Marisa Steenkamp is the Deputy Stage Production Manager at the Baxter Theatre, a position she has held since 2012. With her work ever-changing and evolving, she has worked as a stage manager, assistant stage manager, technician and costume designer. Her work has seen her tour with productions to various countries across the globe including Sweden, Germany, Columbia, France and England. She created the costume design for The Fall and facilitated and styled costumes for various productions including #JustMen, Fisher’s of Hope and Blue/Orange. Most recently, she has worked on productions such as Remembering the Lux, Blue/Orange, Marat/Sade, The Fall, Aunty Merle: The Musical and Endgame.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was at that point in school where I didn’t know what to do or where to go and my parents said, “You have to go study.” They took me for a [career] test and the results were things like teaching or languages. I went to chat with my teacher at school and then I just thought, “Why don’t you just pray? Just pray and wait for the answer.” One night, I just woke up and it came to me, “Go work at the Nico Malan.” I had visited the Nico Malan in Standard Five and then never again. I went back to that teacher and I said, “Is there anything you can study in this field?” She found Pretoria Technikon which was too far away for me and then we found Stellenbosch. They had a course but in the beginning, you have to do all the acting as well. I’m not an actor at all but we went and I applied and then I started studying at Stellenbosch.
What was your time like at Stellenbosch?
They first had a two-week orientation before the course started [where] they walk you through the campus and they show you how things work. Nina Swart was there and I went to her and said, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” The people there had pink and purple hair, they spoke English, I spoke Afrikaans and we refused to speak in English class because you are too scared that your English will come out wrong. She said to me, “There is a place for everyone in the drama department.” The first week, when we had to register, I was still not so sure. In the end, I pushed through and I loved it. The first day, I met the lady who did the administration and I said to her, “I’m scared. I’m from the farm. I don’t know this.” I think she kind of took me under her wing.” She told me that you could usher or if there was available work in the theatre. In the beginning, everyone was an usher because everyone needed to make a bit of extra money but as the year progressed, people didn’t want to do it anymore. They wanted to go out. I ushered and also worked backstage. The first year, I pushed through and did the acting as well as the practical and it was horrible. I had to do movement, acting and voice and one of my professors, who was at the drama department, said to me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “All I want to do is technical.” She said, “Ok, I’ll just push you through.” They all helped. In my second year, I chose the technical side and I’m still doing it.
Do you feel like your drama training has benefited what you do now?
Yes, it did because you understand where the actors come from. Sometimes, if I see younger actors, I wish I could take them back to that time to do both so they can see. You have to do both together. You have to do all that they teach you there.
Did you know at that time that you specifically wanted to stage and production manage?
Not really. When I got to Stellenbosch, we had to do everything. You had to do lighting on a show in your first year and when you get to your second year, you’ll be an assistant stage manager or they’ll give you another role. I think somewhere there I just found that I like this and I’d love to do it.
What is an average day like for you?
Here, at The Baxter, I don’t only do stage management. I do a lot of other stuff. For a stage manager day, if it’s a rehearsal period, you sit in rehearsals during the day and you write normal things like your blocking into the script. At the end of the day, you write your report and during the day, [you coordinate] the communication between all the departments, the notes that the director maybe wanted to give to the lighting department and if it’s in a building like this, you go and you find them and you have a conversation. You try to keep that open. Maybe there is something that happens in rehearsals like someone puts something in their pocket. You note that because that is a note for the costume department that they must have a pocket. You do that and then after the rehearsal period, you have your get-in week which is the most hectic and busy week where you are working morning, noon and night to get the actors on stage, get the plotting and the lighting and sound set up. You get to your final dress rehearsal and after that, it’s the show at night. But that’s just from a stage management perspective. I also do admin here. I assist the production manager with the scheduling and the events that are in the theatre. I help with costumes, with props, I do the health and safety. All of that. I’ve just finished EndGame, so now the show needs to be packed away. You make a list of what to archive, these are the costumes they wear, this is what the set looked like. You pack that away and then I do my next thing. Aunty Merle is coming back at the end of the year, so I have to make sure that there is a rehearsal schedule because now everyone is asking me for it. I have to go to everyone that is involved and ask, “What is your availability?”
It’s almost like figuring out a giant puzzle without an instruction manual.
Yes, and during the day I just follow up about what is happening next. I’m also going to America on tour with Karoo Moose so I had to pack that and make sure that the list is updated. I have to go out and buy something if it needs to be placed.
I’m glad you mentioned touring because you’ve toured quite extensively with numerous productions. What is that like for you and how does it differ from a local production?
Touring is nice. The travelling is exciting and when you get there it’s exciting because it’s a new space and you don’t know the people and you have to make sure that things are working. You have to look after your cast to make sure that they are there all the time but usually, it’s a nice support. Everyone works so nicely together and when the show is done and opened, you actually have time for yourself which is different than here. If you are here, there is all the other stuff, there is house stuff and work stuff but you are on your own there. You can phone home, you can send an email to work but you actually have some time for yourself.
Do you have a favourite aspect of all the different things that you do?
I like the variety. I can’t really pick one thing I like more than the other.
You’ve worked with so many different productions ranging from so many different genres. Do you have a favourite or one that stands out to you?
You get something out of all the productions that you work on. You learn something from each show. It’s difficult for me to choose one over the other because every time you work with new actors or a new director or maybe a director you’ve worked with before and you learn something new with every show that you do.
Is there a production that stands out to you as being more challenging than the rest?
It depends on the genre and the size of the cast. Opera has a huge cast and a chorus. You have to have the conductor and the orchestra in mind. There are many more things to deal with. That is usually more challenging for me than having a drama where it is just a more confined group of people.
What do you find to be the biggest misconception about your job?
That it is glamorous. Everyone is like, “We want to work in theatre. Do you make a lot of money? You see all these famous actors.” And I’m like, “It’s hard work.” I once said to my sister, “Come sit with me while we are busy striking the set.” She eventually said to me, “It’s 11pm, I’ve got to go home now.” And I had to tell her, “We can’t go home until the set is packed away.” She says sometimes, “All you do is press buttons.” Because sometimes, when I’m doing shows, especially in the smaller venues, I’m operating the lights and sound myself. It’s hard work.
You’re the first woman I’ve spoken to who works within this realm. Do you find it to be a mostly male-dominated career or do you find it to be quite balanced?
I think it’s quite balanced. I know that one year at Spier, they employed one or two men and we worked shifts. I think we had three operas to change over. The one opera was a few nights and then we’d change over to the next one. They built big sets for all of them. We were an all-female crew and we just had to do it. There was no choice. The next night is the next opera so you just have to do it. My back was so sore but at the end of that period, you could actually feel yourself building up your strength to do it. I think there was one male who came to help us because we just had to have some assistance. Overall, I think it’s balanced. Sometimes more in the physical [aspects] like sound, you’ll have more men because that’s the more heavy stuff but I’ve never felt like I’m the only woman working. If you think of it, overall, sometimes you do have more men on a production than women but it never felt to me like there was an imbalance.
I think in terms of the more technical aspects, the misconception seems to be that there are more men.
In certain things, you will have more men than women but in other departments, like costume, it might be more female than male. It balances itself out.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
There are so many people who I’ve worked with and you learn something from each of them. It doesn’t matter what the production is or if it’s a famous director. It’s very hard to pinpoint. My list will be this long because you learn from everyone. I can think of names but I learn something from everyone. Everyone works differently and is doing something different.