Article by John-Otto and Nadine Ndlovu, Creative Direction by Thembi Zikalala, Photography by Gabriel McCreadie, Production by Siyanda Buthelezi
Siphesihle Ndaba is a South African actor best known for her role as Zanele “Mazet” on Mzansi Magic Telenovela, Gomora. Ndaba prides herself in her diverse skill set in Drama, Music, Movement and Boxing among many others. She boasts immense academic credentials, having graduated from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls and Rhodes University with a BA in Drama, Psychology and Economics and BA Honours in Drama. Her most recent project in Carrots on Showmax directed by co-star Siya Xaba.
Siphesihle Ndaba is Actor Spaces’s Young, Gifted and Black this week and this is what she had to say.
- You come from the Oprah Leadership Academy for Girls, what did that exposure open you up to?
“The school had so many resources, we had access to things that we never thought we’d have access to. First of all, I never even thought that I would ever in my life go to university, because I knew my mom could never afford it. Going to the school I already knew that I needed to start thinking about what I’d want to study when I get to varsity. That helped me open my mind to different possibilities and that made me want to try things out at school, so that I can figure out what I want to be. I’d never thought of it on such a broader scale when I was younger. The school made certain artistic subjects compulsory- Dance, Drama, Fine Art and Music. If I didn’t have the opportunity to take Drama I don’t think that I would have realised at that point that I wanted to go into performance. I always thought my entire life that I’d be in corporate, because I studied Economics or I would just go the family route and go into music, but having the opportunity to study Drama and be in a Drama class made me realise my true passion. “
- Getting into university at Rhodes to study Dramatic Arts, what are some of the realities you had to face in getting serious about the craft?
“High school drama is very much “Can you memorise a script? Can you learn the script and regurgitate what you learnt on the piece of paper back to us?” but studying at Rhodes and studying in a deeper level, and understanding the craft on a deeper level, you then realise that performance has got so much more that is required than just learning what’s on a piece of paper. There’s so much internal work that you have to do and understand, in order to portray character authentically, and I’m realising that there’s a lot of spiritual work, and self-awareness work and self-alignment that you have to do to in order to portray characters, because if you don’t understand yourself then there is no way in which you will be able to authentically portray somebody else, their feels and what they are going through. The craft requires a lot of introspection but a lot of performers don’t realise it because it’s not something that you’re taught. I don’t think it’s something that can be taught, it’s something that you realise with research. You realise that you can’t do or portray certain things if you haven’t figured out your own things.”
- What’s the connection for you with Acting and Music?
“First and foremost, they’re both means of expression, and they’re both such meaningful forms of creativity. One thing about both art forms is that if you don’t do the internal work, they both tell on you in some way or form. With music, if you’re just putting out music because you just want to release stuff, we’ll know, because the sound isn’t authentic, and the song won’t resonate with people. Same thing with acting, if you’re just taking roles that you don’t connect with, we’ll know, because the lens never lies, and we’ll see it in how you perform and how untruthful your performance becomes, and it then becomes bad acting, but it’s not really bad acting, it’s just that you didn’t choose the role because it resonated with you, you chose it for money.”
- Why is it so important to be versatile?
“You build a skill set that you never even intended to and you learn things that you didn’t even think you did, like when I started boxing. I started boxing just as a means of losing weight, but I learnt so much through boxing that has helped me in my career, because boxing is all about discipline- discipline of the mind more than the body. Yes, you have to eat right, because if you don’t eat right, you’ll feel it the next day. Discipline of the mind and resilience unlocks something in the brain. You never know what you’re going to get from a particular skill set that you decide to learn. If you decide to go horse-riding, you might do it because you want to learn how to ride horses but you don’t know what other skills you might attain from it. Versatile skills build you as a performer because that’s what you want as a performer, you want to have a vast set of skills, so that whatever role comes up, you know what to do, that you at least have something to grab from.”
- We are in a digital era, what are some of the platform benefits for the Actor?
“I’m on the fence about actors and the digital era, because there are a lot of disadvantages for actors being in the digital era. It creates a bit of laziness. For castings that are open, the digital era is amazing, because casting directors are then exposed to more people. Due to globalisation, you can cast people that are not in your province, or even in your country, even in your continent. We can connect through the internet, you don’t have to be in the same room in order to cast somebody, you have a much broader bank to pull from, which is amazing. Actors or creatives as a whole always think that “if you’re an actor, be an actor”, “if you’re a director, be a director”, social media has also expanded the ideas of creativity, in that even if you’re an actor and you love photoshoots, you can conceptualise a photoshoot idea and you can shoot that and put it out on social media. That can be your portfolio, instead of a website or instead of having an actual file that has all of your work. People can also see what you can do beyond being an actor. You never know if someone who’s an actor can also be a set designer after seeing the stuff they put out on their social media. That’s the benefits of having social media or digital platforms.
- What do you think allows you as an Actor to affiliate with brands?
“When you’re on a show or film, that project then connects you to an audience, right? The audience then resonates with you, the story being told, or your character, then they become your audience as a person or your follower. Now that they like you as a person, the fans then become your audience. That’s what brands want. They want someone with an audience, because they want to tap into your audience and you also benefit. This allows you to tap into that brand’s established audience. The reason why brands do that is because what they sell is a product and it’s just an object, but they love connecting a person to the product, so that when they market it to people, they’re marketing the person as well, and they’re marketing the person’s connection to that product. That’s why I always say that if you’re going to work with a brand, it needs to work or connect well to your personality and who you are, authentically, so that it’s not just something that you put on. Once that’s a thing, it’s such an easy connection for that to happen. It serves both entities.”
- You grew up in Mofolo Soweto, each township has its own nuances that make the culture, for your role as Mazet on Gomora, what was your process to immerse yourself fully into an Alexandra based character?
“I grew up eMofolo, Soweto. And yes, each township does have its own nuances, and something that I did that worked for me is that I have family that lived and grew up in Alex (Gomora) and so I had many conversations with them, researching their childhood stories, just so that I have something to connect with. The main thing that really helped me was going to Alex. Before we started shooting the show, just after I’d been cast, I went into Alex just to get a feel of the place. Acting is sensory, not only are you saying these words, but you also need to visualise the smell of the place. Walking in the street, and smelling the lady in the corner, the street vendor othengisa amagwinya, the smell of the area and what sounds you’re hearing. You’re hearing taxis hooting; kids laughing, running across the street. Therefore when you enter the space (remember the show is shot in the studio, and so you don’t have that stimulus around you when you shoot in studio, it’s a very flat atmosphere) you can create that for yourself with your imagination and you can’t do that unless you’ve actually been in the space. That’s why I spent days in which I’d literally go into Alex and just walk street to street, just observing everything around me. I spoke to my family members that live there, I mostly spoke to males then I did females, because my character, MaZet, yes, she is a woman, and she does have a feminine side to her, but what she portrays to people is her very masculine side, and her feminine side is reserved for the people she cares about. I was able to tap into the people in proximity to me, but I think that I needed a lot more research done with her masculine side. Going to them helped me a lot.”
- You directed a theatre play called ‘Skinned’ at the National Arts Festival, how was the experience of directing for you? How was it different from the acting experience?
“My response is going to be bias, because I definitely prefer directing than acting and I feel that’s where my passion lies. But I think that directing, especially directing Skinned, is almost like looking at a wide shot of all these pieces in this frame, and you have to put them together. You’re assembling a puzzle, you’re having to connect the performance with the wardrobe, with the stage lighting, with the props, with the sound. It’s beautiful because you’re in charge of creating this story and telling the story through all of these moving parts, and that’s not to say that acting is one-dimensional, because it’s definitely not, but I think acting is more inward and you’re focusing on you and your performance, and how your performance relates to everything else happening around you. Also, directing for stage is different to directing for film, with stage you connect more with the people that you’re working with because you’re in rehearsal every day for hours, working on this project, as opposed to on screen, we come in, we run the lines and we shoot. It was also such a beautiful experience because I was using Skinned as a case study for my research paper. I was studying the effects of trigger warnings, and whether or not they affect the performance, because the stories we were telling in Skinned were in relation to the RU Reference List to the rape protest that happened in Rhodes. Facilitating that process and conversations, even the question and answers that happened afterwards, required so much more than coming into a studio, performing in front of a camera and being able to go home. In this, you’re physically engaging with the audience when you’re on stage.”
- What stories would you like to tell going forward?
“We’ve had so many stories that explored black pain and trauma porn, that’s one thing we’ve done and do really well. It is not to say it is not needed because it definitely is, those stories need to be told but I would love to explore stories centred around futuristic ideals. I really like Sci-fi, so I’d really love for the South African industry to explore Sci-fi movies. Even animation, I think that we have so many stories to tell that could be animated in South Africa that aren’t rooted in our struggles as black people, like the Maleficents, and the Oblivions. As South Africans, we are such spiritual people, and there’s so much to explore around spirituality that isn’t about witchcraft. I want to tap into the spiritual world that is futuristic, like post-apocalyptic worlds, and what we would be in different eras. Those are areas I would love to explore, and action, superhero movies. How many superheroes have we had, from our grandfathers and grandmothers passing through stories? How many stories do we hear that we could explore, that we could turn into films that aren’t the Apartheid story, and that’s not say they’re not important, because they are, but I think it would be beautiful for us to tap into that other world.”