BWW Interview: Actress Natasha Van Der Merwe talks about life in COVID-19 lockdown
It's an uncertain time for those working in the entertainment industry. We chatted to South African actress Natasha van der Merwe about life for a performer right now and what she is doing to keep busy during the nationwide lockdown.
BWW: Let's start off with - you recently returned from a world tour of Chicago - congratulations! I'm sure you must be happy to have got home and settled again before the lockdown?
Natasha: Thank you so much and a big thank you for having me and taking the time to interview me on Broadway World South Africa. I'm looking forward to sharing a little bit about myself and what I get up to - I hope you enjoy.
I am indeed happy to be back and settled yes, particularly with what's happening in the world and COVID-19. Having said that though, I thoroughly enjoy tour life, it's something I've always wanted to do since starting out in showbiz. It's most certainly not easy, you work extremely hard, but the things I've seen, the places I've been and the opportunities one gets whilst doing what you love, is something I am extremely grateful for.
BWW: How has the lockdown of South Africa impacted your work? Are there any projects you've had to put on hold?
Natasha: Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that was implemented has affected not only our industry but also many other industries the world over. As for work, yes work has been put on hold or even worse, has been cancelled. I think it doesn't help that as freelance performers, we work hand to mouth most of the time and our work comes in sporadically. I can wake up on a Monday morning with a week that looks pretty available and open, and by Monday evening or Tuesday I am fully booked and busy up until Friday again. The hustle is real!
I was currently in a time period where I was focusing more on my film/TV and voice work. I was fortunate enough to complete shooting a series just before lockdown was implemented, and also submitted numerous self-tapes for various projects, but all those will be put on hold until further notice. As it stands, I am contracted to start my next project in July and I am "cautiously optimistic" that it will be going ahead. Here's to staying home and staying safe for now.
BWW: What are you getting up to during the lockdown?
Natasha: Well as a performer, it's something that people don't always realise, but continuing to work on your craft is of utmost importance. Whether it's accent work, singing lessons, script analysis, dance lessons, etc. one never stops honing one's skills. Unfortunately what tends to happen is, when performers are in a contract, working or shooting etc., they don't have the time to always do these things, and when you are not employed, funds are often a problem to keep going as you try and get work to keep afloat. But where there's a will there's a way, and with all the technology nowadays, you have access to so many wonderful different sites/apps etc. to keep you abreast of things. One can also do a lot on your own too.
As for myself in lockdown, as a type-A personality, I am working through a very large "to do" list of things that have built up over the last two years whilst being on tour. I have a few projects that I'm working on and wanting to get stuck into whilst I have a little bit of time.
I am staying fit with my virtual gym classes via Zoom, and several other platforms - technology is a wonderful thing. And reading, I'm trying to do a lot more reading. For some reason when life is hectic, I always feel like I should be doing a million other things instead of reading. I'm spending some quality time with my parents, whilst singing in my bedroom, dancing in the garage, figuring out an accent or 5, doing voice overs, catching up with friends in other parts of the world and doing a lot of self-introspection. I'm also trying to keep a routine and stay sane whilst not leaving the house.
BWW: What's the one thing you're looking forward to most once the entertainment industry switches on again?
Natasha: Theatre! Enjoying the outdoors and a good night out with friends that isn't through a computer screen, dance classes, singing lessons but also hugs - I think the world is going to be slightly different when we go back to the "new" norm.
Before lockdown, I used to visit an old age home once a week, or at least as much as I could when not on the road or touring. I look forward to spending some time with them and seeing their faces again. They always appreciate a visit, no matter who it's from!
BWW: I'd like to switch track and talk about something not COVID-19 related... Tell us a bit about your background and some of your personal theatre highlights.
Natasha: Shew, where to start... I studied at the Waterfront Theatre College in Cape Town for 5 years, where I majored in drama, dance and musical theatre. I have had a rather interesting/diverse career over the last 13 years and haven't stopped learning, growing, laughing and travelling the world whilst being a part of one of the world's
most iconic shows. Over the years, I have had the privilege of playing several roles which include Stephanie Mangano - "Saturday Night Fever", Koningin Apeliefie - "Doringrosie the Pantomime" and Tiger Lily - "Peter Pan the Pantomime", just to mention a few.
I would say career highlights though would be getting to play the lead role in several shows, some of my favourites being Dolla van Aarde in "Die van Aardes van Grootoor", which was written and directed by the iconic legend himself Pieter-Dirk Uys. This was a highlight from the aspect of being pushed as an actress in every way possible. I got to play the role of Dolla van Aarde through the years, from her at age 25 - right through till 70, and all in suiwer Afrikaans of course.
I'd say my best and most fun role to date is probably playing Regina in "Rock of Ages" (by VR Theatrical). I had about 21 costume changes, including wigs too, sang some seriously awesome and classic 80s hits and got to dress up in a very high waisted leotard (unexpectedly) whilst falling in love with a very camp German belting out "Hit Me with your Best Shot". All of this with some of South Africa's top talent beside me - this was one for the books.
Another very special career highlight was an unexpected turn of events when I got to go on as Mama Morton in the international tour of Chicago the musical. It so happened that I got to go on for 2 performances and in front of a sold-out double show Saturday in Joburg. That was a feeling I will never forget - the love and support shown from so many beautiful souls but mostly my cast, creatives and management team. A memory I will hold near and dear to my heart! My normal track was playing the role of Annie (one of the merry murderesses in the Cook County jail) - she's the other feisty red head in my life, who holds a big place in my heart. Chicago was a life changing experience that I will never forget.
BWW: Tell us about one of your funniest backstage moments (and please feel free to name drop some co-stars, especially if you managed to prank them well)?
Natasha: I wish I could answer this with a story about me pranking people, but sadly I am the one who generally gets pranked, or as they say in theatre lingo, "I corpse badly"!
One moment in particular was during Mamma Mia, when I was running from one side of the stage to the other. I had a quick change of only 30 seconds, where I then ran back onto stage for the next scene. As this was well into the run, our quick change was smooth sailing and I had it waxed, but this particular night, I got to my dresser with my costume all laid out, except I couldn't understand where my show panties had gone to (yes in this instance I had to change into another pair as the dress i was wearing was fairly short). One of the boys in the cast thought it was funny to remove them and have me go on stage with nothing (except my own personal thong)... Needless to say, it was the most breezy scene of my life, keeping my legs crossed whilst seated and dancing as though my life depended on not lifting my arms too high!
BWW: Looking to the future, what kind of impact do you think the current global crisis will have on the local entertainment industry? You can talk from a personal point of view, because I know that the magnitude of what's currently happening is too big for any of us to really grasp.
Natasha: Phew, right now as it stands, I think a lot is going to change going forward. One example in particular is the National Arts Festival is going online and you will be able to watch from the comfort of your own home. This is great for now and I think it's wonderful how so many artists are taking their work online.
Having said that though, the arts are a fundamental part of what makes the world go round, whether you're an avid theatre goer or not. Going out and enjoying an evening of entertainment/escapism is something people enjoy and I hope that in the future it continues. I hope that the impact of lockdown and COVID-19 makes people realise how wonderful it actually is. Let's not take it for granted and let's continue to support the arts and entertainment industry. A lot of local producers put on world-class productions which travel too, and the pandemic will obviously have an impact on this.
I'd like to stay optimistic and hope for the best in our industry. May we continue to rise, continue to be kind and continue to support each other, despite the drastic consequences and impact that we might face after COVID-19.
BWW: Thank you for chatting to us. We wish you all the best and can't wait to see you up on stage again, hopefully very soon.
Natasha: Thank you for your time, I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about me! Stay safe, stay home and most importantly, let's be kind! #strongertogether
And stay tuned to see what adventure I'll be embarking on next...
Photo credit: Supplied and as captioned