By Peter Tromp
In this regular feature, we go deep into the minds of some of our finest actors.
Emily Child needs no introduction to regular theatregoers in Cape Town. Showing immense abilities even as a student – for which she was recognised in 2008, when she nabbed that year’s Most Promising Student Fleur du Cap award – Child must have one of the most impressive stage resumes for a young actor in recent South African theatre history. All that promise culminated in 2015, when she won the Best Actress Fleur du Cap for her daring, magisterial turn in Louis Viljoen’s ‘The Pervert Laura’.
The actress is reunited with the scribe for ‘The Emissary’, a dark study of a friendship co-starring Andrew Laubscher, which will show at the Alexander Bar Upstairs Theatre in Strand Street, from Monday, June 27, to July 16.
Tell us a little about your acting training – formal and informal – and what you discovered about yourself and your craft.
I trained formally at UCT. I did a four year, BA Theatre and Performance degree. Goodness, it was wonderful. I have always loved being in a learning environment. School was just the best for me and I have never been afraid to embrace the nerd within, but I completely underestimated just how much focus and energy the world of theatre requires. School hours are one thing, but theatre hours are something else. I worked front of house, restocked many a toilet roll and spent most of my holidays operating shows. I learnt about the machine of theatre. I gained an understanding and a respect for every department that works their ass off to make a show happen. Theatre is so much more than the actors on stage. It was an incredibly formative period of my life, but I consider myself “still in training.” I learn from everyone I meet in the industry.
Louis Viljoen is back with ‘The Emissary’. Give us the lowdown on the production and why folks should be super excited.
My my, it’s a goodie. And by goodie, I mean it feels a lot like being sucked into some weird, magic word vortex that drinks your blood and makes you laugh about it. It’s riveting in the Louis Viljoen way, but I think it’s twisty in a way we haven’t seen from Louis until now. The only way I can even try to talk about the plot is, “Two people are in a room and something happens…” I’m that scared of giving anything away. It moves faster than we can think sometimes. Andrew Laubscher is electric on stage. He also looks extremely handsome in a suit, also.
Tell us about the creative relationship between Viljoen and yourself. Do you think there is a “muse” factor at work?
As far as I know, Louis’ ultimate muse is movies, so there is no room for such a factor in our creative relationship. I do however know that we love working together, and that we inspire each other, and that we communicate extremely openly and honestly when we work. I think we want the same thing from theatre – to be riveted and to be entertained, and we are both ready to work our asses off in order to offer that to audiences that watch the plays we do. I mean, this doesn’t mean we always agree…we argue a hellava lot. But we argue with equal passion and force. We both love theatre a little more than is healthy, I guess; like obsessive parents, or something.
Who would you say you have learned from the most in your career?
I am lucky, because I have been able to work with practitioners with many different styles and with very different specialties. I will list just few of those with lessons that will always stand out for me:
Practitioner: CHRIS WEARE
Lessons: If you think theatre is something you make on your own, you are as good as lonely. Never be late: If you respect peoples’ time, you respect people. Egos are boring. The first thing you research in a script is your character’s name. Do the work. Laziness is crap man.
Practitioner: GEOFF HYLAND
Lessons: Talk to yourself out loud, every day. Cry with yourself until it doesn’t feel lonely. If you read a script and it doesn’t make you tingle in dangerous places, don’t pick it up again. Know how to walk in heels, otherwise never wear them.
Practitioner: YVONNE BANNING
Lessons: No one wants to pay to watch someone look insecure on stage. If you are not breathing from your bum hole, you are probably not breathing. Get on with it. Everybody else does.
Practitioner: MY GRAN
Lessons: I mean…Why not?
Do you have a standard method for get into character, or does it differ depending on the role?
I have certain habits that have formed over time. I am a visual person at work, so I research images that make me feel the way I guess I would feel if I met the character I am playing. I always draw a picture of the first image I see in my head of that character, immediately after reading the script. I find a smell and for me shoes are very important. Apart from that, it’s a lot about the process on the floor. There is always a day all characters’ “balls drop” – when it starts to feel like you are sitting in their skin more comfortably and the technical aspects of the play are no longer the focus. That is my most favourite day. It’s usually about four days from opening for me, but it has differed from production to production. More and more I try to just be present and to be open and to not let my own insecurities get in the way of the work at hand.
South Africa is going through a myriad of problems right now. What role do the arts have to play in the current climate of uncertainty in our country?
Art gets us talking. To me, this is vital. Whether it’s through social media or in person, art becomes a vehicle for important debate – debate in a space that feels safe, because it is somewhat hypothetical. It allows us to consciously separate our theories and beliefs from our personal lives, because we are encouraged to centre our discussions around the art we have experienced. We can discuss history, ethics and prejudice boldly, because we have the arts as our springboard.
You famously won the Best Actress award for ‘The Pervert Laura’ in 2015. Has that recognition changed your professional life at all and your confidence approaching new projects?
It has made me put a lot more pressure on myself. It was amazing to be recognized in that way, but now I feel that I have a reputation to uphold and I want to get better and give more with every show that I do. I want myself to feel, and I want audiences to feel that the award was well deserved. The only way for me to do that is to try to bring stronger performances each time I am on stage.
Are there any performances in your career where you felt, “I really nailed that one,” yet you didn’t get the recognition you felt you deserved? (For me one such performance was as Elizabeth Bartholomew in ‘Murderer’.)
Thank you for the compliment. That show was a lot of fun.
I think it’s very dangerous for actors to ever think that they have “nailed “a part. The more we work and learn, there is always some way that we could have improved our performance. Even if it means a change in the attitude we had when we tackled the part. So, no; I don’t think I will ever feel that way. I did, however, play a very convincing butterfly in Nursery School. I’m sure I deserved a gold star for that.
Are there any roles in your career you’d like to have another shot at – that you feel you might be better equipped to inhabit now?
I would like to give Daisy from ‘The Great Gatsby’ another shot. I was so young when I played her and I don’t feel I understood the depth and complexity of her story. I would play her very differently now.
That being said, do you have any dream roles you’d love to be cast in?
I would love to play Lady Macbeth (which actor wouldn’t, I guess). I am missing Shakespeare a lot and would love more of it in my life.
The most perfect performance you can recall seeing, whether live or recorded…
In film, Eddie Marsan in ‘Still Life’ is mind-blowing. I dream of working with him after seeing that movie. On stage, I saw ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at The Globe Theatre just over a year ago and every member of the cast was incredible. It was slick and simple and just what I think Shakespeare should be.
“Last night a show changed my life.” Which show? (Last time you answered ‘Oliver Twist’. Maybe that has changed in the interim?)
In Edinburgh we saw a mime called Julien Cottereau perform in ‘Imagine-toi’. He did all kinds of amazing things, but at one point he indicated for the audience to tap one of their index fingers against the palm of their other hand. The crowd of about 200 did as he asked. It sounded like water droplets. He took off his hat and danced in the rain. It was so simple, but it reminded me of the awe that can be experienced in live performance. Much like my ‘Oliver Twist’ experience I suppose, it made me excited to be a part of that magic.
What is a normal day like for you, “in the life of an actor and theatremaker”?
If in-between jobs: Wake up. Yoga/exercise. Clean House. Groceries. Casting. Read. Write lists. Another casting. Speak to people about new shows and email venues. Email more people about ideas for new work. Write a bit. Erase what I have written. Cook if I’m in the mood. Receive news that I did not get a role from last week’s casting. Phone husband so he can feel sorry for me about this. Read more. Watch a movie or watch a play. Have a whiskey. Sleep.
If in rehearsal: Wake up: learn lines. Go to theatre. Rehearse. Go home. Eat husband’s food. Sleep. Dream of lines and play. Repeat.
Who are your acting heroes, both locally and internationally?
I have no set heroes, really, because my taste and style in acting shifts all the time. At the moment I’m loving the Eddies – Redmayne and Marsan. Locally, I watched ‘The Endless River’ – Oliver Hermanus’s new film and Crystal-Donna Roberts was phenomenal. On stage overseas, I adore Julie White, and from here, I’m going to say Andrew Laubscher, because I am having such a wonderful time working with him on ‘The Emissary’.
How much of a theatre nerd are you? Do you read plays for fun? If so, name your three desert island plays…Let’s extend that…your three desert island movies.
I am proud to say I am a nerd in life and in theatre. Yes, I do read plays for fun! Desert island plays…that’s tough. Any David Mamet, really, but I just read ‘Boston Marriage’ again and its genius, so I’ll make that one.
‘Titus Andronicus’ – the ol’ Bard, hey. You need some blood and guts to keep things interesting in island life.
Lastly, maybe a bit of (Eugène) Ionesco? ‘The Bald Prima Donna’, to keep the philosophical imagination in check.
Movies? BBC’s original ‘Pride and Prejudice’, because I’m more than mildly Austin obsessed. ‘Cool Runnings’, because no movie puts me in a better mood. And Still Life, directed by Uberto Pasolini, because it’s just beautiful and strange and Eddie Marsan is astounding.
What are the biggest misconceptions you’ve encountered amongst people that they harbour towards actors?
People think we are lazy. Our hours are strange and no one actually sees us working. People love to say, “I wish I could sleep all day and work for a few hours every night”; as if that’s what we do. They seem to forget that there is a process of playmaking and that process is work, and work, is work, is work.
Also people seem to think that actors are narcissistic drunks who would do anything for money…oh; wait…
The most nervous you’ve ever been on stage…
I completely blanked once whilst performing ‘Decadence’ with Scott Sparrow, so most nervous during a show will have to be that moment, when I tried to remix Berkoff for a few minutes. Before a show, I’m going to have to say the moment before our first night of ‘The Pervert Laura’. I went very quiet and couldn’t feel my limbs for a bit.
Finally, three words you feel describe you best as an actor…
Full Of Nonsense
* Book for ‘The Emissary’ by visiting https://alexanderbar.co.za/show/theemissary/.