Kathleen Stephens is a theatre-maker and performer. In 2016 she debuted her acting career in People Beneath our Feet at the National Arts Festival. Other credits include Wessel Pretorius’ I Love You Sally Field, Dara Beth’s Nasty Womxn, and Jon Keevy’s Single Minded and The Underground Library. Most recently, Kathleen has been seen in Like Hamlet directed by Kanya Viljoen, Wessel Pretorius’ Fotostaatmasjien and in the first all-female South African production of The Taming of the Shrew directed by Tara Notcutt. She is currently gearing up to star in the Fugard Theatre’s return season of Shakespeare in Love.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was in Grade 1 or 2 and we went to the police station on a school outing. I don’t know why they took us to the police station but it was very exciting because we were out of the classroom. After the tour, the policeman asked us what we wanted to be when we grow up. Everyone was going, “I want to be a fireman. I want to be a doctor! I want to be a teacher.” Five people before me were saying, “I want to be a policeman,” purely because we had just gone on the tour and in my mind I was like, “I really want to perform,” but I didn’t know how to say that because I had kind of felt like I had always been performing. I would do little shows for the family when I was younger and I’d get my cousins and my brother to play along. I got up and I couldn’t say that I wanted to be an actor so I just said that I wanted to be a policeman and then on the way back to school, I felt really bad because I had realised that as an actor, I could have been any one of those things. That moment was profound for me because looking back on that moment, it solidified for me that as a performer I can adopt whatever role I want to and be whatever I want to. That is why I pursued acting.
You did your training at UCT. How was that experience for you?
It was very eye-opening. It’s strange because being in high school, I got an opportunity to be on stage and it was enjoyable and I loved it and I was like, “I’m going to do acting. I love it. I’m passionate about it. It makes me feel good.” Then I got to UCT and [it’s] a lot of sort of technicalities and classes and things to kind of hone your skills and to train you to become a performer or a theatre-maker and in a weird sort of way, I started to become more self-aware and self-conscious but at the same time, I got progressively better at my craft. I started to become very aware of how I conducted myself in that space as a performer, where my voice is placed, what my voice is, where I’m positioned in this sociopolitical climate as a performer [and] as a theatre-maker. It’s weird because you’re this larva and you get to crawl around and then you are in this cocoon and in this cocoon of university there is all this stuff that is spinning around you and keeping you tight and prepping you for life. Then you become this butterfly and you are like, “What do I do now?” I guess now I’m learning to fly.
What was it that attracted you to Shakespeare in Love?
I love Shakespeare and the work he’s written. I feel it’s adaptable to any sort of era and because it’s heightened text, it requires you to be in a state of vulnerability, as [does] any production but just more heightened than usual. I love that because it’s a challenge. I watched the movie and I’m a fan of Geoffrey Rush and Joseph Fiennes and obviously Judi Dench and when I heard this production was happening, I was just like, “Let me take bash at auditioning,” and I managed to get in.
You are only a week into rehearsals but how has it been going?
It’s very fascinating. It’s my first time working for The Fugard so it’s quite a cool experience. It’s my first experience working with Greg [Karvellas] and it’s nice to walk into a space and know there is a captain who knows what they are doing. You, as an actor, walk in and you already know the vision and know where we are going. It’s cool because I don’t feel scared. I’m having fun all the time that I’m in the space. The actors are very supportive and they are constantly telling you what you need to do just so we can catch up with the work and be on the same page so that everyone is working together all the time. I find that really helpful. It’s just a lot of fun. I’m not really a dancer so Kristin [Wilson] is taking us through a couple of moves and I’m dancing with Nicolas Pauling which is a lot of fun because he makes the process much easier to handle as someone who has never kind of delved into this kind of dancing before. I’m really excited because I get to work with Dean Balie, Daniel Richards who is playing William Shakespeare [and] Rendani [Mufamadi] who I have worked with before. It’s cool to work with a group and a director and the Fugard team itself who are just amazing. If you call for a prop, it’s there. If you call for costume, it’s there. These people are just professional in every sense of the word and you just feel like they’ve got your back in that sense.
What are you most looking forward to in regards to performing this piece?
To be selfish, I’m really looking forward to the costumes. The costumes are amazing! I love big dresses and elaborate sets and costumes. I enjoy the atmosphere of it. I think I took a bit of a break because I did Like Hamlet and before that I did Taming of the Shrew so it’s kind of led me to this point. I’ve had a bit of a break and I’ve been waiting to get back on stage. I feel at home.
Now that we are talking about it, I never ever thought that it would happen like that. I was really excited about Taming of the Shrew and then I got word about the auditions for Shakespeare in Love but I wasn’t even thinking like that at the time and then I got word about Like Hamlet as well. It was opportunities and each one of them provided a different challenge. I love challenges so I was like, “Let’s just jump. Let’s just see.”
You’ve only been out of UCT for four years but you’ve managed to work consistently since graduating.
Before I came to UCT, I had a conversation with my mom and she said, “If you are going to go into this then you must give it everything. I don’t mind if you do jobs on the side but if this is your passion, this is your passion.” I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind with everything that I do. If I am going to do other jobs, they must be rooted in theatre in some way. I understand that money is a thing. I have to pay my rent at the end of the day, I’ve got to eat, sometimes I want to flourish and there will come a day when I will but at the same time, I need to be busy in something that is my passion, that is theatre, that is film because otherwise I’m not happy. That has always sat in the back of my mind and informed a lot of decisions that I’ve made. I’ve done a lot of stage managing jobs, I’ve done a lot of performing jobs, I’ve done a lot of directing jobs and I always say that acting is my drug and theatre-making/directing is my rehab. I need them both. I love performing. It’s a release and I feel much more real when I’m performing than when I’m not. I don’t have to pretend. I’m the most me when I’m not.
What are the stories that you feel you tend to gravitate towards?
Pieces where you have to forget the clean straight lines as the performer and allow yourself to be raw and vulnerable and for lack of a better word, dirty and muddy. I gravitate towards pieces like that because, again, it’s therapy for me. I get a release like that and I am pushed more in those pieces. Not to say that other pieces haven’t done that, it’s just that I find those more tantalising.
You make up one third of The Furies Co-Op. What has your journey been like in the forming of that collective?
Dara [Beth] came up with the idea and she pitched it to Ameera [Conrad] and then I sort of jumped on board. It’s been a good journey. Dara and Ameera have amazing brains and their writing is just insane and it’s wonderful and it’s fun. Dara came up with Nasty Womxn which was one of the first headliners of The Furies, so to speak, and I was like, “I’d love to be in it and be a part of it and perform in it.” Since then, we’ve done Nasty Womxn several times and it’s been a very fun experience. It’s good to be part of a group that’s really supportive. It’s nice to have people who go, “Yes,” even if the idea is sometimes crap. It’s nice to have women going, “Let’s give it a try.” That’s been fun.
You’ve been involved in several prolific womxn-driven or womxn-centered projects….
Have I? I don’t even realise these things.
I was actually just about to ask you if that was a conscious thing.
No. I’ve just been around a lot of awesome women who have been like, “Kat, I have this thing” and I’m like, “Yes!” I am always for that. Particularly with women and particularly with women of colour, if you have something that you believe is good and you back it and I can see you back it, then I’m going to get on board with it. If I love it and I love the story and the story is juicy, I’m here for it. Obviously it’s a conscious thing but it’s also people I see every day. I’m surrounded by awesome people. I believe that you can go at this thing alone but if you can find a group of people who you can collaborate with and who don’t shoot your ideas down before you even open your mouth, then you need to take that opportunity because as much as you can travel this road alone, I believe you will grow more if you have that group of people. It’s got to be positive. Yes, you are going to hit walls. Yes, you are going to argue but by being in collaborative situations like that, I believe I’ve grown. I’m much more confident in myself. Going back to being in university, I barely put my hand up in class. I would never be the first one to attempt to showcase my work and now, I’m finding it much easier because I am surrounded by people who go, “We have you. Your work is good and you are good. You just need to trust it.” I believe that is important for the kind of industry we have because when you come out, nobody prepares you for the kind of rocks that are thrown at you. You, yourself, have to learn how to dodge that but it’s nice to have people to throw rocks back with you. If you have those groups of people, props to you. If you don’t, I suggest you find them.
As a performer, what is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I was in first year and Darron Araujo was taking us for voice class. I loved Darron’s voice classes. The one day, we were doing poetry and I got up and I started reciting the poem and he stopped me and I freaked out. He asked me, “What are you doing? Why are you putting on a voice?” I hadn’t realised I had been putting on a British accent and he said, “Kat, why are you doing that?” I said, “Because that’s right.” And he asked, “Who said?” It stumped me. I was like, “Well who the hell did say, actually?!” No one’s ever said that. It’s just been something that’s been programmed due to, I don’t know, colonising. He goes, “Can you just say the poem as Kat would say it?” I couldn’t move and I couldn’t speak because for the first time, I forgot what my voice sounded like and if I did remember, I was so scared that the KZN accent was going to just freak every Cape Townian out and I got afraid of my voice. I think if I were to give a piece of advice to any young person who wants to perform: don’t lose your voice. It’s very easy to lose it in this industry because there are a lot of people telling you, “This is the way you are supposed to sound. This is the way you are supposed to act.” Sure, we have to conduct ourselves in a way but don’t lose your voice because I promise you it is the most beautiful and most powerful tool and if you do lose it and you find it again, for me, it’s been so much easier to navigate auditions and the way I conduct myself around people because I am comfortable in myself because I am starting to know who I am. I’m Kathleen. I come from KZN. I’m an actor and I love acting and at the end of the day, I will always love performing and you can tell me a lot of things but it’s not going to affect me the way it used to because I know who I am and I am not as self-conscious anymore because I am the butterfly.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Naledi Majola, Kanya Viljoen, Andi Colombo, Dara Beth, Masali Maduza, Daneel van der Walt, Ameera Conrad, Koleka Putuma, Maggie Gericke, Buhle Ngaba and Kate Pinchuck. I really love Robyn Scott to bits. [She’s] another one who just says, “Yes.” Danél Maree, Ann Juries, Courtney Smith and Bianca Flanders.
You can follow Kathleen on Instagram.