A Conversation with Leila Henriques

Leila Henriques is an actor, writer, director and teacher. As an actress, she has starred in more than 30 productions. Some of her select stage credits include: Hedda GablerThe Something Prince, YermaRed Shoes and The List. She has taught acting at various academic institutions across South Africa including Wits, AFDA and The Market Theatre Lab. Together with Irene Stephanou, she wrote the book The World in an Orange –exploring the work of Barney Simon published by Jacana, which was shortlisted for the Alan Paton award. Following a successful run at Woordfees earlier this year, she is currently starring in Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class directed by Sylvaine Strike at the Baxter Theatre

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I think it was the only thing I could sort of do. I was very shy as a child and it gave me a way to speak, which is how I got there. 

It’s so interesting because so many actors have remarked that they were shy children. 

I suppose there are layers of masks in front of one except that acting is all about trying to get rid of the mask now but at that point, it was a way of hiding, I suppose. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

You did your drama training at the Oxford School of Drama. What was that like?

I started out at Wits and then I had the opportunity to go there and it was a very small drama school. It consisted of four barns and tiny classes. It was amazing because I learned a lot but it was also really hard. I was young and it was very lonely but it was very good. It informed me. 

What was it like returning to South Africa after that experience?

I came back and I joined the Loft Theatre Company. It was amazing and it was really great to come back. I got a lot of work and at that time, it was a very interesting time in South Africa. I was at the Market Theatre and it was great. I think I’ve always seen myself as a South African artist. I got a technique there and I worked on the London Fringe for a bit in a theatre called the Tabard Theatre but that wasn’t my dream. In England, to try to be an actor there, you join such a long train of actors. You are just another one in millions. I didn’t really want to do that. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

What was it that originally attracted you to Curse of the Starving Class?

Many things. There’s obviously Sam Shepard and his words but more than that, because that is extraordinary, just the opportunity to work with Sylvaine [Strike] and that cast and just the opportunity of it. It’s just been a blessing. And then, Sam Shepard who is just quite extraordinary. That hum of those words is just extraordinary. I was very fortunate to have gotten the part. 

What has that experience been like of working with Sylvaine Strike?

She has a very special way. I had never worked with her before and I had sort of imagined that it would be quite strict or a very clear process that she followed but actually, it was quite organic. I think she’s got a skill at blending people together and creating a tight feeling amongst a cast. I don’t really know how she did that but I think that’s what she does. She is just very good at holding a process and it’s been lovely. There is a lot of humour. It’s very warm and she’s very particular but you don’t get the feeling [that] you are on your own creative journey. I think that’s her. That’s her skill. She very much pulls out the imagination in each performer. She is not pushing anyone into anything which is amazing. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

The show premiered at Woordfees earlier this year and is now transferring to the Baxter Theatre. How do you feel about revisiting this piece?

We are so lucky because we only had four shows. We had quite a long and intense rehearsal period of four weeks and then we only had four shows and then it’s just kind of been sitting. We’ve all gone on to do other things but we never really had a chance to just live with it at all. We were just fresh. We are so lucky to actually be able to come here and have a two week run of it. 

What did you learn in the process of portraying this character?

I think what’s been delightful about playing this character is that she is so far from who I am and she’s got a lot of stuff that has just been fantastic. She’s irreverent but stuck, wild but held but trying to find a way out of it all the time. She’s got an incredible life force. She is just kind of going forward in the most terrible situation but with humour and trickery. I think it’s been great. And the American accent, as daunting as that is, doing an American accent, sometimes I hear myself sounding out an American word and thinking, “That was quite bold. Gosh. Is that really the sound?” But I think it’s been so liberating to play something so far away but obviously, it is a very universal character and it’s a very understandable situation.

This is very much an ensemble-based piece which has sandwiched the one-woman show that you just did up in Joburg. What is the process like of working within an ensemble?

It’s so lovely because they are such a great cast and they are all so funny. It’s Rob van Vuuren and Roberto Pombo and Antony Coleman. We spend a lot of time laughing. It’s got a real feeling of us being co-conspirators in something. It’s just such a lovely cast but I think that’s also Sylvaine’s skill. I think she’s cast it really well and they are really lovely people. It’s fantastic and it’s great in terms of ensemble. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

I feel like you are very well versed in Johannesburg theatre and are now obviously travelling with this show to Cape Town. I was wondering if you could chat a little bit about your perceptions on the two different theatrical climates?

I don’t really know. I directed something here a while ago with Susan Danford called The List. Cape Town, I don’t really know what the difference is particularly in terms of audience because we haven’t opened yet. I’m quite nervous because I can’t tell. Joburg is quite wild. Sometimes none of them come and sometimes lots of them come. It’s a very robust exchange. I don’t know what it really will be like. Joburg is a very vibrant space to be in. It’s challenging but I really enjoy it. It gives me something. It’s got a diversity and you always have to talk back to stuff. I don’t know whether that’s like that here. You get flack in Joburg. People will take offence so you are aware of that. I don’t know whether audiences are as vocal here. There is such a debate going on culturally in Johannesburg all the time. It’s that that you are up against. If you live in Johannesburg and you perform in Johannesburg, you are very much engaging with the consciousness of Johannesburg at the time. 

You’ve just ended your run in Florence. What was the experience like of working on this one-woman show?

It was great. Greg Homann directed it, who is a fantastic director. He really held me through it because it was quite daunting and the text was Myer Taub. It was very dense. It was all anti-linear so you never really knew where you were and it was a lot of dates because I was playing a historical character. But it was also very freeing, strangely. In that density and that confusion, it was very much like diving into a pool and you just kind of had to swim until you got to the end with your head underwater. But it was great. It was wonderful. I was very lucky to have done that. 

Did your process have to change at all because you were portraying a historical character?

I don’t think my personal process changed but it was hard because you just had to be so on the ball all the time and it was long and dense and it was all up to you. It was complicated and you could sometimes feel the audience drifting and you had to do a lot of realisations to try to get them back. I also had this fence around me which was also hard. That was all about trying to connect and tell a story with an audience behind stuff whereas this is such fun because it’s totally different. It’s a different world. You are in an inner world that is lifted and you’ve also got these crazy people around you helping you, making fun of you as you go. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

You’ve managed to split your time quite evenly between acting, directing and teaching. Has that balance been a conscious choice?

No. It’s just necessity, I think. I was [exclusively] an actor and then I had children and I wasn’t that good at multitasking. I couldn’t do it like everyone else [who] seemed to do it quite well. Acting is so consuming so I had to find something else to do while I brought them up, so I began teaching. That has been very interesting because I’ve taught all over the place and directed with young people. I think it’s really been good for me. I think it’s dangerous to just be an actor. You’ve just got to be very careful that you don’t get pulled into some other space that isn’t real. Teaching keeps you real and keeps you connected. I really enjoyed it. 

How do you feel your acting career and training has lent itself to your directing?

I suppose it’s all the same thing, really. I was lucky enough to work with Barney Simon early on and he would say, “Just sit on a moment until you find the life.” Just stay on one moment. Don’t move until you’ve found the life. I suppose that’s what I’ve tried to do in everything. In directing, acting and teaching, you just stay on something until you find the life. I suppose it’s the same. You come with an energy and you just have to stay there and push through. 

I was just about to ask you what the best piece of advice you’ve ever received was but maybe that answers it?

That’s one. There are lots. As I get older, I think it’s important to know thy self. I think that’s a good piece of advice, to try to know what works for you and what doesn’t work for you and to own that. I think if I had understood that earlier, it would have been easier. Allow yourself to know yourself so you can honour your own way. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

In addition to your stage and screen credits, you also have a book which you co-edited and co-wrote. Is there anything still on your professional bucket list?

Oh, ja. I don’t know what it is. I just want to be able to carry on making stuff and then I’m happy. I haven’t got any particular thing. I just want to be able to carry on because often we don’t get a chance to and then it’s really hard. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Gosh, there are lots. At the moment, Lara Foot and Sylvaine Strike but then there are many others. There’s Clara Vaughan who runs the Market Theatre Laboratory. There’s an amazing choreographer that I’ve worked with called Teresa Phuti Mojela who is quite extraordinary. Women in the arts, at the moment, are really cooking. 


Curse of the Starving Class will run at the Baxter Theatre from October 15th until the 27th. For tickets, click here.

Special thanks to Sophie Kirsch and Fahiem Stellenboom.

All photos were taken by Sophie Kirsch at the Baxter Theatre on October 15th 2018.

Sarafina Magazine and Sophie Kirsch maintain copyright over all images. For usage or inquiries, please click here.

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