Sisters Lamees and Widaad Albertus have become a force to be reckoned within the theatre industry. Currently working at The Fugard Theatre, Lamees holds the position of Theatre Manager and Associate Producer while Widaad not only holds the title of Wardrobe Supervisor and Production Assistant, but is currently also juggling the task of working as lead Costume Designer on several of the Fugard Theatre’s most anticipated upcoming shows including The Demon Bride and Significant Other. While most of their work tends to happen behind the scenes and away from the spotlight, Lamees recently had her work recognised by being featured in the Mail & Guardian’s 2017 Book of South African Women: On the Shoulders of Giants.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Lamees: I was a hectic introvert as a child. I didn’t speak at all and then I started speech therapy. The speech therapist advised that I do Drama as a subject to get me out of my shell. I did Drama all the way through primary school and middle school and then started studying Law and found my way back to the Drama campus because I was so comfortable there. Once I started at campus I was like, “This is what I need to do.” That’s how I got into theatre as a profession, I suppose.
Widaad: I did Drama my whole life as well but I never saw it as a career. I was more into art and design and I studied Textile Design. We’ve always been close but when she started at Drama campus, I was finishing high school. We were really close at that time and I just started lurking around her a lot more. I don’t know how else to say it but basically I just lurked around on every production she worked on. I just kind of fell in love with theatre like that. I started helping out on all her productions.
Lamees: She would just come with to everything that I did. I remember I did a show at Spier once and I took her and her best friend with and then I was like, “You guys are learning to sew tutus today.”
Widaad: I think her work and what she was doing and the people [who] she was working with at the time really inspired me to pursue the theatre arts more. I never thought I would come into this industry.
Lamees: And it did help what she’d studied and [that] there was an overlap in worlds. There’s a large part of a design element in theatre and she started to see that. It wasn’t necessarily something she had seen before until she was all over the theatre scene.
You both have two careers that I very rarely get to chat about. I’m very interested in your process. Where do you begin?
Lamees: I guess it starts on my side because in this building in particular it’s very different to a freelance capacity that I did before I started here. We start discussing shows that we think would sell well that interest us and Eric [Abraham], the founding producer, obviously has a large say in that. He’ll have a few options and ideas and we’ll read through the script and see what’s exciting and what excites us and what people we have in Cape Town that would be suitable to those things and how it would sit in this space, in this building, in Cape Town, in the time that we’re in. Then, the fun part is always the audition process. That’s where we start. We are constantly in the starting phase because there is a new show every time but that is the start of one process and then everything starts to feed into it and then we choose a creative team. It all springboards from there.
You make it sound so much simpler than I’m sure it is.
Lamees: Of course. It’s a long process. West Side Story for example took two years to cast. We are well on the way there with Kinky Boots at the moment but it is exciting and because we are constantly starting a new process of a new show, it always feels fresh which is great. It’s constantly exciting and fresh.
Widaad: Starting from freelancing to now being permanent at the Fugard, I love that I have the stability. It’s very important to me but at the same time, like she is saying, it’s always something new. I’m in a permanent job and I have stability but it’s ever-changing. That’s fantastic that it is always new and always something different that I’m busy with and more than one thing at a time. Yes, we’ll have something that runs for maybe a year but at the same time we’ve got a whole lot of smaller projects also happening. Once they get going with their process and the auditions have happened, that’s when gets handed over to Creative, so whatever costume designer I’m working with or if I’m costume designing it myself, that’s when I start with that process.
What I noticed when I was reading both of your bios is that you’ve both worked your way through the ranks to make your way to the positions that you currently hold. I wanted to know a little bit more about that journey and whether you’ve found it to be advantageous to where you are now?
Lamees: I definitely think it was helpful. I’ll give the outside example first. You always see a difference in performers when they’ve either produced work or if they’ve stage managed work, when they know something different than just their art. Sometimes it is a lot easier to work with a performer when they know more than just what they are doing because there is a broader respect for what everyone else is doing. Similarly with myself I’ve stage managed, I’ve performed, I’ve done wardrobe. I come with a certain understanding of various other departments. I’ve even production managed and now, being in a producing department, I still very much understand all the different departments. I definitely think it’s helped my process and my understanding in various other departments. It makes it slightly easier. I don’t have to always run to a production manager to go, “How is this get-in going to work?” I can tick it off in my head as well which is very helpful. I like being able to plug into all the other different departments because I understand it, so it’s fun. Enjoying what I do is a very big thing for me and I absolutely enjoy what I do.
Widaad: I think it’s the same for me as well. My journey at The Fugard started with me as an usher, but then I think I was also the type of person who would do everything just to help out. That is just my personality. I don’t just do what I’m only hired to do. I’m always someone who is going to ask, “Do you need help with this?”
Lamees: I always say that if I had the luxury to have a life assistant, Widaad would be it. She is so organised and on it and plugged into everything.
Widaad: I think I was the most tomboy person growing up. I don’t think anyone ever saw me going into costume or anything styling or design or clothing related. I just found that niche and that was me. It fitted. Helping Lamees out with all of those other types of things and working in other departments really helps that I can see it more than just clothing on a body and can see it in a different way and the way it’s got to work. It’s a team effort. It’s all got to work together so you’ve got to understand the stage and the props and the way it works. Understanding the other departments is also very important. I think not starting where I am now, and growing to this, was a good thing because a lot of understanding comes with it as well. I am still growing now.
I mention working your way through the ranks because Lamees, you mentioned in your Mail & Guardian interview that the industry tends to be dominated not only by men but by white men. Does producing seem to be an entry-level position for men while women generally have to work their way towards it?
Lamees: I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all actually. I look at Daniel [Galloway], my boss. He has also worked his way to this. Obviously it’s different for Eric because it’s something that he started. I look at Greg [Karvellas]. Everyone that I work with has all worked their way to something, in this building in particular. I think beyond this building, it’s questionable about where people fit in but I can speak for what I know here. Greg started as a bar manager and has worked his way up. Everyone has almost paid their dues in a sense. I find that we are all on the same page with it. We have all worked to where we are at at the moment. I don’t think it’s a gender specific thing.
What advice would you have for young women who are entering into this industry?
Lamees: Work hard and take initiative to know more and [to] do more than just what is asked of you. I think that is a big thing with me, particularly in a newer generation of people that I come across in the industry now. There is a lot of blinkers on what I’m expected to do but it’s about understanding beyond that, that I think will get people, not even just females but people in general further. But like I said in the Mail & Guardian article, it’s quite obvious. I don’t need to break the news to the world that it is a male dominated industry, still, but I think that we are definitely moving away from that. Slowly but we are moving away from that.
Widaad: I think our theatre, especially on shows, really shows that it’s not about what it used to be. Yes, there are places where it is like that and it is more male dominated but as a female, there isn’t this gender specific role or gender specific job descriptions. It is for everyone. Sometimes on our shows we have all-female teams.
Lamees: You can do anything if you want to do it. There isn’t a cookie cut description that this job is for a male. I look at our team here as an example. I think we are almost equal with males and females at the moment. There are females in jobs that everyone would usually associate with a male job. So whatever it is that you want to pursue, do it and just do it thoroughly because you can as great as anyone else doing it, male or female.
You have two new shows coming up at The Fugard including The Demon Bride and Significant Other, which both see Widaad taking on the role of lead costume designer. What are you looking forward to and what can audiences expect?
Widaad: They are both going really well. We just had our final dress rehearsal for The Demon Bride and I found myself sitting and watching the audience more than the show but it was because I said to them afterwards, “I wish I could see it for the first time again.” I think they can expect lots of laughter, thrills [and] excitement. It’s quite an interesting show.
Lamees: I’m quite excited by the fact that both these shows aim to bring a different audience in. It’s set quite younger. Everyone knows that our general audience is a mature audience and I think that they might get upset by one or two of these shows but I’m very excited by the fact that this is going to bring in a younger generation of audience or a different audience. The horror genre hasn’t really been explored much in Cape Town theatre at all which I think is highly exciting. Significant Other taps into a whole different element of life which is great.
Widaad: I think that’s what excites me about it. It’s so relatable. I think that’s what’s so nice about it. It’s people in [their] mid-twenties and thirties and it’s just relatable. You either are that person or you know someone who is.
Lamees: It’s been a big challenge for us trying to find the right pieces to do that will tap into a different audience or bring an audience in, particularly in winter which is a tough time for any entertainment in Cape Town. People don’t really want to go out when it rains so it’s about finding something that is relatable where people can go, “I actually want to see that.” Either you make a connection to Bad Jews with Significant Other or to Louis’ other shows with The Demon Bride or you go, “Well the material speaks to me.” Or, “They are doing something that is different to everything else that they’ve done so it’s time for us to check it out.” Already, the bookings are reflecting that. It’s a younger generation booking which is very exciting and we hope to open the theatre up to more people, to more age groups, to more cultures and groups of people which I think both these shows do.
When you look back on all the shows that you’ve worked on, what has been your favourite or the one that has been the most impactful?
Lamees: There are two for me. West Side Story was one because it was the largest one that I personally worked on. Everything I knew about theatre was kind of thrown out the window for that one because it caught us all off-guard. Everything was just on steroids in size on that show which was incredibly exciting and so overwhelming. I thrive on last-minute overwhelming anxiety so it was my favourite. Also, it was an incredible show. I come from a dance/theatre background so it incorporated that on a bigger scale which was very exciting. A Number was the other one with Sam West and Tim West. It was the first international show we’ve done here. As small as the show was, the elements that had been used were so different to anything I had seen. It was all just completely new to me. Those are my two learning curves and highlights. And then obviously any Athol Fugard show.
Widaad: I think that each show comes with new challenges but I think the most hectic one for me was Shakespeare in Love. I am very excited to have it back because it was one of my favourite shows that’s been done here but when I [think about] wardrobe, my stomach starts churning because I start stressing. It was a large cast. It was 21, that is including Bogart. The costumes that we worked with are these heavy, massive costumes and The Fugard has lots of stairs backstage. Working with those size costumes, the intricacy of those costumes, the detail work on it, the quick changes, the wig changes, running up and down with those costumes, everything about it was quite challenging for me. I loved it but it was crazy.
Lamees: Every show just keeps pushing limits. Eric and Daniel and The Fugard allows us to keep pushing limits which is very exciting for us. I purely speak from observing a wardrobe and costume department, with every show we always go, “What is the number of costumes in the show?” It doesn’t matter the size of the show, it keeps getting bigger. It’s a small example of how things keep growing and developing. I love that there is space to do that and there is that understanding that we are all working towards the same goal. We all want an incredible show that speaks to people and at the end of the day it’s business, so bums on seats.
Widaad: My first show here was as a dresser on Blood Brothers and I was one person on that show. We are now on four plus me that oversees it and then the amount of costumes has tripled since that show on our shows of the same size. It just keeps growing. I think just the intricacy and the detail of what Daniel and Eric pushes us to is just so much more but it’s great. It just makes everything a challenge and a new, exciting journey.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Lamees: Nadia Davids has always been my person and everyone is quite surprised when I say that but her plays were the first plays that introduced me to something that I could relate to which kind of filled the gap between theatre as a general concept of entertainment and business and my life which I thought was so different to it. Nadia Davids’ work bridged that gap for me. I ended up writing my thesis on one of her pieces. I still follow her religiously. I’ve always said that I want to work with her one day.
Widaad: My answer is a little bit different, especially because I wasn’t always in this industry and I still consider myself very young in it. My mentor in this industry is Birrie [le Roux] who I learn everything from at the moment. I learn from everyone I work with but she has really helped me progress as a designer. I’m not just saying it because you are my sister but…
Lamees: You are going to make me cry!
Widaad: She is one of the main reasons why I also ended up in this industry and that I discovered it.
Lamees: You are going to get a sister hug.
Widaad: It’s very rare when I get a sister hug. Seeing her grow in The Fugard [and] seeing her hard work inspired me to push harder as a female in the arts. When the Mail & Guardian thing happened with her, that was also a huge thing. Other people could say you, so your sister is saying you!