By Peter Tromp
In this regular feature, we go deep into the minds of some of our finest actors.
Stephen Jubber should be very familiar to theatregoers who love musicals. The actor has starred in numerous of the high profile franchises that have landed on our shores during the last decade or so, the most recent example being Matthew Wild’s stunning production of ‘West Side Story’ at the Artscape Opera House, but in recent times the self-trained actor has been expanding his range by starring in more serious, dramatic productions.
Earlier this year he was seen in Abrahamse & Meyer Productions’ ‘Othello’ at Maynardville, and will reunite with the creative duo for what promises to be one of the most exciting theatrical events of the year: Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Hotel Plays’, which will be staged at The Vineyard Hotel in Newlands from July 30.
When did you first fall in love with acting, and at what point did you decide to pursue it as a career?
Some children played cricket; some played Nintendo. I had roleplay. Whether it was with my action figures or with a stick for a sword, my playtime adventures with my childhood friends were immersive and complex. Becoming an actor has really just been an attempt to claw my way back into that world. So the love for playing a character hit early; the decision to pursue it took a little longer. But you’ve got to pass through a few years of trying to be an adult before you realize you’re better off trying to remain a child at play. I was probably 24 when I decided “this is what I want to do with my life,” and made peace with that.
Tell us a little about your acting training formal and informal and what you discovered about yourself and your craft.
Formal acting training? Nil. But I’ve had the benefit of working with a sampling of the industry’s finest. Listen closely enough and you’ll learn something. Which I’ve endeavoured to do. It’s taken the chip off of my shoulder to the point where I do actually introduce myself as an actor these days. But it’s taken me a while to feel like I’ve earned that. Stay in school kids. Education is important.
‘The Hotel Plays’ sounds like an awesomely unconventional set of productions. Tell us more about the plays, the location in which they will be performed and why audiences should be excited for this experiment in theatre staging.
‘Talk To Me Like The Rain And Let Me Listen’ and ‘Green Eyes’ are the two Tennessee Williams works that make up ‘The Hotel Plays’ and are site specific. Meaning they are both set in hotel rooms and will be performed in hotel rooms – at the beautiful Vineyard Hotel in Claremont, no less. Four actors; two plays; a three course, wine paired dinner: such a unique opportunity for the cast. There’s an intimacy with the audience that you just can’t get in a formal theatre. Characters will live in the space and those in attendance will experience an unprecedented level of voyeurism.
What can you reveal about director Fred Abrahamse’s methods, especially the way in which he goes about getting the best out of his actors?
Remember what I said about observing the industry’s finest? In the case of Fred Abrahamse I’ve had more than a few opportunities. Say nothing about his vision, decades of experience, and exhaustive list of technical theatre making skills, if I were to boil down how he gets the best out of his actors as succinctly as possible, Fred can very economically and respectfully get an actor to make discoveries by using careful words, analogies, and anecdotes. His directing style never leaves an actor feeling bullied. He has a soft touch, but he uses it to get his cast to want exactly what his vision is. I’ve yet to legitimately be able to disagree with the man. And I disagree with most everyone.
Give us the lowdown on the play you’re starring in, ‘Green Eyes’: its context, your co-star, your character and how you have gone about realizing him.
I play a Vietnam era combat soldier on leave from hostilities and spending it with his sweetheart in a New Orleans French Quarter hotel. But things aren’t rosy for our couple. The war has taken its toll to the point where he finds more comfort in a bottle than his woman. We’d call that Post Traumatic Stress now and there would be various avenues of therapy and rehabilitation, but back in the late 1960s, you’re left alone with your demons. The relationship hangs by a thread. Trust is nonexistent. Lovers are reunited but remain distant. Numb. And unspeakably cruel to one another. She is played by the lovely Melissa Haiden. An actress who can make the phonebook sound hypnotic. And as far as realizing my role is concerned, I’ve never been in a warzone. But I know what it’s like to want something poisonous.
Who would you say you have learned from the most in your career?
My big sister, Tessa Jubber. I’ve tried to adopt her savvy. Her sensibilities. She’s got actor smarts that I’m sure she’s had to earn, but by the time I started really observing her, she couldn’t put a foot wrong in my eyes.
Do you have standard methods/techniques for getting into character, or do you rip up the rule book after every role?
I keep it simple. If you’re working with a good text, all your answers are on the page. Having a sense of the context and history is useful. But when it comes to finding the truth of one person relating to another, it’s all in the way they communicate. The writer did all the hard work. Breathe life into the words and you’re home and dry.
We became accustomed to seeing you in musical productions in the earlier stages of your career, but in the last few years you have been starring in dramatic productions with increasing regularity. This begs the question: do you have a preference and if so, why? How do they differ for you in terms of preparation, etc.?
Musicals are so damn weird. Breaking into song and dance is a bizarre convention. But you can’t dispute that it’s entertaining. It’s also terrific fun to perform as well, since it calls upon three disciplines. It’s very fulfilling to incorporate all of your capabilities in one performance. And the scores to some of the shows I’ve had a hand in are just so damn good. In the last few years my tastes have changed, however. A shift towards more serious drama feels like a natural one. And I do feel like one is taken more seriously in the theatre community after making that shift and turning in good work. But I got to belt out a big note before jumping off of the roof of a cop car while the Cape Town Philharmonic played their guts out under me. And that is pretty hard to beat.
You left a huge impression on this theatregoer with your performance in The SugarDaddy Theatre Co.’s production of Athol Fugard’s ‘Hello and Goodbye’. What are your memories of that production, and what was it about Johnnie Smit that resonated with you to deliver something so fantastic?
Well, thank you very much Peter. Generous words indeed. Athol Fugard writes a good play, doesn’t he? And that always helps. Johnnie Smit will always be close to my heart. He’s just a boy who desperately loves his daddy. Between having a life of his own and a life with his father, he chooses dad. I will always identify.
You were nominated in the Best Supporting Actor In A Musical category at this year’s Fleur du Cap Awards for your portrayal of Riff in ‘West Side Story’, yet I believe you declined the nomination. What was your reasoning behind this decision and does it reflect your stance on awards shows in general?
This is my job. I’m not a contestant. Nor do I feel the need for more recognition than I receive from the audience. The coveting of accolades doesn’t have a positive effect on performers. At best, they play it off nonchalant. At worst, they think they’re all that. And if awards have eluded them, they are embittered. So I’m going to give the prizegivings a wide berth.
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?
Wow. I think if they ever put together another tour of ‘Jersey Boys’ and asked me to step in for one of the Four Seasons, I’d be hard pressed to turn it down. It’s just such a satisfying show to perform. But I don’t ever want to go backwards. I was very quietly asked about joining a touring production of ‘Mamma Mia!’ and while I loved that show immensely, it’s not something I’d want to revisit. A new role with a fresh start and unanticipated challenges is so much more appealing than the possibility of turning in a slightly more nuanced spin on an old one.
Do you have any dream roles you’d love to be cast in?
Never something I give a lot of thought to. Law of attraction be damned, I will audition for whatever’s going and hopefully find a role in it to get excited about. I’m no theatre buff so there’s no bucket list. I’d have to say, new roles that haven’t had anyone else’s stamp interest me far more. And in that vein I am very honoured to be in the first South African production of ‘Green Eyes’.
The most perfect performance you can recall seeing, whether live or recorded…
Alan Rickman really kicked ass in ‘Die Hard’. I can never get tired of that performance.
“Last night a show changed my life.” Which show?
It was 1994. The Daphne Jubber (my mom…) Studio of Dance’s annual show. There was this number where everyone wore cycle shorts and takkies and did a dance form called ‘Hip Hop’ to ‘I Like To Move It’ by Reel 2 Real. I was sold and started lessons immediately. And that is the reason I am a performer and subject of this article. And not a lawyer.
If you had the power of an enterprising impresario, which kinds of productions/specific shows would you ensure local audiences got to see more of?
There is a slew of new writers penning thought provoking and topical theatre. It’s fresh. It’s current. It’s good. And I hope it’s gaining momentum. I’m always going to side with the new stuff and I wish it was in my power to get more audiences to take a leap of faith and roll the dice on a brand new show, instead of a recognizable brand.
What is a normal day like for you, “in the life of an actor and theatre maker”?
An audition or casting, some physical exercise and a performance at night makes for a day well spent. Any freelancer knows that there are days you wish you were busier, though. I try to blur those from memory.
Who are your acting heroes, both locally and internationally?
I can’t say that’s something I’ve ever really done much of. In terms of hero worship I’ve got far more to say about Luke Skywalker and Batman than anyone living. And boy, do I have a lot to say about Luke Skywalker and Batman.
What are the biggest misconceptions you’ve encountered amongst people that they harbour towards actors?
I once overheard a conversation between an actor and a family member of his who had come to see his show. He mentioned how money had become quite tight recently, and the suggestion came back that he should ‘go into TV’. He shrugged it off, saying he’d love to, but it’s just not that easy to just book a lucrative television role. The divide between the stage world, the television world, and the film world is sometimes vast and perhaps even insurmountable. Everyone wants to do good work and hopefully be remunerated well for it. But wherever on the spectrum you operate, you are no less of an actor. One does not simply ‘get onto a TV show’, and a number of actors I know wouldn’t even want to. They are no less potent, but have no desire to be household names. We do this job because nothing else feels as right. I think what I’m trying to say is: we’re not trying to become celebrities and if we only inhabit one or two spheres of the performance world it’s because that’s where we do the kind of work we do best.
The most nervous you’ve ever been on stage…
In 2011 I returned to the cast of ‘High School Musical’ after an absence of a year and a half. There was a dance routine involving basketballs. My hands were shaking so much I fumbled my ball into the orchestra pit not once, not twice, but three times. Stage management had to keep passing me spares from the wings! You can imagine the band was not impressed, with proverbial raining of basketballs about their heads. I was a complete wreck and you best believe I put in some extra practice after that debacle.
Finally, three words you feel describe you best as an actor…
Compliant. Cocky. Clueless.
* The Vineyard’s ‘Hotel Plays’ production will include a sumptuous three course, wine-paired dinner. Between courses, patrons will view Williams’s one-acts in two separate suites in the hotel’s historic wing.
The Vineyard Hotel is set in a seven-acre riverside garden estate on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. Built in 1799 as a country cottage for Lady Anne Barnard and converted to a hotel in the 1890s, the Vineyard has over its illustrious history welcomed numerous artists, writers, celebrities and Nobel laureates.
‘The Hotel Plays’ will première at the Vineyard Hotel, Colinton Road, Newlands on July 30 at 7pm and have additional performances at 7pm on August 4, 5, 13, 19 and 20. Because of the exclusive nature of this event only a limited number of seats are available so booking is essential. To book, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets cost R650 per person. Ticket price includes the three course wine paired dinner and the two plays.
The Vineyard is offering a special Hotel Plays Stayover package, which includes tickets to the show, the three-course wine-paired dinner, coffee, and breakfast. Packages are from R1950 for a single room, and R2800 for a double room, and available only for the nights of the shows.