By Peter Tromp
In this regular feature, we go deep into the minds of some of our finest actors.
No one who’s saw the Lara Foot production ‘Karoo Moose’ is likely to ever forget Chuma Sopotela’s electrifying turn. The diminutive performer appeared to live her part at times and was duly awarded with a Fleur du Cap Actress award in 2007.
Sopotela and the crew will be back in the production that cemented their places in South African theatrical history at the end of the month, with ‘Karoo Moose’ returning to the place of its birth, the Baxter Theatre, from August 31 to September 24.
When did you first fall in love with acting, and at what point did you decide to pursue it as a career?
I had my first experience with acting in Grade 9. I was introduced to it by my language teacher Miss Mantsha; she asked me to join the school’s drama society. I then joined Ikhwezi Drama Youth Development, headed by director Themba Baleni and Samson Faleni. We worked with organisations such as TAC and this is where I saw the power and impact that theatre could have. Working with issues such as HIV/AIDS and Mother to Child Transmission in a time where having HIV was seen as a death sentence and people were discriminated against, was incredible. We filled the gap between myth or stigma and the truth by educating people on these issues through drama and storytelling.
Tell us a little about your acting training – formal and informal – and what you discovered about yourself and your craft.
I received my formal training at the University of Cape Town (2003 to 2006) where I obtained a Diploma in Performance Studies. I started out pursuing a degree, but I ended up obtaining a diploma, because I was not very good at attending classes on UCT’s upper campus; I found them informative, but very boring. I don’t think that education should be that rigid.
‘Karoo Moose’ is returning to the stage. What does the play mean to you on a personal level and why do you think it has resonated with theatregoers to the enormous extent it has?
‘Karoo Moose’ is brought to life by really amazing people. I think the team that made it are the people that make the audience fall in love with ‘Karoo Moose’, because of the amount of love, heart and passion that they put into it – from the writer-director and actors, to the rest of the creative team (choreographer, musical director, costume, lighting, and set designers) and the whole Baxter Team. It is truly a family affair where everyone is brought together.
What can you reveal about director Lara Foot’s methods, especially the way in which she goes about getting the best out of her actors?
It was truly amazing to work with Lara. Someone once said that she is a true actor’s director. I think that the amount of love she has for directing and the respect she has for those that mentored her is quite moving.
Who would you say you have learned from the most in your career?
My fellow actors and the directors I have worked with have been my best teachers on stage, and in life. I would not have lived my life any differently; the lessons I’ve learnt through them are what made me who I am today. Lara was the first director to give me a shot on a professional stage. I was fresh out of university and she gave me a lead role. I will forever be grateful for her belief in me and all she has taught me, and continues to teach me still. She is forever giving and teaching. I would say that we are blessed to have directors and storytellers such as her.
Do you have a standard method for get into character, or does it differ depending on the role?
It differs depending on the role and what I am busy with in my actor’s research. I believe in developing knowledge and therefore I am always investigating the art of acting or performance; I do this every day in every work I do.
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?
I think we should inspire innovation. We need to find ways of existing together that are not what we are used to. We need to learn to live together. I believe that theatre can instigate this search for innovation as it, and those who work in it, are forever improvising and finding ways of being.
You famously won the Best Actress award for ‘Karoo Moose’. Has that recognition changed your professional life at all and your confidence approaching new projects?
I received this award a long time ago, but I must say that the time when I was awarded Best Actress has made me who I am today.
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?
Yes; in my role in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, by Alexandra Marine. It was a beautiful show, but I didn’t feel it got the recognition it deserved. We went and performed in Montreal, Canada, where I was nominated for Best English Actress.
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?
That role in ‘Waiting for Barbarians’. I would love to play it again. There’s just something about it that draws me to it constantly.
Do you have any dream roles you’d love to be cast in?
No, not specifically. I would just love to have more chances to be directed by my friends in other provinces such as Johannesburg. I would love that.
“Last night a show changed my life.” Which show?
‘Ityala Lamawele’; it’s a show I was in at the Grahamstown Festival and it took me by the hand every night. I was ushered to spaces I had never been to before. I am grateful to my ancestors, the cast and the directors (Thando Doni and Mandla Mbotwe) of this show for a once in a lifetime experience.
What is a normal day like for you, “in the life of an actor and theatre maker”?
I wake up and I think. Having dreamt all night, I look to make sense of my dreams that usually become the guide for my day. Then, usually I would be on Facebook, checking email and WhatsApp to see what needs to be done. This is followed by eating, a bath and then off to rehearsals. Usually the rehearsals don’t stop until I fall asleep again, because when I come back from work I have to work on my script. We are forever working, even when you are sitting in a taxi.
Who are your acting heroes, both locally and internationally?
Omphile Molusi and John Kani are on my mind at the moment, but in essence, I have far too many to name. I have seen Omphile perform and read his writing and I think he is a great artist. I admire Tata John for his contribution to the arts and his great storytelling skills and experience.
What are the biggest misconceptions you’ve encountered amongst people that they harbour towards actors?
That actors are all the same.
The most nervous you’ve ever been on stage…
I am always nervous, but mostly when I have to do my own solo work, which I act and direct; this is always harder for me because I feel that there is more pressure, but the rewards are so fulfilling.
Finally, three words you feel describe you best as an actor…
I’ll give you five – I love what I do.
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