Claudine Ullman is an actress, improviser, stand-up comedian, public speaker, facilitator, and the founder and managing director of the Jittery Citizens. Having completed her Bachelor’s of Arts at Wits University, Claudine travelled widely, refining her craft at some of the top international performance schools. In 2012, she formed The Jittery Citizens Improvised Comedy Troupe, performing alongside South Africa’s top theatre/comedic talent. The Jittery Citizens are now considered to be Johannesburg’s premiere Improvisation troupe and have performed to packed houses in various venues across South Africa. Claudine is also an established theatre creator and performer, having toured with her one-woman show Curled Up in 2011, as well as having recently completed a successful run at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in Wretched. In 2019, she debuted her one-woman show Artificially Infeminated, which has since gone on to tour nationally and internationally. She also makes up one-third of The Thunderbirds comedy trio.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I grew up watching things with my dad such as Monty Python, The Tracey Ullman Show, [and] Carol Burnett, so I was introduced to comedy through my dad when I was really little and absolutely, obviously, just fell in love. I always used humour as… I don’t know if its a defence mechanism but because I was quite overweight, kids would bully me and I would handle it by making fun of myself as well. I was kind of always into clowning and entertaining people. I was the cutest, fattest, roundest thing but I was exceptionally popular at school because I could make people laugh and realised that I’ve got something. That was probably the youngest time I remember going, “I want to get into comedy. This is what I want to do.”
You went on to study at Wits. What was your time there like?
I had a great time at Wits. I loved university. The schedule for drama school is insane. You are there the entire day and you are rehearsing at night. I loved every single moment. After university, I was like, “What are they doing overseas?” In October of 2008, they were getting rid of the two-year working holiday visa for the UK. I was like, “My sister lives in London. I’m going to take this visa and go live in London for two years and see what they are doing overseas.” I travelled to London and I did whatever course I could afford. I studied at LISPA, did a short clowning course in Paris at Helikos and I was like, “This is awesome!” I got back and I did a post-graduate diploma in Film and I bought myself a ticket to America to go study at The Second City in Chicago. It totally changed the game for me. I felt totally free on stage when I was improvising and I was like, “I want to bring this back to South Africa.” Eventually, I saw that this is a great tool for business. Overseas, all of the major improv schools do improv for businesses and I thought, “Why don’t we have that kind of training?” That’s how I started the corporate training aspect of Jittery Citizens because we started out as an improv troupe and that’s how I make my money today.
You graduated and only started doing stand-up comedy several years later. What was that transition like?
Throughout varsity, everyone was telling me, “You are so funny, you’ve got to try stand-up.” I was terrified because I was like, “I’m not a writer. I’m a creative performer. I like to improvise while I go along and stand-up is written, rehearsed, performed.” It’s performed but you’ve got to stick so closely to the persona you’re creating and this is everything that was going on in my head. I was like, “I can’t do stand-up, I’m a trained actor!” And then I booked my first five. I had gotten back from London and had been doing improv/ Jittery Citizens for maybe four or five years and I was like, “I’m just going to do it. It terrifies me.” My mom had just had a stroke and I was like, “Life is too short. I’m going to try it.” I landed up doing 12 minutes, which usually they don’t give an opening act but they just let me do it and ever since then, I was hooked. It’s really paved the way for me to not live in fear because fear holds you back.
What is your process like when it comes to creating a set?
My comedy has exceptionally changed. It is so different from what it used to be when I first started stand-up. I would watch what the other comedians were doing and that’s what I’d try to emulate. I was recently in New York and I saw what they were doing overseas. On a lineup in Brooklyn, there were two drag queens and a feminist comic and then there was a one-liner and then there was me. You are getting all this different type of comedy that we don’t have yet because we are ten or twenty years behind. I was like, “This suits me. This is who I am. I am a character comic, I’m a clown. How do I mesh those two worlds of clowning and stand-up in character and in performance?” My one-woman show is actually a beautiful coming together of that. It’s me actually doing comedy the way I want to do it, in my voice. It’s taken me three and a half years to find that but I am so grateful because it takes some comedians ten years to find their voice and still they don’t know who they are. I would say I’ve only really been doing comedy since January. The stuff before shaped me but I was struggling. It was hard, I wasn’t hitting the big time and doing exceptionally well. From the outside, it looks like you are doing well because there is a lot of exposure in comedy but I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what my voice was whereas now, I’m like, “This is me.” For the first time, I’m feeling totally myself and so comfortable on stage. I’m so proud of my one-woman show because I’m getting to showcase the type of comedy I want to do and who I am. It’s been very liberating.
Your one-woman show Artificially Infeminated debuted earlier this year. How has it shaped you as a performer?
I feel like it’s the most me I’ve ever been on stage. A lot of people think that stand-up comedy is 100% improvised or they think it’s written and it’s 100% true. I’d say comedy is 80% truth, 20% exaggeration. It is all based on truth but this show in particular, really is about me, my life, the characters in my life, the people I interact with and I am the most me on stage I’ve ever been able to be. Even when you are improvising, you are improvising as a character or you are playing a scene whereas here, I am me, talking to you telling you funny stories and funny things about my life and then here’s a moment of a character in my life. It’s really important for me to talk about my one-woman show because I really would encourage people to, “Just do you boo.” If it means putting on a one-woman show to fully express yourself and say, “This is who I am and this is what I got into the industry for,” you’ve got to do it. It’s been the most beautiful and liberating experience for me to be able to fully express myself in my one-woman show. I am just so proud of it. I got to work with Rob van Vuuren who is a mentor of mine and it’s always been a dream of mine to work with him. He is just so brilliant and he is so great at bringing that realness out of you and going, “Let’s get to the truth of who you are and how you portray that on stage.” Being able to create my own work that is travelling the world is huge in terms of breakthrough and what I’m able to achieve and my own psyche and knowing that nothing is impossible.
You utilise Instagram to share your comedy and some of the new characters you’re creating. Why is that something that’s important to you?
I used to not take social media seriously. Then I saw that its actually a great way for me to test characters, material and see who is engaging with the material. Now I take social media seriously. To grow your following is at a snail’s pace unless you have some sort of viral video but for me now, the focus is not getting a huge audience, it’s rather seeing how my audience is engaging with my content and creating content. As a performer, as a comedian, just having content out on the internet has been hugely successful. The number of people who have said to me, “I saw you in your Thunderbirds sketch that you did with Gilli and Nina. Do you want to work on this thing?” Or, “I saw you in Chin Up with Lara on Showmax.” Or, “I saw you in Catching Feelings on Netflix.” Just having stuff out there and across all platforms, it’s our job as women to create these platforms for others which is what Thunderbirds is really all about. Thunderbirds is myself, Nina Hastie and Gilli Apter and we do a show that’s called the Disaster Hen Party. It’s based around bachelorettes and we perform it at Beefcakes. We get Thunderchicks on stage, those are the newbie comedians who we can give a chance and a platform to and it’s all about how do we create a safe space for women in comedy? And how do we also create a safe space for female audiences? Not that you have to be a woman to enjoy the show. It’s for everyone but how do we create that for audiences as well? That has been quite important.
I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not going to ask you what it’s like to be a woman in comedy…
I mean you know what, it’s the exact same thing as being a woman in any industry, to be honest. It really is. We are paid less, we are treated worse and either we can use it as something that is a disadvantage for us or we can create our own work and create platforms for each other and change the lexicon that is going on throughout the country. How do we change the way that people speak about female comics? How do we educate audiences? How do we educate male performers? Just last night I got introduced as, “Please introduce Claudine onto the stage. She’s a woman but she’s very funny.” It’s 2019. It’s not ok. It’s about educating male performers on how they can be better and what they can do to change. You can totally learn how to do stand-up. It’s a skill. You can learn to write funny. You may not be incredible at it but it’s a skill. You can get incredible at it. Yes, comic timing is a natural thing but either you’ve got it or you don’t have it. It absolutely can be learned and faked. I don’t mean faked in a bad way. I can learn to play the piano. I am not going to be Motzart, it’s too late in my life for that but you can learn to do stand-up. That is what I wanted to bring to this country. Every time I went to New York or London to go do a course, I was happy to spend my life savings on my self-development and my self-improvement. I saw where it would take me but I was like, “Why do we have to do this? We’ve got top comedians in our country who are willing to impart knowledge and share and create a better future comedy community. Why aren’t we offering that at home?” That’s very important to me. In terms of the courses, I always offer a bursary to a woman to say, “If you would like to do the comedy course, come do it once for free.” Because we need more women and more women of colour in this industry. It’s very important to give that sort of opportunity and say, “Just come try it in a safe supported space.”
The idea of mentorship seems to exist so prominently in the comedy industry. What has your experience with that been like?
Even though I’ve been doing improv forever, as an actor, I actually felt quite isolated. I felt like I wasn’t mentored, I wasn’t in a theatre clique and I felt like everyone is gunning for the same role. It was never an environment of total support and love and by making each other better, I am learning and growing and we are making the industry better. I never felt that as an actor. I then got into comedy and worked closely with Nina and Gilli and they are that for me. They are totally supportive and wonderful and constantly giving advice and guiding me through. I would say the same for Nik Rabinowitz. He is a huge mentor and a friend and someone who has been doing it for twenty-odd years. He is totally there for me and really wants me to succeed and find my voice and be the best I can be. Same with Rob van Vuuren and Chris Forrest. These are people I phone and can say, “Help me be a better comedian.” And they genuinely want me to succeed. It’s actually important for me to find that with young comedians and to give back in that way. If there is a female comedian on stage and she is struggling, I’ll go up to her afterwards and I’ll talk to her about her set and say, “How can we improve? What can we do to make it better?” Because I realise that she is representing all of us. What happens is they look at her, she does badly and they say female comedians aren’t funny. I see the impact it has on the comedy industry as a whole and I also know what it’s like to have that “I’m in this alone” feeling which can be really isolating. I don’t want new comics to feel like that at all. Why not help each other?
How do you deal with the more difficult sets?
I’ve got this laser focus now where I’m concentrating on being the best comedian I can be. If I’m dying on stage and a set isn’t going well, I’m not crumbling emotionally. I’m going, “Why isn’t it going well? What am I doing wrong? What is working? What’s not working?” I’ve reached the stage where dying is actually huge learning for me. It’s not something that is emotional. Obviously, some nights are harder than others. If you are testing something that you know works and you are having a really tough night, it can get emotional because you are so vulnerable up there but if you can try as much as possible to remove your emotion and be very technical about it, that’s the best learning. The best learning is through failure. That’s what I’ve learned through improv. That’s why I feel like I’m so great at improv and why I appreciate it so much because it’s really taught me how to fail and how to find comedy in the failure. I really do see stand-up benefitting my improv, improv benefitting my stand-up, clowning benefitting my character work. It’s all speaking to each other and it’s all at the right time. I was supposed to struggle through the acting industry and not getting the roles I wanted to get and having to go, “It’s not working here. Let me try improv.” I’m obsessed with improv. “Improv is working but let me develop myself even further and try stand-up.” Now with stand-up, trying characters and finding my voice, it’s constantly about growth. Death has become growth for me which is actually really liberating. I’m not taking it to heart.
How do you feel Jittery Citizens has evolved since it’s inception and what do you hope it contributes to the South African landscape?
Jittery has been so beautiful and wonderful in terms of what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown and how we’ve grown as a troupe. I feel like Jittery has grown from an improv troupe with no self-confidence into just this tight little family that is focused on doing it for fun rather than, “We have to make money off of this. We’ve got to tell the country that everyone has to improvise.” We are not doing that anymore. Come watch us, come get involved, come laugh and have a good time or don’t come. It’s not about us needing to educate or put ourselves out there. It’s about us going, “How do we make this as fun and as awesome and as incredible as possible for us to grow as actors?” We focus on that side of the performance because if we are all in Jittery for the right reason, which is to work on our craft and perform, we can only grow as a troupe. I’ve seen the way I can expand in terms of courses and corporate training, so I train my actors to do corporate training. I’m happy to grow it as a business but in terms of the actual troupe, it’s about the love of improv. I encourage my actors to work on their profiles and their own stuff and to go study and build and let Jittery be a play area for them to grow. Jittery is fun. I need it. I feel like I’m not as sharp as when I’m performing in Jittery and rehearsing for Jittery once a week. Then I’m on the ball and back in the game.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
If I look at local women in the arts who are killing it and changing our country, I would say Kate Goliath, Sylvaine Strike, Tumi Morake, Celeste Ntuli, Nina Hastie, Gilli Apter. Gilli and I started at the same time, so I’d say we are more going through this together holding hands. The rest of those comedians, in particular, started quite a while before me and really paved the way for women in comedy and have had to go at it alone. Now we have this strong force of women in the comedy industry and this really strong support system but it didn’t always be like that. Huge hats off and totally inspired by people like Nina, Tumi and Celeste.
For information on Claudine’s upcoming gigs and workshops, please visit her official Facebook Page.
Special thanks to Claudine Ullman.
All photos were taken on November 11th 2019 at The Blue Cafe.