BWW Interview: Fiona Ramsay on Her Fleur Du Cap Win, Adapting Under Lockdown, and What's Keeping Her Busy
BWW: Congratulations on your Fleur Du Cap win for Best Lead Actress in a Play! How did you celebrate under lockdown?
Fiona: Quite a novel experience winning an award virtually! But the cast was all connected in advance to support each other - as we would at the live event - and as each award was announced we congratulated each other and shared WhatsApp messages. Being in lockdown meant it was just me and my trusty dog Blanche, but I did raise a glass of bubbly to toast all the winners.
BWW: What has your role as Amanda in THE GLASS MENAGERIE meant for you as a performer?
Fiona: Tennessee Williams wrote some of the greatest roles for women and most were based on people he had met and known during his life. I had the great fortune of playing the Princess in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH the year before with the same company; in fact, we toured to the US with it and it was an exhilarating and memorable experience. It is always a joy to work a second time with like-minded actors and creative team, so it was great to work with Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer again! Amanda is said to be based on Williams' mother and so I read biographies and accounts of his life to filter into the characterization. All characters in his work are facetted and Amanda is deeply complex and full of contradictions - a delusional, flighty, down to earth, disillusioned person who above all is a devoted and doting mother. There are many more Williams' women I would like to play!
BWW: In an interview you did last year you mentioned writing a paper on the two leads you have performed in Tennessee Williams' plays (SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH and THE GLASS MENAGERIE). Can you tell us a bit more about that project?
Fiona: I am a lecturer at Wits University in the Theatre and Performance Department and studying for my PhD at the moment. A significant aspect of the post is not only to teach but to continue and further your own research to contribute to the academic project by writing papers on various creative projects. Having performed in and written many one person plays, I am fascinated by the notion of being 'alone' onstage and to investigate if one is 'alone' when performing solo. In SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH I was part of an all-male company: all male and female roles except Princess Kosmonopolis were played by the male cast. When offered the role of Amanda in THE GLASS MENAGERIE I became interested in examining Williams' major female roles in terms of their dependence on but isolation from the other characters in his plays. This forms the basis for a paper that I hope to present at the Tennessee Williams Festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 2021.
BWW: What has your career looked like under lockdown? As a performing arts lecturer at WITS, how has that changed for you?
Fiona: The industry has been decimated. As many practitioners will not be able to return to the industry, they will have to begin new careers to make ends meet. I am fortunate in being a lecturer at Wits although the entire curriculum has had to shift online onto the virtual campus. The decision to close down educational institutions was fairly rapid and changes in course content and assessment criteria had to be wrestled with and strategized very quickly. It has been enormously challenging, not only for teaching staff, but for the students as well - as it is daunting to suddenly move to a different medium and modus of teaching and learning.
In South Africa we have the added task of having to deal with resources. Many students access computers and PCs in laboratory and library spaces on campus and do not have devices at home. All this must be taken into consideration when setting up online instruction and assessment. Acting, voice and most of the disciplines embraced in the Theatre and Performance Department are essentially practically based as professional courses and problematic to transfer online. However, I think that a blend of online and practical contact classes will remain even when lockdown is lifted or regulations relaxed, as some theoretical aspects of the course content have been well received and deeper levels of comprehension seem evident.
BWW: And your Speakeasy Vocal Academy? Have you been able to conduct your coaching virtually and, if so, what has that been like for you?
Fiona: Ever since the advance of technology facilitating online Skype or Zoom coaching I have been coaching online. At one time I would fly to Cape Town or abroad to coach actors for roles in advance of their traveling to South Africa to shoot a film - and often would again fly overseas for ADR sessions. Of course, technology put a prompt stop to all that - definitely more cost effective - but also time frames were shorter and more could be accomplished in a shorter time. There is no substitute either for the coach or the actor for one-on-one interaction which encourages broader, intensive and personal engagement. But I have devised courses in Voice Over technique, Acting, Accent Acquisition, Presentation and Public Speaking which I conduct online, and think this too will be the way of the future as it cuts down on travel time for clients and me!
BWW: Are there any other projects you have been working on during lockdown?
Fiona: I am always busy! I have been working on a project with Janna Ramos Violante which we are to film for social media. I have communal Zoom play readings with
actors and discussions after; all with a view to one day be performing when our beloved theatre spaces open. I had been cast in a television series just before lockdown and was rehearsing a play, which were both cancelled although there are whispers of them being resurrected at a later stage. I had a season in June in Salzburg and London planned for BLONDE POISON - a one woman show I had performed at the National Arts Festival and Johannesburg - so crossing digits that might happen next year. I have also been sewing masks - for our frontline workers and promised our local Woolworths branch a whole range for their workers. These are donations, but I have to say that online teaching is very time consuming in terms of marking and feedback and keeping in touch with students as their well-being is of primary concern. On top of all this my PhD does require an ample amount of time.
BWW: Lastly - is there any project or initiative in the arts you would like to tell our readers about?
Fiona: I have so many ideas and projects on percolating. One is a tribute to Marlene Dietrich which I have been working remotely with pianist Tony Bentel on a selection of her songs to weave into a show. I also have 3 shows that I am revisiting as part of my PhD - my role in BORN IN THE RSA, the role of Lulu Callinicos in a play I co-wrote IF WE DIG, and the role of the spy in BLONDE POISON. So I have a generous meal of different and varied flavours on my plate!