some speaking parts and lead roles in high school productions. I was Tituba in The Crucible. I was also in the school production of Oklahoma! I suppose there has always been this connection. I think theatre venues make me feel so happy when I’m there,and so accidentally landing in the hot seat as chairman of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards is not a surprise because I was a guest two years in a row at the awards and then I was asked to become chairman.
Let’s chat about your first encounter with the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. You attended them as a guest who was coming from the corporate world. What was that experience like?
I remember it so vividly. We were outside on the deck at Artscape and the first famous actress I met was Jennifer Steyn. I have such a crush on her and my husband loves her too. He kept nudging me going, “Isn’t that the woman from that advert on TV?” I happened to be with a person from Distell at the time and he introduced us and I had this big fan girl moment. It was an incredible evening. It was so light, it was so dramatic, it was all of the things that theatre does all in one go and it was a great evening. Then the next year we were at the Baxter Theatre which was also a remarkable evening. On the back of those two theatre awards, I was asked for my opinion. I was running an NGO at the time, doing leadership development work and the corporate affairs director of Distell had been inviting me and he was an alumnus of the program. He asked me my opinion of what I thought about the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards and I said, “There are a couple of things that Distell could do better.” I told him what they were and about ten days later I was asked to be the chairman. Six years later and I am still here.
What was your first year like?
I know what I don’t know. I come from business, I come from technology, I come from a completely different world but as humans, we are all creative. I decided that I was just going to tap into what I knew inherently was important, which was relationships. I came in at a really weird time, in August of 2012 and I came in six months before the event. I made time to go and visit every single theatre and introduce myself. I just wanted to become accessible because I wanted to be able to tap into the knowledge that was already there. I was met with some skepticism and I think rightfully so. This is a really important role and I never undervalued the importance of the role and I knew I needed to get it right but I knew I couldn’t do it on my own. The second thing that I really wanted to do was to make sure that the credibility of the process remained because I had come in after two years of really interesting award processes and I wanted for all of us [and] for the sake of the industry, to do better. It was important for me that the credibility of the process remained intact and that I wasn’t the reason why people would think less of the awards. I was very mindful of that. The other thing that I wanted to do was to make sure that the panel’s credibility remained. One of the things that was important to me was that they do their job. This is not a job you get paid to do. It’s for love. I don’t think there is enough money in the world that can pay panel members for all the work that they do and [you] really don’t have a life. You are in the theatre just about every day. When I took the role, I realised that some of them weren’t doing their jobs as well as they could. If you put your hand up and you want to do this, then I expect to trust your answer. I then started to demonstrate what it looks like when you are a Fleur du Cap panel member and I was in theatre as many times as I could be because that is the job. If you don’t, you are not doing yourself a disservice, you are doing the industry and the actors a disservice. What’s the point of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards if we don’t recognise and respect the industry and the individuals in the industry? The third thing that I did, the thing that I really had to come to terms with, was figuring out how you are such a public face to something when firstly, you are a volunteer doing this and you are having to lead change way outside of the authority that you have. I don’t work for Distell. They don’t get to tell me what to do. I understand what their requirement is but they trust me enough to know how I need to articulate that and bring that to light. I have really appreciated the way that they have trusted me on this, being someone who is not from the industry and I think the proof is still in the pudding. I think the job is still not done and it’s the reason why I’ve come back for a second term because I only generally volunteer for three years and the upcoming Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards will be my sixth one.
And this is your is your last year…
No, the last one is the 54th.
Next year? Since when?
It’s always been the last year. I wanted to go back to where I started and I started at the Artscape. I have a method in my madness. I don’t do anything other than for two reasons, firstly because I want to and secondly, because I can and even if I can’t, I figure out how and that is an amazing thing because I get to learn. That is the reason why I said yes when I got invited to do this. I’ve had the most incredible learning experience. It’s just been absolutely phenomenal. It’s that feeling of not knowing and then suddenly, you take this leap of faith and you just grow your wings on the way up because you are not going down. I just think it’s an incredible privilege. I knew that I would do it for three years, at least, because that’s what I normally do. I lead several other NGOs and this is a lot of work. It’s like I have five full-time jobs and none of them are actually remunerated work. That is just because I want to and because I can. I looked at this thing and we were halfway through and I just realised that the journey that I had started on hadn’t concluded yet. I felt it was a little way there but it wasn’t there yet and who I am as a human says I can’t just leave. I have to make sure [that] the fact that I’ve come in, leaves everyone and the process better off than how I found it. There was nothing wrong with how it was before. If you are called to respond to something, you should give it the very best treatment that you can. That is what I’ve been trying to do and I’d like to think it’s been working.
What has been your favourite moment so far?
There are many favourite moments but it’s always tricky. One of the most defining moments, for me, right at the beginning when I took this role, I went to see one of the theatre-makers that I really respect. I sat this person down because they always had opinions about the awards and so I was like, “What a great resource. Someone who will tell it like it is. How can I learn from this person?” I explained why I wanted to talk to them and the position I found myself in. I said something to the effect of, “I’m not from this world and so I’d love to be able to access what you know.” This person said, “You say it like it’s something to be proud of.” I got stopped in my tracks. That is the first experience of someone not responding to me in the way that I had hoped they would. I went away from that meeting and I thought, “What does that mean then?” That moment, even though it was so hard for me at the time, I thought, “How am I going to do this now if someone who I respect so much doesn’t think anything of me in this regard?” I realised then that what I have to do is do better, to show up and do the work. They gave me a moment to stop and pause and recalibrate and it was awesome. They may never know it but I am ever so grateful for that because it just spurred me on to say, “How do I do this then?” Give me a challenge and off we go.
What has been the hardest moment?
The hardest moment, I think for me, is recognising when it’s time to stop. I was coming on for the first three years and I’ve stayed double that time and I am going to stay for one more year. This is a continuous process. It’s been going for more than 50 years. There were people before me and there are going to be people way after me. But as a leader, you have to know when it’s time to say, “I’ve given everything I have, now how do I make space for the next person to give everything they have?” The hardest thing for me was to stop and say, “When is that time?” That makes me sad but I also know it’s the right thing to do. I know it’s the right time to do it. Going to theatre seven nights a week, no matter how much you love it, you really don’t have time for lots of other things and I have five other jobs like this that need my leadership. I need to take care of some of the other organisations that I am working with. I am also a married woman. I’ve been working for the last five years and really been working very hard at being a better wife and I want to honour my word. When I was 35, my husband wanted me to stop working and to retire because that is when he retired. I asked him for 10 more years which would have made me 45 which was the time when I stopped working, formally, and decided that I would spend my time looking for ways and people to fall in love and give my energy there. That is around the same time when Fleur du Cap came. I have that life to really reconnect with and be present in. To do the right thing means you have to give more. And then, my PhD is waiting. This opportunity was this amazing relationship that I could be in with many people and many places that make me really happy. I’m just so thrilled and I’m sad at the same time that I won’t, in a way, be able to continue to play because I’ve had an incredible time playing in theatre. When I say play, I mean it very seriously but I think when one is leading change you also have to have a light touch. I won’t leave theatre entirely. There are some plans afoot and I will stay close to theatre. That is my promise.
In your opinion, what do these awards mean to the Cape Town theatre industry?
I think they are broader than just Cape Town. Yes, we do them here and they have been located here historically but people respect and value the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. It is a moment of recognition in the industry. It has often become the springboard for people’s careers. The thing that makes me so excited, if I look at the Most Promising Student award, fresh, right off the bat and you go and see who those people have been over the years and you see where they’ve gone to in the world. It’s a great thing for the industry. I also know many of the South African actors and actresses who go and work internationally because I am often asked to write those letters that give them the visa approvals. It’s such a pleasure to write the stories about these amazing, awesome actors and the one recognition that we have in the country and have had for a long time. There are many awards and it’s right that there should be many awards. I think the recognition should come from many other places. What I do know for sure though is that everyone covets the Fleur du Cap Theatre Award.
There are a lot of changes happening with the awards this year. What are you most looking forward to?
Part of the changes that have happened with the sponsor is that I am now the service provider to deliver the awards. That is a big scary thing. I am now learning about how to put together an event like this. It’s great because I know who to work with in the industry. Those relationships over the years are now coming together beautifully for us. We are hosted at the Baxter this year and luckily, I have amazing relationships at this theatre. It’s kind of scary but I am growing my wings on my way up and knowing that I can rely on amazing humans who have done this before, who have won awards for the work that they do for theatre and they are part of the team. I am really excited about what we are articulating this year in terms of the theme of the awards. The awards itself will be very flamboyant. We are even inviting people to dress black-tie, traditional flamboyant. I’m encouraging them to notice that because we are in theatre. You can be theatrical and you can be flamboyant and you can show up as you are with everything that you’ve got and be there in the room and we’ll notice you. I am able to play a little bit more with the execution of the awards. There will be a distinctly fabulous feminine flamboyance to the awards and that is as much as I can say about it. Our host will be Africa Melane. He is a Fleur du Cap panel member. He has also done this for so many years and he holds down what I call the business end of the awards, because somebody has to do that while we are having fun. I think some of the new categories are exciting. I absolutely love that we have a category now for Best Production For Children And Young People. I think that is long overdue. I am very pleased about it because it is something that I started working on when I became chairman. We also have the two new categories in opera and that was also important for me because that was something, as an ecosystem, that was important. We’ve had a conversation in the industry around the sponsors of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. Part of what I’ve been doing in the last three years or so was to engage with the industry about how they see this working. We take a lot of criticism. A lot of it is unwarranted and where it is necessary for me to listen, I listen and I go back to those individuals and I say, “Help me think through what this means.” I feel that we have been so incredibly blessed.We’ve had one sponsor of these awards for more than 50 years and it’s been one organisation in various guises and now we are fully supported by the Fleur du Cap wine brand. I also really want to thank the theatre audience and public for their patience. This has been an incredibly rough time. I can tell you its been rough on me. I have bore most of the brunt of it whether people like or don’t like what we do. I want people to know that I am never offended when they give me feedback. I’d like them to be kind when they do it because that is always nice, but they don’t have to be. I appreciate hearing from them and even if you are asking a question, it makes me think about things that could be better. Let’s have a conversation because you never know where that conversation is going to lead and I think it’s about all of us in the industry being better.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I’ve got to say Jennifer Steyn. She is my crush. She was the first person I met at the first Fleur du Cap awards I ever went to and today, before this conversation, she was the person I saw. That amazing full circle. I have incredible respect for people like Thoko Ntshinga who have been making theatre for a long time. I’ve served on the board of Applauz Arts Initiative which was started by Natalia Da Rosha. She inspires me because she is so gutsy. She just goes because she wants to find a way to do social developments for the performing arts and I love that. That is someone that I admire. I think there are incredible women writers. I think about Nadia Davids and Lara Foot. I look at someone like Iris Bolton. You know when you walk in The Fugard, if Iris isn’t there, I just don’t feel like I’m in The Fugard. All the people who make theatres welcoming spaces and they don’t get recognised and they don’t get the accolades. I also look at people like the spouses of famous theatre-makers. I think about Renaye Kramer, an incredible talent on her own and she is always there supporting David. I think about Mannie Manim’s wife [Lesley Nott Manim] and John Kani’s wife [Mandi Kani], all of the women who are amazing humans on their own and they love who their men are in theatre and they support that. Then of course there are the young ones, I am getting goose-flesh just telling you that, Buhle Ngaba, Chuma Sopotela, Faniswa Yisa… I think she is going to be very happy that I called her a young one. She has been in theatre for a long time. Incredible theatre-makers, they are great performers. I am also inspired by Koleka Putuma, Sylvaine Strike, Chantal Stanfield, Iman Isaacs, Lee-Ann van Rooi, Jill Levenberg, Jennie Reznek, Amee Lekas, Penny Youngleson. Ukhona Mlandu is someone who has inspired me and I see that she is starting to do something interesting and new in the theatre space and the creative space again. Lara Bye! An incredible talent. Then I look at the people who teach. I am inspired by Delia Sainsbury, I grew up with her and Keith [Galloway] on our Television screens and what a privilege now to meet her in person. I love Vanessa Harris at Kalk Bay Theatre. I love the kind of theatre they make there. I don’t want to be gender specific but there are people who inspire me like Tannie Evita, Brendan van Rhyn as Cathy Specific, Terry Fortune when he puts on a dress and a wig. For me, their alter ego’s do something and I see that there is a huge amount of young performers who are coming up and are doing alternative personalities and I think that is amazing because I think theatre should be the place where you can try different things. For me, it’s also about the kind of roles that people get to play in theatre. Sometimes it is a role that is contra to their identified gender. I think it’s important to recognise those people. I love the things that people get to do and they do it in the name of theatre.