Kate Pinchuck is an actor, writer and stand-up comedian. Her credits include Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! at Artscape, the critically acclaimed all-female Taming of the Shrew at Maynardville directed by Tara Notcutt and the Ovation Award winning Gaslight at the National Arts Festival Fringe directed by Laine Butler. Kate has been rising up in the comedy scene in Cape Town and Joburg. She was featured in the 2017 Next Generation Showcase at Grand West, was a semi-finalist in the 2017 Savanna Show Us Your Apples competition and performed in the televised 2018 Comics Choice Awards Newcomer Showcase at the Soweto Theatre. She has performed numerous times at the National Arts Festival Fringe in productions such as With/Hold, Jack & Jill which she wrote and Lexi Meier’s Standard Bank Ovation Award-winning immersive installation, Down to a sunless sea. Following its award-winning run at the National Arts Festival, her one-woman show, Medusa Incarnate will make its Cape Town debut at the Alexander Bar in September.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I remember being taken to watch a lot of theatre from when I was young. I remember going to watch the ballet when I was five and being like, “Whoa.” That was my first experience of watching stage work. I also remember seeing Sizwe Banzi is Dead being redone with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, which was just amazing. I must have been 12 or 13 and I’d never seen theatre like that before. That stuck with me as magic. I think I’ve always wanted to be a performer and create stuff. My parents have been very supportive and very encouraging all my life.
You did your training at the University Currently Known as Rhodes. What was your time there like?
It was amazing. I really am so grateful for drama school. Studying drama there was amazing because it’s a student town, it’s like being in this theatre lab space where your whole life as a drama student just revolves around the drama department and you spend all of your time there and are surrounded by other people who are just making work all the time and are really passionate about that. It was really amazing to go to a place where people were as obsessively interested and passionate about something as I was. There were amazing lecturers and it was such an intensive hardcore training. I think about it all the time. I am so grateful for it.
Were you originally only wanting to pursue acting or were you also wanting to explore comedy?
Comedy was a sort of by mistake thing. I went to UCKAR because I wanted to be an actor and writer. Those are the things that I’ve always wanted. I knew they had a really good physical theatre emphasis and that is also what I was interested in but I went there because I was like, “I want to learn from Andrew Buckland.” And I did, which was amazing. We did clowning with Andrew which really informed how I see comedy but while I was there, I joined an improv comedy troupe called Naturally Caffeinated. I auditioned for it just to make my acting better. I didn’t really think of being funny as a marketable skill at that point or I actually didn’t really think I was funny, I guess. Then I joined it and ended up doing that for two or three years and it was just the best. In the last year I was in it, I ended up managing it and we made a web series and I started hosting shows and eventually, I realised that if I told jokes to the audience while I was hosting, it would make them laugh and it would make it easier for the other comics and the rest of the improvisers to come on stage. I didn’t register that was stand-up. Only when I graduated and came back to Cape Town, did I actually decided to get into stand-up.
It’s interesting that you say that you didn’t think you were funny. Did people tell you that you were funny?
Ja. I think as women, being funny is not necessarily the skill that people hone in on as much as something that is marketable or useful to you. Talking to other women comics in the scene, I think the men who are funny are often encouraged to do standup and women who are funny are encouraged to be a funny actor. It’s just not as celebrated as a skill set but then other people in university were like, “You are so funny. Go say stuff onstage.” And I was like, “No, I’m not. I’m just a hot mess and you think that’s funny because you are a hot mess too.” It took me a long time to recognise that that was a useful thing or a thing that other people could relate to and now I’m not interested in anything that isn’t funny.
I wanted to touch on that. I was thinking a lot about how to phrase this question about women in comedy because it’s not a case of there being a lack of female comedians. There are definitely fewer female than male comedians and they don’t seem to be headlining the main venues or don’t seem to be showcased in the same level as the men…
I think one of the reasons for that is that only very recently, I think in the last two years, there has been this influx of new comics and specifically new women comics, I don’t think disproportionately more than new male comics. There are so many new male comics at the moment. I think because with Trevor Noah and The Daily Show, we can see that the ceiling is much higher than we initially thought it was, so a lot of people have joined and are interested now. My biggest problem with being a woman in comedy is that I keep finding myself talking about being a woman in comedy and being asked questions about it because its such a thing because no matter what you do as a comic, if you are a woman, you will always be reminded of your womanliness by something or someone in the room, consistently. And that’s a problem. Recently, there has been a lot more young new women comics on the scene which I haven’t seen before. I think when I started it was me, Lindy [Johnson] and Chantal [Jax Venter] who were in that new generation of new comics and now there are so many new comics and it’s amazing because we need diversity of voices. It’s ridiculous that we only have certain types of people represented in the space. Your lineup is much more interesting if there are lots of different types of people on it because you have a much better chance of reaching a broader, more interesting diverse audience. I think there are some women who have been around for a while like Mel Jones, Shimmy Isaacs, Celeste Ntuli and Tumi Morake who definitely headline and are given the recognition that they should be but they are at a very different level. There is a very big gap. I think when Angel [Campey] started, she was the only woman in her year and then there weren’t many women after her until myself, Lindy and Chantal. There is this sort of gap in the hierarchy or ladder. Comedy is very hierarchical. Depending on how long you’ve been doing it, you get different spaces and different opportunities. Everyone who comes up in the same generation of comics is looked at as a very specific generation almost. I think there are very big gaps missing with generations of women and now, recently, there are a lot but because we are all quite new, most of us are not necessarily ready to be headliners or hosts. It takes a while to get good enough to do that and to get the space. You really have to pay your dues in comedy.
Is there a sharing of knowledge between the different generations?
Absolutely. I think that is the greatest thing about comedy that I didn’t expect. It’s such a strong, supportive community. In a lot of ways, comedy is a meritocracy. If you go on stage and you make the audience laugh, you will get rewarded with opportunities and people will take an interest in you. When I started, I really felt so supported by the comics and they really brought me in and were like, “You are funny, we’ll help you.” Comics give each other advice all the time. Every time, after a show, comics are sitting around discussing what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes I’ll walk off stage and a comic, who I haven’t asked to watch my set, is like, “Hey, I’ve got notes for you.” It’s incredible. It’s the same as theatre where you are not quite work colleges, you are friends and you are in the trenches together. You have seen each other at your most vulnerable moments. There is definitely a strong bond.
How do you deal with those more difficult sets?
It depends on where you’re at mentally. Comedy is so dependant on like, “Did I eat enough today? Did I get enough sleep? Did I wear the wrong top and now I feel insecure?” There are so many variables. You get better at it. The first time I died really hard onstage… I always forget that terminology sounds so hectic but that’s what it feels like. The stakes are that high. The first time I died was terrible. I cried in a bathroom and that happened a couple of times. I’ve had a handful of really devastating nights on stage but usually you are at a gig with other comics so you go to them afterwards because they are older than you [and] have more experience than you. The first time I really died, KG [Mogadi] was just a beast. He is incredible. I was like, “KG, I think I died really hard,” and he was like, “You are going to die harder than that in your life.” Then you realise that it’s normal. In the beginning you don’t gig that much, you don’t get a lot of slots. You have one gig every two weeks, so each gig is so important and you have to do well at it. This is how I felt. When you start gigging more, I’m like, “I had a gig yesterday and I have one tomorrow so if this doesn’t go well, that’s ok.” Loyiso Madinga said to me, “A bad gig isn’t a gig where you do badly, it’s a gig where you don’t learn something.” You get better at looking at everything as part of a process as opposed to presenting this final finished product of comedy every night. It’s helped me with theatre as well. It’s about me focusing on something or learning something or trying something out. The fact that I’m young and unknown, means I have the freedom to fail. You have to become really good friends with failure if you want to do this. Sometimes it’s harder than others.
How to balance your acting career and your comedy career?
I don’t really. I balance it via trial and error. This is the first year that I’ve been getting consistent acting work and so its the first time I haven’t been able to gig as consistently as I used to. I haven’t been doing this that long but I had gotten into a rhythm of doing it. I just try to see it as, I’m really at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long career and I’m still learning about myself and about the work and what I need to do and what I like, and so I’m just navigating that those things are quite overwhelming and difficult. It’s not ideal that theatre happens at night and so does comedy but they are both different performative forms and I’m choosing to focus on both of them because I think they help me as a creative person engage with different elements of performance and audience relationships and immediacy which I think is what I’m interested in. I think they both feed each other for me but I also have to choose a little bit and be ok with the fact that I wont progress comically as if I was gigging every night if I’m also doing theatre. But at the same time, I am getting a whole other facet of experience and in the end, it’s not about success as the final product. I’ve been thinking about how we are all so obsessed with the fast track in our careers and being in a really successful place and I think you really miss the best part of the process. We are missing out on where you’re at and there’s real value in being a person with no real reputation to ruin or real stakes to threaten your livelihood. To be a person who really just has the freedom to fail and learn and make mistakes because what is going to happen? I’m hardly getting paid for any of this anyway.
Segueing into acting, I wanted to ask you about your experience working on Taming of the Shrew...
I’d like to put it on record that I was in that callback with you and witnessed you get so deeply into character that you threw a broom across the room.
I don’t know why but I was just in a place where I had so many bad auditions that I was like, “I’m so sick of trying to be what I think the director wants.” I would rather go down being like, “I did what I believed in and I failed with that,” than to fail being some different version of myself. I did get very into it. I dry humped a piano until I was out of breath and afterwards I was like, “I don’t know if this is what Tara [Notcutt] wanted at all but that’s what I did.” Just the freedom of being in male drag is the best. It’s so great. Taming was amazing. I have never worked with such a big cast and crew of women before and I didn’t know how much I wanted to do that until I did it. Everyone was so generous and so open and supportive and shared knowledge and really celebrated each other. I love physical comedy and I feel like women don’t get to do a specific type of physical comedy. It’s often presented as quite male because I think it feels like it’s dangerous to women’s bodies to have them fall all over the place and that’s not in line with our ideas of femininity. I based Hortensio on a combo of a Jack Black/ Jonah Hill vibe. It was just so much fun to be physically unbound and kind of gross and ridiculous. It was the best. I miss him. I love that character so much.
You’ve just come back from the National Arts Festival with your show Medusa Incarnate which won an Ovation Award. Congratulations!
Thank you. Medusa Incarnate is a project that I’m using to look at lots of different things and one of the things is how the continuation of a show helps a show grow because I’ve realised that I’ve never done a consistently long run of anything and of something that I’ve written. I’m wanting to look at what it does to the work to perform it over and over again in different spaces and in front of different audiences and how each new bit of information informs the next version of the work. The festival run of Medusa Incarnate was just supposed to be a point in the process to share the work with an audience and see what they felt and see how it felt onstage in front of an audience and then rework it. I did not expect it to do so well or to receive such a positive response. I know that sounds like I’m humble bragging but I really didn’t. I was talking to Laine [Butler] who directed the other show I was in and I said, “I just want 10 people to show so that I can just practice doing this in front of people and see what it’s like.” It’s so scary to put your own thing on. I had written it and it was just me onstage for 45 minutes. I didn’t realise how terrifying it would be until I saw the doors open but it was so much fun.
What was the creation process of the show like?
Medusa was very much a collaborative creative process because I find that valuable to me. I ended up doing a one-woman out of necessity. I had written a three-hander that I was going to do for festival and I couldn’t find other actors in the right city and I was like, “Let me just work with myself because I’ll be there. I’m available to work for free.” I had the idea of Medusa for a while. I’ve noticed a lot of people like to keep their ideas private until the end but I find it very important to cast my net out and share my ideas with the people who I trust. I had a lot of conversations with people who are close to me whose options I trust and that really helped. I did a lot of research and then Dara [Beth] and I chatted about it, did a bunch of improv with the idea and the concept for a couple of weeks and then I went off and wrote the script and then we put it on the floor. It was a lot of exploring and playing around and devising because that’s how I like to work. From that, I like to write a script as opposed to starting with a script. Josh Biggs, my sound designer, really helped develop her aesthetic. They helped design her drag makeup and we played around with that and before I even had a script, Josh had started developing a score and they are just a genius. We sat and we recorded, I made weird sounds and Josh distorted them and made them into this incredible score that is what Hades as a world sounds like. It was also really helpful to me that I had that score to inform where the play was located and what it felt like to be in that space. It was very collaborative and that was incredible because I really feel like I trusted all of the eyes that were on it. Everyone worked really hard to give Medusa what she needed because at the end of the day, she was the most important person in that space.
As a creative, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
There’s a really good quote by Ira Glass about how when you first start making work, you get into it because you have really good taste and [for] the first couple years, your work is not as good as your taste so you are disappointed because your taste is good enough to tell that your work is lacking in something. It’s lacking that magic or that thing that makes you want to do work and the only way to catch your skill level to your taste is to just keep working. That’s not what he said exactly but it’s the essence of the quote. The thing that I keep going back to is to just keep going. It is so hard and so scary and the only thing that fixes all of the problems that I always have of like, “Why am I not funny enough? I’m not experienced enough to have dealt with what just happened on stage there or I’m not experienced enough to have written something subtle enough or take this moment or that moment.” The only thing that makes that better is just keep going and pushing through and working and creating.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I’m currently inspired by the women who are around me and that are making working at the same time as me or who I’ve worked with or studied with. I’m very excited by my contemporaries. I would say Buhle Ngaba, Thembela Madliki, Tiisetso Mashifane, Laine Butler, Dara Beth, Mmatumisang Motsisi, Gilli Apter, Lindy Johnson [and] Ameera Conrad. I’m really specifically inspired by young creative people at the moment who are at the beginning of their career and are making work. Obviously I’m inspired by people who have been around and doing their thing but what keeps me going right now is looking left and right as opposed to way ahead and going, “We are all doing this.” I feel so lucky to be around this incredible group of women who are creating work that I find really inspiring. I look at all the things we are doing and everyone’s voice is so distinct. Everyone is making something so specific and so unique to them which is amazing.