A Conversation with Thembela Madliki

Thembela Madliki is a theatre-maker and director. Her credits include Galela, My Boetie is ‘n Danser, Bayephi and NyangaShe has showcased work at The National Arts Festival, The Cape Town Fringe Festival and The KKNK. Earlier this year, she was named as one of the recipients of Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary. Her bursary piece, Where She Walked will debut at Theatre Arts Admin from October 28th until November 3rd.

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

I think it was just watching theatre at a young age. I always enjoyed that time at school. If we had a production after assembly, that was my favourite time. At first, I don’t think I understood that I wanted to be part of it in that way, to make theatre one day for myself. When I got to high school and [was] still discovering that Arts and Culture was my favourite subject, it was like, “Maybe there is something here. Maybe this is the kind of stuff I want to do.” I then continued to see some work and be in little drama pieces at school. Matric came and I was like, “I want to be a theatre director.” We didn’t study drama at school. We had our drama group that I was involved in just in Grade 9 until Grade 11 but I knew I wanted to work in the theatre and that’s kind of what I told myself, that I was going to be a theatre director.

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

You went on to study at the University Currently Known as Rhodes. What was your time like?

My time there was long. I only left last year, so I was there for a while. I think my time there was really beneficial for where I am right now. I was at the school when a lot of change was happening and is still continuously happening and the discussions around that are continuously happening. I think in terms of drama and theatre, I think the time there was very beneficial. I believe that I’ve studied with some of the greatest makers. I think that my time there was filled with learning about theatre and what I want to do one day and the work I want to make. Even having left, I’m still thinking about all the work that is being made there. I got to meet some really amazing people and people who I look up to. I literally look up to my peers. I don’t think I would have had that if I didn’t spend as much time there studying.

I always just love asking questions about theatre training.

I think that coming out of that space, I learned a lot. The good and the bad will change you and shift you and prepare you for what is outside. I think in all drama schools, the same sort of issues come up in the sense that you are never really prepared for the industry and the outside world. I don’t think drama schools know how to prepare you sufficiently for that. I think I was in a bubble at Rhodes but it was a creative bubble and I appreciate that bubble because I was like, “I can make shows with R200!” I think that bubble was good to experience because then you have that freedom to play and create and have fun with that and learn and fail and whatever. I respect the people who I studied with so much and I look up to them because those people are going to make such great work. To have been around that space and to have seen those people and to continue knowing and sharing the space with people my age who are working, who are doing this theatre thing, is something that is very inspirational.

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

You were announced as one of the recipients of Theatre Arts Admin’s Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary earlier this year. Now that it’s had time to settle, how are you feeling?

I think I went through like the five stages excitement where you are like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to get to Cape Town and make this piece,” to being in denial about it because you have so much time. I had a feeling of, “Do I even deserve to be doing this piece? There is someone else who could be so great at this. Why am I getting it?” I had a lot of time to process and then to go through being very excited to doubting myself to going, “I can do this.” It had a long time to settle so it had a long time to affect me and go through different stages. You have those feelings of, “Someone else could have been doing this in Cape Town.” I have a lot of those thoughts. Trying to work through them has been a process as well. I think the worst thing for me would be to go home and be like, “I got the chance to do the thing that I wanted for so long, which is this bursary, but I didn’t take full advantage of it. I didn’t do the best that I could.” I keep trying to remind myself that I don’t want to go home with that feeling. If I can work to make myself not feel like that, then I’ll be happy. 

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

What can you tell us about your bursary piece, Where She Walked?

It was inspired by Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness. I was like, “For this bursary, I am going to look really deeply into this book and stage it and reimagine it.” But, on the floor, in the process and in writing it, it’s become something very different. It is the same sort of themes but discussed in a different time and in different relationships. We are looking at a father and a daughter who have an estranged relationship. She left when she was younger to go and live with her mom. When she comes back to the village, to the house that she spent the first few years of her life before her mom left, she comes back and begins to listen to the landscape. I like working with memory. The story follows their relationship as they talk about what to do with this house. In Heart of Redness, the conversation in ’94 was, “Let’s go to these villages. They have pristine beaches. Let’s build resorts and all of these really cool places.” Now, in 2018, they have been built. You can go live and sit in a rondavel and take Instagramable pictures and dip your toe in the culture. Those spaces exist. So there is a developer who is like, “Your house still stands as a falling apart rondavel, we want to buy it and make it a cool place.” They are gentrifying the rural areas, basically. She comes back to the Eastern Cape and is like, “They approached me, I want to discuss this with you. You can take the money and move to Cape Town. I’ll take care of you.” Her conversation with him is around that [and] the logical reasoning behind it but his is, “This is my house and you need to understand that I’ve sacrificed too much to be here.” For me, she represents that kind of move away from culture and tradition and your home and being very urban. The story is about how she goes back to the place and understands why he has connections to it and why it’s not just a rondavel to him. It’s a home to him and it’s her home, in a sense. That’s what we deal with. What happens when you have an opportunity to go to that place again and to meet it for the first time in a different way? To learn about it, to learn about why it’s important for the older generation to still keep that.

How have your rehearsals been going?

I don’t know if I’m being optimistic but I’m hoping the magical realism gods are going to tap my shoulder next week. Right now, they are like, “Carry on working. Things might not make sense but work. Next week, I’ll tap you and things will fall into place.” I’m waiting for that moment. We’ve been working really hard. It’s a four-week rehearsal process and we are in week three. The first week was about getting to know them and then the second week was, “I know you now as much as I can. Let’s keep going and carry on.” They work really hard. The process has been very interesting. I’ve been getting a lot of support from the Theatre Arts Admin. That has been really nice. The process has been up and down. It’s theatre, it’s tough but we are working. I keep saying that even the little things are going to make a difference in the end.

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

What was your application process for the bursary like?

The application was actually quite open. When I saw the application was something very open like, “Propose. Send a two-page document of what you want to make.” I was like, “I would probably hate myself if I don’t apply.” I remember thinking, “What do I want to talk about? What do I want to do?” Thinking about how big the opportunity would be, this work would be the first thing that I make in a different place without supervisors from university and things like that. Applying for it felt very open. I remember using a lot of the senses, things that you study in drama. What is the sensory response to this piece? I think that’s maybe what connected them to this piece was how I wrote about the sensory responses to it and creating the first few images for them, describing what it might feel like or look like. You create that world. I needed to give myself the opportunity to go, “Here world. This is what I’m thinking. Give me a chance to make this piece.”

What was it that originally made you want to apply for the bursary?

I saw that it was a very good platform for emerging directors and probably the only one that coming out of school, allows you to make this piece or whatever you want to make. I saw it was an opportunity for theatre-makers and I saw that when you look at the past recipients, you see that, “This person got it then and look at them now.” I was like, “Maybe this is that launching pad for me.” Not to say that you are set but you have a rare opportunity to make a piece and then people see it who don’t even know who you are.

I’ve noticed that you’ve taken work and showcased at several different arts festivals in South Africa. I was wondering if you could chat a little bit about the advantages and disadvantages of touring work to the various festivals?

When I did National Arts Festival the last two years, I lived in Grahamstown while studying. I don’t have a lot of disadvantages about that because every time I made work, I was doing it as a student and it was, “Rhodes University presents…” I had that cushioning and that backing but this year, when I took a piece to the KKNK, it was the first time doing something and not having a cushion of anything but I had someone who had seen something I had done before and they gave me that opportunity to do KKNK. The disadvantages, I would say, is money and the funds to be able to take pieces to all of the different places. With KKNK, I have only done that piece there and it’s a piece that is very different to all my other work but I want to look at that piece again, so I need funding to take it to another space. The disadvantages of travelling work is that sometimes you can’t sustain that travelling. I don’t think I can sustain that yet. When I did Cape Town Fringe last year, I did it while I was still a student. So I could say, “Hey Rhodes University, I’m a post-graduate student. Support me.” I still had the cushioning of Rhodes there as well. I haven’t had to experience it yet of just being by myself having to take a piece and having to take the same piece to different spaces. I’ve had lovely opportunities even with Well Worn Theatre, where I was commissioned to make their entertainment piece Galela. Well Worn has some funding to be able to take that piece to different spaces. That’s fortunate for me because then my work can reach different people which would be the advantage if I was able to do that with a lot more work. That’s something that I want to work to be able to do, to take this piece and not just let it die here but to be able to say that next year, I have a plan for it. I want to take it somewhere and to build that. I want to build that opportunity to sustain that and be able to take it far so that things don’t just die. Right now, I still feel like a spoiled little theatre-maker because I haven’t been able to take a piece to different spaces by myself but I’m learning that is where I am heading towards.

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Photo credit: Chanel Katz

What are your hopes for the rest of your career? 

I think I want stability and sustainability. If I can look back and be like, “At one point I was able to sustain not just my career, but be able to be in the arts and effect some sort of change and create opportunities for others.” I want that to be my point where I have a space or a program that can help others. Even if that was next year and I was able to help others, then I’d be like, “I’ve tapped out.” Because then I’ve done what I wanted to do. I was walking here this morning and I was thinking, “I want to create a center that is also a school and has training.” My looking back would be if I have a space or a center and I can help others and train and I can do things like that. It’s a constant thing that I want a space and I want my space to do things for people. I think that in the industry there are people who have those skills and it’s a matter of coming together and creating that and being like, “We are going to join so we can help other artists do that for themselves.” I want to be part of creating stability. I’m not saying that my looking back is like, “I fixed all of it!” But what I can do towards that.

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

I have a long list. I look at Yaël Farber’s work and I’m like, “There is something so wow!” I would say Lara Foot, Mwenya Kabwe, Faniswa Yisa, Jennie Reznek, all the women of South Africa making theatre! Janet Buckland, my supervisor. Nomcebisi Moyikwa, she is a good friend of mine and she’s a maker of anything live art, choreography and all. Tiisetso Mashifane, Mmatumisang Motsisi and Sylvaine Strike. All the women making theatre in South Africa! 


Where She Walked will run at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective from October 28th- November 3rd. For tickets, click here.

You can follow Thembela on Instagram.

Special thanks to Chanel Katz, Thembela Madliki and Caroline Calburn.

All photos were taken by Chanel Katz on October 19th 2018.

Sarafina Magazine and Chanel Katz maintain copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.

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