Rushney Ferguson is a triple threat performer from Cape Town having completed her advanced I.S.T.D training in Modern, Tap, Ballet, Jazz and Musical Theatre, including Associate qualifications, at the Waterfront Theatre School. Her theatre career started with David Kramer’s District Six: Kanala, Amper Famous and Langarm for which she received a Fleur du Cap nomination. Rushney also Dance Captained and starred in the revival of King Kong: Legend of a Boxer at The Fugard Theatre. Choreographically, she works regularly behind the scenes with many local artists like Emo Adams: Brother Love 2, Emo Celebrates 30 Years in Music and the live finale of Maak My Famous. She recently appeared as Juanita in David Kramer’s new musical Danger in the Dark which returns to the Baxter Theatre in March 2020. She is currently starring as Abigail in Aunty Merle: It’s a Girl!, the highly anticipated sequel based on Marc Lottering’s beloved character, Aunty Merle.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I’ve always been around music and singing in my family. On Sundays, my mom would cook with the radio on. I’d always be surrounded by music and as such, I was singing and dancing from a young age. I didn’t actually know what musical theatre was until I was about 18 or 19 years old when I saw Kat and the Kings here at the Baxter. I didn’t necessarily know what it was and then I knew it was what I wanted to do. It was kind of a defining moment for me when I said, “That’s what I want to do.” From then onwards, I kind of did research finding out what it was and then eventually went on to the Waterfront Theatre School and the rest is history.
What was your time like at Waterfront Theatre College?
It was amazing. It’s a four-year course so walking in, I had no idea what was going to happen because before then, I had never really been formally trained. It was really awesome. My lecturers were amazing. The way they prepare you for the outside industry is also cool because someone like Delia Sainsbury, Paul Griffiths and Keith Galloway, I so amazingly had some classes with him before he passed, they always talked about preparing yourself for the industry and knowing how to audition. We were always challenged. Even in class, we were told, “You don’t know who’s watching. You don’t know what they are preparing for, so you better dance or sing your best because you never know when it’s an audition and when it’s not.” Always walk into a room, into a class, into a rehearsal prepared, knowing what you are doing and putting your best foot forward. That is the one thing that I take away from that. We were always prepared for anything.
What was it that attracted you to Aunty Merle: It’s a Girl?
I didn’t know what Aunty Merle was about until I saw the first one. I grew up watching Marc’s stand-up comedy. He is a house-hold name. I knew the characters that he spoke about in his one-man show, so to see it develop into an actual proper storyline was like, “Wow, this is cool!” I saw the musical and I thought that it would actually be really cool to be a part of the musical, not knowing that I would land the part of Abigail. Seeing how Marc’s mind works and bringing all these character’s to life and just being able to be one of these people that he speaks to, it’s actually quite an honour to be a part of it. What attracted me most is that. He can come up with all these characters and then bring them to life with a text and with emotion and all of that.
While the show is a sequel, there are several new actors who have joined this production. What was it like to step into a character that you had already seen on stage in a previous adaptation?
I think with any actor, the main thing is to not try and duplicate what somebody else has done before. Yes, they’ve set a blueprint and you can follow the blueprint, but it’s not necessarily doing a replica of what they’ve done. I always like to tell myself it’s 90% character, 10% Rushney. So there is still a little bit of you in the character and you have to pull from something to make the emotion come out or to make the character come to life. Unless you’ve had the same experience as someone else, it’s silly to try and duplicate what somebody else has done. What we’ve done is that we’ve given the truth to the character but we’ve added our own little spice to it as well.
What was the audition process like?
I just have to say I hate auditioning. The lovely thing about the panel for this audition was that they were so warm and open and loving that there were no nerves at all. It was so relaxed. You came in, you did your thing and Lara Foot, who is our amazing director, would talk you through it. She would help you. She would try and get it out of you to see if you could get to the place that she wants you to go or where the character needs to go. It was lovely to be in that environment where you are not just expected to do something right the first time. We believe that’s what auditions are. I love the fact that you walked into the audition and it felt so warm and so comforting and the fact that you could workshop a little just to see what you are capable of and what you are able to do at a moments notice. That was a lovely process for me. I enjoyed this audition. It wasn’t as intimidating as others.
I just have to ask: how do you manage not to corpse or break character while acting alongside Marc Lottering?
I was worried about that in the beginning but because he is so sincere and so true to what has been written and what the character is supposed to be, he is very disciplined and so are we. We have a lot of fun and there is a lot of love in the show but for me, personally, it was intimidating going, “I have to be next to this person. I have to be his daughter which means I have to share the stage with him.” But because he is so loving and so down to earth and so fun, that intimidation and that sense of anxiety just melts away. The moment you walk into the room, he just makes you feel so comfortable. The moment you are on stage, everything is fine, everything is just chilled. It’s so amazing to work opposite him and with him and with this amazing cast.
You are no stranger to long-running shows. How do you sustain those runs?
I tell myself before I go on stage that this is the first time I’m doing it. I always tell myself that when you stop getting nervous, you start getting comfortable and that is when things become robotic onstage. That is when you become complacent. Lara Foot always says to us, “Listen to each other and respond as if you are responding for the first time.” It can become difficult but you have to be disciplined enough to go, “I am in the text. I am in the word.” The audience is seeing it for the first time. Just because I’ve done it a trillion times before doesn’t mean they’ve seen it a trillion times before. I always tell myself that I’ve got to perform it as if it’s the first time I’m doing it. I’ve got to keep it fresh every single night. Long-running shows can become difficult and exhausting but as long as you tell yourself, “I’m here. The audience is here. They’ve paid to see us. They’ve paid to see us do a brilliant job.” As long as you keep it fresh and you tell yourself that you are doing it for the first time, it’s opening night every night.
Do you have to structure your life differently when you are performing in a show?
Oh, yes. Because we are so vocal onstage besides speaking and singing, we have to keep our bodies and our voices warm and supple. I am very disciplined in regards to trying not to stay out too late or party too much. You try not to do anything during the day that is going to hinder your performance at night and that is going to exhaust you. I try not to book other castings and other shows just so that I can focus on the one thing because show fitness and having the stamina to perform the show every single night and not get mentally and physically tired is a massive feat. You have to be disciplined enough to go, “I can’t do this. I can’t do that. I have to do this. I have to do that. I have to drink my lemon and honey. I have to do my vocal warmup. I have to sleep.” Sleep is so important. You have to do that in order to sustain such a long-running show.
2019 has been such an incredible year for you. You started the year doing Langarm, then received a Fleur du Cap nomination, then went into Danger in the Dark and now Aunty Merle: It’s a Girl! How are you feeling after this year?
It’s so surreal. Waking up in the morning and being able to come to work and do what I love, I always tell myself, “It’s not work, I’m coming to do what I love.” Knowing that I’ve done all of these things, sitting back and going, “Wow. This is what I’ve done,” it’s so surreal. I’m still in disbelief that this has been such a big year. It’s shocking. I don’t even have the words to describe it to you now but I am so grateful and so thankful and so humbled by the experiences that I’ve hard.
It’s also quite amazing to look back on this year and see that you’ve had such steady and consistent employment which is a rare thing for a performer.
Sometimes there are months where you have lots of work and everything comes at you at once, when it rains it pours, but then there are always times where there could be a couple of months where you don’t have work and then you’ve got to hustle to make things happen. You have to have the strength of a hoard of elephants to keep going and to have faith that things will work out the way that they are supposed to.
In Danger in the Dark, which is returning in 2020, your character dealt with such serious and difficult subject matter. How was the rehearsal room structured to help support you while you explored that?
I think what made it easier is the support structure of our cast. There are so many different people between the cast and the crew that will always remind you, “It’s just a character. It is just a show.” Having to play with such deep emotion and such deep circumstances, which relates to what is happening out there in the world now, there was a lot of pressure. Playing someone like Juanita, going through what she is going through and ending up the way she ends up in the show, you have to go to that place as an actress. It is kind of difficult to stay there during the show because it can engulf you. One thing that Loukmaan Adams told me was, “You have to debrief yourself every single time.” After the show you have to exhale and go, “The show is done. I am me now. I don’t have to take her home with me.” If you don’t do that, it starts filtering into your everyday life because you have to go to such a dark place. Talking in terms of characters like that, it is particularly difficult for people who have not experienced that or who have not experienced such a deep level of emotion. You have to go to a different place and coming back from that can be hard. That’s why I always say, “90% character, 10% yourself,” so that you can pull yourself out of that space.
What are you looking forward to in regards to Danger in the Dark’s return season?
I think it’s the message and the fact that it starts a conversation. I think it’s the fact that it deals with subject matter, even Aunty Merle deals with subject matter that is akin to every single person in this country, every single person that is alive. There is a story, a character, an emotion for every single person. You don’t know who is going through what and therefore it is so important with Juanita and with Abigail to be truthful because you are representing emotions and stories of people who are actually real. Even if it didn’t happen to you, it is real subject matter. For me, truth is always important and the fact that these things can start a conversation and the fact that these subject matters brings up emotions that are ok for you to have, instead of trying to push it down or make it a taboo subject. The fact that art can do that, the fact that you can stand up there and create this picture and show people that this is actually what goes on in the world. We are so trapped in our own bubble that we don’t realise that there are people out there who have all of these things going on. I am so grateful and honoured and privileged to be able to play characters who have this subject matter and who have these stories which could possibly help other people go through and deal with what they are dealing with.
Thinking back on the work that you’ve done over the last few years, specifically the musicals, most of those shows have involved heavier subject matter. Has that been a conscious decision for you to gravitate towards that kind of material?
I think it tends to find me but I think we are steered in a way that whatever role you get, is the role that is either going to challenge you or you are meant to be in that play so that you are the one who tells that story for some reason. I firmly believe that you get what you are meant to be doing at that moment. I think that is essentially what has happened with Langarm, with Danger in the Dark and with Aunty Merle now. It has been such a journey from character to character and the subject matter has been so important. I am so grateful that I was chosen to be able to send out this message and to live that message.
As a performer, what is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve ever received?
Something that has always stuck with me is what Keith Galloway said to us before he passed. He said, “Be a sponge and absorb as much as you can whenever you can. Never stop learning because once you get to the point where you feel like you’ve learned enough, you might as well retire.” An actor or a performer who is constantly learning and taking from other people’s experiences and trying to apply it to your own life and your own character and your own situation, that is the best that you could possibly do. Always learn. There is no such thing as knowing too much. We improve every single day. You learn every single day. You could be on stage and learn something totally new about yourself as a performer while you are performing but you need to be open to experience that. You have to be open to accept that lesson into your life. Always be a sponge.
Is there anything still on your career bucket list?
I think with my career I’ve learned to just go with the flow because at the end of the day if you have your mind set on something, you are setting yourself up to possibly be disappointed. I’m just taking on what I am doing now and allowing that to fulfil me and fill my life with gratitude and pleasure and love. Doing what I do is absolutely amazing, so I’m trying not to put limitations on myself because there is so much more. The sky is the limit with an industry like this. You never know what you could be doing next.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I grew up listening to people like Brenda Fassie and Yvonne Chaka Chaka and all of those amazing, powerful women in the industry. Recently, people like Jill Levenberg. Watching those people doing what they are doing and pushing and breaking barriers as women and as women of colour even. People who have influenced me, not in the industry, are my grandmother and my mom. These are women who went through the struggle and went through all of what they went through and they are people who always remind me to stay humble and let your work speak for itself and to always show up, be on time. It doesn’t matter what you are going through in life, you put your best foot forward. All these women have their own stories to tell. All of them went through the things that they went through. I think that in our industry right now, if we as women can support and uplift each other more, there would be so many opportunities for us to have. I’m so in awe of all the women and the things that we go through in our industry and in any industry, the things that we have to deal with and the challenges that we face and that we, as women, overcome them. We have to work so hard to get to where we are. I commend every single woman who had to deal with whatever they had to deal with and who have gotten to where they are. Whether you are 60 or you are 24, just keep doing what you do.
Special thanks to Berniece Friedmann.
All pictures were taken at the Baxter Theatre on December 4th 2019.