A Conversation with Tessa Denton

Tessa Denton is an actor, director, choreographer and designer. She was recently appointed to Gate69’s art department where she is tasked with creating the obscure, creative, daring and over the top wigs, headpieces, earrings and accessories. Over the years, she has created many looks for a variety of clients, whether it be with make-up, body paint, dress setting, sets, decor, props, wigs, accessories or even just conceptualising ideas events. As an actor, some of her TV credits include; Die Boekklub, Getroud met Rugby, Donkerland, Binnelanders7de Laan and Generations. Select theatre credits include; MisAltyd in my dromeThe Rocky Horror Show, GreaseThe Full Monty and Lady Macbeth in the adult pantomime Macbeth. Later this year she’ll be seen on stage in Mis in Johannesburg followed by two TV appearances in Fynskrif and Sara se Geheim. Currently, her wig designs can be seen on stage at Gate69 in their latest show, Non-Specific.

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

I would say my mother was the person who helped me into it. She studied drama many moons ago and she became a teacher and a drama teacher. I think that was where my love and exposure began. She always took me to see all the shows. We lived in a small town back then, it’s not so small any more. She used to take me to the State Theatre to see all the ballets and the operas and things like that. I think that would be where it got started.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You did your training at TUT. What was your time there like?

I think I was there when it was really good. Vicki Karras was still in charge of the dance department and of our department as well. I think it is still referred to as the prime years of TUT, specifically our department. I had a wonderful time. We were on the arts campus and it was just crazy. You could see exactly who studied what. Interesting people there. I loved it and it was valuable to me. I studied entertainment technology first, which is props, decor, makeup and all that stuff and then I swapped over to musical theatre. My studying years were fantastic. It was a good institution.

What was it that made you want to switch from entertainment technology to musical theatre?

I always wanted to act and direct first. There was always a love when I was younger but when my mom studied, it was still one subject. She said to me that she thinks that because of my physical artistic background, that I should maybe do that as a background first and then decide. I didn’t know musical theatre was something that you could take. I knew drama was. I wasn’t exposed to that side. That was still very young when I started. I was watching Into The Woods and I was working on it backstage and I just immediately phoned my mom and said that I wanted to swap from the one to the other. The next year, I auditioned and got in. 

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What was it that attracted you to Non-Specific?

I’ve been permanently with Gate69 for about nine months now. I did their previous show. It’s interesting because I have a separate history with all three of the girls there. Brendan [van Rhyn] and I studied together at TUT, Rudi [Jansen] and I did Grease together and Christopher [Dudgeon] and I did Rocky Horror together. That’s where I individually met all three of them. They later did Madame Zingara together. Christopher and I are best friends. When he opened the theatre a little over two years ago, he asked me to come and join him but at that point, my mom had just passed and my dad was ill. It was not a good time. Two years later, the timing was right. I was in the pantomime with them. I think the energy was just right between us all and because we have history and I know them very well, it was just a good fit and the timing was right. They swap me around. If Christopher gets too busy, I help with assistant directing a little bit. We all do a little bit of everything. He knew that I had the talent to do so because I had styled wigs before on shows that we were in together. I think he knew I could do it and that’s how it came about.

Are there any major differences between performing alongside them to designing for them?

No. It’s equally entertaining in different ways. It’s fun. We laugh a lot. It’s not all laughter, we fight as well but it’s a little family. Gate69 is a home away from home. I feel that we know each other’s beauty and irritations and we still, regardless of it, love each other dearly. We can have a fallout and not have it be the end of anything. Like family. It’s lovely to have. Obviously, I get that question a lot whether I prefer the performing arts over creating and I pick performing arts. I’m doing the pantomime at the end of the year with them as a performer and I’m really looking forward to that. I still enjoy what I do now. It’s just a different kind of fulfilment, I guess.

In regards to designing for this show, what was your process like?

With The Three Little Pigs, I was much more involved in designing the costumes with Christopher and thinking of ideas about how it would practically work. This time around, he had a clear idea of what he wanted. I didn’t have a lot to do with the design this time around. He just basically told me what to make. I did some research on some of the things but not a lot of input in pre-production of this one. It was different this time around to what it normally is because he was flying in and out of Joburg. We didn’t have a lot of time together so I think he just went ahead and did most of the planning himself.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

How long does each wig take you to create?

We call the big foam tube ones that open the show the Cremora wigs. Obviously, the first one always takes a bit of time because you have to figure out mathematically what works and what doesn’t. It was also the first time I was working with the thicker foam pieces which were a little bit more difficult to bend. That was about 14 hours per wig from the wig cap up until the final product.

Are there any interesting challenges that you might run into when creating a wig that the average person might not know about?

Mathematics plays a big part in the design and I always have to explain to clients because they see something on Pinterest or whatever that it’s a photography shoot [and] most likely something was edited out. I’ve done shoots before and there are guts and things holding it together for the photograph. It’s not practical on stage or if you have to walk with it. You have to make adjustments. I always giggle to myself having to explain, “I can’t exactly give you that but I can give you something close to it.” I think that, and possibly dying of inhalation of aerosol hairspray.

Which one of the wigs that feature in the show was the most difficult to design?

Probably the thick foam wigs that start the show. They took the longest and it was the first time I had worked with thick foam. It was time-consuming and frustrating. I burned myself a lot with the glue gun. It didn’t want to mould the way I wanted it to. Obviously, working with human hair or hair wigs is a lot easier. That doesn’t take as long. It’s a good six hours because I have to style it on their heads, so that takes time but not as much as the ones I do from scratch.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

Without giving anything away, the finale wigs look like they are styled impeccably. Nothing seems to be out of place at all. Do you have to restyle those at all during the run?

I do a fixer-upper every week and I respray it and repin it but I don’t restyle it. That would take too much time. I’ve styled it in a way that is durable. That’s what I meant earlier as well when I have to explain to clients. I knew what they were going to do with their wigs. They can come with ideas. The wig design is their own personal choice. They sent me reference pictures and said, “This is something similar to what I want.” Then, I will go to them and tell them if its a practical idea or it isn’t. They also know that they have to put it on and off, so sometimes it’s a want but it’s not do-able. Brendan’s wig took the longest to style but he is more particular than the other two girls. With Christopher’s, we had to adjust the front after the billboard photo shoot because it wasn’t made to last. I go every week and I just repin and respray. Obviously, there is wear and tear that you wouldn’t have normally. Normally people wear it once off. The other wigs I style for clients are for an occasion. It’s a once off. It’s not for a show.

How do you ensure that you are able to perform and design and remain inspired while doing the one and not the other?

I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s difficult to produce art on cue. It’s different for me, with acting, to turn it on when I’m not in the mood or I’m feeling ill or whatever. It’s more difficult. I’m not sure if it’s the same for other people. I don’t sleep much. I’m always finding ways to keep myself entertained. I’ll put on some series and create and kill time that way. I work from home, so it’s conveniently there when I want to do it at 3am if I feel inspired. As long as I reach my deadline, Christopher doesn’t care how I get there which is wonderful. I don’t have a 9am-5pm at the theatre except during production week when we have to be available all day at the theatre. Otherwise, I can juggle it however I want to which is wonderful.

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

Your work has spanned from stage to screen. Do you have a preference? 

Unfortunately, I lost my love for musical theatre over the years. It’s kind of sad because I studied it but I have no want to be in one any more. I do the smaller, short running ones every now and then. I did Altyd My Droom in the past and that was also a small one that ran for two months and then it was done. The pantomimes are short and then I’m done. I’ll do stuff like that but I can’t do the long touring ones anymore. Comedy is my favourite genre, bar none. If I can just do comedy, I’d be so happy. Obviously, that is not necessarily possible. There is nothing like a live performance in the moment but I would say I prefer, because of effort, series. You learn your words in your own time, you go to set, they call you to do your makeup, everything gets done. There is not a lot of drama and sitting around. I mean you are sitting around but I find it less involved, emotionally, to do a series. At this point in my life, I kind of steer away from the drama, which unfortunately comes with theatre. I’m talking about backstage drama. When you are on set, there is no time. When you do theatre, you are in each other’s space all the time. It’s intimate, so there is a lot more possibility for friction, I think, which on a series set, it’s likely not to happen. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen but I find there is more drama in the crew than there is in the cast normally because they also live in each other’s space all the time and are in each other’s face. I think for the logistical reasons of that, I’d rather do series at this point in my life but there is nothing like delivering a line correctly and making an audience laugh or bringing someone to tears when you sing a song and seeing it. It’s lovely. At the end of the day, except for money and everything, you do it for the applause and the immediate gratification of it. I don’t know if a lot of artists will agree with that but I think we are slightly ego-driven people. Not in a bad way. People often look at ego as a bad thing. It really isn’t. Confidence and ego go hand in hand. You shouldn’t be ashamed. Be proud.

You’ve also managed to work within both the English and Afrikaans market. What has your experience been of navigating between the two seemingly separate worlds?

They are quite separate in terms of network. You’ve got your Afrikaans clan and your English clan. Very few people branch over from the one to the other. I always find that if I go onto set and I talk about the well-known English actors, they won’t necessarily know who I’m talking about. There’s a big divide there unfortunately but then there is also a big divide between stage and musical theatre. Even the series, there is a divide. I find it to be a very separate thing, except in musical theatre because you don’t find a lot of Afrikaans musicals, unfortunately, so you have a lot of Afrikaans people branching out into musical theatre which is in English but as far as plays, actors don’t know each other. If you aren’t very famous, they don’t know each other. 

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

Is there anything still on your professional bucket list?

Yes. I want to do more comedy and I’ve written a couple of sketches that I want to film. There was a choice of, “Do I do it live?” But I am so scared of technology because I am so technologically challenged but I think that is the way to go nowadays. That’s something I haven’t tried. I haven’t tried using that to my advantage or in my career. It’s in the pipeline. I’m discussing it with people now and discussing the possibility of doing it next year, maybe even at the end of the year but I doubt it. There are too many things happening but I want to do that and see how it does and how it’s received. I’ve got a little bit of a dark sense of humour. It doesn’t always translate well. I always say two things to people entering the industry, “If you can make peace with the fact that you are never going to be loved by everyone, you’d be ok and if you don’t get embarrassed easily, I think you’ll have access to big performances.”

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

My friend Ashleigh Harvey inspires me. She is such a vibrant go-getter, incredibly talented, also branches out into theatre, musical theatre and television. She is producing and writing. She is just phenomenal. She’s been a big inspiration for me. There are obviously artists that I love watching. I must say, in the Afrikaans community, Lee-Ann van Rooi. She is a phenomenal public speaker and she empowers female power. She is just wonderful. She also does things outside the industry. I think acting can be very self-serving if you are not careful. You can very easily become you and nothing and nobody else. I like actors who think outside themselves, even if it’s just for your community or helping others with your talent. Also obviously, Sandra Prinsloo. She is fantastic. My mom had just passed and I met her for the first time in my life. She didn’t know me from a bar of soap and she said, “If you want time, I’ve got a beach house. If you want to go, let me know.” It was just such an incredible kindness to me from somebody who doesn’t have to be. She can’t gain anything from me, she didn’t know who I was and I’ll never forget that. Besides the fact that she is just a phenomenal icon. That is something to strive to be like. Kabous Meiring is unbelievable. I’ve never left a conversation with her not wanting more of the conversation. The knowledge that is in that brain of hers is unbelievable. She is very good at motivating new people. She doesn’t break down. She inspires. I get inspired all the time. I like people who branch out and who are kind human beings, that is also important.


Non-Specific is running at Gate69 until July 27th. For tickets, click here.

You can follow Tessa on Instagram or via her official Facebook page.

Special thanks to Allison Foat.

All photos were taken on April 23rd 2019 at The Blue Cafe.

Sarafina Magazine maintains copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.

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