Simoné Benjamin is a stage, screen and radio actress and the Corporate Affairs Specialist at Distell. With an Instagram handle aptly named Corporate Actress SA, her work with Distell sees her merging the corporate and arts sectors as she initiates, manages and supports various arts projects including the Distell National Playwright Competition, the Technical Training Programme at Artscape, the Amazink Live programme as part of Woordfees and the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, to name a few. As a performer, she has featured as the titular character in the radio drama Die Verdwyning van Mina Afrika as well as it’s sequel Die Tuiskoms van Mina Afrika. Simoné was most recently seen on screen in the short film Janneman, which debuted at this year’s Silwerskermfees.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I never really thought that I would end up in the arts space. I grew up in a small town and coming from a small town, opportunities were very limited as you are not exposed to a lot of them. Knowing that you could make a career of being in the performing arts was definitely not something I was aware of. Most parents, including mine, from my town that could send their children to university, would want their children to become a doctor, lawyer or teacher. When I was younger, I always felt that I was different and that I wanted to be or do something different. At that stage of my life, I didn’t exactly know what that ‘different’ would or could be. When I was 15, my parents gave me the opportunity to attend Bloemhof Girls High School, and it was there where I was introduced to drama for the first time. I got absolutely hooked to drama. This caused my parents to be quite concerned about my future and wondered about how I was going to get a job one day and how I was going to survive. The first few months at the new school were very difficult for me. It was my first time away from home, away from my friends and away from things that I was familiar with. The principal told me that in situations like this, that if students can’t adapt to the school in the first six months, then the principal would normally suggest that the student go back to their previous school or go back home. Despite my parents’ concerns and what the principal said, I was quite determined to explore this interest of mine which was drama and the performing arts space. Being hooked to drama lead me to study performing arts at the University of Stellenbosch where I graduated with my honours degree. This again led me on my journey to where I am now project managing the Arts and Culture projects at Distell.
What was your time like at Stellebosch?
It was like a whole new world opened up. I learned so much about different theatre techniques, different plays and about the theatre space itself. Being able to go to class knowing that I would be taught in a theatre was mind-blowing for me. The realisation that I was actually studying drama was just like a “wow” moment. I also learned a lot about myself. Performing and being in the theatre became my safe space. I felt like I could be myself and not be judged but also, at the same time, I was able to tell other people’s stories. I also learned that theatre, or any other form of the arts, can be used to give a voice to the voiceless and that it is capable of bringing people together no matter who you are or where you come from. I also had the opportunity to learn from amazing actors like Antoinette Kellermann, Susan Beyers, Elsabé Daneel and Marthinus Basson.
You then went on to teach drama in China. What was the decision around that? What did that experience teach you?
I went through a phase of questioning certain things in my life. China was never something I planned, it just happened. I was looking for a different job opportunity and I really wanted to do something that involved anything arts-related as well as going overseas. My sister actually came across the job application to teach drama in Beijing at the first drama academy in China called Dreammaker Drama Academy, which forms part of the international drama academy, Helen O’Grady. The main focus was to teach children English by using drama techniques as well as teaching communication skills, confidence and teamwork by using drama as a tool. Living in Beijing was quite challenging in the beginning. It was my first time abroad, the culture was very different and I couldn’t speak Mandarin. It was an unforgettable experience. I learned so much about the culture, I made friends from all over the world and it made me stronger as a person. What was also very powerful was to discover how the arts were used as a tool to teach a language and how a child that stepped into my classroom who couldn’t speak a word of English and didn’t have confidence, could at the end of a month stand on a stage and perform. I came home in 2016 as I had received a job opportunity back in South Africa. It was a difficult decision to make but I had to come home in order to challenge myself and to see what I am capable of in order to contribute to the South African arts sector that I am so passionate about and see how I could implement upliftment, development and a different perspective.
What was it that attracted you to working with Distell?
As I am passionate about the arts, it was amazing to discover how a corporate company like Distell sees value in the arts and how the arts are a catalyst for individual, social and environmental change. Distell is also one of the few fast consumer goods companies that have contributed to the arts sector for over 55 years. If that doesn’t attract anyone, then I have no words!
How has your role within that company evolved?
I started at Distell in 2013 as a temporary assistant. At that time I didn’t know much about how corporate and the arts come together but I always made it a point to find out and to ask questions if I didn’t know something. After six months, I was offered a permanent position as a co-ordinator in Corporate Social Investment, where I worked for two years. In 2016, when I came back from China, I received the position of Corporate Social Investment Controller, focussing on arts and culture and now I am the Corporate Affairs Specialist, project managing Arts and Culture projects as well as the Distell corporate brand through the arts. Distell has really played a big part in the growth of my career as well as my understanding and knowledge of how business/corporate and the arts come together. I also had the opportunity to study through the University of Cambridge, where I did a sustainability practitioners programme. I then did a corporate social investment master classes through Next Generation and Trialogue. That gave me a better understanding of how businesses and the world are evolving and how the arts can fit into that space and move with these changes. It also made me realise that there is so much more to the arts space and that the arts are a tool for skills development, job creation and upliftment.
What are some of the arts projects supported by Distell and why are they important to the corporate brand?
I project managed and initiated the Adam and Rosalie Small Award for Debut Scriptwriters in the Western Cape where Chase Rhys was the winner with his play Kinnes. After the success of the project, and seeing how Chase is flourishing in his career by winning the competition and his play being so successful, I got the opportunity to redesign the project in order to go national. In the beginning, I was like, “How am I going to do this?” I eventually initiated and implemented the project into the Distell National Playwright Competition. Playwrights can write their plays in any South African language. I got the National Arts Festival to be a partner in this project. The winner for this year’s competition is Koleka Putuma with her amazing play, No Easter Sunday for Queers. It recently showed at the Market Theatre and had a remarkable run where every night was sold out. I also initiated scriptwriting workshops that took place during the National Arts Festival in order to inspire emerging and aspiring scriptwriters, who hopefully will enter the next round of call for entries for the competition, which currently running. I also project manage the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards where I have worked with Melanie Burke and the Fleur du Cap panel who have all been very supportive towards me. I still remember my first time attending the theatre awards in 2012 and I just thought it was the most amazing event. I never thought that I would here now, where I am project managing it. Distell also supports the Technical Training Programme at Artscape, the Zabalaza Theatre Festival at the Baxter Theatre Centre, the Amazink Live programme as part of Woordfees, Sp(i)eel which is a creative arts therapy organisation [which] focusses on the psychosocial challenges and uses drama as a technique to deal with those challenges. There’s also the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre where the focus is on giving emerging artists a platform to showcase their work. I use to usher at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre when I was a student. It was actually one of my first jobs and it was the first theatre I ever worked at. If I think to what my director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, Bridgitte Backman, said about the arts and seeing the value in its importance because, “South Africa is endowed with great talent in the arts and we see it as an opportunity to recognise talent, start conversations and encourage freedom of thought and imagination. Importantly and particularly given our history as a country, we see the arts as a vehicle to bring people together by overcoming and promoting our rich cultural diversity.”
How do you nurture your performing career while working full-time in the corporate world?
I try to still do some acting where possible. I do radio dramas for one of South Africa’s national Afrikaans radio stations, RSG and had the privilege of being mentored by the legend of RSG and radio dramas, Margot Luyt, who taught me everything I needed to know. I also had the opportunity to play the lead in the radio drama Die Verdwyning van Mina Afrika as well as its follow-up Die Tuiskoms van Mina Afrika. Through this opportunity, I performed with some of South Africa’s leading actors like June van Merch, Jill Levenberg, Jarrid Geduld, Brendon Daniels, Susan Beyers and Joanie Combrink. I recently starred in a short film called Janneman that was written and directed by Tristram Atkins which screened at the Silverskermfees. Due to my radio drama work, I tried to think of a way to combine it with the work that I do at Distell in the Corporate Social Investment space. I realised that it could be a great way for an awareness campaign. I then initiated and implemented a radio drama project where the focus was on prevention of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. I assigned a writer, Bettina Wyngaard, to write the script. She had interviews with women who are part of a project called FASfacts that Distell supports, and that’s how the script called Tweede Kans came about. It was broadcasted on 13 national radio stations in English, Afrikaans and IsiXhosa. That’s also how I try to combine my acting and performance knowledge with my work at Distell.
Is there anything still on your career bucket list?
I think I would still like to further explore the field of the arts sector to try and see what opportunities lie ahead and what more I can discover. Hopefully, the arts sector will continue to grow and hopefully, more and more individuals and companies will start to see and appreciate the value that the arts add to society and the world.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Firstly, I would like to mention my mother and sisters. They have been there for me no matter what and they have always believed in me. My dad died just before I turned 21 and before I graduated. It was a very difficult time for my family and I. My mom still motivated me and inspired me to push through and to follow my passion. I am blessed to have been raised by strong women. Then in the arts space, someone I look up to is Dr Marlene Le Roux, CEO of Artscape. Her reputation, by getting international recognition for her work, speaks for itself. She is just a phenomenal example of believing in the arts and how the arts can make a difference not only in South Africa but internationally.
Entries for the Distell National Playwright Competition are now open. For more information, click here.
You can follow Simoné on Instagram.
All photos were taken on July 13th 2019 at Artscape.
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