Klara van Wyk is a performer and theatre-maker. During the 2018 National Arts Festival, she’ll be pulling double duty by performing in two productions. First up, she stars alongside Buhle Ngaba in Penny Youngleson’s La Chair de ma Chair followed by her one-woman show, You Suck! (and other inescapable truths), which has been on back-to-back sell-out tours across the country and earned her a Fleur du Cap nomination. Her dedication to anti-bullying campaigns and clowning workshops with young South Africans has earned her a unique position in the local performance landscape where she occupies roles in social justice and entrepreneurship as well as artistic expression. After studying under Master Clown Philippe Gaulier in Paris, she is currently completing her PhD in Clowning at Stellenbosch University.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
No one in my family is in the arts. I started performing in eisteddfods really early and my mom sat through like two million poems that I did at eisteddfods. I was really shy and I think getting on stage and being able to communicate freely was really amazing for me and I never stopped. I think my mom was the one who was really on the journey with me. Everyone always sees her around. She has probably seen 60 of my You Suck! shows. She’s just always been there which has been amazing.
I often like to ask people about their time at university. For most people, they’ve usually studied at one institution but you’ve studied at several. What was your time like at the various academic institutions?
I really wanted to go to UCT and then I didn’t get in. It was a real blessing in disguise going to Wits. I feel I learned so many different skills and I really learned to make theatre. I had an amazing time there and that is where I learned clowning, which I don’t think I would have learned anywhere else, with Gerard Bester who really inspired me. I think it was my third year where I had my first clowning course. He also [held] auditions and the moment we did auditions I was like, “I have to be in this! I love it.” We did this performance exam where we were in the streets as clowns and it was really incredible. I was just like, “This is what I want to do.” I’m really happy I got to do that. Then I wanted to do my master’s and I got into UCT. At that time, I was determined to go to Gaulier. I found a way to get there and that was amazing and really terrifying. He is like a very scary old man with his red glasses who sits with a massive drum and he’ll give you instructions to be funny and when you get onto the play space he gives you two or three seconds and if you are not funny, he starts to insult you or bang his drum. It’s really scary because you are in this foreign country with these people you don’t know and his insults are really cruel and hectic. He is quite the tormentor but I also found it incredible as an experience. Now, I’m doing my PhD at Stellenbosch. Last one, hopefully.
What is the advantage of taking the studying of clowning as far as a PhD level?
I think it’s interesting because someone like Gaulier would refuse to speak about it in an academic realm. A lot of students would say that you can’t speak about it in an academic realm because it is so embodied and it is so strange. It’s difficult to be critical about and it takes away some of its magic. There’s definitely that side of the story but I feel like it has real political power that I’ve seen and felt and experienced. The freedom and the playfulness and liberty really opens up a new platform and I really want to investigate and share that. One way to do that is in PhD format. I’m hoping to do that. I’m trying to blog a little bit and share my experiences as a clown. I haven’t done one in a while but I feel like it’s helping me understand my method and how I want to make work and hopefully I can share it with other people.
What it is that you enjoy about working within the clowning medium?
In terms of making theatre, I want to devise work. I would never be able to make the work I make sitting in a room writing. The one thing the clown always needs is an audience. He always needs someone to watch him and to respond to. With our process now with La Chair de ma Chair, we have Penny Youngleson acting as a sort of provocateur as well as a director. In the beginning, in the play stages, she would provoke us into saying things and ask us questions and put us in a game format where we would respond to her. We have to be truthful in that kind of space and we have to respond truthfully. I just feel like sometimes a lot more interesting things come out that you didn’t plan, that didn’t think about, that are truthful compared to when you sit in an isolated space and write a script. I think, for me, the definition of a clown is being willing to fail and being laughed at. Instead of laughing at a standup comedian at a joke or material from the outside world, it’s taking in that laughter and receiving it and sharing that failure with the audience. For me, it’s that political thing that the audiences is allowed to go to laugh at themselves by laughing at someone else. The clown allows that, so it’s not cruel. I think that’s what I love about it.
I’d like to touch on what you mentioned about enjoying devising work. I noticed that you tend to work primarily with new material or material that you’ve created for yourself. Is that something that you actively pursue?
We’ve been thinking about it a lot now [while] working with Penny. She is mostly a writer and a director and she writes scripts and she’s an amazing writer. I’ve always loved her work. We’ve kind of been dealing with this idea of failure. We’ve had discussions around the clowns celebrating their struggles. For example, accent work has never been my strong point. With Pretina [de Jager], I’m fully allowed to be in a bad accent. Improvisation is a stronger quality for me than learning lines. Being able to make my own words and use that improvisation quality to make the character has been stronger but in this process, we’ve had quite a lot of written scripts and quite a lot of very technical pieces. It has been a journey for me to learn that side of acting. Obviously I did it at varsity but I’ve kind of dialed into this improvisational quality. We’ve tried to mix it because [La Chair de ma Chair] is clowning and its conventional script and theatre together, which is how its going to end up. It’s exciting to work in that way but I think I have tried to work for myself. As I said, getting a provocateur in the room, I say things and then I write them down and work on them. It happens on the floor and that has been work that comes from things that suit me. I think what’s nice about the clown is that you can take a piece of you that you already have and extend them and exaggerate them and make fun of them.
Penny, Buhle and yourself are making history with La Chair de ma Chair by being the first all-female company on the Main in the history of the festival, the first all-female clowning show on the Main and the youngest company of all-female makers on the Main in the history of the festival. How are you feeling about that?
Scared I guess but we always are. We’ve felt quite a lot of pressure from all around us but we are really excited. In the beginning, we struggled to find a language that worked for all of us because our languages are so different and our process of making is so different. We were like, “What are we going to make and how are we going to make it?” We’ve actually just finished the play completely and we are working through the last week just tidying things up. It was a difficult process in some ways just in terms of format but its been so amazing working with such brave people who are just willing to dive in and do things they haven’t done before.
What are you most looking forward to in regards to this production?
Just introducing the world to the two clowns, Montsho and Lig, who I love, and just being able to clown on a big stage which I think is such an exciting privilege. There is such a focus on female work this year which I’m so excited to see. I’m just excited to jump in and enjoy the festival.
I wanted to touch on You Suck! Now that you’ve gone on to perform this piece over several years, how does it feel every time you step back into it? How do you keep it fresh?
You Suck! started three years ago and is directed by Francesco Nassimbeni who had a huge influence on the writing and character. He and Pretina are besties and he just got the humor from day one. Pretina is basically a 16-year-old and because the clown is so rooted in truth and improvisational quality, I change and my audience changes and I adapt to every audience that I get. There have been times where I have felt further away from her and closer [to her] but I love her and I feel like she is always there to catch me. Sometimes I am like, “How am I going to get to her? She is so not where I am right now.” I’ll put on my makeup and I’ll start speaking and she’ll just be there. It’s a very autobiographical piece and it came out of a very hard place of self-acceptance but I think I’m also almost ready to let her go. I’ll be like, “Go to your room now, Pretina. Go to ice skating. I love you. Go sleep.” After three years, I feel like it’s getting to the end. I am doing my hundredth performance this year and that will be a nice party for her. She deserves it. It’s a nice ending but I think it’s always negotiating where she is this time and what she wants from me. Translating it into Afrikaans was more difficult than I thought. I knew it would be difficult because of the language but just connecting to my ‘Afrikaansness’ again was quite a journey. I think I’ll do a couple more schools and end it off at the end of the year.
What has the response been like from school audiences?
The schools have been amazing because I realised the dialogue that the schools need and the platform [that] they need to express themselves and tell stories. For me, that is the power of the clown. Pretina really fails and they laugh at her and go, “Why are you so stupid? Please don’t wear that. Don’t do that. It’s so embarrassing.” By the end, they all want to be her friend. Even though I’ve taken my makeup off, at the end I tell them, “Guys that’s my story.” But they’ll still come to me like, “Pretina, this person is doing this. What should I do?” They follow me on Instagram [and] they’ll send me direct messages like, “This girl called me this and I don’t know what to do.” I feel that need to be heard in their context. They need to know what it is to exclude, what it is to be insecure, how we behave when we feel threatened. I think Pretina’s story, because she fails so badly, they feel like they are not threatened by her. They accept her at the end and want to be her friend which is cute. It’s cathartic for me. It’s also incredible how she works for older [people] and not just teenagers. I’ve had an amazing response from others as well. Because I don’t have the skills in counselling or therapy, I make sure that I get the school’s therapist involved in case one of the kids say that there might be a problem or ask them permission to get their school therapist to contact [them] if it’s a really hectic thing. It’s been hard because I don’t have those skills but it’s been amazing to see kids realising that they need help.
The throughline of your work seems to be that you are able to infuse social justice issues and issues that you feel are important to you into your work. Why is that important to you?
I think theatre is always political and although I work in clowning which people see as not being serious, I think that it’s serious that we get to laugh because I feel like laughter is a release and we can face things that we don’t face and that we don’t speak about in a different way when we are able to laugh. For example, with You Suck!, I started it when I was faced with an article. I saw a picture and I had to do a double-take because I was like, “It’s me.” It was of this young girl holding a fish and then I saw that it was a girl who committed suicide, very sadly, at Northgate. It was this extremely sad story. I went to go look at a photo of myself because I remember I had a photo exactly like that. I looked so similar. It just completely hit me remembering that time and how I felt really overweight and my teeth were skew and I felt embarrassed about everything and not pretty enough and not good enough and not talented enough and I really didn’t know how I was ok to be ok. I felt like it would have changed everything if I had someone tell me, “You are going to be fine. You are going to be ok. You are going to have friends.” I think for some people, there is no one to really reach out. We don’t have enough conversations around girls, around feelings of complete insecurity and isolation and exclusion and body issues. We don’t have enough support for that and I hope that You Suck! can address some of those issues but I think it’s an ongoing conversation and I really encourage anyone who has the ability to help teens in that space because they don’t know how to ask.
You are still at the beginning of your career but you’ve managed to stay true to who you are as an artist and the work that you want to make. How are you able to ensure that you are able to do that?
I think I’ve been lucky. I didn’t get into the schools I wanted to get into in terms of studying. I still haven’t gotten an agent. I’ve been enjoying being a theatre-maker more than just an actress but I feel like if we can’t get work, we need to make work and there really are platforms and ways. I think if you have something to say, there are ways and there are platforms and we should get out there and say them and they will take you to the next step but I think as actors, you are scared and you feel like there is no work. There is very little work and when you start making the work with people you love and the forms you love and watching work you love and being inspired by that, I think you start aligning yourself with the right work, the work you are comfortable with and the work that is exciting.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Jemma Kahn was my mentor and is just a person that I love making work with. Buhle Ngaba, who I am working with in La Chair de ma Chair, is such a generous performer and leaves me in awe each day. I am really inspired by Naledi Majola. She is a student at the moment but she is an incredible actress and she is going to go so far. Penny Youngleson has the most insane work ethic and has taught me so much during this process. Janice Honeyman, my mother used to take us to her pantomimes as children and it’s what I was most excited about each year. Lara Foot, I think as woman in this theatre industry we have so much to thank her for. Tinarie van Wyk Loots’ work ethic and presence on stage blows my mind every time. And Jenine Collocott.
All photos were taken by Lucy Brittany Woolley on June 22nd 2018.