BWW Interview: Nancy Rademeyer, Jeff Brooker & Sue Diepeveen on THE SYRINGA TREE at The Drama Factory
THE SYRINGA TREE is a 2019 Standard Bank Ovation Award winner at the National Arts Festival. I was lucky enough to catch a performance at NAF and this production blew me away. It's a very good thing that this production is coming to Cape Town now and more people will get a chance to see this beautiful piece of theatre.
I chatted performer Nancy Rademeyer, director Jeff Brooker and Sue Diepeveen of The Drama Factory about bringing this piece to life and bringing it to Cape Town.
BWW: What drew you to this piece?
Nancy: Thank you very much! Firstly, I was drawn to the piece through how beautifully the story was written. My initial thought was that this is a story that needs to be heard and it would be an honor to be able to tell it. After reading Pamela Gien's acknowledgments, the last paragraph struck me, "And finally, my thanks to the children of South Africa, one and all, whose journeys haunt and inspire me still. I'm grateful every moment. This story goes out into the world for you." These few lines made me fall in love the piece even more.
Jeff: This is actually my third time putting on this piece. My first was in the US at the high school that I went on exchange to. I was looking for a one woman show that could be performed by a young actress, Kyra Rahn, who is now performing professionally in the US, and someone suggested this piece. I wasn't even finished reading it and I was in love. The interesting thing about this piece is it was written after the author had been living in the USA for a while, so it's written in such away that all nationalities can understand its beauty. When I got back from the US, I really wanted to perform this piece to a South African audience. I saw Nancy deliver a monologue during a university practical and I knew I had my next performer for this piece. The thing about casting one person shows is you can't just get the most talented person you know to do the role, you have to find a person who perfectly connects with the piece and will make it seem as if it was their own story. The one-person show is just so personal.
BWW: Twenty years on, do you feel that this piece is still relevant to a more modern South African audience?
Nancy: I feel the message of the play is as relevant today as it ever was and out of it we can find some redemption. We were role players then as we are now in a situation beyond our making but within which we make a difference no matter how apparently small. There is the enormous role of kindness and love so far beyond the hatreds and political point scoring.
Jeff: Definitely! This piece speaks so truthfully into our difficult past and is filled with wisdom that we have only just begun to grapple with. There is also such a human element to this piece and connecting to each other's humanity is something that is always relevant and needs to be heard. This is truly a piece where you are forced to think back in your memories and feel things that you never felt before. That is something that can never get old.
BWW: What were the challenges that came up in the casting and rehearsal process?
Jeff: This is one massive work for a singular actress! I always was nervous about burnout and overworking Nancy during this process. It's so easy to push too hard when there is only one performer in the room. However, through careful communication we were able to make self-care the number one priority in the process.
BWW: As a performer who didn't live through the Apartheid years, how did you find the process of delving into such an intensely emotional piece? And how do you feel about telling this story that must feel so real to so many South Africans?
Nancy: As a student in the unfolding South African democracy, for me it was very important to understand the background story of the people of my parents' and grandparents' generations. I wanted to feel and express the story that spoke beyond simple political discourse to the real people behind and caught in the unfolding drama of the Apartheid years. I wanted to understand and the best way was to take on the many sides all together in the narrative. The story is complex and there is within the narrative the intensely human interactions of those who had no choice but to live within the confines of the situation but in the only way they knew how.
BWW: I believe you worked with an accent coach to bring out the many voices of your different characters. Tell us a bit more about that process.
Nancy: There is such an integral connection between expression and thought. It is not simply the words but the way things are said that convey meaning and so I felt it crucial to try to grasp the thoughts and intention via accent and intonation. It was a huge challenge and I was fortunate to have an excellent voice coach to guide me through this difficult and enlightening task. It put me better in the shoes of those in the play whose humanity I was to portray. Each language and accent is a window into the minds and hearts of the characters that I am privileged to play.
BWW: The play has a running time of 90 minutes. That must be quite exhausting for you as a performer (although I wouldn't say you were tired at all when I saw it at NAF and the show certainly didn't feel that long at all). How do you mentally and physically keep yourself going through each performance?
Nancy: Each character brings me life and fills me with energy. It is in the action and story that I am sustained in a strange and wonderful way.
BWW: What's next for you? Will we be seeing THE SYRINGA TREE again in Cape Town after your run at The Drama Factory? Do you have more projects in the pipeline?
Nancy: I am currently a student at UCT drama school. However, I am open to all opportunities that come my way.
Jeff: Next for me is back to UCT drama school. This production has been a side project to our studies at UCT and the department has been so gracious to let us do this project whilst we are still studying. There is nothing yet planned for THE SYRINGA TREE, but we are always open and waiting. However, I am working on another one-person show for the National Arts Festival next year, so watch this space.
BWW: This last question is for Sue Diepeveen of The Drama Factory. The range of productions that come to your theatre is really nice and varied. How do you go about selecting productions and what is it about THE SYRINGA TREE that made you want to put the show on at your theatre?
Sue: Our mission at The Drama Factory is to find really high-quality work in all languages that cross a wide spectrum of the performing arts. We also try to create a safe and friendly environment for emerging artists to showcase their work so, in this case, we feel like we hit the jackpot in that this material covers both areas! The production wowed me at NAF 2019 and I felt that it would resonate with our audiences. Nancy commanded our attention throughout and captured each nuance beautifully for such a young actor. It is simple and not over thought or over directed - it is vulnerable and thoughtful and moving. Never once did I think - oh this is great for a student production...I just thought...Oh...wow! For me theatre must move me in some way, I should laugh or cry or think and even better if it covers all three. THE SYRINGA TREE is exactly the theatre that we want to promote at The Drama Factory.
Photo credit: Supplied
THE SYRINGA TREE is on at The Drama Factory for 3 performances only: 28-30 November. Tickets are R100. Book via thedramafactory.co.za.