Karen Meiring is the Director of M-Net kykNET channels, a position she’s held since 2013. She joined M-Net in 2009 as the head of Afrikaans channels and brought an extensive knowledge of the South African entertainment industry to her position. She has cemented kykNET as the leading producer of Afrikaans film and television content and ushered in successful projects under kykNET such as the Fiëstas, Ghoemas and the Silwerskerm Film Festival. She has also been honoured with numerous awards for her contribution to the arts and entertainment landscape in South Africa. Karen also founded the first ever Afrikaans Arts festival, the KKNK, and was later appointed as the CEO of the festival. She is also one of the founding memebers of Cutt Glas, an internationally renowned Afrikaans a cappella band. We sat down to chat with her during this year’s Silwerskerm Film Festival.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I think I was born and opened my eyes and from that moment on I wanted to work in theatre. I loved every part of theatre and the entertainment industry and basically started out as a stage manager at PACOFS in 1985. What inspired me? I guess it’s the thrill of standing on the stage and getting that live reaction and seeing people enjoying stuff [and] working with talented people. I wasn’t on stage myself at that stage but I kind of did people’s washing and ironed their shirts, that’s what a stage manager does and I really fell in love more and more deeply with it by just doing my job from day-to-day and felt very privileged that I could work in theatre. Who inspired me? At that stage, pretty much my parents. My father was a singer. He had a very beautiful opera tenor voice and my mother was always just very supportive of me sometimes performing and singing with him. I think a lot of that inspiration came from my parents.
I was so surprised to read that you studied drama while at university. What was your time like at drama school?
I was a very naïve kind of drama student. I was very shy. Maybe I should have studied music rather than drama but eventually it kind of helped me to develop as a person and taught me a lot about the craft and skills about actors and theatre-makers and falling more in love with that part of the industry than I thought I would because I thought that if I want to be a singer, I needed to learn how to perform. It did help me in the end because then I ended up in an opera company and I had to learn how to do some acting. They always used to use me as a stage manager for smaller parts on set so that they could save money. I was quite an economic person to have around on theatre productions.
Early in your career, you worked with some of the various performing arts councils, which sadly don’t exist anymore. How do you feel like those councils benefitted you at the beginning stages of your career?
It benefitted us all a lot in terms of the fact that you could work as a young upcoming artist. You could work with the best; with the best directors, the best designers, the best choreographers. Eventually, I ended up in musicals and stuff like that and we worked with some of the best. It’s a pity that they don’t exist anymore. I do understand why it had to stop and I accept it but I do think we need a new structure in this country where we can nurture our talent and nurture the industry better in terms of our theatres standing empty, not being maintained and stuff like that.
After university, you became this a cappella rock star who toured the world. Why a cappella? How was that experience?
Sometimes the best things in life just happen. We were all chorus members of a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a Richard Loring production with Ian von Memerty. We did that production for more than a year nonstop. We were the angels in the production and from that, travelling between Pretoria and Joburg and sitting backstage between shows, we started singing in the dressing room and one thing led to another and Ian heard us and said, “You girls are making quite a great sound there.” At one stage, one of the girls came to us and said, “We’ve got a gig.” We started working on a small repertoire for a gig and we were an entity immediately and we stared to create a name. It came to Cutt Glas with one ‘S’ because one of the girls in the group was a numerologist and she firmly believed in numerology and if we spelled it with a double ‘S’ it wouldn’t be successful so we started with one ‘S.’ We were on the road for 20 years.
Eventually you started working with the KKNK as their coordinator and eventually ended up running the entire festival…
That also just happened. Funny how things happen. Because of Cutt Glas, we had a need for management and in those days there were agents but you couldn’t find a manager and things like that so we just realised that we had to do it ourselves. I started organising our tours and bookings and stuff like that and slowly but surely it become a bit of an infrastructure and being entrepreneurial, we started spreading our wings and started getting bigger contracts for other projects. I think it was 1994, I got a contract to do a venue at the Grahamstown festival and I think it was the first venue in Grahamstown where we really integrated Afrikaans singers and dramas with vernacular singers, dramas and so on. It was a highly successful venture. At that venue, somebody came up to me and said, “We are doing this Festival in Oudtshoorn. Don’t you want to help us organise it?” I said, “No, I’m really very happy in Joburg.” And then somebody flew up from Oudtshoorn and wined and dined me and I said, “Let me see if I can find somebody to do this festival for you and if I can’t find somebody within two weeks, then I’ll come and see how I can help you.” Two weeks went past and nobody wanted to go to Oudtshoorn so my word being my word, I got in my car, drove down to Oudtshoorn with my now really ancient computer [and] first cellphone and got to Oudtshoorn. When you get involved in something and you are passionate about what you do, your passion spills over into that project. There was just no turning back and I stayed there for 14 years.
Was it an easy transition for you to go from being a performer to being on the other side of things?
I think so. Being a performer really helped because you do have to understand performers if you are in a managerial position. If you don’t understand that side of the industry, I think it would be very difficult. I think it helped me a lot in terms of working in opera, working in drama, working in a cappella, working backstage, understanding… At PACOFS we did one-night stand tours for eight weeks on end in school halls and church halls and city halls. If you think about it at a festival, those are the venues. From a technical point of view, I got to learn a lot around the logistics of a festival. We kind of had Grahamstown as a business model in the one sense but then I think over time, we developed the festival more in terms of what we thought the festival was or what the festival goers would expect from us as the management.
Do you ever miss performing at all?
Ja. I do.
Would you return?
No, I really loved it and I think it was a privilege to perform for people in this country and just to see how they receive content helped me a lot to understand South Africans because as an a cappella entity, we didn’t only just perform to Afrikaans-speaking people. We performed to the broader spectrum and section of South Africa which was absolutely fantastic.
If you think back to when you were first starting out in the industry, could you ever have imagined yourself where you currently are?
No. Never. I look at young people now and I think I would have been lost if things didn’t just happen, but then things were meant to happen. I never applied for a job in my life. For me, it was always about, I guess the energy around one and the fact that you are driven in a sense of solving things creates a tonality about people who I personally love and I know that creates a kind of dynamic entity, not that I think I’m dynamic but certainly at some point in my life I was very dynamic and I felt I could achieve anything I wanted to do.
What is a typical day for you like?
An average day would be getting up in the morning. I’m not a morning person, frankly, because we performed for so long, I ended up being an evening person. I have a check-in with my secretary in the morning, see what the day is going to run like and then you start running the day. Obviously, in the position I am in now, it’s to manage a team and to see that everybody does what they are supposed to be doing and then we have wonderful creative meetings discussing ideas, looking at pitches [and] seeing that our strategy is implemented. But the best part for me is working on the strategies and then dreaming a lot about them. The physical day would be implementing them and keeping to those strategies and getting to our targets. Eventually you are starting to create new things and new things for new markets. In the corporate environment, you also have to fight for what you want. It’s always there for the taking but it lies within you for the making. You have to convince people that your next project or the next market that you want to invest in is the right one. It’s a stressful environment, I kid you not and then obviously managing people is hard. I don’t think managing people is always that easy and gaining trust and trusting and things that are so important in a creative environment. You have to work at it. Every day is so different but I have a fantastic team of people around me. They are the best in what they do and I trust them implicitly and I know that if they have to do things, it will be done. That kind of culture is a productive culture and it allows for creativity and it’s positive. For me, it’s very difficult to work around people that are negative. I don’t like that at all.
In regards to Silwerskerm, how do you feel like it’s evolved over the last few years?
It’s pretty much an industry festival and its a local festival. We don’t want to be compared to other international film festivals because our main aim is to develop the South African film and television industry. With kykNET, we’ve got a kind of ecosystem. We invest in the festivals and we do the Fiëstas Awards. We invest in the music industry and we’ve created the Ghoema Awards and then obviously, in the medium that we work in, we needed more talent. We needed new talent. It’s hard to go out and find people so I guess the best way to get people is to get them to come to you. We got this fabulous location and we started off with the short film festival and then obviously a competition and people could come forward with their ideas and we could help them to implement them in short form or in short form terms. We’ve got mentors and a lot of support around them helping them to get to their final product. We have done about 130 short films already and from those short films came features that have made international headlines. Two of those movies are here; Ellen and Kanarie. That is how it’s grown. It hasn’t grown in the sense that it’s bigger [with] more venues. It’s not growing in that sense but it’s growing inwards in terms of the quality and the skill sets. I don’t want to use the word empowering because we do empower by investing but we also help producers raise their own bar to the next level. We’ve even kicked projects back for a year to ensure that it’s of the right quality so that the international markets will be interested in that. That is the way it’s grown.
When I look at the Afrikaans arts industry, I see a lot of women in leadership positions. I also see a lot of female directors, writers and producers showcasing at Silwerskerm this year. I feel like this seems to be a very conducive environment of supporting women in roles of leadership. Has that always been the case?
I think women are being treated equally in this industry in terms of being creative, being skilful and having stories to tell. Nommer 37 is Nosipho Dumisa, who has just gone all over the world. She’s won Best Director prizes. It’s just amazing what has happened there. Quite frankly, if I look around me now, there are some magnificent women in the film and television industry and even in the theatre industry. Am I answering your question?
I think I’m trying to ask if ,during the context of your career, you’ve felt like you’ve been encouraged for being a woman climbing through the ranks? Or if you’ve ever felt discriminated against because you are a woman?
Quite frankly and quite honestly, no. Never. I think it’s because we work in an environment where we nurture creativity but someone once said to me, “Women work so well in this industry because they understand the seed of things and they are not so territorial.” I think that is what this industry allows you to do. It allows you to grow things no matter who you are, male or female.
When you look at what is currently happening in the industry, what is something that is exciting you?
You get the commercial aspect of the film and television industry and then you get the more art house thing. What excites me is that I feel, through this festival, we are making good films more popular and hopefully more commercial films and genres better. I think there is a bit of a target in the sense that we’d like to get more people out there to see the good and even more arty films.
When you reflect on your career, what is something that you are most proud of?
I think I’m very proud of what we got right with the Afrikaans festival circuit in a time when the arts councils were closed down and there was nothing really. The industry was really at its knees and we picked it up. And being generous about it. I think leadership is all about being generous because it generates a lot more opportunities for other parts. That’s what happened.We started the festival in Potchefstroom, Woordfees [and] Suidoosterfees. Those all generated from one festival. I’m quite proud of that. And then, I think I’m proud of kykNET. I’m very proud of what we’ve done in eight years in terms of organically transforming the content but also the audiences for the content. I’m very proud of that and I think that helps to build… I’m going to use the words of my marketing manager, Angerie van Wyk. She always says, “Guys, we have the opportunity to build the mood of a nation.” That’s what we’ve been working and building up to for the last eight or nine years. I’m very proud of that. Extremely.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Definitely Sandra Prinsloo. I admire her absolute appetite and energy even still at her age now and even though she is very busy, [she] also puts back into communities which is fantastic. Other women would be Pretty Yende. I think I’m her biggest fan. We made her very first television recording which was fantastic but she inspires me in terms of where she’s come from and where she is now. I look at her and I just feel so good and when I hear her singing, I feel even better. Janice Honeyman has been a mentor to me. I really learned a lot from her and I think she’s one of those anchors in our industry. From her, I learned what it was really like to entertain people and make people feel good about themselves.