Staging a Change from Actress to Director


Too few women directors’ was a topic of discussion a few years ago following the Afrikaans festivals. Things are changing with two new directors, both accomplished actresses – brought into the fold. DIANE DE BEER speaks to Nicole Holm and Tinarie van Wyk Loots about this debut directing outing:

Nicole Holm
Nicole Holm

For Nicole Holm directing wasn’t an option. “I didn’t like the idea that the buck stopped here,” she said about that role.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happened with her first stint as director. The text by Ingrid Winterbach, Ons Is Almal Freaks Hier, isn’t an easy one as it deals with Saartjie Baartman, a loaded issue in especially these fraught times, for women.

Ons is Almal Freaks Hier, as the title suggests, deals specifically with the Other, the way they are exposed and viewed by those who feel entitled and empowered – white people, to state the obvious. And then the text is written by a white woman and directed by yet another one, to further contaminate the issue.

Ons is almal freaks hier © Nardus Engelbrecht
Ons is almal freaks hier with Albert Pretorius, Kay Smith and Lee-Ann van Rooi. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht

But she’s been fielding those missiles and believes the growth value for her as an artist has been extraordinary. What she didn’t expect for example was the isolation she felt before coming together with the actors while studying the text. “I felt as if I had to make these huge decisions without any input, no chorus,” she explains.

But once they moved into the rehearsal space and the collaboration kicked in with her cast (Lee-Ann van Rooi, Albert Pretorius and Kay Smith), she could tackle and get to grips with the process and the issues. Who has the right to tell the story, and could she take the Saartjie Baartman issue wider than it has been viewed before? Is it time now to grapple with the issues from a 2018 perspective?

Or should it be that of collaboration so that all the different perspectives are covered? In the final product it was exactly that, taking the issues from a new vantage, combining the past and the present and asking whether anything has changed for the victims/oppressed of the past?

The venue in Stellenbosch (which changes perspective again in Oudtshoorn) was the Stellenbosch Museum which, for Holm, brought in the historical as well as a theme of knowledge, which is part of any university. “It seemed as if many narratives were served, in retrospect; probably too many.”

That has all been part of the learning curve for this experienced actress who chose to wear this new hat albeit a touch gingerly at the start. One of the challenges in the museum was the way they presented the piece. On the first night, because the audience was led from room to room, it lengthened the performance by 20 minutes which added rhythm problems for the context and the cast.

But thinking on her feet, she quickly changed the format by the next performance to fit the scale and movement of the audience better. “Someone advised me that you could not expect the audience to move more quickly. They had to be allowed to follow at their own pace,” she said.

Speaking to Holm early in the Stellenbosch run, I was impressed by the way she reacted, how she was coping with the criticism, and how she experienced this first-time adventure. It wasn’t a comfortable ride because of the subject matter and the differing opinions about the performance, but probably because of her maturity as an actress, it was less daunting to deal with this kind of exposure and her decision to face it head on was a good one.

While she found the responsibility quite stressful, she also processed the joyful aspects of this new venture. In a way this was her narrative to tell with the collaboration of her cast, and while it wasn’t a familiar place for her to be, she revelled in this discomfort and the growth that followed.

Oudtshoorn will bring its own challenges, but at least this time she will be aware of the possibility of problems. They will be moving into a new space with very little time to acclimatise, which is the old bugbear at festivals, but her head space will accommodate everything thrown at her. She has got through it once, a second time round will be less stressful.

And even though this wasn’t a smooth ride – is there ever one? – the thing Holm discovered is that she wants to do this again.

Gif - Tinarie van Wyk Loots © Hanno Otto
Gif with Tinarie van Wyk Loots Picture: Hanno Otto


For Tinarie van Wyk Louw, the process was different and perhaps not as unexpected. She had walked a long road with her text, Swerfgoed by Bauke Snyman, which she had been involved in from the start as well as  passing it on to different people to read until it finally reached the text market which has been set up to feed the Afrikaans festivals.

Once it had been accepted, Van Wyk Louw was selected to direct. “That was unexpected and a push that I needed,” she says hardly containing her excitement about the project ahead. Speaking to her while she was performing in four different pieces at the Woordfees, the bulk of the process still lay ahead.

Swerfgoed © Robert A Hamblin
Richard September, Andrew Laubscher, Nicole Holm and Anna Mart van der Merwe (front) in Swerfgoed. Picture: Robert A Hamblin

But she was ready to bolt. The script is unusual, she says, “out there” and her casts includes Anna Mart van der Merwe, Nicole Holm (yes the director of the first piece), Richard September and Andrew Laubscher, any director’s dream. And she is salivating.

Water and land is at the centre of the story and with a script which gave birth in 2009, it started happening long before the current crises. She describes the text as colourful, visceral and focused and she’s pushing it as far as she can. “I want to see how far we can stretch it,” she says.

If anyone is passionate about theatre it is this completely compulsive actress – or so it seems when you look in from outside. In the world of theatre, there’s more to that story of course. But when she speaks about theatre, you pay attention.

She’s one of a younger generation that fuels Afrikaans theatre and she believes that it is the stage that takes you into a personal space with universal stories. “This is where you find understanding, beauty and where you find yourself. It’s intimate and immediate, it’s raw and it has to be live.”.

Speaking about the process so far at that stage, she was excited by the cast and how they allowed her to be the facilitator, putting it all together. “The actor is the real tool, the one telling the story,” she argues.

She has handpicked those with whom she surrounds herself and for the design, she has the best with Jemma Kahn. Most of their props were purchased at the Milnerton Market, which she knows will add authenticity to the venture.

She’s also relieved that she is only committed to one other production (Gif with Mbulelo Grootboom) at the festival. This is rare for this prolific actress, who has found herself on a bit of a treadmill – which is difficult to disentangle once you’re there. It is the nature of the beast because of the precarious world of theatre, when you’re offered work, it is tough not accept it. It is a case of juggling and trying to balance as best you can but sometimes the pendulum swings too far which happened with her at Stellenbosch.

It’s an accumulation of work, years of running too fast that catches up with you, with often your health showing the first signs of strain. “It’s madness when the very thing that you love, destroys you,” she notes.

But she takes a deep breath, giggles about the production she holds so tenderly in her hands and concedes that fortunately, the more you surround yourself with people you admire, the more they inspire you. “We’re a team,” she says, “which means equality,” is how she speaks about the Swerfgoed team.

She’s been inspired by the generosity and the spirit and the lesson she has learnt is to let go and to focus on her new task at hand – directing.

  • Both of these will be seen at the KKNK from March 29 to April 4 with a run in 2019 at The Baxter for Swerfgoed backed by Kunste Onbeperk and Ons Is Almal Freaks Hier produced by Kunste Onbeperk and the US Woordfees.