Gina Shmukler has been in the entertainment industry since she was six years old. In her career, her theatre work as an actress, director and producer, has garnered ten theatre nominations and four awards across different genres ranging from Mamma Mia and Chess, to Master Class and Silk Ties. In 2013, after completing her Master’s Degree in Drama at the University of Witwatersrand, Gina was the proud recipient of the Dr Sibongile Khumalo Creative Research Award. Her select directorial credits include; The Line, Lost in the Stars, Songs for a New World, The Market Theatre’s Brer Rabbit, Beautiful Creatures, Love: A Musical Revue, The Last Five Years and The Whole Megillah. Having taken a performance hiatus, Gina returned to the stage in 2017 in Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville. At the end of 2018, she returned to her musical theatre roots by stepping into Aunty Merle the Musical, which makes its way to Joburg Theatre following three sold-out engagements in Cape Town.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I would have to say my sisters. My older sister had just done The Sound of Music for Brickhill/Burke. I was six years old and the next show they were doing was Annie. I auditioned for Annie and the theatre bug bit.
Did you ever consider doing anything else?
I did. I had kind of been a child performer and worked through high school and then when I matriculated, I thought I would go into advertising. I think when I grew up a little bit, I would have loved to be an investigative journalist. I went to do some interviews for advertising and then I went to do auditions for drama school and drama school said, “You’re in,” first and I said, “Ok, that’s that.”
What was it that attracted you to Aunty Merle: The Musical?
I have to share something with you that is rather funny. The first show that I ever did at drama school was directed by Lara Foot and I haven’t worked with Lara, as an actress, since. She’s taken two of my shows to the Baxter but that was the last time I was directed by her. I actually have had a hiatus from performing because I have a child and certainly performing outside of Joburg seemed completely unmanageable. They called me from the Baxter and said, “Do you want to do Aunty Merle?” I wasn’t actually sure what it was because in Joburg, Cape Town is another country. They said it’s directed by Lara Foot: tick. It’s a new South African musical: tick. Marc Lottering: tick. They made it incredibly easy to just say yes. It was going to be Cape Town in December and I really had been saying to a friend of mine that I was dying to get back on stage. It just felt like all the things just matched up. I spoke to a few people from the cast and all of them were like, “Best experience! Just say yes.” It was kind of a just say yes moment and the Baxter just made it incredibly easy from a negotiating point of view. But I will say that I did not know what role I was even playing. I kind of just went, “It’s Lara. I’m going to get directed by a real director and it’s a new South African work. Let’s just do it.” It was quite challenging to do this role.
I’m sure! And especially because you’ve come into this and are replacing a cast member.
How did the rehearsal process differ for you?
The process was so quick. We literally did 11 days of rehearsing. I had spoken to Kate [Normington] and she said to me, “You are going to be the fittest you have ever been in your life.” I knew there was a lot of dancing but Grant’s choreography is not for actors who move, it’s for dancers who need to act and sing and do everything simultaneously. It was tough. It was about finding who Claire is for me and thank goodness I had a really fantastic director. It’s interesting because you think, “It’s musical comedy, you can just phone it in.” I very clearly remember phoning my friend, Sylvaine Strike, who is a fantastic director, and saying, “Syl, I am struggling.” But Lara, thank goodness, is the director she is. The other thing is that it could have been like how the franchise musicals work which is like, “You are going to do the alphabet of how this role is done. You are going to walk here. You are going to pick up your glass of champagne there…” At some point, I thought, “Please just let me watch the DVD and copy Kate’s performance!” But Lara is not that director. She is like, “You are going to find it and we are going to find it in you.” We had to find it quickly because those 8-hour rehearsals weren’t just dedicated to finding a character, they were dedicated to learning the whole show. I also have not been on this side of the floor for quite a while. It was quite humbling just to remember how hard it is to perform.
You do so many different things in terms of acting, directing, theatre-making and lecturing. How do you feel those different aspects lend themselves to one another?
I feel like they all feed into each other until you perform. When I’m performing, I have to shut the director in me. I cannot be a director and an actress. But when you are teaching, you are pulling on everything and when I’m directing, I’m pulling on everything. But the stage still remains a real sacred space. It’s where you have one thing and that one thing is to perform. I love what I do and I love that I dip in and I dip out. Even when you are doing dialect coaching, you are not directing but you are in service to the director’s vision in terms of character. I’m pulling all the time from everything.
Which of those aspects would you say comes most naturally to you?
I always say, once I’ve learned a show and I’ve stopped stressing, the stage is in my body. I think it’s something that I’ve done since I was a child and I love that space. I love the space of performing. I love that relationship that you have with an audience that you really don’t experience in any other genre or form. Performing fulfils a part of me that nothing else does but I have to say, whenever I am coaching or teaching, when you see people growing and getting it, it’s very fulfilling. Imparting is fulfilling.
In terms of your teaching career, what do you feel is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I’m not sure how it came to me but, “Work at your own bar.” I think that’s what I impart to the students. It doesn’t matter if somebody around you is complacent, work to what your goal is. Work to the best of yourself.
What do you feel is the one piece of advice that you try to instil in your students?
Discipline. I really believe discipline gives you longevity in your career. I don’t think you can learn focus. You have to be focused to understand what focus gives you as a performer and when you are unfocused, you will know how much you have to focus but it’s a learn/unlearn. This I’ll never forget, I was seven and I messed around on a matinée performance of Annie. I was having fun and our director was in the audience. Afterwards, we got notes and he singled me out. The stage is not that space. We play, we have fun but it’s in the realms of what serves the piece. It’s not in the realms of what serves us. I think that level of discipline is what I try to really impart and that it’s a practice. I can tell you that when I started Aunty Merle, I wasn’t theatre fit. My brain wasn’t theatre fit. It’s a different kind of stamina. Because I teach and work in so many different disciplines, I am still muscled but I wasn’t fit and I could feel the difference. I really am a discipline freak. I will never go on stage without warming up. I can’t do it. I really believe in training.
Your work has seen you travel the globe and you’ve spent quite a lot of time in New York as well. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your time there?
When I finished studying at Wits, I worked in South African for three years and then I decided that I needed to learn more and that I needed more technique so I went to Boston for three months. My sister was living there, so it made it easier and I went to study and then I came back and worked for another five years and then I decided that I just wanted to see. I think I was a little bit bored. What’s so interesting about South Africa, It’s a little bit different now but when I was younger, I did so many leads. I just went from job to job and I felt like I wanted more and I didn’t know how to get more of what felt like a more challenging environment. I do think it’s different now for younger people. I got papers and I went to New York and I spent seven years there and it was amazing and challenging and brilliant. I absolutely learned things that I couldn’t have learned here. You’ve got to put one ace forward in New York. You can’t be directing, acting, teaching. You act and waitress. That’s what you are going to do whereas here, you can grow in a different way. I loved being there and I also got tired of being there but I had a wonderful time there and then I came back because I reconnected with my old boyfriend and I was only coming to South Africa for two years…
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
I can only just answer on instinct. I did my Master’s a few years after I came back to South Africa and I made a play called The Line and that is definitely one of the things I feel most proud of in terms of who I am and the things that intrigue me and what’s important as a human being and my passion for the power of theatre as a form to express. That kind of put everything together. I think The Line is something that I feel very proud of.
You started your career as a performer and were primarily initially known as only that. When you eventually evolved into becoming a director and a theatre-maker, did you find that to be an easy transition?
You have champions in your life. I didn’t really think of myself as a director as such or at all. My friend Yaël Farber, who is a fabulous director, used to say to me, “You watch work like a director.” I never thought of myself as a director and when I came back to South Africa, the then head of the Wits Department of Drama, Warren Nebe, asked me to come and teach. I started teaching and then Warren was like, “Make a show for us.” I’ve always loved devised work and I’ve always done a lot of it and I did a lot of it in America with the late Elizabeth Swados. I love devised work and I love creating from social situations. I love that form of theatre. That was the start of my directing and then Malcolm [Purkey] was then the artistic director of the Market Theatre and he was like, “Come make a play for us for the end of the year.” I think so much of what we do is a leap of faith. I think I force myself to be a yes person. Can I perform? Absolutely. I don’t doubt whether I can perform, even though in a process of rehearsal I can doubt whether I can do a job but do I know that I can perform? Yes. In the other facets that come towards you, sometimes it’s just about saying yes and then realising you can do it. Even with the students, I say to them, “Think laterally and say yes.” These careers are not literal. They don’t follow an A-Z path and sometimes I feel like in my own life, if I had looked a little bit more peripherally at the people I was meeting, I might have had a different career. Certainly in New York where I was meeting people but I was so focused on the way I thought it should go.
Is there anything still on your professional bucket list?
I really do want to make a new work. I had done a show many years ago with Joanna Weinberg called Silk Ties which was also South African [and] somewhat devised. Then I did The Line and when Peter Hayes saw it he said, “You know Gina, this is the sequel to Silk Ties.” I would never have drawn that parallel or made that link but I really do want to make another work. Last year I was thinking, “Should I do my PhD?” Because where else do you get the luxury to be here and spend three years making a work, which is what The Line took but I was, fortunately, doing my Master’s so I could just make something that was incredibly complex over a three year period. I would love to make a new work and I just have to find time, stamina or just find the yes and do it. I really want to do more film work. There are certain shows which I would love to do but in terms of two things that I just feel would stretch me, that’s what I would like to do.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Lara Foot. Sylvaine [Strike], Lebo Mashile, Robyn Orlin, Dorothy Ann Gould, Charmaine Weir-Smith, Pretty Yende, Nkulee Dube, obviously Yaël [Farber]. Someone I’ve worked with who I just admire immensely is Khutjo Green. You know who I just think is extraordinary? Dada Masilo. I love Dada’s work. I admire someone like Debbie Rakusin very much. And Janice Honeyman. I love Janice.
Special thanks to Berniece Friedmann and Candice van Litsenborgh.