BWW Interview: Five on Friday with NIQABI NINJA's Bianca Flanders
Vibrant local performer Bianca Flanders divides her time between acting, voice work and teaching, having graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in Theatre and Performance in 2011. Audiences in the Mother City have seen her on stage in shows like BLOOD BROTHERS, David Kramer's local adaptation of Willy Russell's originally British musical, ORPHEUS IN AFRICA, a bio-musical by Kramer that deals with the life of Orpheus McAdoo, and KRISTALVLAKTE, Amy Jephta's South African take on Bertolt Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. A host of other productions appear on her resumé, and Flanders is currently in the middle of the latest run of Sara Shaarawi's NIQABI NINJA, in which she shares the stage with Loren Laubser under the direction of Megan Furniss. She took some time to answer some questions about the show, her career and the South African theatre scene in BroadwayWorld South Africa's weekly Five on Friday feature.
David Fick: NIQABI NINJA deals quite frankly with the subject of sexual harassment and rape, behaviours that are essential for us to counter in South Africa today but in which we simply can't seem to make any headway. How does a play like NIQABI NINJA contribute to the urgent conversations we need to have about these topics?
Bianca Flanders: I believe that as a society, we have become so desensitised to a lot of the factors that contribute to rape culture. As a female, there are so many things that you have to put up with, usually when you hit puberty, such as catcalling, inappropriate and lewd behaviour from men, continuous commentary on your body and the sense that your body does not just belong to you, and no-one talks about it - we just acclimatise and carry on. But all of these little things add up and contribute to rape culture. NIQABI NINJA expresses so much of the daily struggle that women have to go through. We all know about rape; men know about rape - they're supposed to know that it's a horrible, horrible thing. NIQABI NINJA not only deals with rape but all the stuff that leads up to it. That, for me, is one of the main ways that it contributes to the conversations that we need to be having all the time - it tackles the daily, quiet harassment that females go through every day and just don't talk about.
DF: This is your third run of the piece, having run at Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre, within the festival context of the Cape Town Fringe and now at Theatre Arts Admin Collective. Has the kind of response you've had from audiences shifted from space to space?
BF: Not really. I think the subject matter doesn't really align itself with one particular kind of audience, whether they're regular theatre-goers or not. For many women, the piece is about representation, about having a voice and having daily, quiet struggles, as well as the horror of rape, represented on stage. For many men, it is educational. We've had many men respond and say that they just had no idea what women have to go through. Although I must say, one of the best responses we've had was when we performed for a group of university students. I think the style and tone of the piece really appealed to them as they could relate to it, especially the language and the context of the piece.
DF: You've done big commercial musicals, like DISTRICT SIX - KANALA and ORPHEUS IN AFRICA, and you've done small independent shows, like this one and your cabaret, AN EVENING WITH LOLA. What has the highlight of your career been so far?
BF: To be honest, it's really hard to choose one 'highlight'. Each of these experiences presented such unique challenges. If I had to choose though, gun to my head, it would be playing Miela in KRISTALVLAKTE. That role was such a challenge for me on so many levels. She was a prostitute from the Cape Flats. The character was incredibly complex and hard, but there was also a softness to her. Her life experience was so vastly different to mine, and I so badly wanted her to be authentic. It was also challenging because it was in Afrikaans and that's not my first language. The costume also forced me to face my own insecurities about my body, and I had to fight to feel comfortable with my stomach hanging out, in the shortest shorts, plastic high heels and sitting with my legs wide open. Sjoe, after doing that I definitely learned that anything is possible if I'm willing to put in the work.
DF: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing South African theatre at present?
BF: I think that a lack of finance is a really big challenge that most artists face. This makes it really difficult to focus on the work when we're all having to multi-task like crazy. Directors have to be writers, producers, work on PR, stage managers and so on. It also means that it can be very difficult to make a living as an actor because often you have to juggle various jobs at the same time to make ends meet. It also makes it much harder for new theatre-makers to get involved in the industry because you need money to make theatre. People often expect artists to work for free, telling them that they will be paid in 'experience'. Experience doesn't pay rent.
DF: In South Africa at this time, we have a huge mix of theatre legends and inspiring new artists right now. Who is your South African theatre hero?
BF: Ooh! I have so many! I literally cannot narrow them down, so I'm going to cheat and give you three if that's OK? David Kramer- for his incredible ability to tell stories with such respect and authenticity, as well as giving young and upcoming artists great opportunities to perform. Anna-Mart van der Merwe because she is quite possibly the most breath-taking actress I have ever seen in my life. She performs from the earth. Amy Jephta, because as a womxn, especially a womxn of colour she is making serious waves as a writer. Her work is exceptional, and I find her totally inspiring.
NIQABI NINJA will run at Theatre Arts Admin Collective until 20 May at 19:00. Tickets cost R60 and can be booked online through the Tixsa portal on the Theatre Arts Admin's website. Follow NIQABI NINJA on the play's official Facebook page.