Alexis Petersen is a UCT Performance Diploma Graduate who majored in Western Classical Voice. She has performed on various stages both nationally and internationally. Alexis has performed in several musical theatre productions including Calling Us Home, The Little Mermaid and David Kramer’s Langarm. Her opera credits include FOUR:30, Le nozze di Figaro and La traviata. With a strong passion for dance, she has also competed as a ballroom dancer, dancing under the Federation of Dance Sport South Africa. She also features as a vocalist in a unique contemporary trio called Inside Voice. Alexis is currently starring at the Baxter Theatre as Pamela in Danger in the Dark, David Kramer’s re-imagining of the Kramer/Petersen ’90s hit, Poison.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
My mom and dad were both opera singers, so I come from a musical background but I would definitely say, firstly, my mom and dad and then my mom’s father, my grandfather. He conducted the Gleemoor Ladies Choir which is Athlone. I grew up in this musical industry. I literally grew up in Artscape. I travelled with my mom often because my mom and dad had me when they were 40. I travelled with them wherever they toured with the choirs and when I was about five, I started humming to all the songs and that’s how eventually my love for music developed. One day, I was 10, my mom asked me if I would sing in one of the choirs and I said, “No.” I just got so nervous and she said, “It’s ok. When you are ready.” I think a few months later I said to her, “I’m ready.” I don’t know how it happened. In primary school, I was at Oakhurst Primary, we had the musical Annie but it was Hoezit Annie, the Capetonian Annie. I auditioned and I got the role of Annie. In high school, I was in the choir and from there I did eisteddfods and I did piano and trumpet and vocals. From there my love for music grew even more.
Because the musical gene is so prominent in your family, was there ever a moment where you considered pursuing a different career?
No and Yes. When I studied at UCT’s South African College of Music, I did Classical Voice training. I ended with Virginia Davids and in the year of graduating, I suddenly became a bit confused because I didn’t really know how to get into the musical industry because obviously [I studied] Opera/Classical and I really wanted to do musical theatre but it’s not offered here. I found myself applying for administrative jobs here at UCT. I graduated and my first musical was Calling Us Home and from there, things just developed and flourished. It was just for those few weeks.
You studied Western Classical Voice at UCT. What does that entail?
Between Opera and Classical, it’s similar. It’s essentially the same techniques that you learn. I love opera and I love classical but I don’t envision myself as an opera singer. It’s just the training. You learn how to use your voice in various ways and stretch your vocal range and just techniques with your voice to help yourself as an artist and as a singer and also the health of your vocal cords because it’s like a muscle. It’s like going to gym and stretching yourself. I feel like the classical training is imperative whether you are a singer or an instrumentalist. It also helps you to go into various other genres.
What was it that attracted you to Danger in the Dark?
I was in Langarm, that was my first musical with David Kramer and I was a female onstage dance swing. Langarm ended and David then approached me and asked if I was doing anything and if I’d audition as Pamela. That is how I got into it. He just got through to me directly.
I actually didn’t. I didn’t even know that until later on when I researched about Poison. David had also mentioned a few people who were in Poison then, 26 years ago, and fascinatingly we worked together in Langarm. She was Aunty Dinah.
What has the process been like of getting this new adaptation up on its feet?
It’s been quite a journey. With anything in life, I suppose you have ups and downs but for the most part, it is such a beautiful growth period for me because it’s the start of my career. I’m very grateful for it all; the great moments and the not so great moments. When I get into those times where I think, “Why am I doing this?” You start doubting yourself as humans but I take that and I say, “You can do this.” That is helping me to know my worth as a person and as an artist. It’s been a very beautiful journey. Working with David, he is a very humble soul and I’ve learned a lot with him and through him. The one thing I can say about him is that he works with the artist and he’s for you. He is not against you. I think that’s also helped a lot with this journey. And the cast, we work as a team. That, for me, is something I’m very grateful for.
Most of David Kramer’s musicals deal with deeper and more serious subject matter. While Danger in the Dark touches on so many issues, it also deals quite strongly with gender-based violence. How was that dealt with in the rehearsal room?
Firstly, personally, I felt so enriched because we’ve literally just experienced this heaviness in Cape Town two months ago and we know that this has been going on for decades but right now, it was so real. I think as females, it’s about women empowerment as well. In the rehearsal process, it came through very strong. I could feel that amongst the cast members that, “This is real and we need to tell this story.” It is so relevant right now for everybody. I think the story is also about women empowerment. Poison was coming from the character Poison’s perspective. Now it’s coming from Pamela’s. It was talking about the drugs and druglords and merchants whereas now, we are saying, “No!” I think as females as well, we are saying, “No, you cannot do this and we won’t allow it.” I think that comes across very strongly in this production and what is great about this production. Another thing is that the arts, I feel, are just planting a seed. I’m not saying that things aren’t drastically going to happen now but the arts are planting a seed and educating us and giving us a sense of upliftment. I think with this musical, it’s heavy because it’s stating the facts and there are also some light moments. I think that’s what’s beautiful about it. It’s amalgamating it all.
This production is being introduced to a new generation and has been reworked a little bit but I think the most striking thing about it is how relevant it still, unfortunately, is 26 years later.
Absolutely and it’s sad to know that. It’s going to take many years for us to really understand it and say no and stop it. I think it’s a team effort. I know that it has to be a collective. I’m just talking about the arts but as a cast, we are a collective telling this story and I hope and pray that the world becomes one and we say, “We need to change things.”
Without giving too much away, because it is such heavy subject matter, how do you make sure that you don’t take that home with you every night?
The best way to do it is to go to your dressing room and laugh and talk about the silly things that happened during the show. I always tell people, “I wish you could be in the rehearsal room or backstage because that is where the most fun happens and where the real things happen.” Behind the scenes, we are having other wonderful conversations. I think you have to release in whatever way you can. One of my ways is to laugh and think about other things to let it go.
What has playing Pamela taught you?
Pam resonates with me a lot. What I’ve learned is to stand up for yourself and for your rights and say no. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by people regardless of whether its a woman or a man because we are all humans. Pam has taught me to not be afraid of being yourself. I think that is one of the things that stands out to me about her. She is a fighter and she is not going to allow anybody to get her down. Especially in communities like Hanover Park, Mannenberg, we know of people who have lived their lives fearing other humans and drug lords and merchants. I think it’s about time that we say no and don’t feel inferior, because if you stand up and you believe in yourself, things will change. That is what they want. That is what people like the character Michael want. They want you to crumble. They want you to be scared but if you stand up and say no, they might be shocked but they’ll back away. Be true to yourself.
You have worked so consistently during the last few years since graduating. What has it been like to really hit the ground running and go from project to project while also going from featuring as a member of the ensemble, an onstage swing and now starring as one of the leads?
It doesn’t matter what you are, whether you have a big role or a small role. I think, for me, it is the journey because this is part of your growth. One day you could be the lead and the next you could be an ensemble member and that is just part of it all. The most important thing for me is that you are learning from whichever character or whichever role you are taking on. To answer your question, it’s fascinating because it just happened like this. I didn’t have time to think. Roles just came. I am a believer in God and I trust in God and think that He is part of my journey. This is why I am where I am because this is his plan. With that saying, I’m a lead now but I could be an ensemble member tomorrow and that is absolutely wonderful because that is how you are growing as an artist and growing into different characters and stretching yourself.
Because I am catching you at the beginning of your career, what are your hopes for the rest of your career?
I would just like to grow as an artist. For now, musical theatre is something that is blissful to me and very precious but who knows what will happen in the years to come. I would just like to grow as an artist, as a performer, as a singer.
As a performer, what is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever been given?
To always be true to yourself and know your worth. Work hard and smart and be passionate about what you do.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
You can follow Alexis on Instagram.
All photos were taken on October 22nd 2019 at the Baxter Theatre.