Dorothy Ann Gould is one of South Africa’s most celebrated and respected actresses. She has worked professionally for the past 50 years and has gone on to star in over 180 productions which have awarded her several of South Africa’s top accolades. She is also the founder of Johannesburg Awakening Minds, a theatre troupe comprised of 13 homeless gentlemen. Recently, Dorothy was honoured with a 2018 Naledi Award for Innovation in Theatre. She is currently starring in Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking, based on her memoir, which has transferred to the Baxter Theatre following its successful run at the Market Theatre earlier this year.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I fell into it is the truth. I wanted to be a fine artist. I wanted to be a painter and that is what I had done incredibly well at and won cups at school but being a Durban girl, if you wanted to study Fine Art, you had to go to Pietermaritzburg, 58 kilometres away. My parents said, “No! That’s too far!” Little did they know that I was going to trek up to Johannesburg. I ended up at KZN doing the things that I had been really good at at school. I had studied elocution since I was 10 years old. I used to talk very fast. I think my mind just worked so quickly. My parents sent me to elocution classes and I was very good at that although I was a painfully shy child. I didn’t have many friends, I read copious books, painted, played the piano, I did ballet, all of those things. When I got to the end of my second year, Mannie Mannim and people from PACT came round to Durban, as they did every year. They auditioned people all over the country and they offered me a contract but I was 19 and at the end of my second year. I said, “No, I’ve got to finish my degree.” At the end of my third year, they came and offered me again and I said, “No. I want to do honours.” At the end of honours they said, “We are not asking you again. Do you want to come or not?” I really had to twist my parents arm because they still believed that actresses were prostitutes or something. I was the first person in my family to go to university and had seen one play by the time I went to university before I started being in plays myself. This is my 50th year in the theatre. I fell into it. To cut a short story long, that was it.
What were your first few years like working professionally as a young actress?
I said I was very shy and I was. The first show I did in Johannesburg was with Di Wilson. I called her Ms. Wilson and I called the director Mr. Shelley and I begged to be able to dress Ms. Wilson. Although I had a part to play, I wanted to be her dresser as well. I was so shy that I think they nearly recast me because I was talking so quietly but of course I had a trained voice. By the time I went to Johannesburg I had been training myself as a performer for 11 years and come opening night, I took the stage! I was with PACT for three years before I went freelance and that was because television had just started in 1976. That was the first few years. Luckily, in those days, you got a chance to be in five shows a year, so I was really learning. The first year for PACT, I had to play a 64 year-old and a 48 year-old which when you are 21 is difficult but I cracked it. I remember I said to my dear Di Wilson when I was 28, “I’m giving up because obviously I’m not very good at this. I’ve never been nominated or anything.” And between the ages of 28 and 35, I won 18 Best Actress awards. She always reminds me of that. I’m the kind of person who getting all of those awards, I felt fraudulent. I felt [that] I was not as good as they thought I was. So I decided at the age of 36 to go to London and start from the beginning and do courses and learn again. I said to my husband, “I’ll go for six months.” I came back five years later. I think I needed to prove something to myself. The very first play I did was with Frank Langella and it was a tiny little walk on part. You said I can swear so I’ll tell you, I said to the director, “How do I approach this part?” He said, “Just say your lines and piss off!” But from that first show to when I left, I ended up in a star dressing room on the West End with Princess Diana bringing her boys to see me as The Grand High Witch in The Witches and I thought, “I’ve proved something to myself. Now I can go home.”
I wanted to touch on a point you made earlier about wanting to quit being an actress. What was that moment like? What was it that made you want to stay?
I think the truth is that I hadn’t received any recognition for the years I had been working. Maybe I hadn’t been doing the right work because the first show that gave me that was a play by Lanford Wilson called Talley’s Folly directed by Bobby Heaney. I should have remembered what my matric teacher said to me because I think she realised I was quite a depressed little girl and very shy and always wanting to please my teachers and such a perfectionist [that] I had to be first in my class. She gave me a little piece of paper at the end of matric that said, “Recognition is the consequence, never the object of a great mind.” I’ve remembered it my whole life but I think I was looking for recognition to validate me. Who can ever explain what depression is? I’m not ashamed to say I have suffered from that my whole life because of certain things that happened to me in my childhood and if you do suffer from depression, you are constantly looking for the good mommy or the good daddy who is going to say, “You are fine, my girl.” I think that’s what I was looking for and then it was all there. What happened when I got it? I thought, “Of course I’m not good enough. You shouldn’t be giving me all these prizes.”
What was it that attracted you to The Year Of Magical Thinking?
In 2010, I was in New York doing a play called Molora. I had been put up in Greenwich Village in a flat that belonged to a woman who was a proofreader for publishing. In the two weeks I was there, I read ten books. The first one I took off the shelf was by Joan Didion called The Year Of Magical Thinking and it shifted my consciousness. I hadn’t lost a parent or anyone close to me then but it really had a remarkable effect on me and so when I heard some years later that she had written a play, I asked a friend in New York to send it to me. I gave it to Mark [Graham Wilson] to read after I had read it. That was how The Year of Magical Thinking came into my life and it took four years. I then gave it to James Ncgobo at The Market Theatre and four years later he said, “Let’s do it,” by which stage I thought I wasn’t going to do another play but I knew I couldn’t turn this one down. Very scary to learn 62 pages when you are 65 but I took it slowly. I learned one page a day for four months so when we started rehearsals, I had the whole thing under my belt because only then can you play and go deep.
While watching this play and trying to understand the emotional toll you must be dealing with every night, how are you able to perform this piece and not take it home with you?
I did last night. I thought I had gotten over it. I remember distinctly two or three days in rehearsals in February where the story, not my own personal griefs but Joan’s story, overtook me and I would find myself sobbing in the rehearsals and almost unable to control myself. I realised that Joan, the cool customer that she is, much more than Dottie who is a heart person, keeps a lid on it. I’ve tried to do that and let the tears maybe come out once because I could be crying from earlier but last night in curtain call, my diaphragm was trembling. It was dry sobs. I was completely emotionally overwhelmed. I went to my dressing room and cried and then I had to come out and talk to people and then I went home and I phoned my husband and I said, “I messed it up. I just wasn’t good.” Today I feel fine and I really mean it that not once have I jumped out of a play in order to make myself cry and thought about my mother or my father passing. Never once. It is always her story because words have such power and magic especially when you speak them and put them into the outside world. They flow through you and affect your spirit.
Does your approach have to change at all because you are portraying a real person?
Yes. I can’t remember how many times in my life I’ve played real people but I remember Stevie Smith which was a play I did here at the Baxter and in Johannesburg. For Stevie, I read everything she had ever written because you learn to understand the person’s spirit from what they write and you want to honour that. With this and with Stevie, I couldn’t pretend to be Stevie Smith or Joan Didion. Joan weighs 85 pounds for goodness sake. I read as much as I could. I watched just about every interview I could find from when she was young to the present day and I observed the way she spoke [and] the gestures she used. She has very disembodied gestures because she is a writer, she is not a performer so she is not used to speaking. She said John used to finish all her sentences. Watching her and listening to her, I saw this broken little bird of a creature. The interviews after his death, she was half a person, a shadow of her former self because John, who had rooted her and centered her, was gone. That was what I tried to capture, a thing of spirit not how she looked.
What has playing Joan taught you?
More restraint, I think. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. Working in the UK, I realised what a different style it was there, much more reserved, stiff upper-lip, not showing everything you feel. Then when I came back and I was doing work with Athol Fugard and getting down and dirty and sinking my teeth into the stuff like a piece of meat, although I’m a vegetarian. I maybe got a bit carried away sometimes because coming to Joan, I realised she is still. She may have these odd gestures but basically she is very still and I’m not. I work off nervous energy. I had to calm down, sit with my hands in my lap, make my heart beat in a different way and I’m very grateful for that. I think it’s worked.
I didn’t feel I deserved it. I spoke to Des and Dawn Lindberg. I said, “I’m not Jewish but I know what a mitzvah is.” I feel that if you do something like that, you are doing it for God. I didn’t feel that I deserved a prize for that but they said, “We want your guys to perform.” And I said, “I’ll do it. Thank you.” And my guys did perform and they were spectacular. I’m a bit emotional because I’ve just heard this morning that one has had to go into rehab, which I always organise, for heroin addiction. Two weeks ago, one was shot to death. I’ve lost three of them. It’s not an easy thing to do but I will not abandon them because they are so used to being abandoned. We are going onto seven years now. Some of them have gone home to family, that makes me very happy. Only one is still living on the street by choice because he has been on the street since he was 11 years old and he is 32. We put him in a flat with two of the other guys in Yeoville and he stayed one night. He needs the sky over his head and I understand that. He sleeps under a bridge and his things get stolen but that is what he knows and that is what he wants. I just felt called to it. I thought I’m so tired of seeing people wind up their windows and look ahead as if there is no one there, as if they are less than an animal. I couldn’t bear it. I started winding down my window and chatting and asking their names. Some of them didn’t even feel they had the right to say their name. When I found these guys, I wanted to build their confidence and I believe in the power and magic and healing qualities of language. We don’t only do Shakespeare. They write and tell their own stories and they translate Shakespeare into other languages. I heard that a church was giving homeless people a cup of tea and a peanut butter sandwich on a Monday. I went and there were seven very depressed chaps there and one girl and I said, “Do you want to learn acting?” They said yes and we started that day. It’s taken them six years to get their voices out. Suddenly this year, Tsietsi who is a funny-looking chap with teeth missing and skinny, he said, “I want to do Hamlet. I want to do the whole piece but can my friend stand next to me?” I realised he has never been to school, he can’t read and write but from listening to the others doing this soliloquy, he had learned it. He stood on the stage at Piza e Vino restaurant and this voice came out. The same with Gift. What triggered Gift to do his piece from Macbeth was his best friend Charles who had just died from pneumonia, it was his piece and he said, and here’s Joan Didion for you, “As long as I keep doing it, I can keep Charles alive.” That was the first piece he did on his own. In the beginning, instead of begging at the traffic lights, they would suddenly start reciting a soliloquy and people would go, “What?! Here is R20.” They would stop people in the park and start doing Shakespeare and they love it. They love Shakespeare because the stories are powerful. I work with prisoners as well for exactly the same reasons but correctional services haven’t invited me back. I think I lifted the lid on a couple of things but I see as the words take them over and they start crying or laughing. I don’t only give them tragedies, they say, “Mamzo, we feel like we’ve had a shower inside.”
I read somewhere that you’ve starred in over 180 productions. Do you have a favourite or one that stands out to you?
I would definitely say this because I never wanted to do a one-woman show. This is a fantastic story. It’s made me confront my fear about doing a one-woman show and if it’s just you and a director and you have a chemistry, it’s the most extraordinary experience. Second to that, working with Athol Fugard on The Bird Watchers. What an extraordinary man! I have to say I fell in love. My husband was a bit worried. Athol has such an intensity. I loved working with Athol and working at the Fugard and then I guess Stevie Smith and number 4, I shouldn’t give rankings should I? But this show that we traveled the world with for 10 years, Molora, because it was three actors, myself and two fabulous young black actors and a chorus of Xhosa mamas from Ngqoko village. When we said to them, “What’s the happiest time you’ve ever had?” They said, “Now” because most of them were married to much older men. Their lives were extremely hard back in the village.
Is there anything still on your professional bucket list?
No, I want to give up! I feel I’ve been so lucky and blessed and had such an amazing career and even in the last six or seven years, so many international movies down here. For somebody after working so hard all these years, to come down and get paid well for playing Charles Dancer’s wife in a couple of scenes and put up in a hotel, you think, “Wow! This is what it’s like internationally for people.” I’ve loved that and I would love to carry on doing that and I love the parts that I fit into now. I don’t like to look at myself in the mirror. I don’t like to look at photographs of myself. I’m quite happy embracing being 65. I’m quite happy getting those old lady parts but there are not many of them, let’s face it. I think if Mark [Wilson] would bring me out of “retirement,” as would my darling friend Janet Suzman, because the first thing I did with Janet, which is the thing that opened my eyes to Shakespeare, was Othello which was groundbreaking in this country in 1988. That kick-started my career in London because it was filmed and from that I got an agent. Otherwise I would never have been brave enough to go. That’s what would bring me out of retirement but I have to work. It’s a silly thing for me to say.
If you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Relax! But let me consider this for a moment. Certainly what I’ve said already, “Don’t look for affirmation. Find that affirmation within yourself.” But it’s all well and good to say, “Love yourself.” It’s hard but if I could, even now say that to myself, I haven’t found it yet. I still feel I’m so lacking in self-esteem. And then, my tension of having to do this and that because I’m guilty if I’m not working. I’d like to say relax and trust yourself and trust your audience’s intelligence and trust that you’ve done the work and trust that you’ve been doing this your whole life since the age of 10. Hang on to your curiosity and never stop.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Sandra Prinsloo. I had the absolute privilege of directing Sandra in Fugard’s People are Living There. You see, the good actors are fabulous people, [a] mensch. Judi Dench is. She is unassuming. She is humble. Sandy Prinsloo is. She is unassuming. She has humility and extraordinary talent. Jana Cilliers, who I have worked with a number of times, is another favourite because Jana is so beautiful [that] she doesn’t think about it. She, for me, is an icon and she holds herself with dignity and grace. I think those two Afrikaans actresses are incredible and I love watching them. Of course, my dear friend, Jennifer Steyn who I’ve seen in the last couple of years just go zooming up on this trajectory of better and better and better. I mean when I saw A Doll’s House I couldn’t believe how extraordinary she was and likewise [with] Inconvenience of Wings. Everything I’ve seen Jenny do recently, I thought was marvellous.