Finding a character is determined by reflections and reconstructions in the liminal argues artist Fiona Ramsay in her creative project for her PhD. DIANE DE BEER attends the performance:

One of the most exciting components of the arts – live theatre specifically – is the surprises that pop up ever so often and which you might be privy to.

Recently I was invited to something titled Creative Project for PhD by actor/also head of department for Theatre and Performance at WITS, Fiona Ramsay, and immediately knew this was something not to miss.

She was going to tell a story on stage, be creative, in fact, to illustrate a point and she would be using her stage craft to do so.

Then she explains: “I have appeared in around 400 theatre productions over a career spanning four decades and so aptly I selected four characters for each decade from the archive of my work to detail my process or methodology and the primary question the of my research is: ‘Can I play characters outside my cultural frame, and, if so, how far outside that frame can they stretch?’

She further expands on her methodology, the process of creating the character: “Mia is a distilled creation from many research sources – we spent six weeks workshopping and devising the production with Barney – he coaxed, teased and often wheedled character out of one’s research.

Introducing the creative project, she starts off by doing an extract as Mia Steinman from Born in the RSA written by Barney Simon and cast in 1985.

“I had elected to play a character closer to me, a professional person, as many of the characters that emerged from that era were not. I spent a week in the office of three human rights lawyers and Mia emerged as a summation of these to form a single character.”

She also acknowledges the value of her own lived experience. “ I am not sure no matter how much research I had done – without my embodied experience. I grew up in a politically charged and issue driven environment and this undoubtedly contributed to my understanding of Mia.

“I don’t think I would have had the ability to fully grasp the complexity of the milieu the character lived in.”

A recent performance of The Lesson starring Fiona Ramsay, Graham Hopkins and Lihle Ngubo at The Market.

But when it comes to finding a character, Fiona has always focused on the voice and her work as a dialogue coach underlines her belief. “I start with researching the voice. Broad strokes of vocal quality – light or dark, chest or head resonance, slow speaker or fast, any idiosyncratic vocal sounds or habits – coupled with more nuanced detail of accent and cadence of rhythm. This is suggested to me by the text, the context and the character,” she notes.

Discoveries made in relation to vocal choices are present in her performances she thinks, many of which have not been documented. “That’s why the archive and personal record becomes an essential component of reflection, revisiting and reconstruction of past performances. It can sit in a computer as a filmed version or reside inside your reservoir of embodied knowledge or in a memory that may be collective – that of the actor’s and audiences combined.

“This is why you will see Jurgen, who is documenting this performance as a component of my PhD research, and you will note he is definitely inhabiting liminal spaces all around me…

And then she goes on to explain how liminal spaces defined a character: there needs to be an experience of being nowhere, or being in between, on the threshold of discovery of these other selves, she suggests.

And right in front of her audience, she moves into a liminal space, the pause or in-between time, and in this space she attempts to become the German spy, Stella Goldschlag from the play Blonde Poison by Gail Louw. And after the performance, she explains her process of finding the character.

She very quickly realized that the final voice she found for Stella was that of her sister-in-law’s mother, Ruth. She was a survivor of the Holocaust who told Fiona stories of her parents being taken away on a train when she was just 14 years old, of how she felt speaking the German of the Nazis and how she came to be in South Africa.

“She seemed to have such resolve, such serenity and so much calmness in her voice – which belied the horrors of her experience. And although I must have ‘channeled Ruth’ and evoked her in the liminalities of the rehearsal rooms, when I watched the archived version of the performance, I heard only the cadence and lilt of her voice.”

She believes strongly that the actor’s creative process seems to require the ‘in between’, the ‘unresolved’, the ‘unknown’ – an open empty passage where one can explore en route to becoming other.

She notes that theorist Victor Turner described the transitional phase experienced by a person ‘during a rite of passage – going to the mountain to become a man’ of indigenous customs, a process of ‘leaving behind an old identity’ and ‘becoming something new and other’, as liminal.

“Neither here nor there, and not certain. It is a fearful and unnerving space – a place of not knowing or unknowing – of no certainty, often a place of discomfort where you are neither you nor not you yet, a space affording experimentation and discovery which Peter Brook calls the empty space – a space or time for magic to occur.

“So liminal spaces can be difficult – I wouldn’t call them fun places to be because these are experienced with intense feelings or qualities of ambiguity, instability and disorientation that are uncomfortable. But these allow for an exploration unquestioned.”

A selection of images from Delirium and If We Dig.

She does plays further characters to illustrate her points. And a reminder of the question she raises at the beginning: “I am not German nor Jewish, nor Greek nor Afrikaans, so how am I qualified to represent these characters – people or fictions – or am I?”

If cultural politics and correctness discourage or prohibit an actor from a particular culture – being only qualified to play another from your same cultural frame – what does the acting teacher need to alter in their teaching praxis and how, she asks?

“My teaching process focuses on the awareness of self, the neutral self and the transformed self – but would this be bound by culture or gender, or by ethnicity, bound by race and by language? What then of learning – does it limit or extend it? What of the perspective on that which is ‘other’ that sheds new light and encourages discovery to extend beyond personal limitations and public borders?”

As a vocal coach she teaches accents that require research and immersion into other cultures.

As an actor she embodies, plays or acts someone who is ‘other’ and requires research and immersion into the cultures of other.

“As a person,” she emphasises, “I am curious and interested in cultures other than my own and keen to unearth connections rather than disconnecting from these.”

And surely, that’s enough said.

Even though she suggests the following as a solution/option: “Perhaps a way forward might be to base all characters that are other in fictional worlds where allegory and metaphor are used to describe and denote a culture that is other with fictional countries and fictional languages so as to conform to political correctness in the hope of not offending anyone or appropriating any culture.”

And in the process I suggest, limit the imagination which goes against everything we want from theatre.

  • Fiona is currently in Salzburg directing Janna Ramos-Violante in the first production for the English speaking company at the Landestheater and part of the process is putting into practice whatb she has explored in this presentation.
  • She will also be doing the above presentation again on 22 January at 3pm with a view to having a Q & A with her supervisors and audience after the show.