Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni is a South African playwright, theatre director and performer. With a Bachelor of the Arts in Political Science, Philosophy and Dramatic Arts from Rhodes University and a Bachelor of the Arts (Hons) in Directing for Stage, Writing for Film and Avant-garde Film from the University of Cape Town, she attempts to make provocative work that deals with themes of violence, sexuality, race and history within a contemporary South African setting. As a playwright and director, her debut play, Sainthood has received a Standard Bank Ovation Award and a Fleur du Cap nomination and is the subject of her TEDxYouth Cape Town Talk, ‘Another Conversation for the Dinner Table?’. Following a successful run at the National Arts Festival and at Theatre Arts Admin Collective, Sainthood makes its way to the Baxter Theatre for a limited engagement.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Funny enough, it’s not a particular person. I arrived in Grade 8, in high school, and they had the house plays on and I was like, “What is this? This is amazing! These lights! People in costumes dressed as wolves and all sorts of wonderful things! I want to do that.” I got more interested in it and I started going to the theatre and watching the big professional productions that were on outside of school and I was like, “It gets better!” It wasn’t a particular person. It was more the things that I saw, the images I saw and the stories that I saw on different stages from school to professional theatre and I was like, “This is the club that I want to join.”
Very different but I expected it to be that way. I went to Rhodes for three years and it was an intense experience because it was my first time going to drama school. It was intense but a lot of fun. I worked myself to the bone. I did everything in that drama department because that drama department compared to UCT’s is quite small. We have a really small pool of people who do dancing, acting, writing, directing, so you always find that the same people are doing all the shows and I made sure that I was one of those people to really get that understanding of how drama works and the different facets of it. It was an intense three years but it was the best three years in terms of training because I had really good teachers who pushed me, sometimes to tears but we look back on it now and are like, “It was actually worth it.” At the end of three years, because Grahamstown is such a small town, I decided to move to Cape Town to challenge myself. Nobody knew me, none of the lecturers knew me [and] they didn’t know my skill set. It was a bigger platform. I moved to Cape Town and even though the drama department is bigger and there are more people there, which is quite lovely because you have more people to pick from, it wasn’t as intense. Maybe because it was post-graduate so they are like, “You know what you’re doing, so just do your own thing.” That level of freedom at first was like, “What am I supposed to do?” Then, around the second term, I was like, “I know exactly what I want to do. Let’s do it.” Both lovely, both very different in terms of teaching style as well. I think it’s expanded my skill set in that I’ve got two universities that taught me how to do my job.
You describe yourself as a playwright/director/performer. Do you find any one of those aspects to be more dominant than the others?
I’ve always put it in that particular order for a reason. Initially, I wanted to be a playwright. The writing aspect of drama is the number one dominant thing in my life. Then I realised, “I’m writing the play [but] who is going to direct it in the way that I want it to be directed? I have to be a director as well.” Like what I said about Rhodes, I got involved in many facets of the drama department and I started liking them and thinking, “Ok, I can be more than a playwright.” I didn’t think I could be more than one thing. I decided to direct and then, a lot of the time in the drama department, we had to act as well before we could actually write or direct because you had to be older to do that. In First and Second year, all you could do was dance or act. I decided to perform as well to pass the time until I could do what I actually wanted to do. I enjoyed it so much. I just love everything but mainly playwright/director/performer. That’s where my strengths are, I feel. Just so that I can be honest with people from the get-go. I’m a better playwright than I am an actor.
Sainthood is coming to the Baxter for a limited run. What I was so surprised to learn is that this has been an almost two-year long process. What was the initial creation process like?
2015 is actually when I got the idea. I was in my second year and it was around August/September. I was reading Rape: A South African Nightmare, which was very popular at that time because it had just come out. I was reading it and there was a paragraph about an all-boys school that spoke about some sort of initiation process for new students where a group of boys assaulted another boy in front of a dormitory of other boys. I thought to myself, “What is happening here?” I first wrote a two-hander centered around it called Wednesday and I presented it to the drama department as part of a reading they were having and it went down very well. Andrew Buckland was at the drama department at that time and he said, “This is lovely. You should really work on this.” I kind of put it away because it was too much at the time. I put it away until the 2017 National Arts Festival. I was speaking to another Cape Town actor and he was talking about his experiences at school. He was telling me all these crazy stories and I was like, “Can I record this for research purposes?” Then I got the idea to maybe get more of these stories and interviewed a lot more people and heard some wonderful stories and some not so wonderful stories. I got them together and I started writing some sort of structure. Once third term at UCT started, I was like, “It’s time to make this.” I went to the drama department and I was like, “I need five male actors.” I kind of sussed out their personalities for a little bit. I didn’t have characters at that point. I just had stories and rough characters and had to get them down to five. We have three main storylines with these five characters and that’s when the story became something. We built a history together. We really plotted it out and created this world. We made the play and we decided to take it to the National Arts Festival last year on a whim. We got there and we blew up, surprisingly. It was nuts! It was crazy to think that all that work, over those two years, would gain momentum after that. We really worked hard to keep it afloat. We made a pact. We were like, “We are on to something. Let’s not lose it. Even if it makes us cry and scream at each other. Let’s do what we can because it’s an important story.”
Last year the show was performed at Theatre Arts Admin Collective and was named as the most profitable and well-attended shows in the history of Theatre Arts Admin’s existence. How does that feel?
It was a crazy time because we only had two weeks to market the show. It was amazing because I usually I find with the National Arts Festival in particular, that the ticket sales pick up during the run of the show due to word of mouth or whatever it may be. It was really surprising when the first show got sold out and then the second show got sold out. People started panicking and emailing me asking if there were tickets left. It was really lovely to get that momentum again because we were really doing some marketing, “Come to the show! Call all the first years that you know at UCT.” Because they are chatty, they know people and it’s also their target group. Implementing things like that worked because people would see the show and go, “Oh my gosh friend, I saw this show…” We finished the run and I just felt relieved to finish because it was so stressful but it was the cherry on top of everything else. It wasn’t the goal, it was just a lovely thing that happened that was unexpected.
How do you feel the piece has grown during its lifetime?
Its grown so much. People who have seen it from the very first performance of it when it was still at UCT at the playroom who watch it now are like, “Character growth, yes! Narrative, more complicated!” Because it’s grown so much, I’ve really taken the time to mould it and make sure that its bigger than what it was before especially because now that the platforms are getting bigger, I’ve felt like we can always go back to rehearsals and go, “What doesn’t work?” We go back to the recordings and we are like, “What did we skim over? What did we purposefully look over?” We need to fictionalise it so it’s coherent. We’ve changed a lot of the play but it’s mostly grown from what was already there. It’s not like if you watched the first version and you watched the version at the Baxter, it’s a completely different story. It’s more complex. I love character complexity. It’s my favourite thing. In terms of costume, because we have a bit more budget, things are a little bit nicer and more thought out. It’s grown in terms of character, narrative, costume [and] lighting design. It’s grown a lot but not to the point where you’ll be like, “This is not the same thing that I watched.”
Your bio gives such a clear and coherent description of who you are as a creative and the stories that you want to tell. How do you ensure that you are able to stay true to that?
I think from about Grade 12, I’ve always known what stories I want to tell. I’ve always been a bit of a cheeky little girl. I ask a lot of questions. I’m very intuitive so I’d be like, “Can I tell stories like this? Is this ok? What do you think about this?” My teachers were always encouraging. They were like, “You can do whatever you want. Worry about it later.” I really took that to heart and I think it’s really helped me stay true because I write what I like. I know what kind of subject matter I like and I realised this when I went to drama school. I’m always gravitating towards something. I studied philosophy and politics with my drama degree in mind. I always knew, from the very beginning, that I want to write about politics and philosophy within drama, starting with Sainthood. I gravitate towards what I think will help me later in terms of what I want to write. For at least the next 10 years, I know what I want to write and put on stage, whether it will be received well [is] not really my concern, per say, but I write what I like and I’ll see how people perceive it because if I have the confidence in what I’m sure of, I’m thinking people will pick up on that and go, “She really thought about this. She was deliberate. This is a deliberate piece of theatre.” Which is what I always try to do. That’s how I always try and stay true.
That piece was intense! But I knew it was going to be intense. I was in the same year as Qondiswa, so I knew what she was like as a director. I saw her work, so I knew that I wasn’t in for an easy time. I knew I was going to go in there and be pushed. When she spoke about the subject matter and the style that she was going for, I was like, “This is going to be something profound.” It was tough subject matter. It was same-sex relationship, class issues and it was also a Fugard text and Fugard texts are known to be poetic and wordy, which is not something that I was used to at that time. It was a very intense experience but because it was so intense, Qondiswa’s heart was in the right place. Because of that, I was willing to do whatever she needed me to do [which involved her asking], “How do you feel about full nudity?” But I was like, “Sure. Totally.” She was very adamant. She was like, “It’s not sexual. It’s not sensual. It is political in nature.” She made sure that it was a safe space. In terms of the team, we all knew each other. We all supported each other. She took me into the township and then we went to Constantia together to really understand the class issues between these two women. I’m glad I did that show. Qondiwa has a vision and I am just so glad to be part of her vision and that she allowed me to be part of it. I love her as a theatre-maker and I love her attitude towards her work. Just being part of it was enough for me as an actress. If we do it again, I’m there like a square. I want to do it. Faint Patch is too important.
If you look at the theatre that is coming up in Cape Town this year, there are so many plays involving nudity for young actors. Because you had to navigate that in A Faint Patch of Light, what do you feel are the things that should be required, or that you need as a performer, in order to feel safe enough to produce that kind of work?
I was fighting myself about it for the longest time when I signed up to do Faint Patch. I was like, “Am I really comfortable with that? Am I really comfortable with the whole world seeing me naked?” I thought, as a director, “What would I do if I had to pitch this to an actor?” I realised that I wouldn’t be naked for just anybody. I need to make sure that the director knew how I felt about it. Qondiswa asked me in the beginning, “What do you need for this to be comfortable for you?” It was a gradual process. She made sure that I was alright with it. She asked me which parts of my body I didn’t like so much. She was also opening up the conversation about herself. She was also the director and actor. She opened it up so that I wasn’t alone. I hesitate to say, “It’s what I felt in my soul.” I would have been a little bit more hesitant if it was a male director who asked me to do it. It really did help that Qondiswa was a woman. It’s a real fight. You have to be really sure about who the person is. I think it’s a matter of doing your research. You kind of know from the get-go when you go into the audition process or have that initial talk, if you are willing to trust that person with your being outside of clothing. I also think the story helps. If the director doesn’t feel right and I feel like they are not going to protect me, then don’t do it. If you have any hesitations, don’t do it.
As someone who works within the realms of being a playwright/ director/ performer, how do you feel like those aspects lend themselves to each other?
They help each out immensely. As a director, being a performer really helped because I could also put myself in the actor’s shoes a lot of the time in my decisions on how I’m going to approach the scene or what warm-ups we are going to do. It also helps me in terms of roadblocks specifically. If I feel like an actor is struggling with something, I think, “How would I feel? Emotionally, how do I approach that actor?” I go back to, “How would I feel if the director told me that?” The playwright/director thing is a very funny line. One of my drama teachers used to tell me, “You must separate the two. If you are a playwright, you need to find a director.” And I was like, “I don’t believe it.” I know with particular scripts which ones should be directed by me because I write in a way where I write the directions in the play, and I also know which scripts I write that I shouldn’t direct. It’s being really brutally honest with yourself about when to include all those other aspects and when not to. Purely just being a director never necessarily works for me than just being a writer works for me. You need to be a little bit informed. I like to be informed of all the little things so that I can make informed decisions about stuff that makes things pleasant for everyone and then you are comfortable to investigate things together.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I love Nomcebisi Moyikwa. She is just phenomenal. Even though Thembela Madliki is my friend, in terms of her work in magical realism, wow. I love Dada Masilo. She is someone who I thoroughly enjoy and just for being a black girl in ballet, I’m like, “I want to be like you!” I love Yaël Farber as well. I like Penny Youngleson. The way she works with silence is really quite nice. I think people are afraid of silence sometimes. Penny is really good at that. Lara Foot! What I like about her is that she’s taken her platform and looked at young theatre-makers and she’s gone, “Let me just nudge you.” I love Nwabisa Plaatjie, Kanya Viljoen and Qondiswa James. Kanya and Qondiswa because I love theatre-makers who are stylistically different from me [and] who do things where I go, “I don’t know how to do that but you do that and you do it great!” Kanya is an Afrikaans theatre-maker. I don’t speak Afrikaans but when I watch her work, I get it. It’s beyond language and that’s what I love about it. Her Afrikaans theatre is just something else. And then Qondiswa also for her use of silence. I’ve experienced it as an actor but also just seeing Silindile. It was the most quiet thing I’ve ever seen in my life but you just think, “Oh my goodness!”
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