By Peter Tromp
In this new monthly feature, we go deep into the minds of some of our best local actors, stopping at nothing to get the lowdown on how they approach their craft and the choices they make that inform the performances that stick in our minds for years. We also get to the bottom of more mundane things, like that old chestnut: what is an ordinary day in the life of an actor really like?
First up is MELISSA HAIDEN, who can currently be seen reprising the pivotal role of the wronged Desdemona in Artscape’s revival of their 2015 hit production of ‘Othello’ at Maynardville.
As anyone who has seen the Cape Town-based actress perform is likely to attest, Haiden enlivens her characters with an almost scary level of intensity. It leaves one with the impression that she must invest a heck of a lot of herself in her roles. “I have an addiction to expression,” Haiden chirpily tells me over the phone, sounding nothing at all like the damaged souls she appears to gravitate towards in her professional career.
When did you first fall in love with acting, and at what point did you decide to pursue it as a career?
I found my true calling at the age of seven. My sisters and I would clear the lounge furniture for our avant-garde margarine adverts. We had so much fun dressed in costumes made out of Pick n Pay packets, marketing margarine to our parents. I joined an acting agent when I was nine, mainly because my best friend got a role in ‘Annie’ and I was green with envy, but also because my parents felt I needed another outlet for my “creativity”.
Tell us a little about your acting training and what you discovered about yourself during that period of study.
I spent my gap year in London waitressing and dreaming of finding an agent there. When I finally got to meet with one, she kindly put it to me that I would have better luck returning with a proper acting degree and some “experience”. I returned to Cape Town to study a BA in Theatre and Performance at UCT’s Drama department. Whilst in London I had been greatly moved by a visceral Czech dance piece called ‘Sclavi: The Song of an Emigrant’. It was a wild piece that used the body to articulate all that seems impossible to express in any other way. I tried to bring the strangeness and power of what I had seen in that piece into my studies, but I overdid everything and I got the feeling most of my lecturers thought I was beyond help. I felt as if I was failing my dream, but in actual fact I was pushing far too hard. The late Yvonne Banning told me that when an actor works too hard and shows no restraint, nobody wants to listen. I was encouraged to try to do it all with more stillness and less fuss.
What has it been like returning to Desdemona in ‘Othello’? How has having a second shot at the character impacted on the choices you have made?
Desdemona is a meaty role because she has such a complex and complete character arc. The great thing about reprising this role is that I have been allowed to add a few extra shades of grey to balance out the naivety of the last year’s Desdemona. It’s wonderful working with a new Othello and Emilia, played by the wonderful Pope Jerrod and generous Lee-Ann van Rooi. Their fresh energies have not allowed for a simple re-hashing, as director Fred Abrahamse has encouraged us to explore this newness in the rehearsal room (and sometimes on stage – within limits, of course).
You played many memorable, intensely differing roles in 2015. Do you feel that local audiences finally got a taste of your abilities and range as an actress during the last year?
2015 was certainly my most prolific year in the theatre scene. It was wonderful inhabiting all those different characters, from a privileged society girl of the 1600s (Desdemona in ‘Othello’), to a tik-addicted prostitute (‘John’) to the girl next door (W in ‘Cock’) and then the pitiful Madame (‘The Maids’). There is almost always a moment in the rehearsal process when I feel like I’m telling a big fat lie. When this has happened I have fallen at my director’s feet and luckily they have been able to re-channel my focus. My fellow actors have made it impossible for me not to scramble up to their level. There is so much to learn from each other and we are constantly cribbing technique from one another.
One of the most interesting shows you were a part of during 2015 was ‘John’, which dealt with the sexual stiltedness of a middle aged man. In the show you played three richly detailed, yet incredibly diverse sex workers. What preparations did you undergo for those roles, and what did you walk away with after that production, in terms of personal gains, or boundaries shifted?
Workshopping ‘John’ with Jeremeo Le Cordeur and Andre Lombard was an invigorating experience. We met and talked with sex workers about their experiences and watched how they solicited businesses on the street. We then transcribed their stories and blended them with a patchwork of personal material and academic research based on Susan Sontag’s essays on sex and sexuality. Performing ‘John’ was both liberating and heartbreaking.
One of my favourite productions of 2015 was ‘Cock’, which showed at the Alexander Bar early last year. Perhaps the most memorable thing was that the action felt so close, as if the audience was getting the most intensely psychological lap dance. What was it like to have the audience in such close proximity while navigating the complex emotional landscape of the play?
I loved ‘Cock’ because of our director, Paul Griffiths’ approach to technique. He invited all four actors to work with the same Stanislavsky technique called “actioning”. This method dictates that every minute thing we do on stage is done because we want to elicit something from another character. It feels true to human psychology and increases the dramatic tension. The Alexander Bar is my favourite theatre in Cape Town, because of its brave, independent repertoire and the 40 seater space allows actors to play as intimately with one another as we would do for film.
You also made an impact in Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’, which was also staged at the Alexander Bar, late last year, and in which you played the much obsessed over Madame. What was your process for getting into the Madame’s malignantly narcissistic brain?
Ha! Slipping into the character of Madame was easier than it should have been. I think all actors are cursed with and “inner diva”. The darkness underpinning the diva is the frightening part – our crippling insecurities.
Your ultimate dream role?
I would love to do the Scottish Play (‘Macbeth’). I have always dreamed of it; obsessed over it. I know that I am supposed to act nonchalant about it, but I can’t help it. I love that she gets to delve into the power of dark magic. I feel a lot of female characters aren’t ambitious enough and I prefer to be the driver of the action in a play and Lady Macbeth does exactly that in ‘Macbeth’. Despite her actions, the audience ends up having a lot empathy for her, and wonderment at her drive.
What is a normal day like for you, “in the life of an actor”?
– To exercise, or not to exercise…
– Re-check emails to see what castings are on, if any;
– Decide what a suitable wardrobe would be for each of those castings;
– Go to castings;
– Learn lines in my bathroom (no distractions);
– Go to rehearsal/performance;
– Veg out on sofa and watch series.
Who are you acting heroes, both locally and internationally, and what do you particularly admire about these folks?
Local acting heroes: Clare Watling, Francis Chouler, Armand Aucamp, Zakeeya Pate and Mikkie-dene Le Roux. They are positive, hard working, driven, and seriously talented.
International: Marion Cotillard and Clive Owen, because they are both my actor crushes and they astound me and bring me to tears. Heaven knows we all need a good cry.
“Last night a show changed my life.” Which show?
Rust Co-Operative’s ‘The View’. The grandeur, the honesty and importance of the message really resonated with me. I believe strongly that you should be who you are and a lot of pain is caused through judgement, especially when it comes to homosexuality. It brought up strong emotions for me, from things close to my life.
The most nervous you’ve ever been on stage…
I don’t get nervous on stage. I get very nervous in my dreams where I forget my lines, or am asked, last minute, to step into a play I did months ago. Those dreams are recurring and THE WORST.
Three words you feel describe you best as an actress…
Two words I know I am: hungry and excited;
One word I hope I am: present.
* ‘Othello’ is showing at Maynardville until February 23.
Tickets can be booked via Artscape Dial-A-Seat on 021-421 7695, or at Computicket.