A Conversation with Olivia Fischer

Olivia Fischer is an award-winning playwright, director and producer. After graduating with her degree in theatre and performance, specialising in theatre-making from the University of Cape Town, Olivia premiered Still at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in Los Angeles, CA. Still was awarded five Hollywood Fringe awards including Tvolution’s Best International Show and the Conversation Creation award. In 2018, Olivia opened a production company called LIV Studios, a company that aims to develop female-identifying playwrights and theatre-makers. Olivia is a published writer: her autobiographical monologue Coming For You was recently published in the Market Laboratory’s anthology Between the Pillar and the Post: an anthology of South African monologues and scenes. Her other theatre credits include writing and directing an adaptation of Sindiwe Magona’s The Cruel King Lives! called Thandiwe: The Loved One and directed Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs. Her main focus as she continues to grow as a theatre-maker is telling stories of womxn: their resilience, their strength but above all, their undeniable capacity to love.

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

I went to the Edinburgh Festival in Grade 11 as part of my drama tour. I had always been part of theatre and the arts. I was a dancer and I did singing but I didn’t really fully take that space. I had done theatre and I really wanted to write and direct but when I was in Edinburgh, I saw a show called Bottleneck written by Luke Barnes who is one of my favourite playwrights. It’s a one-man show and it’s all about the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. It’s a one-man show and it’s all about how he loses his best friend at this football match that his best friend stole tickets to get to. There was this moment, my heart is beating really fast thinking about it, his best friend has asthma and he is reaching his fingers out, there is nothing on stage beside him, he knows that and you know that but there is this moment of suspension where he is reaching out his hand and he is wheezing like his friend but he is breathing like himself and it’s gone. The gates fall over and he rushes into the audience and he is out onto the field and he is looking for his best friend and his best friend is gone. That moment for me, I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it, was so significant and I don’t know what it was and I’ve never read any theory that explains what that was because that moment is so intangible. After that show, I sat on the cobblestones in the middle of Edinburgh for 45 minutes and I just cried because I was like, “This is what I want to do. This is who I want to be. I want to find that moment.” I’m still looking for it and I think I’m going to be looking for it until the day I die but that moment is what I’ll be chasing. I don’t know what it is but it’s there and it’s possible. I know because I was part of it. That’s what really solidified what got me into theatre. 

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You did your training at UCT, what was your time there like?

UCT was unreal. I have no better word to describe it. I really miss it. I think I might be one of the few people who say that so soon after drama school. I spent so much time wishing it away but I want to go back. There is a sense of community there and a sense of the exchange of knowledge and ideas and skills. There is so much learning and unlearning that takes place in that space and I was surrounded by eight other very strong, powerful womxn in my theatre-making class that really pushed me and pulled me apart and put me back together and watched me breakdown and then watch me be at my best and have guided me in small and big ways through that. That is a really powerful space to be in, a space surrounded by womxn who are equally trying to navigate and grow and learn and unlearn and build something of yourself within this community. I am so grateful for that time and I think that you never know how profound that is until you are out in the industry. As hard and as traumatic as a lot of things that happened to me while I was there, it was all so worth it at the end. We were asked at our audition what we wanted out of UCT and I said, “I want a community.” I got that. That’s why I went and that’s why I miss it and why I’ll always be grateful for that. We were there during Fees Must Fall and I remember someone saying that Fees Must Fall was a time where, because our conventional lessons had stopped, we weren’t being taught anything but I learned the most during those times. I learned the most and I was eight and a half months pregnant. The week before I gave birth, I was still going to those seminars and those meetings because I wanted to learn. If you are not there to learn about other people and to learn how to stretch your empathy because that’s what storytellers are, they have an empathetic muscle that forces you to expand yourself and your understanding of the world. I think it’s something that changed everything for me. I learned more in those shutdowns about the human condition and the way that we live within our little ivory towers [and] our fractured society than I ever did in a classroom or a lecture hall or in a voice class. That kind of learning is immeasurable. 

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What was the original creation process for Still?

I was raped when I was 18 and it changed everything for me. Before, I already had an idea of what I wanted to do for my final piece. I didn’t want my rape to define me but it really had paved an understanding and stretched that empathy muscle that I spoke about before and kind of solidified my feminist views and how I wanted to shift the conversation around womxn. Still started with this idea, this dream I had about a woman submerged in a glass box on a stage. I was a swimmer growing up so I have a very strong relationship with water. I always came back to this image. We spent a year with Mark [Fleishman] conceptualizing, working through, trying to build a strong enough conceptual basis so that when we got thrown in the deep end and had two weeks to do everything with actors, that we could do that and be able to do that. When I walked into the rehearsal process I said, “I don’t really know what this is going to look like. I just have this idea of a girl in a glass box. I want it to be about sexual assault.” Because I had read a lot of sexual assault literature and plays revolving around that subject matter, I didn’t want the climax to be a “he said” or “she said” because I’m tired of those kinds of narratives. Those are not exciting to me and they are not climactic. I always believe the victim so for me, It’s just boring now and it doesn’t stretch us. I wanted to do something that was about sexual assault but about the long-term effects of sexual assault where the climax was not about “he said” or “she said,” where the playwright itself didn’t question the validity of the victim but gives enough room where the audience [will], because the audience always will because that is the rape culture that we are brought up in and that is the mindset that we as an audience share. The other thing was that I didn’t want the rapist to have a voice, so I killed him in the show. But what I found really interesting was even though he was dead, the event had so much pull over these characters and so much hold over them. Because that’s what I would want to do to my rapist, I would want to kill him but killing him doesn’t mean he loses his hold over me. I’d like to believe he doesn’t but he does. Those were the things that I was thinking about when I started the process. I came in with a couple of monologues that I had written and a couple of scenes that I had written and built a show using those are the core elements. It really was like being thrown in the deep end. We had two weeks to do something. We did something that I was really proud of and something that spoke to all of those values but at the same time stretching the muscle, moving the conversation forward, twisting the conversation into something people might have not considered before. 

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You’ve been working on this piece for a number of years and you’ve taken it from UCT to Los Angeles, to the National Arts Festival and now back to Cape Town. How has the piece evolved?

It’s changed a lot. It changes every time we look at it again. I actually need to learn how to step away. It’s interesting to me how I’m different. There will be a certain amount of time that will pass, there will be certain events that have shifted the piece itself and shifted my relationship with the piece and there is the added thing of having a new cast and what they bring to the table and how they perceive those characters and those decisions that are made differently. I was called the rape girl and actually looking at my work, all my work revolves around sexual assault, sexual harassment, some kind of gender-based violence. The preexisting texts that I am drawn to all revolve around this relationship that we have to that type of violence and that intimate violence. Even though that is all I’m really interested in at the moment, it doesn’t make the work stagnant. You can deepen that understanding. You can ask new questions but you have to be open to those new questions and open to your opinion changing, which has been a journey in itself for me. It’s taken me a long time to forgive and in forgiving, wanting to teach and that’s the greatest progress that you see in the piece if you have been following its journey from UCT. I think that is coming through now, particularly my forgiveness of men and by-standing men within that culture, not in forgiveness but by understanding an attempt to speak their language so that they can understand the violence within that silence.

You are approaching this text as both it’s writer and director. Do you feel as though you need to separate those two aspects when you walk into the rehearsal room or are they one and the same?

It’s a yes and I’ll tell you why. It’s because you have a particular vision as the director of the mise-en-scène, not just the physical but the emotional and psychological world you want on stage that the writer gives clues to. When you are both, you understand that world very three-dimensionally and if you’ve done enough work as the writer and as the director, you should know that world quite intimately. When you are a director, you have to be really open to the interpretation that the actors bring you in the rehearsal space where you have to let go of what you believe the world to be, which when you are writing, that’s what you are putting down on paper, and be open to interpretation and open to different voices bringing it to life. It takes a long time. There are still sometimes where I hear a line and then I’m like, “That’s not how it is meant to be said.” But you have to allow other people to breathe into the text because that is how theatre is made. I find that directors are a little bit better than that, from my own experience playing both. Once the writing is done, once there is a final draft, I feel a lot freer as a director in the rehearsal process to allow that to happen because then I’m not thinking about how the line is meant to be said, I’m just thinking, “The life, where is it? How can we find it? How can we breathe it in?” 

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You founded your own production company, LIV Studios. What has the formation process of that been like and what are you hoping to contribute to the South African theatrical landscape?

I’ve always wanted to own my own production company. My dad owns his own company and my mom has built companies. I really value being my own boss and the freedom and responsibility that it gives you. I love that kind of responsibility. That is kind of what I wanted to do. When we got into Hollywood Fringe, it was a really good opportunity to build that brand as a singular company. It is still early days. This is its second year and the only project its got is Still and now Tales From The Garden. Two things have always been important to me; I’ve always wanted to be able to do the work that I want to do and not to answer to a whole lot of other people, within reason, and I’ve always wanted to create a space for womxn and to be a part of that space. I want LIV Studios to do that. That’s why Tales was such an important thing for me to get on board with because first of all, if Ameera Conrad wants to work with you, you jump at that opportunity and second of all, it’s the beginnings of it being able to create that space. It’s not my own work but it is the start of building LIV Studios to become something like that. That space will change and it will shift but I really want to see more female-based work written by womxn, for womxn and to give womxn the space where they can ask for something and someone will say yes or someone will say, “It’s not a no but I’ll see if I can make a plan.” I’m still learning about that space and what that space will ultimately look like but its a start and I’m really proud of that start because getting started, I find, is the hardest thing to do as a creative. 

What are your hopes for the rest of your career?

I want a career that my daughter will be proud of. I owe so much to my parents and I owe so much to my daughter, Mila, and I really want Mila to be 18 and to look at who I am trying to be, all the mistakes, all the fumbles, all the successes and all. I want her to look at that and go, “I was raised by a strong, independent womxn who wasn’t afraid to ask, who wasn’t afraid to say no, who wasn’t afraid to make mistakes and who held her own.” I don’t think I’ll always be able to do that but that’s what I really want. Before I had Mila, all I wanted was to win a Tony. What a normal thing where you stand in your bedroom holding a toothbrush practising your speech. But actually, at the end of the day, I don’t really want that. I just want Mila to be proud of who I could be so that she can feel like she has that space to do what I’m hoping to do, for herself. 

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Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

As a theatre-maker, what is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever received?

That is so difficult to answer because I was taught by Mark Fleishman and Mark, in a dramaturgy lesson at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning, would drop you with some hard pieces of gold nugget wisdom and you would just eat it up and write it all down. The best piece? It’s along the lines of, “Just say the fucking line. Do the fucking thing.” It’s not always going to be good. And if it is always good, you are not trying hard enough and you are not growing. I’m still trying to learn that. There are so many scripts and scenes that are sitting on my laptop or in my journal that I haven’t touched since that first spark because I’m too scared. I’m scared of rejection and I’m scared of people saying that I’m a one-hit wonder because I feel that way, but at some point, I’m going to have to get over myself, plain and simple because you just have to say the fucking line. You just have to do the fucking thing. That’s it. 

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

Amy Jephta, first and foremost. Kathleen Stephens, Ameera Conrad. Anyone in my graduating year, the eight womxn. I’ve never said this but Puleng Lange-Stewart has made such an influence on me in a way that I don’t think she knows. When I had Mila, I was in third year and I felt so alone. I was a single mother, I was 20 years old, I had no idea what I was doing. Puleng had had her son and she handles motherhood and her craft with such grace and such tenacity. I was so lucky to have her in my fourth year and to be surrounded by that kind of strength and warmth and understanding. She really helped shape me and how I position myself in relation to motherhood and my craft. 


Still will run at Theatre Arts Admin Collective from July 23rd until 29th. For tickets, click here.

You can follow Olivia on Instagram or Twitter.

For updates on Still please visit their official Facebook page.

All photos were taken on July 15th 2019 at The Blue Cafe.

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

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