Naledi Majola is an actor, performance-maker and sound designer. In 2018, she was seen on stage in Tara Notcutt’s historic all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew and in Stream, a multimedia performance work led by Jennifer Steyn at the Baxter Theatre. She makes her feature film debut later this year in The Banana Splits. Her performance work, Where is the black samurai? debuted at Arcade, a durational live art platform curated by Gavin Krastin, and was most recently performed at the 2018 ICA Live Art Festival. Naledi also designs sound for performance, having recently done so for her own work, as well as AMES, written and directed by Andi Colombo in 2018 and the upcoming production of Tales from the Garden written by Ameera Conrad, which will run at the Baxter Theatre’s Masambe Theatre followed by a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
It definitely started with music [and] just growing up in a home where music was a part of the fabric of our existence. My dad plays the piano and the organ, so that was always going on. His side of the family, in general, is very involved in choral music and composing and all that stuff. My older sister started piano and I followed close behind. I was eight, just at school playing piano [and] being in choir led to being in musicals and then that led to doing theatre and straight plays. It’s always just been an element. I can’t imagine how my life would have been without it just because it was always a constant. Yes, once or twice I was like, “Maybe I should be a psychiatrist or whatever.” But generally, it was always art. That is what I was going to do. It just always changed from wanting to do music to wanting to do acting. It was always the arts.
What was it that made you want to study theatre and performance as opposed to music?
At school, I took drama and I took music as subjects and it was really in high school where I got more exposed to theatre and kind of fell for it. I think, in my mind, it just felt like the most integrated thing that I could do. I did love music but I think I maybe felt like it would have been too high pressured to do it at university and to go down that route. I loved it, it was something that I enjoyed but I think I wanted to keep it that way as something enjoyable rather than turning it into a job.
You did your training at UCT. What was your time there like?
It was incredible. It was really amazing. It was wild. It was tumultuous. It had its ups and downs but I couldn’t imagine myself training anywhere else because of what I got from it. I think you only really appreciate the teaching when you are outside of it and you are in the world and you realise, “This is what they meant when they said this.” I think the one thing that I will always be grateful to UCT drama for is the discipline that got instilled in us. I don’t know if I’m biased but I just feel like there isn’t a UCT actor graduate who is not afraid of hard work and who is not afraid of really getting stuck in and doing what needs to be done to make the work happen. I’m super thankful for the sort of really technical, going in-depth of the voice and the body. And then, of course, just the relationships that I got to build there and the fact that these are people that I still have in my life today and that I still get to work and collaborate with.
During your time studying theatre and performance, how did you manage to still nurture your music?
I didn’t. I have to shout out my high school piano teacher, Rosemary Fraser back in KZN. She was the most incredible person I could have ever asked to have as a teacher. My teacher when I was in primary school was also incredible. With Mrs Fraser, I’ve never been so supported and had someone believe in me so much. I think a lot of kids who do music are a bit sensitive and a bit perfectionistic and they are quite hard on themselves and I just had this teacher who understood how to work with me and how to support me and how to guide me. I left with that incredible experience but I think then getting to varsity and not having that positive voice next to me, I kind of started being like, “That was something I did in high school. That was cool but it’s not my thing anymore. I am fully in theatre. It’s a cute thing on the side but it’s not really something I feel I am capable of making work out of.” My mom was disappointed by that and she would say, “You need to find a way to bring it into what you do.” I was low-key not really wanting to. I think I just lost confidence in myself because I didn’t have that positive voice of confidence with me all the time. It was only towards the end of my fourth year when I started thinking about making my own work, that I kind of fell back into it by necessity. I had a very clear vision of the soundtrack of the thing and I was like, “I must just make this myself because I don’t know who to ask, so let me make it myself.” So now I guess I am back in it in a different way but I think now I’m actually finding how to integrate it into the theatre training and stuff that I do.
Do you feel like your music career and your acting career lends themselves to one another?
I wouldn’t call it a music career by any stretch of the imagination. I think as artists and as creative people, everything is integrated and everything does feed into each other. Even if you are doing one particular thing like designing sound, I think the lessons you have as an artist and just how you see things, always influences the thing. Acting itself is incredibly rhythmic and it’s a communicative thing. One of the worst things I think you can do as an actor is to listen to yourself and be self-conscious of your voice and space but you do have to be tuned into a rhythm when you are in dialogue with someone and a scene. You have to be feeling that all the time. I think there is a musicality about it. I do feel like everything is integrated and I see myself as a whole thing, not as this fragmented thing. I act and I design sound. It’s a whole thing.
What was it that originally attracted you to Tales from the Garden?
I was asked! The fact that Ameera Conrad and Kathleen Stephens were like, “Do you want to come on board and design sound for this thing,” I was just shook because I was like, “Why me?” I was afraid but also, I felt this deep trust of them just because of who they are and what they have created. It would have been a wasted opportunity to not come on board, just because of the power of the story and the people who are creating it and the opportunity to learn. Everything is a learning process and I approach it from that angle. I had to take the opportunity to learn. It’s been an amazing process of growth.
What is your process like when it comes to designing sound for a project like this?
It starts with the script and reading that. I like to ask the director what their impulse is, if they have any images or words or things that are kind of stirring inside of them. I think what I’ve learned so far is to start from a very intuitive place and to not try to pre-empt everything because I do have that very technical mind which tries to jump ahead. It starts with that and then I kind of just play with little phrases or themes or ideas and then, of course, you can work at home and come up with all of this stuff and then I send it to the director and they give me notes and we are kind of back and forth with that. Something changes when you actually come into the room and you hear the words coming out of the actor’s mouth. It completely shifts everything. That is a very special point in the process and you adjust according to that. This is my second piece. AMES was the first one. So far, that’s been the process that’s worked but I’ve also found that yes, work from impulse to begin but sometimes I get to a point where I expect the sound to come down to me from the heavens and the inspiration to flow through me and that doesn’t happen. Just like writers get writer’s block, there is also just that thing where you are like, “It’s not happening.” What I learned from AMES, was to then set myself challenges and then go into my intellectual practical mode and say, “Compose a little piece that uses this particular cord or rhythm.” In having that constraint and that challenge, a lot of creative stuff comes out. I think it’s a matter of just bouncing between the very impulse/intuitive thing but also that very practical framework/structured type of thing and just making something.
Are there any major differences between creating work in collaboration with others versus creating for your own work?
Yes, there’s a difference. I think the gift of collaboration is the fact that you have someone to bounce things off of and even if there is an idea that you are not necessarily trusting, to bring it to that person and to get their perspective on it because it might be completely different from what you think. You might be thinking, “This is the most shocking thing in the whole world.” And they’ll be like, “Actually, it’s pretty cool. Why don’t we extract this element from it?” Whereas working alone, you are in the wilderness and there are no mountains to echo off of. You are walking and you are screaming and you are like, “Is this fine?” It’s that thing of having to trust what you are doing, which is why I’m thankful for collaboration because I feel like the next time I go and make something for myself, I will be able to trust more because I’ve been working in this context of having someone to bounce off of and stuff like that. The thing about collaborating is that I’ve had the freedom to play, but I suppose when you are on your own, you really can go to some insane places. I imagine that every creative person has a folder on their computer or a notebook of the most ridiculous nonsense where if it saw the light of day, they’d just cry because it would be awful. But you can go there when you are on your own and really explore and pull yourself back, hopefully. Both are good. Both feed into each other and I think that we should do both.
Last year you were involved in two very exciting high-profile new projects. The first one being The Taming of the Shrew. Was that your first professional audition after drama school?
Yes. Getting cast, I was like, “Are you sure?” I didn’t expect it. To be afforded that opportunity was incredible and to work with the people that I did and to also experience that spectrum of artists who are fresh in the thing and artists who are established at doing the thing was an amazing learning process.
What did you take away from that production?
From a practical level, I just learned how big theatre is and on a production scale, how much goes into it. At school, you learn that but this was the next level. Being in an ensemble of that size, I think I also just learned about playing. We always talk about playing but on an actual authentic level really playing and being present. That was the longest run of anything I had ever done at that point and I was so worried that I would get complacent or bored or just give the same bland thing every night because I am the kind of person, after a certain while, I do get antsy and want to jump to the next thing. With that particular ensemble, they were so present every night and that really got me to remember to keep playing and to keep it fresh. It was easy because I was with people who are proficient in that. I think that was the biggest takeaway for me.
It was like beyond anything I could have expected. It was a difficult process because of the things that she was asking us to engage with and the places that we were asked to go to. I always felt like I had this difficulty with drilling down internally and accessing certain states and emotions. I don’t really like this type of language but I always felt like there was a block. The reason I don’t like that type of language is because it can be a bit psychologically discouraging because then you are like, “There’s a block. There’s a brick wall. I can’t get through it.” You bash and bash against it. But something about the way she worked with us, I got through it and it wasn’t a violent thing. It wasn’t, “I need to break something of myself to get there.” I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was like Harry Potter going through the wall at Platform 9 and three quarters. I just went through it and I was able to travel to a place internally that I don’t think I’ve been to before, with and alongside Albert Pretorius and Claire Berlein, which was also just insane. I was like, “Why am I in the room with these people?” To do it alongside them and to do it with Jennifer and to be in this incredibly nurturing space where yes, we are asked to do something incredibly difficult and to explore a part of humanity which is disturbing but in such a space of love. Maybe I sound a bit hippyish but it was amazing and I think that translated in the performance. The way that she worked with us and the way that she set up her space in that rehearsal room, reflected in what we presented on stage. Process is so important. The way that we work with each other is so important and she just knows how to do that.
Because you work within the realm of creating work alongside others and creating your own work, as an artist, what are the stories you feel you gravitate towards?
I think its a thing where I kind of operate on two different levels. I’m pretty cerebral and intellectual, so I do look at what I personally want to create. I do look at it from the perspective of research and from the perspective of having a question and being curious about something and performance being the vehicle of working that thing out. I think of it as working oneself out in the world and I think at the moment, I am really interested in identity and how we exist and how we are positioned in the world and what that means but on a very human level. I think that’s where I’m at right now, the humanness and how that is flawed and how that is a mess. Sometimes I think of it as an act of humility but maybe I’m wrong, but to approach things from a place of not knowing and to approach things from a place of, “I know that I’m flawed but that’s what makes it interesting.” Because we are humans and we are a mess. It’s like a tentative dip into who we are, here and now with each other. And history and the past. I’m obsessed with the past. I’m so obsessed with how it speaks to the present. That’s kind of where my soul is right now, that conversation between past and present and being a mess.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
I think every artist has their focus. I would like people to just, hopefully, think or see things from a different perspective, which is to have your perspective shift a little bit. I don’t expect life-changing or any of that but just to kind of be like, “This thing that I took for granted as truth or whatever, maybe there is another side to it?” I think that’s it. That little tiny shift of, “Maybe that’s another way of seeing it.” I think there are multiple ways, especially when it comes to identity. I think that we need to constantly complicate our perspectives on identity because the minute we don’t, the minute we essentialise, the minute we set people in stone, I think that’s where issues and conflict and not so nice things start coming up. Just to constantly complicate even if it’s irritating, even if it’s just a messy scribble, rather that than having a very basic view of people and of yourself in the world.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
In terms of the luminaries and icons where I just melt, Jennifer Steyn, obviously. For all those reasons I said before. Lesoko Seabe for literally having the best voice on planet earth that just brings life and colour to every character. Jacki Job is a genius. She’s a maker, performer, teacher, everything. In terms of the people who I get to be friends with but also work with and also call when I’m confused and freaking out; Kanya Viljoen, Andi Colombo, Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni, Kathleen Stephens, Ameera Conrad, Masali Baduza, Nicola Moerman, Kate Pinchuck, Dara Beth, Buhle Ngaba, Daneel van der Walt, Klara van Wyk, Liese Kuhn, Ann Juries-May and Lukhanyiso Skosana.
You can follow Naledi on Instagram.
All photos were taken on May 3rd 2019.