Bethany Dickson is a Naledi and Fleur du Cap Theatre Award nominated actress. For more than a decade, Bethany has been charming South African and international audiences by tackling some of musical theatres most iconic roles. After making her debut in High School Musical, she has since gone on to perform in Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, The Sound of Music and Grease. We sat down with her to chat about her latest role, portraying Miss Honey in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved classic, Matilda.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
It is very much a part of who I am. It’s in my DNA. I come from a very theatrical family so needless to say it’s something that none of us, myself and my brothers and my cousins, could really escape. We had no chance of escaping. It was a natural decision for me. I’ve always felt very comfortable on stage and especially in musical theatre.
Since you mentioned coming from a theatrical family, was there ever a moment where you considered doing something else?
Absolutely. I think there was a time in my life where I thought I would be a dancer but singing and performing was always on the side. It was always part of what I was doing even though dancing was my focus. I always watched my mom on stage and there was just so much musically going on in our childhood. I thought I would pursue a career in public relations and event’s management. I studied that after school, I think to try to create a safety net for myself so that if things didn’t work out on the theatre side of things, that I would have something to fall back on. I don’t actually ever remember thinking, “I’m going to be a performer but if that doesn’t work I’ll just do public relations.” I kind of thought, “I’m going to study something after school.” I didn’t want to go study theatre or musical theatre. At that stage, it just wasn’t something that was at the forefront of my mind. It was very much just something that I loved to do and that I was kind of good at but I never thought, “I’m going to make a career out of that.”
I find that so surprising to hear!
I suppose it’s not something that everyone wants to hear because it’s not that I feel I didn’t need the study or I felt like I didn’t need to study it, it was that it wasn’t something I was going to do. If I could go back, I probably would have gone to study. I don’t know if that would have changed things at all but I look at my peers and people who have had that experience and have a wealth of knowledge in a way that I don’t have, and I am a little envious but my path has happened in a way where I haven’t needed it but I certainly believe in it. I wouldn’t advise someone who is wanting to get into musical theatre to just leave it up in the air and hope that it happens because that is certainly not how you chase your dreams but I think that in some cases, as it’s been for me, the dreams just happen to you. You don’t chase them, it just comes to you. It’s definitely to do with the fact that it’s so much a part of me. It’s in me in a way that I cannot describe. That is how drawn I am to it and that’s how I feel at home when I’m doing it.
What was it that originally attracted you to Matilda?
I’ve heard so much about it. I had never, and I’ve still never, seen the production myself. I am however very familiar with the story and obviously read a lot of Roald Dahl growing up [and] watched the movie growing up a lot. I loved the film as a child. I haven’t seen it in a very long time. I didn’t revisit it in preparation for this because what I’ve found with these movie-musicals is that a lot of people think, “Let me go and do my research and watch the film.” I think it’s so much better to go in without that fresh imagine in your mind of what they did in the film because the musicals are always so different. They have to be presented differently in order for it to make sense on stage for an audience instead of from a screen to a viewer. It’s a very different form of entertainment. I didn’t watch it again but I obviously love the story and I’ve just heard the most amazing things about the musical. People have come away saying that out of all the shows they’ve watched, it was their favourite.
Now that I think about it, you’ve actually done quite a few movie musicals.
I have. Exactly for that reason, I’ve learned my lesson. The first one I did was Grease and I watched the film and I remember it was so fresh. I’ve got such a good memory when it comes to the way people say and sing things. I can mimic. I know that about myself and it can work for or against me so I don’t want to go in there sounding like Olivia Newton-John. I need to go in there sounding like me. They cast me to play the role. Obviously, Olivia was in the movie but I am not going to then go and try and copy her. They want a fresh, blank canvas that they can work with. I stay away from the movie.
What is your first step when you are given material that is so well-known? Where do you start?
I obviously read it through and then I don’t do too much work until we start because the director has the license to shape it in the way that they see fit and obviously with individual artist’s interpretations taken into consideration but it’s like a painting, you are starting to mix colours before the painter gets a chance to put anything on canvas. A lot of people think of it differently. Some people think about it before. I read it through and I often try to read the text as if it’s a real human and it’s a real story. As much as it’s magical, the characters need to be believable in order for the story to be told in the way that it needs to be told. To try and read it from a human perspective and try to understand exactly what’s going on and then to go in and just bring a new perspective to the role and then allow the director to lead you to where he wants to go with it.
What are you most looking forward to in regards to this production?
I’m a sucker for the stage. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the rehearsal process. I don’t really enjoy that raw vulnerability that you experience as an actor. I know some people love it but I quite like finding what I’m going to be doing for the next couple of months and feeling comfortable in it and sitting nicely in the saddle and not trying to find out what hand goes where and how do I say this and stitching the whole show together. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this rehearsal process so far so I think I’m really going to enjoy it when it kicks into gear a little bit more and we find our groove. I’m looking forward to that and also seeing people’s response because I think it’s going to knock the socks off of South Africa. It’s so well-written. I knew when I read it for the first time, I thought, “Wow, this is so beautifully written.” It’s obviously a gorgeous story but the stage version is so beautiful and so funny. It’s just delightful for adults, I think more so than kids. It’s just so witty and clever and just hilarious and touching as well. It’s so moving. I’m very much looking forward to how people are going to respond.
This show marks your return to the stage after the birth of your first child. What has the process been like of making the journey back to theatre?
It’s been wonderful. Before any change in my life, I feel a sense of, “I don’t want to do this.” That has happened so many times in my life when there has been a change. When I was pregnant, I was like, “This is wonderful. I love being pregnant.” And then a few days before he arrived, I was like, “I’m not ready.” But then that left me. The night before rehearsals started, I said to my husband, “I don’t know if I want to do this. It’s another change and I’m quite happy with the way things are.” You are sacrificing time and things like that. I am so blessed that I have such a supportive husband and I know that maybe sounds annoying and cliché but it’s true because he just said to me, “We want our child to grow up thinking: look at what my parents did. Look what I was able to watch and be a part of.” I saw my mom up on stage as a child and it lit something in me. Not that I am doing it so he gets into theatre but when we started rehearsals, I realised this is actually just as much for me because I get so much joy out of it. It’s a definite change in my life and a new chapter to be doing theatre again with my life looking so different but it’s going to happen and we are going to see how it goes. I also know so many people who have done this. It’s not the scariest thing. It’s not impossible to have a career in theatre and have children. People do it all over the world. That also gives me a bit of piece of mind and courage.
Because you come from a family of performers, do you feel like it was possibly a little bit more difficult for you to find your identity as a performer at the beginning of your career?
I’m so my mother’s child. I’ve said that before when speaking about this thing because, like I said earlier, it was something that I could never escape. I never fought it because I love it. The fact that I hear my mother in me, the fact that I see my mother in me are all things that give me so much joy. I think it was harder for my younger brother. My older brother and I were all so musical and my younger brother didn’t want anything to do with music. We were always encouraging him to sing and maybe get into playing an instrument and he didn’t want to do it and then all of a sudden, he started singing when he was about 16 or 17. This voice just appeared out of nowhere and we were like, “Yes! We knew it was going to come.” For me, I just went with it. I don’t think it’s ever been something that has stood in my way. It’s something that I’ve always been thankful for, to have someone to guide me and definitely because of my mom, and the roles she’s played and how she performs, it has stood me in good stead to find roles in some of these wonderful musicals.
Are there any roles on your professional bucket list that you’d like to do?
There are so many amazing performers in this country which is really exciting because you can bring a production like Wicked and we do have the talent in this country to perform it. If I would be given the opportunity to be in a show like Wicked, Glinda is a dream role. I’d have to do some serious work though. It’s not something I feel like I could just walk into. I don’t even know if I’d get in but I would try. I’d love to play Anna in The King and I. I would love to play Mary in Mary Poppins and Fantine in Les Mis. These are dreams but just to say that as much joy as I get from performing and being on stage, I get as much joy watching. I love watching and I love seeing people in our industry smashing it. Obviously, it’s a different kind of joy when you are performing but I love watching and getting that thrill as an audience member but I’m also as content with my life as it is. If something terrible were to happen and I would never be able to perform again, I would feel a sense of loss but I have my wealth in other buckets.
Someone mentioned to me that you also own a coffee shop. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.
When I finished my last contract, when my husband and I decided that maybe we wanted to start thinking about having a baby, I needed something to do because I’m not the kind of person who can just twiddle her thumbs and sit around. This couple that I knew had a coffee shop that they wanted to get rid of and it just so happened that it was on the property of the church that I attend. I decided [since] it’s already existing, I can take over and see how I go. I went in and sort of jumped in the deep end and sort of changed the whole place up and gave it a bit of a facelift and did my thing because what they had been doing wasn’t something that would have come from my creativity. I just went for it and we are still chugging along. It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve learned so much. I’m very happy and very proud of it but there is always a lot of work to be done and goals to be reached. They always say that 2-5 years are the beginning life stages of a little business to see whether it is going to work or not but we’ve managed to keep our head above water. My husband is quite business savvy. I don’t know a thing. All I know is that I love good coffee and I know what it’s like to have a good experience at a coffee shop, I know what it’s like to have a bad experience and I’m passionate about people and good service. So I can do those sorts of things. He helps me with all the business stuff. It’s called Black Forest. We really focus on good cake, good coffee and a great atmosphere with wifi that works. It’s not a place for anyone trying to be healthy, although we do have some nice salad options and that sort of thing but it’s really a place to have something decadent and yummy and just relax or work or have a business meeting or just meet friends with a place for the kiddies to play.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Obviously, my mom, Julie Dickson. I think she’s always been it for me. Angela Kilian. These are people I watched growing up with stars in my eyes. Sammy Peo. Carmen Pretorius, without a doubt. Gina Shmukler, Kate Normington. The first time I met Kate I was like, “I love you.” There are so many that I am so inspired and amazed by. And Taryn-Lee Buys. She is a genius performer and artist. She is so amazing and so consistent. Those are just the first few that come to mind.