Shelley Lothian is an award-winning choreographer, director, singer, actress and dancer. Her performance credits include The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Boys in the Photograph, Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You, Show Boat and Cabaret. She directed Chef, Rattle and Roll; The Purr Factory and Maybe Baby It’s You. She served as Resident Director on Janice Honeyman’s Show Boat, Matthew Wild’s Cabaret and West Side Story; David Kramer’s Orpheus in Africa and District Six- Kanala, and most recently King Kong with Jonathan Munby at the Fugard Theatre. She was also Associate Director on the international musical Tiger Bay. She has choreographed various productions including The King and I, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, District Six- Kanala and Sneeuwitjie. Shelley’s other choreographic credits include My Fair Lady; Chef, Rattle and Roll and Liefling – all of which received Naledi Theatre Award nominations, as well as Fiddler on the Roof and The Pirates of Penzance which both won the Naledi Theatre Award for Best Original Choreography. She is currently starring in the Fugard Theatre’s production of Kinky Boots where she also serves as Resident Director.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
It really was just in me. I cannot remember a time when it wasn’t a fundamental part of my life. I don’t think there was ever an option. Funnily enough, I explored other options and I went Bcomming and all that stuff but I never had a moment where I went, “I think that’s what I want to do.” It was just in me.
You did your training at what is now know as TUT. What was your time there like?
Incredible! There was this sort of period at Pretoria Tech where we had extraordinary teachers. I can’t use that word enough. They were extraordinary. We had such a well-rounded education. It was the institution to go to. I loved every second of it. I cannot talk enough about it. The performer I am today and the creative I am today really comes from that. The grounding and the training that I had, I can’t thank them enough.
While you were there, you were studying musical theatre in addition to also studying choreography…
Yes. I did a degree in musical theatre. I was the second person in South Africa to ever do that degree. It was only implemented when I was in my second year. Marcel Meyer was the first and I was the second. When you did your degree, you got to major and you got to choose things. I majored in choreography and singing. I was one of the musical students but had a strong choreographic path as well.
Did you ever feel as though one of those paths tried to overshadow the other?
Yes sure, but I’ve been really fortunate in that from the day I started studying, not just my professional career, I was never forced into making a choice. No one ever said, “You have to be a performer. You have to be a creative. You have to be a teacher, designer, whatever it is.” I was always just allowed to go with the flow and change my mind when I felt like it and I think I took that into my career as well. When I was performing, it was such a focused thing and then these choreographic opportunities would come up and I would go into that and they never seemed to overshadow each other. I remember quite clearly someone saying to me when I just started really getting a name as a choreographer, “You have to choose. If you don’t really follow that path as a creative and you keep performing, you are never going to get anywhere.” And I thought, “Stuff that. If I want to, I can.” That’s the beauty of this industry and I think I am so fortunate. They never took over each other. The same with directing and resident directing and teaching. Neither one has been sacrificed by another one.
What was it that originally attracted you to Kinky Boots?
The show is just extraordinary. I think musical theatre is at an interesting place right now where it’s a lot of well-known movies being changed into musicals, which is lovely. There are also these musicals that are hard and emotional and take you on this journey that really pushes you into a place where you have to explore your own emotions. It’s quite extreme. Kinky Boots comes along and it’s this highly entertaining, rock, pop music with this message that is so necessary in the world right now. When this show was announced, often you take work because you need to keep yourself alive and it’s something you might like doing, it’s not often that something comes along and you go, “I want to be part of that!” It was the story of this show and knowing what a South African cast could do in a show like this.
What does being a resident director entail? What is an average day like?
Absolute chaos but it’s kind of two-fold. The first part of the job within the rehearsal period is for me to be that support and that extra eye for Matthew [Wild] or whoever is directing but in this case, it’s Matthew, and constantly be helping him and keep everything flowing, helping him with all the details, keeping the schedules together. Just that director support. The other part of the job is once that show is up and running. It’s maintaining the integrity of the show, looking after a cast. It’s a hard job. Also making sure they stay in place and don’t let the show get too loose, keeping the show tight, keep it fresh and new so that we don’t get bored as a cast. It’s easy to happen and that sort of sums up the two most important part of the role as resident director.
You are also cover two roles in the show…
I’m covering two roles in the show and I’m part of the ensemble as a factory worker in the show every night.
Is that common practice to juggle both roles?
Not really. It happens. I know a couple of people who wear both hats. It does make both jobs a little bit more difficult because as a resident director, I don’t have 100% focus on the show because I’m thinking about my own track and my own performance. In a cast, as an actor, I’m not as free because I’m always stepping aside as the authoritative person who needs to keep an eye on it. It’s challenging but it’s fun and I like that challenge. I haven’t been on stage in a while so that’s part of the reason why I wanted to do it as well. That little voice, that little itch that we need scratched as performers was going to be satisfied with this as well.
When it comes to choreographing a piece, where do you start? What is your process like?
I love exploring things and jazz and contemporary and corporate choreography and all of that but musical theatre is my home. Musical theatre is my safe place. My process is always about the story and the actors. I’m a big fan of choreographing on actors who think they can’t dance. I really enjoy that. One of my favourite shows I’ve ever choreographed was Greg Homann’s Pirates of Penzance. It was five men doing Pirates of Penzance all the characters and these are five men who are self-professed that they have two left feet. The satisfaction of getting a story physically and in dance out of people who think they can’t is very satisfying. I’m a choreographer who often doesn’t do detailed prep beforehand. I like to get pictures in my head. I like my ideas to be big and broad before I walk into a room so I know the type of image I want to see but for me, it’s way more interesting seeing it on those bodies and it’s way more interesting seeing that actor bring their personality and what they have into the room. It’s a big part of my process.
As you mentioned before, you do wear many different hats and you are known in the industry as each of those different things. How do you ensure that all those separate entities are nurtured?
That’s a really good question. I don’t even think I’ve thought about that. As I was saying earlier, I have been so fortunate that I’ve felt that they’ve never interfered with each other or overlapped with each other. I think that helps them to get nurtured naturally within whatever I’m doing. Sometimes you have to put a lot more work or effort into nurturing. For example, I’ve been resident director for the last five years. That’s really the most work I’ve been doing so you don’t get a chance to be very creative. You are looking after someone else’s creative work. I’m not singing or dancing or acting myself, then I have to put the effort in myself and sometimes putting the effort in is singing in the shower or singing in the car or dancing around my house. It’s that simple. I never let go of any part of it. That’s how I nurture it. I never think any one is over. A lot of people change paths. They stop performing to direct or they go teach or they stop being a creative to do a corporate job. I think they let go of it. They feel like it’s final. I never feel that. Even if I haven’t done something in three or four years, it’s never gone. I have the luxury to do it and that nurtures it all the time because it’s always in me.
In regards to your career as a resident director, what do you find to be the biggest misconception people might have about that?
Probably that you are just an assistant. I think people sometimes see a resident director as the person who is following behind the director going, “Yes sir. No, sir.” There maybe are some directors who are like that. I’ve been fortunate that I don’t have that. I think it’s way more proactive than people think. Your responsibility is to be able to have the voice of the director and trust your own voice that you are making the right choices. When I’ve worked with people like Matthew and David Kramer and Janice Honeyman, all of them have always given me that voice and given me that freedom and trusted me. That is probably the biggest misconception, that you are just an assistant following a director around. It’s way more complicated than that.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
I’m so proud of so many things because this industry is hard. I think performers and creatives don’t say they are proud enough of themselves. I’m older now so I said I’m proud. I’m proud of work I’ve done. The thing I think I’m the most proud of in a big broad scale is that I’ve had longevity with so many different hats. It’s rare to have that. Certain projects I look back on with a bit of a smile. Fiddler on the Roof is one of them. It’s the first show I ever choreographed where I really felt like myself, where I felt confident as a choreographer. And then there’s the children’s theatre work I’ve done. I’m really proud of that. I spent many years with the late Francois Theron who was my buddy and my partner in crime. We made beautiful theatre together and we got bums in seats. I loved doing that, opening the doors for young viewers. I love it so much. I’m really proud of everything I’ve done. There is nothing I look back on and I cringe, even the stuff that may not have been as great. I’ve made many mistakes as a creative and as a performer. I don’t regret them and I’m still proud of all of it.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge?
I don’t think anyone in this industry could ever tell you that there aren’t challenges. I think personal challenges are the hardest in this industry. You are so studied and looked at and on display at all times whether you are a performer and it’s physically the way you look, the way you sound, the way you act or as a creative; your choices are judged all the time. It’s very hard not to let that get to you and it’s very hard to not take that personally. The biggest challenge was learning that I am good enough to be in this business and that if I don’t get a job, it’s because I’m not right for it and not because I’m not good enough. My husband taught me that a lot as well about learning that all I can bring, is what I have to offer. You can’t do more than that. The challenge is learning to really love and respect yourself as a performer and when you do that, you are better for it. You become a better performer because you are no longer trying to be “right” and trying to be “the best” but you are just trying to be truthful and honest in the moment. I think I’m there but it’s a struggle every day to remind myself of that.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice at the beginning of your career, what would it be and why?
“Be you.” I watched a wonderful commencement speech that Tim Minchin was giving. I just adore him and that was one of his lessons: Be you. There is no other one and you cannot be anyone else. You have to open your eyes and honestly look at yourself and be you. If I could go back to my 20-year-old self and just say, “Stop trying to be something that you are not,” I think I would have gotten here a lot quicker. Just be truthful about who you are and what you have to offer in this industry.
Is there anything still on your career bucket list?
So many things! So many because I am the jack of all trades, and that is sometimes seen as a negative thing but I’m very proud of that, I want to learn more, I want to do more, I want to direct more. I think that is where I feel the most comfortable. I love telling stories. I want to direct all sorts of things. I want to direct big musicals and small musicals and I want to explore. I want to branch out as well. I want to find out what happens behind the scenes and the film and TV industry. I want to teach more. I haven’t taught in a while. I’m one of those people who just wants to do more and more. I get bored easily so I’m like those dogs that see the squirrel. Shiny new thing? I want to go to it. So many things on my bucket list. I am not going to stop. Ever.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Always Janice Honeyman. We can talk for days about how great she is as a director, there is no denying that but she works with kindness as well as being brilliant. That is something I respect so much about her. She makes everyone around her just feel great and that brings out such a great performance. She is one of the first people that saw something in me and pushed me into it. I have a lot of love for that woman. I think back on my teachers. The late great Vicki Karras who is so well-known in the musical theatre training industry and she was an extraordinary woman. She also saw something in me. Women sometimes don’t nurture each other and it’s those who have nurtured me. My husband has just started working with Christa Schamberger in the casting industry and she just, and I’m going to say this again, she works with kindness and she is nurturing. It’s never about belittling and it’s always about getting the best out of people.
Special thanks to Christine Skinner.
All photos were taken at the Fugard Theatre on May 9th 2019.