Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe |Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Director Samke Makhoba | Make-up Artist Pumzile Mhlongo | Interview by Sisonke Mbalekwa
Editor In Chief: Mandisa Vundla
What motivated young Didi to get into acting?
I grew up in a very sheltered environment on a farm, at least I know how to work the soil but I didn’t have much of social life. How I understood myself and my identity was really based on what I was doing at home. I was very domesticated until I left Klerksdorp for varsity and that’s when the process of self-discovery really happened. For the most part, I was definitely conditioned to not expressing myself fully and that’s why maybe going into acting is still a therapeutic outlet for me because I get to discover things about myself. When I was 16, my math teacher (a white lady, Mrs. Reise Kruger) who was also creatively inclined had this musical where she was just doing these numbers from America, you know those pop songs, those “You should be dancing” and then creating a story out of them. She saw my talent from the drama classes that I had founded with my English teacher, Mr Van Strijp. I decided then that this is something that I’d really like to do if I’m not doing geography or climatology because initially, I wanted to be a meteorologist and a town planner.
What was your experience obtaining your drama degree?
Getting my drama degree was a very disempowering journey. I majored in musical theatre, P.A.M and performance. I had teachers every year who would tell me that they have been in the industry long enough to know that I do not have talent. One of my teachers pulled me into her office and told me how she had been doing this for years and sure I could hold a note but that’s nothing, I don’t have what it takes, and this was in my fourth year when I was about to graduate. Luckily I got an agent in my fourth year so I was getting little jobs here and there doing local bioscope, children’s theatre, and industrial theatre. Ironically, I was lucky enough to be getting work. I was told that I would not get work, I’m not talented and I would be failed by teachers because… I actually don’t know why. I ended up getting work, it wasn’t major work but it was work. That got me to practice and it eased me into the industry. I got to network with young filmmakers and young theatre practitioners on the rise and I learned a great deal. I was pretty fortunate to get an agent immediately.
You continued training after obtaining your degree, why?
The way these institutions leave us so unprepared, I constantly have this anxiety as an actor that there’s something missing, I need to know more, I’m not there yet. I’m a little bit obsessed about my growth and development. When I came out of Wits, going to Indigo View, I got to work with Steven Feinstein, who is a director a theatre-maker and an acting coach. He really instilled that seed of self-belief. I really believe Steven Feinstein has this beautiful gift of just really understanding the actor first, their journey, their understanding of the technique and the craft before trying to guide them. He takes time to really know you with these little sessions. He’s not a psychologist but he sits you down and he really studies you then he knows how to teach you technique. That’s what I really appreciated. I still continue to train, I even wanted to do the Actor Spaces workshops last year but I didn’t have the money for it. I actually want to do this one in July. I’m really interested in that, I don’t care where you are in your career, I really think it’s just so important to keep training and it’s nice that there are these platforms where you don’t have to pay an acting coach R600 per session and you can work with a group of actors who are already practicing in the industry.
Some people argue that you don’t need formal training to be an actor, what’s your take on that?
You do need formal training. When I was on a tv set, I realized how technical it actually is. I am trained as a theatre performer and I only did one semester of screen acting and they didn’t explain things such as lighting, and the position of the camera and how you perform for the camera or the sound boom, if its a wide lens then we can go theatre and if its a tight lens or a close up then you internalize it, but the body is still completely performing. Those things would have been nice to know before, but I understand why the actors who haven’t trained feel as though you may not need training though I don’t believe it. Doing the job on its own feels like practice and training. The only problem is now you have the pressure of the whole set and the expectations of churning out a one take wonder because people are pressed for time and not because people really care about it.
When auditioning how do you ensure you put your best foot forward?
There are three things I do PERSONALLY:
- I make bold choices and I inject my individuality and my authentic voice which I had to take time finding
- I like to greet the people first, shake their hands and look them in the eye and introduce myself from human being to human being. We may not engage in a whole conversation but we acknowledge each other in the space, from the camera guy to the director to whoever is in the room. That’s a great way to connect and to let your presence be felt in the room.
- I let go of the outcome once the audition is done.
2018 was your breakthrough year, you broke into the industry with lead-roles on screen and on stage, how was that journey for you?
It was a tough year, it was the first time I had ever come into the space and was actively made to feel like a newcomer and not a collaborator, especially in a production where you have to play the lead. 2018 affirmed the fact that I needed to learn to approach my craft in a way that is true and unique to me -my way. I think from the jump the world never gave me permission to be here as an actor, from varsity to the working experiences, the hard things that I’ve had to deal with and how I’ve been directed. Fellow actors feeling that this newcomer has a big role and why her? Having people actively come to me saying we never understood why you actually got the role right before a performance; the little things people do to break each other down. Those experience ironically affirmed that I need to approach my craft in a way that is true to me and keep on injecting my individuality. That’s what has led me to this point, that’s what has propelled my growth and development and that’s what inspires me to wake up every day to practice whether I’m working or not. That’s what helped me rise above the worlds limited perception of my capacity as well as my uncertainties.
How would you advise directors to engage with new breed actors in the field?
I wish directors had the luxury of time to actually sit and develop characters with their actors, maybe it sounds a bit too ‘spoon-feedy’, but I find that in the tv industry a lot, the development of your character is such an individual process. The way I was trained is that this work is ‘collective teamwork’ and with the director as the captain of the ship -but it’s still collaborative. It would be so nice to have the time to sit with the actor and really gauge what they understand about their character and what their blocks are in terms of reaching the character’s motivations and objectives cause sometimes as an actor, you have the capacity to play a certain temperate or a certain character and you’re given this wonderful opportunity but you have internal blocks because you may be judging the character.
If there was a director who was with you in the process and it wasn’t just an individual thing, you don’t do the work at home and then come to set to do a mini rehearsal and then shoot! (And then we’re the ones that are told that South African actors are lazy and bad but we aren’t given the…) We’re working in a system where it doesn’t feel like it is much of a teamwork effort and so obviously you’re going to get one dimension or one meaning if only one person is involved in the creation of a being that is three dimensional and that is supposed to be existing in this reality even though its fiction. I also feel like …RESPECT! Learning to speak to people with respect. What I do admire though is that there are directors who can meet actors at different levels, where the director is not treating the young actor as if they’re an empty vessel, they are human beings who also have context, a history, a background that they can pour into the work but you just don’t know them and you don’t bother to know them and so you’re not given the opportunity to help this actor open themselves up and become vulnerable enough. There aren’t a lot of safe spaces to work and be vulnerable and that time if you’re not crying the way they need you to cry, its huh, CUT!
Colour Purple was such a dynamic responsibility to carry out, how did you create your own interpretation of Celie?
Well, I realized that first of all, I am not Cynthia Erivo I am not Whoopi Goldberg, I am not Fantasia or La Chanze and I don’t even look like them, they’ve hired a light in complexion girl to play Celie. What it meant was that I had to deconstruct everything I understood about this character Celie and look at her in a way that hasn’t been fed to us before. That process led me to realize that I have to do it my way, I have to inject my individual process. I had to take the risk of doing it with the resources that I have, with the skill set that I have and being resilient enough to just grow with each run. To do it the way I’m meant to do it, embody Celie the way she’s meant to live in this body and not try to sound like Cynthia Erivo, that will never happen. I have gone through similar experiences that Celie has gone through so using myself as the resource, that’s what has allowed me to find my inner voice as an actor.
What next for Didi now?
My biggest concern right now is being able to navigate the industry, understanding and affirming my worth and my value and not allowing myself to be exploited. Improving my skills set and growing and developing. I see myself performing in all three mediums: screen, stage and voice acting.
How would you define a ‘New Breed Actor’ for yourself?
I think the New Breed Actor needs to be aware of the past dramatic conventions that have established what we know as drama today but moving forward with innovative thinking and ideas and being aware that they need to instill their individual voice and authenticity into their work and embrace the contemporary and the new. Its a balance between the two. I also think the new breed actor is one that is aware of the many different skills within the process of creating a body of work on stage or on set so they’re not just an actor, they can tap into the director’s shoes or they can tap into understanding lighting. They know the different facets of the production chain because knowing all those things will enhance their work. The New Breed Actor is highly collaborative and is not afraid to create their own content and their work, The New breed Actor is courageous.