A Conversation with Lee-Ann van Rooi

Lee-Ann van Rooi is an actor, educator, producer and director. This year marks Lee-Ann’s silver jubilee in the South African professional entertainment industry. With numerous awards, nominations and credits stretching over the various mediums of Film, TV, Stage and Radio, both locally and internationally, this UCT graduate’s interests and skills are wide-ranging, innovative and resourceful. A keen storyteller, puppeteer, teacher, mentor, writer, producer and director, she is particularly interested in growing and creatively educating audiences and the entertainment industry in a responsible and fair way. Lee-Ann has recently been nominated for two awards at this year’s upcoming  Fiëstas Awards. She is nominated as Best Actress for her work in Ingrid Winterbach’s Ons is almal Freaks Hier and for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Chase Rhys’ Kinnes. She is currently gearing up to star as The Duchess of York in Richard III which will begin performances at Maynardville open-air theatre in February.

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

I like stories. It’s always been my way in. We come from a family of readers. I think my in would be stories and poetry. The 1970/80s was when we discovered all of that. We didn’t have social media then, so books facilitated a space where I could be transported into another world. It’s a space where I could live through a character in a book. I think books have been a large part of my life. Sometimes I re-read books over and over again because there is always something new to be discovered in an old story. Words are important to me and I think they are also quite important for the characters that I play. Sometimes it takes me a long time to pull a character together because sometimes the words are difficult. Why does a character specifically choose this word? Why does a writer put this word into a sentence? I can’t just be glib about it and try to put my own stamp of approval on it. There is a reason why it’s been done that way and it’s up to me to figure it out. I think that’s part of the job of an actor. I think there is so much to be learned, still, from the spoken word. Similarly now, looking at the stories that are out there, my entry point into any text is, “Is the story worth it? Does the story stand alone?” Even if it is a classical story, “How is the story going to stand alone? Is it going to be effective or not?

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

What was it that originally attracted you to Richard III?

Richard III is a joy because it’s a good text. It’s stood the test of time. It’s the second longest play that Shakespeare ever wrote so, in order for it to fit into a schedule and everybody’s busy lives, we can’t afford to have three hours. A lot of the beauty of the text has, unfortunately, ended up on the editor’s floor but the characters and story are there. We’ve tried to clear it up and cut it so that you are going straight for the truth all the time. Navigating that space between the poetry and the truth all the time and bringing the two together [and] still having enough meat so that you don’t feel like you are just factually handing over a story. There is enough creation around it. Geoff Hyland is amazing at that. I’m so enjoying my time with him. He is also a teacher-director which I love. I love working with teacher-directors because you learn. They are not afraid to call out all your bad faults, as it were. It’s not a thrashing that you are getting, it’s an actual somebody [that] you can bounce off who knows the task so well. I love working with directors like that. And then Alan Committie and I studied together at drama school. I was a year ahead of him, so it’s fantastic to be playing his mother. It’s absolutely divine. I think he is quite a phenomenal actor that nobody has really had the opportunity to see. They’ve only ever experienced him as a comedian and his brand is very strong in that way. Anthea Thompson and I realised the other day that this is the first time that we will be sharing the stage in all these years. That, for me, is a momentous occasion. Just imagine working with someone like that with this wealth of talent and experience and being able to really play on stage and to be free enough to do that. I love characters so I don’t mind doing difficult characters because it’s the discovery of what makes somebody tick that’s important. When I did Fiela se Kind a couple of years ago, it was like, “How can you top Shaleen Surtie-Richards’ performance?” You can’t. Because she laid track for that character. The only stamp that you can put on it, is your own brand of how you would play the character. I’ve been very fortunate in South Africa to be part of debut productions where there were new scripts and it’s partly frustrating because you have to find the story but it’s very exhilarating because you are laying track for a new performance, a new story and a new character. And then if somebody comes along and it gets done again in five or ten years time, your track would be down already and somebody else can build on it or take it off in a different direction. I find that invigorating.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

You have been so busy in the last year especially in terms of theatre and you have an incredible body of work. How do you go about selecting the stories you choose to tell?

I think sometimes they choose you and sometimes you want it. My experience is that things that I have wanted sometimes weren’t necessarily for me and you have to trust that. You have to trust that you don’t get in the way of your work. There are things that you have to do because you need to make your rent or your bond at the end of the month and then there are love projects and you know you are not getting paid enough but it just feeds your soul in a way that you know you will feel fulfilled for the next term at least and then can carry on. Then there are the interesting ones that point forward. I am not interested in getting involved with any project that points fingers backwards into the past unless there is something moving forward. Something like Richard III at the moment, it’s filled with politics, murders, alliances, intrigue and again I only speak from my character’s point of view, where it’s a mother that pushes her children away because she is emotionally damaged and what that does to the children. Then there has been no nurturing. That even in a position of power, she is The Duchess of York and then the Queen, eventually Queen mother [and] even within an extremely high status, you have all the servants in the world to take care of everything, you don’t have to lift a finger, but your choice is that you still choose not to look after your children. Even though Shakespeare wrote it 300 odd years or so, it’s important to me that even then they had problems and to bring through what those areas are now. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is this complete power-hungry despot. If you look up through Africa and the Americas [and] Asia at politicians and where they are sitting at the moment, it’s vicious. The world is vicious. Anything can happen. You have to work at establishing connections. I think our society is in grave danger. It is already in grave danger where there are no connections because we are all so busy. You can’t work at establishing emotional connections with people through a device. People are struggling to connect. It’s not that we’ve lost the connection, it’s that we’ve disconnected willingly and then it becomes an addiction. We disconnect within that addiction and it’s just longing for connection that makes you want something more so you fill it up with something else. People are always saying that theatre will die. It has been dead and alive for ages but I think it’s that emotional connection that people are looking for. It’s the needing more, the experience and still picking up your life and going to the theatre. Not just the escapism but also the cathartic process that happens when you watch a piece of theatre. It’s fascinating. When I looked at that ’25 years in the industry’ this year, I was kind of like, “Really? Have I made the right decision? Have I thrown my energy into the right area of work?” I think it doesn’t matter which area of work I’ve been in, it always boils down to the story. I am a teacher so when I teach, I end up telling stories. Everything is about story. If you are going to learn, you are going to learn via story.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

What has it been like to reach this milestone of celebrating 25 years in the industry? What are your hopes for the next 25?

What’s been really nice and what has evolved so far is that I’ve worked at trying to let the work stand for itself, of itself and by itself. I’ve very actively tried not to enter into the world of celebrity and I’ve tried to stay within the world of the artist. Those are two very different worlds. So that my work can precede everything that I do. I understand that people want to know more about you and about your family but at the same time, that is my protection bubble. That is my safe space. I go home to my family. They keep me sane and they keep me real and they stop my head from becoming this big, which is what can happen often. I don’t do things like MC work because it takes me away from who I am and I think within the industry, there has always been a constant fight of not going that route. I’m with Artists One as an agency and they understand what I need, that it is work at the end of the day so I am not prepared to sell myself as part of the work. If it needs to be part of the show, then that is different and there are things that I am prepared to reveal and things that I’m not prepared to reveal. As open as it may seem, there are things that you need to keep to yourself and away from the public eye. I think that’s important. What needs to be important is that I leave a legacy. That the day that I decide within the next 25 years, “I’m done. I’m stepping away from this vehicle,” that I’ve left enough work behind for people to lift up and work off and take further. Already with my students, I always say, “I’m not going to be here forever. Who is going to take over and go on with storytelling?” You have to because the only way to look after the heart of our nation is via the story. It’s been very interesting as a woman in the industry. Again, negotiating that space. It’s been very interesting as a non-white woman also negotiating that space, going up from pre-90’s into the 2000s and now carrying on. It’s been very interesting. The roles, the way they’ve grown, the spaces that you get into, how you get into the space. It’s been very interesting. Certain decisions that needed to be made along the line in terms of your career; what are you prepared to do? What are you not prepared to do? How are you prepared to do it? It’s a constant process of negotiation.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

You’ve evolved from acting into directing, teaching and theatre-making. Do you feel like that was a natural transition for you or did you kind of learn as you went?

Yes and No. The involvement with teaching is something I’ve been doing for years. In fact, it got to a point where I had been acting for a while and then I went to varsity and I did my teacher’s diploma and then I actually, at the same time, during the same month, I had to choose directions. The one was being offered a full-time post at a school and the other was being offered Fishy Fêshuns, that was nothing at the time. It was just an idea and a script about these five crazy factory workers and that was the concept. I decided to teach instead because I just thought, “I can’t do this to my parents again. Let me at least try to stand on my own two feet.” It was also at a time where the teaching profession was far more, I wouldn’t say lucrative because a lot of work goes into it, but it was a profession that people chose because they wanted it, not because they wanted a house and a car. They wanted to teach. There was a drive to teach. And then the offer to do Fishy Fêshuns and my dad, at the time, said, “Think about it and then come tell me but the one thing I don’t want you to think about is don’t let money be the deciding factor.” I thought about it for a little while and then I went back to him and I said, “If you don’t mind, I would like to try this out.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I don’t know how to do multi-cam work.” That was my entry into it. I had no idea how to work multi-cam. He said, “Ok. Go learn.” Not everybody has the luxury to have a father like that or parents who will help you along the way. It’s been a journey. There was a long time where nothing was happening and then I needed to go back to teaching again and then slowly back. I am so grateful and so thankful that so much has happened and that people are owning the industry. There aren’t just a few heads handing out work anymore. People are rising and really starting with nothing and doing the most amazing work and that there are platforms that are rising to support people like that and that they are getting acknowledged on the strength of their work. I am really big on mentorship. I’m very tough when it comes to mentoring with my students because I don’t have time, so you have to meet deadlines. It’s not a paid position but again I realise that it’s something that needs to be done because if you don’t do it, who is going to do it? I am an actor but there are also so many other things that I am in and around it. Everything that I do, in and around it, fuels the acting. It’s that infinity line that keeps going. It struggles up and then it swings and then it struggles up and it swings. When the day arrives when I decide that I am not going to act full-time anymore, then I will concentrate on drama therapy, which I’m already doing with children [and] with adults as well, but more specifically with children. To come back to your question about the evolvement of what I’ve done, sometimes it’s just organic that something happens but what I really enjoy about directing and creating is the fact that you are able to move the image that is in your head and find all the different facets of the image in order to explore the story. Whereas with acting, you are only part of the full story and you need to find the space where you can fit into your director’s eye and your producer’s eye and the eye of the rest of the people around you. Whereas if you are writing or producing something, then you are leading that image and to try to find where you want to go with it is really exciting. With directing and with producing, it’s the freedom then to create your own space [and] your own world which is terribly exciting. I’ve begun writing a little bit as well. Some stuff that will be published. Poetry, short stories. Things come to find you.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

Because we are at this career milestone, if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice at the beginning of your career, what would it be and why?

I would say that I need to trust the process and trust the world of the artist. We are so different to the rest of the world. We don’t work like the world would like us to work and it’s necessary that we don’t so that we don’t fall into that trap but to trust that work. Not to freak out when there is no job happening and nobody has called. I think I would have been far more proactive a lot earlier if I had been ok with just knowing that it will happen and trust that it will happen. Everybody is sitting with, “I don’t have a job.” And I’m like, “But why are you sitting? Do something.” I think I would have had a lot less apathy in the beginning and I would have been far more progressive and not waited for other people to come together to work. I think I would have started on my own and trusted the process that other people would come and join in, which the young ones are doing at the moment. You just need to up the empathy level.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

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

Janice Honeyman, Shaleen Surtie-Richards, June van Merch, Faniswa Yisa. Denise Newman, Saartjie Botha, Nicolette Moses, Jill Levenberg, Marlene Le Roux, Jaqueline Dommisse, Tracey Saunders. Sometimes it’s an inspiration but sometimes it’s a synergy, when people come together and something happens. The above women are approachable. They just quietly do their job. Patti Dwyer [and] Karen Tallie are my agents and people whom I trust to give me a clear viewpoint if I have an issue or a problem. That they will spell it out nicely to me if I am sitting in a flux and going, “I’m not sure. What do you think I should do?” Even if they are my peers, they know how to hold a space for another woman and they mentor me through a process every single time, that I can’t not but do that with the younger ones coming up. They do it so selflessly. They did it for everybody and to a large extent, go unacknowledged as mentors. I salute them. 


Richard III will run at Maynardville from February 6th until March 9th. For tickets, click here.

You can follow Lee-Ann on InstagramFacebook or via her official website.

Special thanks to Candice van Litsenborgh, Christine Skinner and Hannah Baker.  

All photos were taken by Candice van Litsenborgh on January 11th 2019 at The Blue Cafe.

Sarafina Magazine and Candice van Litsenborgh maintain copyright over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.

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