Fiona Ramsay is one of South Africa’s leading actresses, working locally and overseas. A doyenne of the South African performing arts industry, over the course of 40 years her award-winning professional career has successfully spanned across film, television and theatre. She is also a lecturer at Wits University and is the founder of Speakeasy Vocal Academy where she specialises as a dialogue and dialect coach and runs vocal empowerment workshops. She is currently starring as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie at the Artscape Arena.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
As a young girl, I always thought I would be a ballet dancer and then we had measurements taken. It was the first time they had done that in South Africa and he said, “She’ll never be a prima ballerina.” It shattered my life at the age of about eight. So I can really say that Mercedes Molina was one of the inspirational people. I think my life has always been that doors have opened and I’ve just sort of walked through them whether advisedly or not. At school, I did drama and then in my final year at St Mary’s, I directed the school play and the lead actress pulled out because she wanted to go to the St John’s matric dance which was on the same night. I went to the headmistress and I said, “I can’t do it.” And she said, “You can. You just play it.” I felt like I was gliding. I think possibly because I had explored the text so much as the director, I had made all the costumes, I had chosen the music and because I had been so involved in that production, it almost gave me an idea of how demanding theatre is rather than thinking you just get on stage. Then I came to Cape Town to UCT to do a degree but I still wasn’t sure. I had always wanted to be a doctor but you couldn’t take science courses in those days, you can now. I did drama and that’s how it’s stayed. So I wouldn’t say it was one particular inspiration but Mercedes Molina certainly, and I think the discipline of ballet and dance sort of excited me about theatre.
You mentioned studying at UCT, what was your experience like?
I think we were very blessed to be part of the most incredible year. There was Sean Taylor, Richard E. Grant, Neil McCarthy. We were very arrogant. We spurred each other on to be brilliant and to think we were brilliant and I think it doesn’t always happen where you find like-minded or kindred souls at drama school. Sometimes people feel quite alienated and it happens when they leave drama school but we were very fortunate. UCT was a wonderful training ground because it was not only an academic degree but it was a practical degree so everybody mixed in. Although I did an academic degree, I think being exposed to people who were not academics was healthy. It was a healthy mix because some people are very good actors or craftsmen but are not necessarily academics or intellectual about it. I think that mix is very exciting. Every single week, we mounted something at open class. They eventually said, “Look, you’ve done too much. You’ve got to stop.” But we just carried on. I suppose all credit to lecturers who allowed us that freedom to explore Steven Berkoff at the age of 18 and say swear words. It was very exciting to go to Grahamstown and we formed a company before we left because we thought we were better than anybody else in the whole world.
I read that you worked quite closely with The Space Theatre during the start of your career…
We went straight to The Space after we graduated and Henry Goodman formed a theatre company. He got a group of us together. We formed Troupe Theatre Company and he kind of joined us and we went into The Space and it became our residency. It was such an opportunity that I don’t know that you are entirely aware of at the time how lucky you are. I think we all knew that we would not go into the performing arts councils. I was quite political. I came from a fairly political background, my father was Editor of the Rand Daily Mail so we were very aware of the implications of those sort of structures although they did incredibly good work. I think I wasn’t that material. I was punk and way out.
What was it that attracted you to The Glass Menagerie?
I think any actress wants to play any character of Tennessee Williams’ especially his matriarchal figures because they are so autobiographical and I think there is so much written about them. I think what encouraged me to explore this was that I was in Sweet Bird of Youth with Fred [Abrahamse] and had gone to Provincetown to the Tennessee Williams Festival and been exposed to all those people who absolutely adore his work and who more than just adore it, they analyse it and they talk to you about why you made those choices and it was very exciting. I’m a lecturer at Wits and this is part of my research. I will be writing a paper on playing the two lead roles and comparing them and linking them from the perspective of being an actor. In the other production, I was the only female. That was interesting. In this one, he’s done it more to the book. I think his work is just wonderful to play. He is such a great writer and you have an emotional arc that is just unbelievable to trace. I think you still have a lot of leeway. It resonates with relevance for the modern psyche because our nuclear family is so dysfunctional. Tennessee Williams was trying to break the mould in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s but now, the idea of the ideal family doesn’t exist.
Fred and I were at drama school together. I’ve actually known Fred for a very long time. We did Total Eclipse together, we did East together, we did Summit Conference together. Fred was very much a part of a lot of the early Troupe work and so I just love being in theatre because you just explore every day. I think we’ve developed a shorthand. We were in New York recently and we went to see plays. It’s just a very easy relationship. I think, again, my whole life has been to find or to be a catalyst or find another catalyst of people who are of like minds, that have a similar vision of the theatre and our responsibility as artists because I think that is a huge issue that has sort of gone by the wayside a little bit. It’s a craft that you really have to learn. I think we all agree with that and we agree that it’s got to be done well and it can’t just happen. I think we share a lot of values that are the same.
How do you go about selecting the projects you choose to do?
Part of me would say that you do everything and anything because even in something that may not seem interesting at the time, there is a reason for it to come. I find that issue-based theatre is important. I feel that this is an issue-based piece of theatre. It feels like protest theatre in a way, to reevaluate how we communicate with each other and reevaluate what a family is and how damaging a family can be and all of that stuff but it is not really a protest play. I don’t see much value in work that is just entertainment although it is great fun to do that. It’s greatly liberating to just do a comedy. I like to do everything.
I’ve never worked with Emily Child and I’ve known her for a long time and I’ve watched her and worked with her on film where I’m a dialogue coach and I’ve partied with her. Someone asked me, “How do you gravitate towards people?” It’s so important with a company to go and have a drink or a meal together. And I suppose because Emily and Janna Ramos-Violante worked together and have known each other. Janna is going to direct it. In a way, my whole life has been finding these catalysts of people. It was first Richard Grant and I and Fred and Sean and all of them and then I found the Market Theatre which was Vanessa Cooke and Robert Whitehead who I’ve done a lot of work with and we are great friends. Then Janna came into my life and I’ve done a lot of work with her and then Fred again. It’s not just anybody. There are just people you work well with and that make the whole experience fantastic.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
It’s very hard to say one thing but I think Decadence was an extraordinary production and its longevity has kind of born that out. That is thanks to Berkoff but also, I did it with Henry Goodman and Fred directed it and I had done it with Michael Richard and we vowed to do it once every 10 years. In fact, in my PhD which is an archive of my own work, revisiting some of the works in terms of pre-1994 and post 1994 and what is permissible and how the production would shift, I’m thinking of doing Decadence. Its meant as a satirical look at colonialism but in the light of where we are historically, it could be viewed as championing it or lauding it in retrospect, which it’s not supposed to be at all. It’s just interesting how doing a certain play at a certain time, it could take off but doing another play at another time doesn’t. That fascinates me. I actually don’t know what I’m doing my PhD on because it is so big but I might revisit all one-woman shows because I’ve done about 12 and the question is, “What relevance has single performance art or protest art in the current trend of mass demonstration?” It might be that. It might be, “Are you alone onstage in a one-person show?” Which is interesting because of course you aren’t but you are. There is a lot. I’m not quite sure what I am going to do it on but it’ll definitely be something to do with my history. I tried to do something on voice but it involves too much medicine and there is not enough resource at our university but I think it’ll be quite an interesting document as an archive because that is actually what is so sad about South African theatre, the archives are so depleted. You can’t go to something and see pictures of people who did it before. There are a few but even PACT’s and CAPAB’s records may be available but you don’t know where to look for them.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge?
I think the biggest challenge of any career is keeping going. The sustainability of it which is why I branched into so many other things. I formed the Speakeasy Vocal Academy. I now do so much dialogue coaching on screen. I think the challenge has been to make a living basically because we are not hugely supported. I think that has been the biggest challenge but at the same time of being a challenge, it’s broadened my horizon enormously so that has been fantastic. I tend to be a very optimistic person. I seldom get depressed and if I do, it’s very shortlived and it’s usually about a play or in the process of a character. Obviously, some roles are more challenging than others and some you never feel like you ever really crack. I think I felt a great sense of liberation when I turned 40. I was less hard on myself. We have this terrible stigma that we are lesser than. When I went to London and landed the role in Arcadia with Tom Stoppard for the National Theatre, I think it kind of made me feel like, “I’m ok.” When I came back, I didn’t put so much pressure on myself and it’s very hard because you have to work hard but you can’t put pressure on yourself because then you can’t actually do anything. I’ve never suffered from nerves. I get butterflies but I’m not a particularly nervous person. I just take it with both hands and go, “Yes!”
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be and why?
Never say no. I always said no at the beginning. I’d say, “No, I won’t do this, I’ll wait for that. No, I won’t do this yet.” As you get older, you realise. That’s why I don’t say no now. If someone says, “Can you do this?” I will juggle and duck and dive and try to do it. I think any work, no matter what it is, can only be good work. I think as I’ve gotten older, a lot of people have asked me to do smaller projects like short films and that is important because you are working with youngsters and they get to learn stuff and they ask you questions. I think a lot of your role or job as an actor is to mentor young people. It’s become very popular for people to mentor people. A lot of students will come to me when they are preparing for a role, which I’ve never done before. That’s all new. I would say, “Don’t ever say no. Don’t be cautious.”
As someone who is as established as you are, during the course of your career, is there a question that you’ve yet to be asked which you wish you had been?
Actors are never asked how they do it. We do it and we are never asked. A lot of actors don’t like to reveal that. Meryl Streep will never tell you who her dialogue coach was. She will never thank her dialogue coach, to the best of my knowledge. It’s almost like it happens by osmosis or magic. But it was interesting because Sylvaine Strike was directing me as Marlene in a play in Joburg that we hope to bring to Cape Town and she made an interesting observation. She said, “It’s extraordinary to watch you in a rehearsal room because you can’t put your finger on what you do or how you do it. Before your eyes, you osmosify into the character. You just start becoming the character. You became Marlene in this bed. You became this woman.” I suppose trying to dissect or analyse that process would be fascinating but I’m a bit scared that if I did that, that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I suppose being asked would be a challenge, to actually say how you do it but I don’t know. We are never asked to do it. I just think that I’m ready for a new part of my career. It will always involve acting. I will always act but I’m ready for something else in my career. I feel I have to change. I lost both my parents earlier this year within 21 hours of each other. In a sense, that has given me a sense of, “You’ve got to do something before the end.”
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Sandra Prinsloo is fantastic. People who really inspire me are people who work more behind the scenes. Vanessa Cooke is extraordinary. Her determination, her loyalty to her beliefs are extraordinary. There are so many. Megan Willson is someone I adore working with because she is strong, she is powerful, she questions.