Peter Tromp caught up with well-known doyenne of stage and screen, Michèle Maxwell, who can be seen in the role of Helene in the humorous new play, ‘Significant Other’, at the Fugard Theatre.
Tell us about ‘Significant Other’ and why audiences should be excited for the show.
I’m going to quote Executive Director of the Fugard Theatre, Daniel Galloway, who summed it up perfectly when he said: “Joshua Harmon once again uses his razor sharp wit and eagle eyed observations to bring us another hilarious, poignant and sensitive story about something we can all relate to…the journey of finding love and how we react when our friends around us find it first.”
Why should audiences be excited for the show? Let me count the ways: a vibrantly talented and gorgeous young cast, dressed by Widaad Albertus; an extraordinary set and lighting design by Wolf Britz; a soundscape from Charl-Johan Lingenfelder that will transport you into the heart of New York 2018; and our wonderful director, Greg Karvellas, at the helm of it all. As they say in Jewish speak, “’What’s not to like?”
What were rehearsals like? How long did it take until you felt you and your cast mates were gelling as an ensemble?
I like to think of our cast as the lucky number seven. There was a synergy and warmth from the moment we all met. As Greg, Gabriel Meltz (our brilliant lead) and myself discovered, the scenes between grandma and her grandson feel like a play within a play as my character only interacts with her grandson and no one else in the cast. This meant that I rarely saw their process, nor they mine. However, once we started doing runs and sections of scenes, that’s when I began to see my scenes in relation to the whole and feel fully involved in the story.
In rehearsals there was always a lot of laughter and salvos of ideas back and forth, as Greg creates an atmosphere that is very relaxed and open. A happy, creative time all round.
‘Significant Other’ takes place in New York. Some folks put a lot of stock in the authenticity of a regional accent, whereas I don’t think it’s a requisite for a great performance. Where do you fall on this matter? And how did you go about trying to nail your accent for this play?
There are so many opportunities for actors to get accents as authentic as possible these days. If you can’t get to a voice coach, there are many internet sites, movies and fellow actors to lend an ear and some guidance. Whilst it may not interfere with characterisation, emotional output etc., we all know how irritating it is to hear foreign actors attempt a bad South African accent. As actors, as tricky as some accents are, I think it’s part of the package to give them our best shot.
Regarding my accent for this play, I started out with a real Yiddish twang, complete with the “Vot’s ent Vey’s ent all of det!”. As rehearsals progressed, we realised that at age 79-ish, grandma could well have been in New York her whole life and besides, that particular accent is so definite and slightly staccato that we went with a New York lilt, tinged with Jewish inflections. Thanks to Pieter Toerien Productions, I’ve played many New York Jewish characters, as well as in ‘Funny Girl’ at the Fugard Theatre last year, so it’s kinda in the blood now.
Tell us about your character and the process you underwent to find her. Is your process always the same? Or does it differ from production to production?
In the one woman play ‘Family Secrets’ (Pieter Toerien Productions) I played an 80 year old Yiddish grandma, so that was still lurking around in my memory banks. I’ve also had a very recent experience with my mom having the beginnings of Alzheimers and all the quirks and humour and sadness that I witnessed and experienced in that journey with her. One of the aspects I love about ‘Significant Other’ is how the play exposes the two poles of youth and old age (as depicted by Jordan and his grandma) – both so different from each other, yet both experiencing loss, alienation and within their totally different worlds, still gaining comfort and communication with each other.
She is feisty, funny at times, losing her memory, her hearing and yet still has enough savvy and wisdom to keep going.
Whilst there are aspects of “Process” that are similar for every production one does (learning the words, the accent, doing detective work on the social setting, style, period, etc. etc.), every role presents the unexpected. So, I do try and allow a new character to infuse me and to respond to the stimuli of director and cast.
‘Bad Jews’ was one of my favourite shows in recent years and was significant for its sparkling dialogue. Can we look forward to the same level of verbiage from Joshua Harmon in ‘Significant Other’?
Yes and yes!
* Tickets from R140 to R250 can be booked through the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554