Margot Wood is an actress, director, theatre-maker and producer. She is the founder of Anex Theatre Productions, a company which has been running for over a decade. Most recently, Cape Town audiences saw Margot star in Wynne Bredenkamp’s critically acclaimed production, At The Edge of the Light, which will run at the 2018 National Arts Festival. Following a run at the Drama Factory earlier this year, her latest directorial project, Dario Fo’s A Woman Alone and Other Female Parts comes to the Alexander Bar for a limited run.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I did not come from a theatre background or a theatre family. My first encounter of the arts was my father who was a jazz pianist. I came from music and art, painting and dance which I did all throughout school. Then, when it got to that time of year in Matric and it was, “Should I do art? Should I do dance? I’m going to do drama!” I arrived at drama school not knowing what to expect and literally having no clue of the theatre world and what it was about. I am still not sure why I chose drama.
Where did you do your training?
At UCT. Way back when.
What was your time like there?
Wonderful. It was like Alice going through the looking glass. I just had my head completely blown open. I loved it. I loved the creative work [and] loved just working with new people and different people. It was just amazing. [I was] greatly influenced by Mavis Taylor. Every now and then I do something and I’m like, “Hello Mavis. You’re back again.”
What was it that originally attracted you to A Woman Alone and other Female Parts?
It’s one of those plays that I’ve literally had on my ‘projects I’d love to do’ shelves. At some stage I thought it may have become a little dated because nobody was really talking about women’s issues and it’s sort of a feeling of maybe not now. Then, of course, with the whole reawakening of all the questions around women’s roles, women’s positions, the whole movement of women’s marches and #MeToo, I think I was filled with dismay. There was a lovely photo of an older woman at a women’s march and she had a poster that said, “Why the fuck am I here again?” I think that’s what it was for me as well. It’s like, why are these conversations coming back? I mean they obviously have to but why are we back where we were? Has nothing happened? Suddenly, the script made sense again and this is what I wanted to do so I picked it up again.
It’s actually evolved amazingly. Because of the change of venue, we’ve had to take it down and make it much smaller. We had a rehearsal this morning where I said to them, “You have now started to explore completely different layers which you didn’t do before.” Even though the Drama Factory is not a particularly big venue, [with] the intimacy, suddenly new things are emerging which is really nice and really exciting. In a sense it’s become a kind of new production which is really nice.
You work in so many different capacities but I’m very intrigued by the fact that you balance performing and directing. How do those two influence each other?
I try to switch off my directing side when I’m performing and I try to focus only on my performance. I try to keep them apart. Occasionally I have acted in my own pieces that I’ve also directed and that is rather crazy and very difficult. It’s not something I would advise. I try not to bring the one into the other. I try to keep them separate because I don’t think it’s fair, when you are performing, to bring your directing head into another director’s space.
Does your performing side influence your directing side at all?
To the extent that I think I have sympathy with actors and I also know when they are taking chances. I think it does give one an understanding of the actor’s process as well. I don’t think there’s a director who has got no acting background but especially in film work, you sometimes get directors who don’t have that and that’s really hard when that understanding is not there.
I’m very much interested in your directing process, where do you begin?
It really depends on the kind of material I’m working with. Sometimes I’ll work in a more exploratory, experimental way and I’ll give the actors space to contribute more to the process. Sometimes, if you are doing a period comedy with a huge cast, you become far more dictatorial in terms of, “You go there and you are going there.” It really depends. I can’t really say that I’ve got one specific process. With this play, specifically, we spent quite a lot of time in conversation because there are issues and we all brought our own stories. There was a lot of discussion. It’s interesting now, with the restaging, that we had to go back to the stories. I said to them, “Let’s just go back to our conversations.” It’s amazing what that brings to the actual performance. [There’s] not one specific approach, really. It depends on what I’m working with and who I’m working with. Sometimes your actors need to be led far more than other times. It varies.
What is one thing you’ve learned while working on this piece?
I think probably that, just placing this in any kind of context, that there are some battles that need to be refought constantly. I think we were perhaps maybe a little bit complacent thinking, “Oh well this is resolved.” Myself, as well, when I thought this play was dated and [that] it’s not speaking anymore. You just realise, “No!” In terms of social injustice, you have to keep going back to the same battle. I realised that with this play. It’s still saying exactly the same thing because it’s looking very strongly at female entrapment, whether it be social or physical. In the one piece it’s literally physical.
You are also the founder of Anex Theatre Productions and are working as a producer on this project as well. What has the process been around forming Anex and the last 11 years?
It really started… I was working with young people, at the time, training them and I basically identified the need for a platform. Once you are qualified, where do you go? I was very fortunate when I qualified I went into the old performing arts councils and it was great. I had a salary and you even had medical aid and a pension fund and there was an amazing sense of ensemble but more than that, there was the incredible support given to us, at the time, as young actors by the established actors. We had that safe space to hone our craft. I just found [that] so many people qualify and that’s it. I’ll never forget, Robert Mohr said, “You are not an actor unless you are performing or rehearsing.” A lot of young people qualify and then they sit at home waiting and nothing happens. [I thought] let me try and create a platform especially for newly qualified [performers]. Then I also started using experienced, qualified actors who had left the profession because of day jobs because they had to survive and couldn’t go into a performance or rehearsal schedule. Sometimes we had these long rehearsals at strange times to accommodate them. Also, for me, to try and create an ensemble and that intergenerational ensemble which I find we have lost after the performing arts councils went which is sad because there is that sense of legacy which is not being passed on anymore. I really learned about acting once I left [university] and learned how to survive on a stage and these experienced actors were literally there holding your hand. Eventually, I also started looking at actors who have maybe not graduated but maybe gone through more informal training. It’s very much for me to create a platform for performers who, for one reason or another, are finding it hard to get into mainstream theatre. That’s basically what it is and what it still is. I’d like it to stay like that because it gives us a lot of freedom. We are independent. We do what we like. I’ll come across someone where I’ll go, “I’d like to work with you,” and I’ll literally structure a production around that one person. We’ve just gone into producing so for the first time, we’ve now produced the work of other young theatre-makers and that has been a learning curve for me as well.
I like what you mentioned about there being a lack of intergenerational shows. I find it interesting because this is something that the younger generation doesn’t even know is a possibility.
When I was a young actor, it was so enriching. I worked with people like Siegfried Mynhardt and Nina Ferreira and Cobus Roussouw and Sandra Kotze. My first production with Cobus Roussouw was a comedy and he would literally stand next to me and when the audience would laugh, he would go, “Wait, wait, wait. Go!” Literally coaching me on stage. It was such a safe space. It’s a pity because the only thing we don’t have is that ensemble that develops over time. People get together now, they do a production, it’s great and then it’s goodbye. But for all it’s faults, the performing arts council’s created those spaces and those ensembles that were together for years sometimes. Amazing work came out of that and amazing talents were nurtured that maybe otherwise have been lost. It’s sad. If you look at somewhere like Magnet, I think they have a good sense of strong ensemble but generally, when young people graduate, they are on their own and it’s really hard. They have to be entrepreneurs, they have to produce, they have to create, they have to write, everything. It’s not easy. I think there is always that danger of fizzling out and burning out and they vanish which is very sad.
Let’s chat about Wynne Bredenkamp’s At The Edge of The Light which is heading to The National Arts Festival. You’ve been performing with the production since 2016. What has your journey been like working on it?
It’s wonderful. It’s been so great to work with young theatre-makers and performers. I’ve learned so much from them. I learn from those young performers. I’m now feeding on them as well so it’s been extremely exciting. Wynne’s script is so great and coming back to it now for the third time, we just keep discovering new things. There is always another layer. It’s great to work on it and it’s like a new production every time. And of course, physically the spaces have also changed. It changes a lot, not only in terms of movement but just the whole atmosphere.
You have worked with several productions that have had multiple runs. Is that something you look forward to in terms of continuing to build on that production or performance?
I think there is a challenge in that you have to make sure that it doesn’t become stale. I actually had this discussion with my cast the other day. When one picks up a production, you tend to think, “Do I remember the words?” You go straight into a word run because that is almost the big issue, that you almost disengage from the thought processes that were there before. I think that is always a challenge to reconnect with and [to] literally embody what you had before. I think it is always a challenge to go back to the questions you initially asked and to somehow keep on growing with it. If it changes slightly, that is great but then you are exploring different things all the time rather than just having repetitive reruns which would be boring.
At this point in your career, is there anything that is still on your professional bucket list?
Lots! I’ve just come back from a Theatre for Autism workshop at Lincoln Center and I worked with Oily Cart, Sensorium and Trusty Sidekick. I’m going to the U.K to do a residency with Oily Cart in August. I’m pretty sure that is going to be my next project. My work has always been project driven and not really career driven. Sometimes I’ve made strange choices where I’ll vanish off the radar and then I’m probably busy with some very obscure project somewhere in some community. I am curious and I tend to go where I see something that interests me and then I’ll go with it. At the moment, that is probably where I am going to go next.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Women behind the scenes that are quietly creating spaces and opportunities for others. Caroline Calburn and Sue Simpson Diepeveen. Someone like Liz Mills who has been helping actors with their performances with her voice work for years. Then, of course, I greatly admire Jennie Reznek’s Magnet Theatre work. Someone like Yvette Hardie. She is world president of ASSITEJ for the second time and is just creating amazing opportunities for theatre for young people. I greatly admire women that are quietly just creating opportunities for others. I think that’s what inspires me most.