Renowned South African actress SUSAN DANFORD returns to the Cape Town stage in her new play ‘The List’ at the Baxter Studio from April 11 to May 4. PETER TROMP exchanged emails with her about the exciting new project.
When did you first realise that you wanted to become an actor?
During my second year at drama school I was still moving between the dance school and drama school when my drama lecturers required more focus from me. I wasn’t 100% sure even while I was studying if I wanted to be an actress. I was interested in choreography in contemporary dance and had chosen to study drama to gain more knowledge and understanding about the world of theatre.
You’ve had quite the celebrated career so far. What for you ranks among your personal favourite roles and projects?
It’s very hard to choose. As a young actress I had the extraordinary opportunity to play Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – a superb, challenging role for a young actress. I haven’t had the opportunity to be in many Shakespearean productions since then so Juliet still ranks as a career highlight. Most recently, Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’, directed by Lara Foot at the Baxter and Arthur Miller’s ‘Broken Glass’ with Sir Tony Sher and my real life husband, Stephen Jennings, at the Fugard. Also, the masked production ‘I,Claudia’, which was staged at the Baxter, will always be very close to my heart. It was the first show I ever produced too. I toured with the production for two years, including performing it in Gabarone, Botswana.
Please tell us about ‘The List’. What can audiences look forward to with the show?
‘The List’ is a profound and real accessible story about a woman who fastidiously makes lists to keep control of her life. She does this to keep herself from following her heart’s true nature. She is trying to manage her life, which she has fallen into by default. She is conscientious, rigorous and driven by an iron will. Her sense of duty as a wife and mother is exemplary. One of her friends asks a favour of her. She rewrites this request on her To-Do list many times over. All her actions are focused on a goal, none of them moving her forward. She neglects to follow through on a very simple act of charity for a friend with profound consequences.
‘The List’ is an assembly of nuances; its broad palette ranges from light grey to dark grey. No black. No white. The story unravels almost like a thriller.
There is a strong female presence behind the scenes with this production, what with the writer, translator and director all being women. Please tell us about these individuals and what it has been like to work with them.
Rehearsals have been filled with much laughter which has been rooted in shared, recognisable experiences as contemporary women. Women who juggle busy lives – raising children, running a home while trying to manage work and careers in between. There was a whole lot that my director Leila Henriques and I could identify with as working mothers. There was also a whole lot which we did not have to explain to each other or interrogate as we both just knew what the other was saying. Like so many women we share the knowledge and experience of what it takes to get through our own lists each day. The collaboration has felt so perfect from the moment Lara Foot called us about the project.
What methods or habits do you usually rely upon to get into character? Also, do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions that you’ve picked up along the way in your career?
I arrive at the theatre an hour to an hour and a half before the show goes up. I do a full physical and vocal warm-up with specific exercises relating directly to the play and the character.
What are the sternest challenges you face on a daily basis as a professional actor in the theatre industry?
Actors in this country need to be able to cross over into other mediums related to our profession and I’m no exception. Moving between the different mediums often requires a different focus and different type of preparation, not always understood by those involved developing the projects. Poorer quality work exists because of the lack of funding of course and also the lack of appropriate preparation time needed for projects to be able to take off. Theatre and film (with workable budgets) are my favourite environments to work in. The entire team, from producers to directors to the art departments and the performers all work toward one goal – to be able to tell a story as well as possible. Where ensemble, collaborative work happens, that’s where I want to be. ‘The List’ has been this very experience. I feel blessed to be able to be working on this exquisite text with Leila and the entire Baxter team.
Complete the following: Favourite film or TV show; book; midnight snack; holiday destination.
TV show: I just enjoyed a fantastic Danish television series called ‘Borgen’.
Latest, most riveting and harrowing book I’ve read: ‘Map of the World’ by Jane Hamilton.
Midnight snack: Rooibos tea and buttermilk rusks.
Favourite holiday destination: New York, New York.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on a movie with dogma film director Kristen Levring, which is being shot in Johannesburg. It is called ‘The Salvation’ and stars Mads Mikkelsen from ‘Casino Royal’ fame.
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