PETER TROMP chatted to actor SHAUN ACKER, who will shortly be seen in award winning playwright Nicholas Spagnoletti’s (‘London Road’) new play ‘Civil Parting’ at the Alexander Bar.
When did you first realise that you wanted to become a performer?
My parents worked in the circus entertainment industry, so I was always at knee level interaction with fishnet stockings, feather boas, sequins, sawdust, false eyelashes and spotlights. Who could resist.
I know… suddenly I’m also surprised I didn’t turn out to be a drag queen. I don’t think I can ever remember a specific moment where I decided to become a performer. So I suppose I’ve been doing it my whole life.
What for you ranks among your personal favourite roles and projects so far?
I love being challenged on stage – either physically or emotionally or both at once. I suppose the roles I’ve done recently have been my favourite: Captain Ahab (‘Get Kraken’) – speaking like a constipated supermarket voice over artist is terrific fun; Dr Bark (‘Dogyard’) – he’s such a dirty and confusing psychotic; and Paul Parsky (‘The Unexpected Man’) – I really enjoyed playing an intellectually meaty character in a physically subtle play.
Please tell us about ‘Civil Parting’. What can audiences look forward to with the show?
Glenn and Jean-Pierre are stuck in the waiting room of a lawyer’s office to settle their divorce. The secretary has left, leaving these two potent gays on the precipice of their freedom from each other. The small emotionally detached legal formality of settling a divorce (amicably) turns out to be laden with charged communication between the two. Arguments range from the petty to barbaric and loaded with sarcasm, bitchy remarks, insults, clever wit. All performed beneath a crumbling face mask of civil niceties. It’s hilarious and sad.
The subject of gay marriage can still be quite a controversial one in some circles. Do you feel any pressure, or anxiety in telling this story?
I don’t feel anxious since we are in a gay friendly city. People who don’t support gay marriage may not watch the show, because they will be blocked by their own prejudice. Shame.
What’s novel (or refreshing) here is that is it spectrally on the other end of gay agendas. Gay themed stories are generally seated around critical issues of identity, marginalisation, sex, social acceptance, “closetation” and so forth. In ‘Civil Parting’, the issues are banal: who gets the crockery, who gets the cat, who earns how much etc. Ultimately, these become an emotional currency between the two.
Nicholas Spagnoletti has become one of the most celebrated wordsmiths in local theatre in a relatively short space of time. In your view, what makes him such a special talent?
Nicholas understands the interplay between commonality and conflict in telling stories. He brings characters together who may seem quite opposite to each other (physically, socially or emotionally) and reveals the bedrock of humanity and honesty between them. He’s also such a quirky chap, and this comes through in the comic moments in his writing.
Have you worked closely at all with Spagnoletti on this production and if so, what has the process been like?
Nicholas admits he likes to remove himself from the staging process as much as possible. Which is sensible. When writers hang around the work too long they become irritatingly precious; bothering actors and director about what they mean in their writing because of a bloody semi-colon. This is detrimental to the process. The staged play will always be a different impression of the writer’s vision.
Nicholas does pop in every now and again to have a look at the staged progress. Sometimes it’s to give a nod of approval, or to write in new offerings the team may have come up with. I admire that about him.
Tell us a little about your co-star, Pieter Bosch Botha. How have you guys gone about realising your characters?
Well, the idea for ‘Civil Parting’ was initially seeded by Pieter who presented the idea to Nicholas. Pieter suggested a ‘War of the Roses’/’Death Becomes Her’ flavoured interaction between the characters. Ultimately, from Nicholas’ information and director Zanne Solomon’s guidance we were encouraged to fill out very detailed pages of inventive information on our characters. Answering questions such as “what is his favourite childhood memory” to “what is his favourite drunken memory” all the way to “which actor would play him in a movie”. Even though much of this information is not referred to in the play, it helps formulating psychological patterns for the characters. After all, characters behave the way they do because of their social conditioning.
Though the play deals with a serious parting, the characters have to have had a beautiful romantic history to fuel the story. We had a photoshoot with Jesse Kramer around Cape Town taking pictures from Glen and J.P’s happy wedding, honeymoon and weekends. I think this is a great reflection for audience members to see before they watch the show, since it’s anything but a cooey (sic) gay romance.
I’ve previously been directed by Pieter in Sam de Romijn’s ‘Swoop’ and I thoroughly enjoyed him in ‘Fully Committed’. He’s a hilarious actor with a very strong understanding of entertainment.
We saw you perform earlier in the year at the Alexander Bar in ‘The Unexpected Man’. What’s special about performing at this relatively new venue?
I think most young Cape Town artists will agree that Alexander Bar is becoming ‘the’ venue for intimate performance. The theatre and bar/restaurant venue is an excellent combination for warm socialising. One can have a classy dinner downstairs, watch a play upstairs, come back downstairs for a drink, meet some new people and have a topic of conversation (the performance).
It’s delightfully intimate and has a strong following for either the bar or theatre, allowing an intermingling between the two markets. The days of coming to grand, lonely theatres is on its way out.
The local theatre industry appears to have been possessed with the spirit of DIY in the last year and a half or so, with many small productions cropping up in non-traditional venues all across the city and led by passionate young theatre makers who are doing it for themselves. You appear to be part of this new generation of artistes. What drives you and your comrades to create despite the tough economic times and lack of governmental and corporate support that has befallen the arts world in recent years?
For actors it’s conventionally about auditions. At an audition, you are up against many diversely gifted artists, of which one person gets the part. What happens to everyone else? You sit on your bum holding thumbs until the next audition comes along? What a sad waste. And even if you do get the part, the creator might not know how to get the most out of you.
DIY theatre just makes more sense these days. You are in complete control of your abilities. The harder you work, the more successful the show, the more money you will earn. Theatre and performance is returning to the artist. Which is where it should be.
You can make up or find a story you find interesting; cast yourself in the main role; control an innovative marking strategy and deliver a great product. If your show flops, then you take the responsibility. If your show is a roaring success, you take the credit and the cash.
Finally, please complete the following: Favourite movie; book; music album; song; midnight snack; holiday destination; lunch spot.
Movie: ‘La vie en Rose’ (Marion Cotillard is the true god)
Book: ‘Kafka on the shore’ (Murakami)
Music album: ‘Beautiful Maladies’ (Tom Waits)
Song: ‘Teen Idol’ (Marina and the Diamonds)
Midnight Snack: Plain pasta with balsamic vinegar and cheddar cheese
Holiday destination: Nice, France
Lunch spot: ‘Hello Sailor’ in Observatory
* ‘Civil Parting’ will be showing from Thursday August 29 to Wednesday September 18.
Visit https://alexanderbar.co.za/show/civil_parting/ for more information and to book. Visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/civilparting.
The Alexander Bar is situated on 76 Strand Street, Cape Town.