Liezl de Kock is an actor, director, theatre-maker and lecturer. She performed the lead role of Janet in the Ovation Award-winning and double Fleur du Cap Theatre Award winner Pictures of You, which was the highest-grossing theatre production on the fringe at the 2009 National Arts Festival. Liezl was also nominated for a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for her role in Rob Murray’s Womb Tide. She performed with Andrew Buckland in Crazy in Love, which received an Ovation Award and the Amsterdam Fringe Fest award for Best International Production. Her performance in Crazy in Love received a Naledi Theatre Award nomination. Her final Master’s production, Piet se Optelgoed won a Silver Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival and was nominated for Best International Production at the Amsterdam Fringe Festival. Earlier this year, she was nominated for a Naledi Theatre Award for her role as Sussie in Reza de Wet’s African Gothic directed by Alby Michaels. She is currently reprising her role in Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under The Immorality Act at The Fugard Theatre following its debut run earlier this year at the 2019 Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Athol Fugard. I know that sounds very convenient to say that now but he did. We did Boesman and Lena at Lady Grey Arts Academy when I was at school there. I did it as a monologue. I played Lena and it was the first time my teachers came up to me afterwards and they went, “We didn’t recognise you! What was going on?” It was a wonderful experience. I suppose my mom taking me to the Grahamstown festival in 1999 and seeing Dedale, which is Philippe Genty show, was mindblowing and Johnny Cockroach by Breyten Breytenbach that year, there was just a very definite resonance in theatre. I wanted to be an artist first. I wanted to be a painter and then it felt a little lonely so I thought I could be an actress during the day and a painter during the other times which obviously didn’t happen. I had a really awesome drama teacher, Mr T. We were his pioneers. He Grotowski’d us and we were like, “What are you doing to us? You are destroying us.” He was like, “This is the Grotowski way. You will be awesome!” Lady Grey Arts Academy, that was the inspiration.
You then went on to study at the university currently known as Rhodes…
Yes, but that was much later. Before that, I was at AFDA Joburg. Deon Opperman was still there and he was phenomenal. Wilmien Rossouw, James Cunningham and Helen Iskander were there. They blew my mind because the Lecoq way of doing stuff was sort of imprinted in my head and I was like, “I want to be a clown and I want to do this work.” After AFDA, I went to the UK for a year just to pay back some student loans and earn some pounds in some factories. I sorted some potatoes, which is excellent because I became really good at it. I came back in my third year and did ADFA Cape Town Honours and then I met Rob Murray and Tanya Surtees and I joined their company FTH:K. And then I did my MA when I was 30. But before the MA, I did a stint with Ubom! Theatre Company for a year which was amazing because we got to work with Andrew Buckland. The supervisors were amazing and the freedom and the monastic lifestyle, because you have no distractions, was phenomenal.
What are the differences between those two institutions?
They are so different. They are on different spectrums. The reason why I think I went to Rhodes is because I think in my heart, the way Deon described AFDA was, “You come here, you create the work, you produce the work, you market the work.” The independence of what he sold really resonated with me because I felt that you’ll be a well-rounded person who doesn’t depend on anyone to make work happen, which is partly what AFDA sells. But the richness and depth of what a university offers academically, is something I missed a little bit with AFDA because it was a lot more practical which is wonderful for when I was younger but then as you get older, you are struggling with stuff as a woman and you want to do more research and your practice wants more depth. Rhodes as an academic and a practice university was phenomenal. The MA degree was great and all my heroes came from Rhodes. I thought that if I could just drink the water that they drank… I wanted to be close to the source. Everyone I admired came from Rhodes. My colleagues were there so I just felt like I’d love to experience that magic. It was wonderful and because I’m also from the Eastern Cape and it’s an Eastern Cape university, my heart and my soul felt very nourished from the experience.
You started your career at AFDA and are now back there lecturing. What has it been like to return?
It’s funny how you become a reluctant teacher. I actually love it. It’s that cliché that you learn the most while teaching. The institution has gone through so many incarnations and I feel like the staff body in our theatre school in Johannesburg are some of the best people I’ve ever met, strong actors in the industry and also teaching, and again very practical. David Dennis, my head of school, has created a curriculum that is so rich and challenging and I’ve grown a lot through it. I teach first year and being in South Africa now with Fees Must Fall and everything that the students are dealing with and being amongst them, I am learning every day. There is no way for me to get comfortable and to then have to guide those students, feels like a huge challenge and privilege and it keeps knocking you out of your comfort zone all the time. I’m very lucky that AFDA allows you professional practice. If you get a job outside, you get some days that you can take off and then you can take unpaid leave but they don’t fire you which is really nice of them. It’s been a really good experience.
What was it that originally attracted you to Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act?
It’s Fugard! Boesman and Lena came back to me immediately. My agent sent the brief and I had to send the self-tape the next day. I had a day to learn the monologue and I was on my way to Kei Mouth which is also in the Eastern Cape. I filmed the monologue 50 times, I think, swearing that I wasn’t getting it right. To do a Fugard at The Fugard, any actor would pinch themselves for the opportunity. It is just amazing. This particular play was so unknown and the story is so simple. It’s just love that is not allowed. It resonated a lot. I felt like I totally understood where [Frieda Joubert] was coming from and I get the loneliness after she loses him. That felt like something I’d love to sink my teeth into. I didn’t think I was going to get it at all because I’m a Joburg based actress. I’ve done physical theatre and mask work most of my life. Talking on stage is a new thing. I’m like a silent person coming into the talkies. I got a callback and met Marlo [Minnaar] for the first time and then got the role and screamed my mom’s ear off. And then the way that [The Fugard] treated it as well, the conceptual space that they’ve created, it’s a huge privilege to be part of a team like this. I’m going to look back at this slice of my life and realize that this was an amazing sandwich year.
I think the first time around, the nudity was something for me and Marlo to deal with and get over and settle. I think now that we’ve done that, the characters are revealing themselves to us more and more. I am trying to arrive as prepared and as present as possible so that I’m not in their way so that they can start playing now. We know our lines, we know our blocking, now we need to let them fly. I think we’ve slowed it down a lot. We are playing with the beats a lot more. We are trusting the work a lot more. We’ve already created such trust between each other but we are allowing each other much more breathing room. The authenticity of their love is the thing that I think will now have a chance to play during this run because the angst and the fear of the other stuff is sort of out the way now. We’ve been naked, we’ve had our reviews, people have said stuff. Now the story and love can just carry on growing.
Nudity is a decision that most actors, at some point during their career, have to navigate and negotiate for themselves. What did you as an actress need in order to feel safe enough to perform this role?
I keep saying lots and lots of yoga. It’s a physical thing. Obviously, vanity has something to do with it. You look at yourself in the mirror and think, “I’m not going to put this on stage. I can’t. No.” But then you think, “It’s all in your head. What is going to calm the nuns so that you can play?” Go to work then physically if you feel like that’s something you need to calm down. I love yoga and it’s my ‘religion.’ I went a lot deeper into that and I did it a lot more which really calmed me and made me feel comfortable. I spoke to a few actresses who had done it before and we all pull our faces and go, “What if they see this part? What if this part jiggles?” There are all these little human anxieties. One actress said that before each show where she had to be naked, she would cover her body in a different smelling body lotion so that she felt like she had a little mask that protects her. I feel like yoga is that for me. It’s just a little thing that removes Liezl from Frieda. I think the constant communication between me and Greg [Karvellas] and Marlo made it ok. I’ve never done it before so I don’t have anything to relate it with but The Fugard and Greg and the way that the team has handled it, they’ve given us a template for how to do it. We had complete agency on when we wanted to try underwear and if we wanted to only go naked on the first performance. He kept on ad nauseam saying, “It’s in your hands.” The room was blacked out. There are signs on the rehearsal room door saying, “Please knock before you enter because we are rehearsing a piece where people are naked.” I felt so taken care of and I felt very safe. They are amazing. The way that they have treated us is really great. It was terrifying for me and Marlo. With all the safety still, it’s going to be a scary thing and you underestimate how scary it actually is. It doesn’t get easier.
Thank you for answering that because it is such a deeply personal decision for a performer.
I saw Bo [Petersen] do it. I think she gave me so much courage. I was thinking, “How do you fill these Bo Petersen shoes?” She is a badass rockstar. I went to research her. She is just like a raw nerve in the world. Seeing the courage that she had on stage, I was just like, “Wow Liez, I don’t know if you can.” It just felt very intimidating to know that she played this before. I wanted to contact her but I felt that might be disrespectful so I never did. And I’m happy that we found our own way. Then you become very conscious of it. I watched a film where a woman I know had to do a love scene and now that I’ve had to be naked, I watched her do it and I just realized the courage that that takes. Yes, it’s a closed set. Yes, it’s maybe only the DOP and the director and your fellow actor but you are so vulnerable. It’s hard but you need to so not judge yourself and love yourself to death and say that it’s going to be ok.
What does it mean to you to be involved in telling this story in the context of 2019?
I’ve just finished Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and I’ve watched the series and just bought The Testaments and finished the book over the weekend. Gilead and the apartheid system and the protests that we are having around gender-based violence and the protests around the planet and this underlying violence that is in our society and these systems that control resources or people, it’s just apartheid with a different name and with a different suit and a different colour for a different country. It feels so alive to me now. It feels relevant. Also, having had the privilege to speak to mixed-race couples who came in to talk to us about their experiences and then them coming to see the show and coming to us afterwards saying, “You’ve cleansed me. It’s been cathartic. I feel like I can let go of stuff now.” Or, “It was devastating.” And for them to say it’s necessary to still have the story shown, because you worry about how relevant does it feel but then you realise it’s all around us. Surveillance, this pathology of invasion of our movements, this beautiful [set] design, this Orwellian design… What is so beautiful, with 1984 as well, [is] when two people are in love and they have the privacy of talking just on their pillows together, that’s where the real rebellion starts. If a system can separate that, they’ve really broken you. It’s illegal to love in that story and here, they achieve it as well. History does repeat itself so it’s a cautionary tale of, don’t take for granted your freedom and the liberties that you enjoy because incrementally, they can be taken away from you, as in The Handmaids Tale.
What has playing Frieda taught you?
She’s a sweetie. She is from Craddock and she’s in a Calvinist house and she was raised a Christian. She’s a virgin, she’s 36 in the story and the fact that she held out for real love is something that I’m like, “You go, girl.” She didn’t give in to any of the Afrikaaner Calvinist norms of, “This is what a good Christian girl is supposed to do.” I really like that. That waiting for someone who ignites you in that way is so beautiful for me. They found love together. It was someone who sparked something in their minds. She has taught me tons of courage and to be ok that you are completely flawed as well and that you are full of prejudice, completely. He talks about evolution and she is like, “But the Bible. Don’t talk about the dinosaurs because that’s not in the Bible.” She is absolutely entrapped in her prejudice and she keeps saying to him, “I don’t understand.” And she really doesn’t and she can feel that there is such a big hollow. It’s that thing of what John Kani said in his Fiëstas acceptance speech, “We’ve been denied of each other.” That’s the truth for Frieda. I think there is anger that she realises that this is all she’s going to get. I think she’s taught me courage.
You mentioned your physical theatre and clowning background. What is it that you enjoy about working within that medium?
It’s so terrifying and it asks you to be so present in your flaws and so vulnerable with how crap you can be and how you are not perfect and that you are pretty average and normal and the magic that comes from not trying to be the best. What is wonderful about clowning is that you live or die by the connection with the audience. There is no fourth wall. If the audience isn’t laughing, you die and then maybe there is a snigger and they resuscitate you and Lazarus starts rising again. It’s very painful but it’s extremely rewarding because of it’s needing you to be absolutely present. It asks for a lot of courage. I think that’s why I am so drawn to it. Working with Rob throughout the years and doing non-verbal shows, there is nothing quite like it. It’s not mainstream. You are 3000% alive onstage in a show like that. Working with Andrew Buckland, we did Crazy in Love together and that guy, he can stand in such vulnerability so courageously. He is like an empathy generator onstage. He takes your heart and he just mushes it and it’s with such humility. There is no ego. He is also the epitome of what clowning is to me.
As a performer, what is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever received?
Rob always says this to me because I’m a very anxious person, “Cool head, warm heart.” He kept saying, “You have to have a cool head and a warm heart and you must love it to death.” And, “Let the torpedos come. Go down with the ship.” Don’t jump ship because you are getting a bad review or people don’t like it. Stick to your guns. Love it to death, respect the people you are with and the courage to be wrong and to fail and to let people not like you is good. It’s necessary.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I would start with Helen Iskander. She was married to James Cunningham. They are from Jacques Lecoq and they did Baobabs don’t grow here. Sylvaine Strike directed them in that show. Sylvaine is a goddess. I did a clowning course with her a few weekends ago. I don’t know how she does it but she brings out such honesty and vulnerability in people. She’s amazing. Lara Foot, just the way that she makes theatre. Chuma Sopotela has got a ferocious voice. I love it. Faniswa Yisa, her courage is very inspiring. She is a badass lady. Juanita Finestone-Praeg, she is one of the founders of the First Physical Theatre Company, a phenomenal supervisor and insane academic. Alex Sutherland is mindblowing. Ukhona Mdlandu is an amazing woman. Jaqueline Dommisse. Ilana Cilliers is an industry in one body. Hannah Lax and Tinarie van Wyk Loots. Saartjie Botha, her writing is beautiful. Clara Vaughn from the Market Theatre Lab. Khutjo Green and Toni Morkel. Jemma Kahn! I just want to be Jemma Kahn’s dog or teacup. Jori Snell, Amy Jeptha, Alex Halligey, Athena Mazarakis, Jenni-lee Crew. Janet Buckland! Antoinette Kellermann, Reza de Wet, Marianne Thamm, Phumelela Nqelenga, Jayne Batzofin, Mwenya Kabwe, Nondumiso Msimanga, Momo Matsunyane, Juliet Jenkin, Alison Green, Yusrah Bardien, Yvette Hardie, Stella Dlangalala, Buhle Ngaba, Iman Isaacs, Paula Kingwill, Quanita Adams, Lesley Palmer, Shimmy Isaacs, Marina Griebenow, Jana Cilliers, Jennifer Steyn, Janni Younge, Namatshego (Tshego) Khutsoane, Caroline Calburn, Jess Taylor, Sally Scott, Ana Lemmer and Nombasa Ngoqo.
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act is running at the Fugard Theatre until October 26th. For tickets, click here.
You can follow Liezl on Instagram.
Special thanks to Christine Skinner.
All photos were taken at the Fugard Theatre on September 24th 2019.