In a career spanning 40 years, Antoinette Kellermann has established herself as a doyenne of South African theatre, winning numerous awards for her work on radio, television and on stage. In 2008 she was honoured by the South African Academy for Science and Arts for her contribution to South African theatre. In 2010, she received several awards for her one-woman show As die Broek Pas, which she also performed in English as Man to Man. Select recent credits include Die Melktrein stop nie meer hier nee, Asem, Willem Anker’s Samsa-masjien and Hierdie Lewe by Karel Schoeman which awarded her a Kanna Award for Best Actress. She is currently starring as ‘Nell’ in the all-star cast of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame at the Baxter Theatre.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I saw a piece of mime when I was quite young and I saw how it made people laugh and I thought, “That’s quite nice. I’d like to make people laugh.” Because of course that brings attention to you and when you have the attention on you, you love that. That was all I was interested in but as I go older, it’s so silly to think of it now and to even mention it but I started working on my Hollywood name and that my Hollywood name would be Annie Mann, Anne Kelly… I developed all these names. It was in the background. It was never a definite and of course, I never thought of acting on stage. At that stage, we didn’t have television and the Afrikaans films I saw were all very Christian-orientated and old people so where was I going to start? But as I grew older, I realised that’s actually what I want to do, always being the funny one, the comedy. I was always the entertainer and always [trying] to make people laugh. As I grew up, I thought, “Making people laugh is common. I want to be dramatic! I’m really a dramatic actress. That’s what it’s about.” And I had a father who was a wonderful storyteller. I think that was actually what inspired me.
You did your training at Stellenbosch before going on to perform with the various arts councils. What were your first few years like as a professional actress?
I also trained at a drama academy that Babs Laker and Suzanne van Wyk started. I wanted to go to UCT. My father was working-class and he said, “I’m paying and you are not going to UCT. It’s a communist institution!” So I had no choice. I had to go to Stellenbosch. Immediately there was a company starting off, SWAPAC, in South West Africa which was then still South West Africa Namibia. They started a company and it was Johan and Lida Botha who were older actors who still performed until recently. I had to audition. My audition was at the chapel at Dove’s, the funeral parlour! That’s where I did my audition for them. I was offered a year contract and we were three in the company, Dawid Malan, another young actor and Lida and Johan and we worked in Namibia. We travelled and did kiddie shows in the morning and an adult show at night and travelled in between, did the setup, did the strikes, stayed in the smallest little places. During that time it was still the Border War so very often, when we were up in the northern parts of Namibia, we had military protection around us. I remember a little place, there were 21 children in the school we performed at and I remember the school principal said, “If you hear shots, just fall down.” We did very interesting work and they brought in other actors from South Africa who came in on a contract for a production and then left. We did exciting work and the best part of it was that it was a great learning curve because of the children’s theatre we had to do and travelling and taking the kind of theatre to the people that was not just entertainment but also serious, good quality theatre. It was a great experience and eventually coming back to Cape Town and lucky for me, I got a production with CAPAB and from there just travelled. Wherever there was a job, I would just go. I even went to Joburg to try to get a job in television but not successfully.
What was it that attracted you to Endgame?
I was a lecturer at Stellenbosch University so obviously I had been working with absurdists over the years. I’ve never been attracted to Beckett. I thought, “Really? It just goes on and on. Where are you going?” But Godot was one of my favourites when I saw Lara Foot’s production years ago. I saw the great production at the Fugard a few years ago with Sir Ian McKellen. I wasn’t that familiar with Endgame. I’d read it. When we were students we did the absurdists as well but when Rob [van Vuuren] contacted me, I was in Joburg working on a television series. He contacted me and said, “Would you be interested?” I thought, “Which one is that? Oh! The old people in the bin but there’s only one female. Oh, I must be the old person in the bin then. What’s her character like?” But without thinking twice I said, “Yebo. If I can make it, if the timing is right, I’d love to be part of the project.” Especially when I heard who the cast would be and who the director would be. Then I had no qualms. I decided this was what I wanted to do and immediately googled to see who Nell was, what the storyline was and what the narrative was so I could at least be knowledgeable when he spoke to me again. I immediately tried to call Marthinus Basson and said, “Can you remember Endgame? What is it about again?” I hadn’t read it for so long and then I read it and again I thought, “What the fuck? What is this?” But it didn’t matter because of the director and the cast. I am so grateful for a production like this.
What has it been like crafting and performing a character who has these physical restrictions?
Soli [Philander] and I came in two weeks after Andrew [Buckland] and Rob had been working. We were very fortunate to be given mock bins/wooden structures in which we could work through what our limitations would be but he had given us little bunkies so we very comfortably sat and did our scenes. There was no weight. We didn’t move around on our knees and it was very nice but we knew it was ridiculous because it looked like we were sitting down. We didn’t have knee pads at that stage, we didn’t have anything on the floor and we worked from there. But because Sylvaine [Strike] is so aware… You must have watched her hands when you did her interview. They are so elegant. Everything is so elegant. I always watch people’s hands because I think that’s so indicative of who and what they are. She constantly is aware and told us to be careful of the hands. “Don’t hold on like this. Open the fingers. Make a dance with your hands and be aware of your breathing because that means your shoulders move in a different way.” Her guidance and getting more and more aware of it, starting to focus on shifting the weight because you are on your stumps but it is so comfortable in there.
Yes. It helps that we have industrial hardcover knee pads. It’s only now that we are aware of opening up and lifting, [that] it becomes so, I don’t want to say easy but it is so much easier. You must just never lose sight of the fact that you are on stumps because it isn’t easy to turn on the stumps in the confined space. They do get tiring. The stumps get sore. Now there is still a little bunkie but it’s a different level and you can really rest on it and sit comfortably on it although you are contorted.
I was saying to someone after seeing the production that all four of you are incredible performers in your own regard but it’s so interesting to see each one of you challenged in a different way to what you’ve previously done.
Every moment, even when I wasn’t necessary, I was in that rehearsal room to watch how they physically crafted their characters and how Sylvaine guided them as she did. Andrew, with nothing there but the body, is alive without going over the top. Everything means something. Nothing is unnecessary. Everything has a reason, every move, every eyebrow. We did red nose with Sylvaine and it was wonderful! I love clowns. I saw the Slava SnowShow and I was blown away. It was the most amazing thing that I’ve ever seen in my life. This has been one of the greatest, most challenging experiences working on my craft because I have gained so much knowledge and I’ve gained so much experience and confidence. That is what [Sylvaine] does. This is the group I’m working in, constantly supporting each other and working so hard and so focused that you can’t [help] but follow the lead.
It’s interesting that you mention gaining confidence because I wanted to ask you if you still get nervous at this stage in your career?
Very much so and scared. Maybe it’s because this time the onus or the heaviness of the play is on Andrew and on Rob, Soli and I support, I don’t have that weight on me. I can come out and do my bit and love doing it. I love hitting the consonants and using the vowel sounds and riding it. Maybe that is part of it but I trust that everything we do and what I do has been distilled and shaped and carefully pushed in the right direction. I know I can trust what I have and trust myself and know that my contribution is as important as the three other contributions. I love doing it. I don’t have to panic. Having done three or four one-person shows, the loneliness of that and the fear, there is nobody there to help you. You are on your own. In this case, I don’t have to worry about that. I’m with a man, Andrew and another man, Rob who never miss a beat. They just don’t miss beats. Soli and I? We do. We miss beats! You have to focus so hard while you are in the bin and listening to the story but not getting involved because you are asleep or whatever in my case and then still come out and be awake and not try to disturb the whole rhythm of what they’ve set up so far.
You went back to school to obtain your Master’s degree in 2012. What was that experience like?
I was lecturing at Stellenbosch at that stage and I was saying, “Everybody around me is doing research. I would actually like to do research on something. What if I wanted to do my Master’s? Oh, the university pays for it? Hallelujah! Problem solved. What should I do my research on?” The head of our department then, Dr Marie Kruger, said, “Why don’t you do something on breeches parts?” Because I had played a couple of male characters at that stage and I remembered a play that Elzabé Zietsman did years ago at the Market called Man to Man. I called her and asked if she minded if I attempted it but in Afrikaans for my masters. I went to Marthinus hoping he wouldn’t be interested because he was also teaching at the university then and I said, “I want to do my Master’s on breeches parts. Do you feel like directing me in this play?” I know he hates working with one-person plays because it’s boring and he said, “Yes! Let’s do it.” There was no turning back. I had to do it. I did my research and I enjoyed it tremendously. The writing part was difficult because I’ve never done that part of methodology of writing a thesis but I got through it and enjoyed it and then my practical component was As die Broek Pas, the Afrikaans version. I did it at the Fugard in Afrikaans one night and then English the next and then I did four days Afrikaans and four days in English. In Grahamstown, I did it in English with a German accent which somehow felt different and better because it was closer to the original because it was written by a German playwright. Then, coming back to the Afrikaans was so exciting. It was so wonderful because a lot of the English German stuck and went into different places in my brain and brought other things forward and revisiting a play after an absence is always wonderful because then you realise you’ve discovered new stuff. That’s where it came from and I did it.
Do you enjoy being able to perform in both languages?
Yes. I’m very grateful for that but I must tell you I can’t do an American accent. I struggle with it. I remember when Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer produced The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. We did the Afrikaans version that we performed at the Woordfees in Stellenbosch and they said that it might be coming to America and I said, “I will never be able to do that and I don’t have time.” All the while, whatever I did in the past 10 years, I was lecturing at the same time and driving through from Cape Town to Stellenbosch every day so my time was extremely limited so I said, “No, I can’t.” When I saw it with Jenny Steyn I thought, “Thank goodness I didn’t do that!” She was so wonderful with the accent and she did it so well! My toes were curling watching it. I thought how wonderful to see a person who could actually do it properly. My tongue would never have been able to go around like that. You must know your limitations.
Out of all the projects that you’ve been involved in, do you have a favourite?
Oh gosh. I’ve been around for a long time. Every day we speak about something in the dressing room, Andrew and I because we are the oldies, “Do you remember…?” Then you start to remember, “Oh yes! We did that! Oh, he’s dead now.” It’s a difficult one. I’m working on a solo Afrikaans piece written by Karel Schoeman. After I saw Dorothy Ann Gould’s performance in The Year of Magical Thinking, I thought, “”Now I know how that should be done!” I was very excited at the thought of going back to that. That is a favourite piece but I think it’s because it’s a challenge now to go back to it because I’ll be doing it again. Then, the piece I’m in at the moment is a favourite because it’s been such an amazing experience and journey. In five years time, in a years time, maybe the next one will be [the favourite] but there are a couple that I do remember that I’d like to go back to. There are plays I’d like to go back to. Because I have this big face, I was cast in character parts very early on in my career and was too young for most of them. Now, I think I’d love to go back to some of those parts with life experience and experience as an actor. Then, of course, there are parts that I wish, if only I was 40 years younger I would be able to play them and never got a chance to.
Did you ever have a moment where you considered quitting the industry?
Oh yes! This is Nell answering, “Oooh yes!” Very often. I think we constantly ask that question, “Why am I doing this to myself?” Especially on an opening night and especially with Afrikaans productions and festivals, we never get enough time to rehearse. You’re always rushing to get to that point of performance but you are never ready for performance. You are never ready for an audience unless you have done the play before and because we don’t get two or three week runs, you work for five performances and you never get a chance to do it again. It’s always there. I stand backstage and think, “Why do we do this?” We were talking about it today in the dressing room. I came back after I had warmed up my voice and I said, “Guys, do you realise what an amazing job we have?” It’s not about adoration or response or emotional response or people laughing or applauding, it’s the reality of: This is the life I lead. I’ll always be poor but I’ll die with a great amount of life behind me.
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?
I think if I had more wisdom as a young person and thought of the future, what might lie ahead for the future, not just for me, for the country, maybe I would have made a different choice. Maybe I would have thought of a more stable career. I said maybe. Only because it’s not an easy career now. I don’t want to be negative. I am realistic about what it is about and where the arts are. The arts are not high on the list of priority in a country that is reshaping itself. I understand that, although I think it should be but maybe if I took a different direction and I had, as I said, the wisdom to think ahead about what the future would be, I would have chosen a different career than the path I’m on in which I would have made some money but then, if I’m really honest, I don’t think I would have made a different choice. It’s a duel answer there.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Always Wilna Snyman. Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Fiona Ramsay, Jana Cilliers, Jennifer Steyn. I have a long list. The young actors coming in now, Sylvaine, obviously as an actress very much so. Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Cintaine Schutte. There are so many. I’m always amazed at the talent. I’m only thinking of females now but the older generation, there’s Brümilda van Rensburg, every time she is on a stage, I’m fascinated by her, her mannerisms and everything. She has paid her dues in a lot of ways with television and always making the provision to do at least one stage production a year. Sandra Prinsloo, always. I went to varsity with Rika Sennett for instance. There are so many and I am so jealous of a lot of them and the parts they play!