Puleng Lange-Stewart is a writer, playwright, filmmaker, director, designer and illustrator. In 2016, she was one of three shortlisted writers in the national PEN student writing competition. Her writing has appeared in the 2017 African Literature curriculum at UCT. Her first independent short film, written and directed with Jannous Aukema, Until the Silence Comes, was selected for the 2017 Cape Town International Film Festival and was nominated for an audience award at the Shnit International Short Film Festival. Her primary focus is in interdisciplinary performance and multimedia integration. As a queer, feminist, artist and mother of colour, she hopes to find ways to explore and question the practices and hierarchies that continue to erode human dignity and self-determinacy for so many within the context of South Africa and Africa as a whole. Her work is deeply embedded in a decolonial framework which hopes to elevate and recentre African bodies and voices as a response to its violent historical negation. During the 2018 Open Book Festival, Puleng will appear on a panel entitled Moving Pictures and Borders.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was always going to do this. I was one of those kids that bullied large groups of other little kids into stage productions. It was inevitable from the time I was really young and funnily enough in my family, our whole generation has ended up here. There must be something in the water we drank as kids or it must be something about the way we were raised but all of my brothers and a lot of my cousins have all found our way into the arts.
You did your training in theatre-making at UCT. What was your time like?
I was there during a very tumultuous and difficult time and I think I’ll always remember it as such. It was politically very difficult. I think going into university is generally the moment when one becomes politicised. I was there over a particular politicised moment and was very active in it. It was difficult and I had my first child in the middle of university as well. Theatre training and a baby are not always very easily compatible but in terms of the training, it’s the only place I can have imagined doing it here. I think it’s a phenomenal department and I think that in terms of the university itself, it really is and remains one of the most progressive and actively engaged departments that they have. I think it’s phenomenal even though I had a difficult time but I think your theatre training is supposed to be tough. They always tell you from the start that it’s not going to be easy.
I read that you decided to take some time off to travel before you started studying. How do you feel that experience informed you?
I went and I toured for a year in Vietnam as an overenthusiastic 18-year-old. My best friend and I tried to think of the place that would challenge us the most. We were like, “Life is going to be hard so let’s find somewhere that can prepare us.” It was hard but also phenomenal. I think culture shocks are very good for you. I think [that] seeing that the world you live in is also, to some extent, a series of constructed choices that have been made for a long time so that other places in the world look nothing like it. I think it’s formative in knowing that the world you come back to isn’t predetermined, it doesn’t have to look the way that it does. I am lucky enough to have travelled quite a lot. I recommend it to everyone and also, I don’t think that you should go to university straight after high school. I’m glad that I did that. I don’t think that any 18/19-year-old can take that opportunity with full cognisance of what they are getting into. You sort of piss away your first few years.
Because you work within so many different realms, professionally, how do you choose to define yourself?
It looks quite messy on a piece of paper because there’s a lot of slashes. I’m a writer or playwright/ director/ designer/ illustrator/ filmmaker. I prefer to say that I’m an artist, to be honest. That is who I’d like to manifest myself as in the world. That’s who I’d like to be able to become because then I can make things, create things and tell stories.
Jumping off of telling stories, Open Book Festival is coming up. What can you tell us about your panel? What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to Open Book because I think Open Book is always amazing and I think the quality of thought that comes out of it every year and the people that they get to engage is phenomenal. I’m quite honoured that I’m in it this year. My own panel, I love the project that has gotten me on the panel and I’m really interested to speak about it and to speak about it with the other people who were involved in the project who I didn’t actually meet like Toni Stuart. I’m really excited.
I’m interested to hear about your writing process. Where do you start?
It depends. I’ve written a few things in collaboration which I actually really enjoy. I think I’m good at being able to help a room generate stuff but I think that’s a very specific kind of writing but I really do enjoy that. I’ve written quite a lot with my partner, we wrote a play we took to Grahamstown like that, it was very devised. For myself, when I write, it’s sort of one of two things; either I have an image and I just run with it and it goes or it’s like pulling teeth because I’m like, “I know I have something but…” I’m still trying to find a way to consolidate my writing practice into something that is consistent and I think that just requires discipline. Writing is a discipline just like everything else so having the discipline to just sit down and put words on a page. I’m trying to get there. I think when I do, it will be epic.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
Not particularly well. I don’t deal with it particularly well but because I’m interested in different things, I just kind of switch mediums. If I can’t write, I sketch. Sketching is generally my run away with writer’s block. I still have a pen and I still have paper but I’m using a different part of my brain.
When you work within the context of either being a performer, a director or a writer, do you sometimes feel like those other hats are still on?
Ja, and in some scenarios, it’s really good because you can add something different but in some situations, you really do wish that there was a coat hanger at the door and you could just put all your other stuff there. “This is me the performer.” “This is me the director.” Except director, I think is good to have everything. I think its good as a director to know yourself as a writer [and], especially as a performer. I think a director that remembers themselves as a performer will always be a better director. You will not ask things that are inhumane.
In your bio, you describe yourself as being inclined towards “interdisciplinary performance and multimedia integration.” I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.
One of my earliest influences that I can remember was going to go watch The Magic Flute at the Joburg Theatre when I was a child. The opera of it was completely lost on me but theatre in that scope that William Kentridge can do and in that sort of interdisciplinary space, I was like, “He makes magic.” I thought it was absolute magic. Jumping off of that, I’m really interested in finding ways to use different disciplines to create worlds. I’m interested in world creation and universe creation and that kind of stuff and I think sort of in a sort of sci-fi-esque/ afro-futurist kind of way. I think that for instance, there are things that sketches can do that other things can’t do. There are things that animation can do that add an amazing life to the stage. So very much on that theatre is the master art form because it can hold so many other forms in it quite seamlessly. I just want to be able to explore that which is not very easy because I don’t think there are many spaces to guide that very much in this country right now. I don’t think that’s a big focus that we have.
I was thinking about that when I was reading about the journey you’ve gone on with your writing because there is no clear path for writers. I was thinking about how difficult it must be to figure out where to even begin.
There are no agents. I think there are huge gaps in this country in terms of structurally being able to allow artists to be the best versions of themselves and to find the best of themselves in their craft. I think there are huge holes in being able to support writers and train writers. I think that there is a huge gap for early career artists in most disciplines. I think there is a huge lack of residencies. All in all, if you decide to be an artist in this country, it does kind of feel like you’ve decided to jump out of a door into the snow. You are out in the cold and you must survive. And we do. That’s the thing. It sounds dramatic but you are sort of left to figure it out in a way that I don’t think necessarily has to be the case.
In 2016 you directed your first short film Until the Silence Comes, What was the experience of helming that project like?
It’s exactly the same thing, out in the cold and then we were like, “We want to make a film so we are going to make a film. No one is going to give it to us.” My partner and I crowdfunded and we made it off pretty much nothing, and this is the one thing that we do have in abundance in this country, maybe it’s because I came from theatre school but we have phenomenal talent and we have the ability to collaborate. What I think was great coming from a theatrical background is that I can very easily dismiss the hierarchies of Film. I don’t particularly want to work that way, I much prefer to work in a collaborative, theatrical way. I had a great experience on this film bringing together people who were willing to give their time and their phenomenal talent just to give it a shot and try to make a film. It was hectic because we had no money and it was pretty much manned by a team of two of us and I think at that point my son was like 10 or 11 months old. I had a baby on my hip! It was quite ridiculous. It was also a lot of fun. I enjoyed doing it. I’d like to be able to do more but Film is a really expensive medium and without crowdfunding, which I am completely behind, yay crowdfunding and community sponsored artwork, without that you have a lot of people who artistically you have to appease and bow to. You have to give a lot for your money.
Do you feel like that influences your work at all?
That I’m not accountable to anybody? I think so. I think we can do things and experiment. As young artists, what you want to be able to be given is the chance to be able to create a language and your own language. That’s what I mean when I say there aren’t spaces for early career artists. I want to be able to play and find my language but I think a lot of the time money says I know better than that. I wouldn’t have been able to make any of the two films I’ve just made if I was having to be accountable to a producer. I don’t think, or they wouldn’t have believed in it as an experimentation and yet it’s going into Film festivals so… I was right!
I’ve noticed that there are so many independently produced South African films that have gone on to do so well all over the world but yet get barely any recognition locally.
We do that with all of our art forms. If you go away and you get a nod from the rest of the world, then you must be good and we’ll watch you here. Also, at some point we need to stop. I think the best of our work is when we stop trying to look like other people and that takes experimentation that independents are able to do.
Is there anything on your professional bucket list that you’d like to accomplish within the next few years?
What I really want to be able to do is set up an interdisciplinary lab space for people to play. I’d like people to be able to be given the space to not have to be out put, to be focused and actually be able to work on investigating their craft and their practice. That’s the biggie for me right now is creating spaces and creating spaces for people. Also, because I need it so if I need a place where I can play, mess up and accidentally spill the paint on the roll of film and then find something that has never been found before, if I need that then surely lots of people need that and we don’t have that. That’s what I would like to do. And then out of that, hopefully I generate some cool stuff as well like my own art. I think creating spaces is a big part of what I’d like to do with my life.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I have always loved Sylvaine Strike because I love style. I love people who can direct in style. Qondiswa James and Tiisetso Mashifane are both doing amazing work. There’s a whole generation of really strong theatre-makers happening, so pretty much if you are looking at a line up and there is a young theatre-maker that is under the age of 25 and she’s a woman, I know her and she’s amazing. I’m plugging my whole peer group. All of the theatre-makers. The last four years of theatre-makers coming out of UCT have been women and they’ve been amazing. In terms of film, Emilie Badenhorst is doing amazing things. In terms of performance, Namisa Mdlalose is doing amazing things. I am incredibly inspired by my peers and I think there is a cool future coming.
You can follow Puleng on Instagram.
Special thanks to Christine Skinner and Lucy Brittany Woolley.