Theatre Interview: Michelle Douglas – BreaThing Space, Or A Schreiner To Storytelling

June 17, 2020

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Michelle DouglasBreaThing Space, starring Douglas, Natasha Sutherland and Lauren Urmson with Alan Farber directing, takes a deeper look at circumstances and beliefs that shaped the ‘freethinking’ views of Olive Schreiner and how she placed enormous importance on principle versus personality. The play marks the centenary of Schreiner’s passing and is presented as ‘intimate theatre through the lens of a camera and very personal glimpses which would be unachievable on stage’.

The show will run as part of the Virtual National Arts Festival from 25 June to 5 July, 2020.


Live performance is both one of the main drawcards of being a performer and one of the most stressful parts of it. At one point in the process of being involved in a new project do you cross that line?

Until a character becomes part of one’s muscle memory, it’s almost impossible to perform it with any authenticity. The stress comes in appearing before an audience before you’re 100% ready. If the rehearsal process has been adequate, and a character has had time to make itself known and somewhat familiar to you, the process is an easier one; less stressful and more exhilarating. “Landing” usually happens after the nerves of opening night, the second night downer, and the third night stabiliser… or a week into the run. Once a part has “landed” and sits comfortably in the actor’s being, the process is stripped of stress, and becomes a glorious one of new discoveries every night. A great director once told me that you only truly act the character on your 53rd performance – because you’re no longer acting. You’re just being. And that is devoid of stress.


Do you have techniques to improve either scenario – consistently enjoying the performance aspect (it is a job, after all) or mitigating the stress (of all the issues – from iffy pay to annoying audiences)?

It’s difficult to enjoy the performance aspect if you are a) not ready for an audience or b) directed in a way that sits uncomfortably with your vision of the character. At that point it is still very much a job; working hard for your iffy pay. All the techniques in the world can’t support that. However, experience helps one to still perform at the highest level – intense warm-ups and focus exercises plus absolute concentration gets one through the tough performances and nerves of those nights. Annoying audiences also require deep focus; for example when an emotional, vulnerable scene is being performed to an audience that’s been drinking or has left their cellphones on. Absolute focus and resolution get one through. And a good laugh with fellow cast members after the show. Or a good rant. I worked with a brilliant actor who stopped the entire show and requested that people put their cellphones off before we continued. His status and gravitas allowed him that, though.


How do you choose projects? What needs to turn you on before you audition for something?

I get excited by roles with depth. A character with a deep flaw is always the most exciting to play. Also, the unexpected in a character is always appealing. I was able to choose between two characters in a recent production, and although the obvious choice was the character who had all the laugh lines – she was hysterical – I was far more attracted to the understated, complex, quiet character who was multi-layered and unpredictable, nurturing a dark secret throughout the play. I enjoy the challenge of these characters. I take great joy in exploring their triggers and their masks. The excitement and challenge of playing a multi-faceted character is where the job turns into joy. What are the many facets of this character? What is the mask she wears? What caused the need for this mask? How do they maintain it? When and how does it crack? Delicious!


What are the hooks in a script that you like to hang a performance or the generation of a character on? Depth, dialogue, nuance, reality versus fantasy – what speaks most profoundly to you?

As mentioned already, depth and nuance. Good dialogue is so helpful – when a piece is well-written and thoughtful, the generation of a character becomes easier. The masked character, essentially your everyman, is that examining and portraying of the concept of reality versus fantasy, and if well executed by the actor, translates beautifully to and moves an audience, hopefully moving them to ask deep questions of themselves and their experience. That’s always my goal as an actor; to move an audience to personalise what they see or feel. So careful examination of the reality versus fantasy aspect, and the translation of that in an accessible way is a great hook to hang your performance on from the beginning.


The lifestyle of a working actor is a difficult one to square with family life, or a day job, or half a dozen other aspects of a traditional routine. How do you make it work?

I have a strong support system, without which I wouldn’t be able to do it. Having two almost – teenage children,; tweens; is interesting when your job is not a nine to fiver. Having a support system enables me to carve out rehearsal times and word learning at the end of the day. Once we are in a run it is easier, as days are generally free. I also enjoy the constant changes in routine. I think we are fortunate to have that versatility in our profession – routine can be a creativity killer. And our kids sometimes end up seeing more of us than if we had nine to five jobs with three weeks leave every year.


Touring a show can be the holy grail for an actor – long contracts, plus the excitement of seeing new places and performing for new audiences. It’s also arguably the biggest challenge to relationships – distance, communication and so on. Where does it fit in your list of priorities?

The only touring I generally do is to fests – the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (Grahamstown) and the Hilton Arts Festival. These are short enough to prevent any major damage or fallout, and have fitted comfortably into my life and priority structure. My husband sometimes travels with me, which is helpful. But I also enjoy touring on my own – it’s a time out from general routine and responsibility. And it’s short enough to work well for all concerned.


As a performer, you’re often asked to deliver on a set of expectations – the playwright’s; the director’s; the rest of the casts’; the audiences’… What sort of input do you prefer to (demand to?) have as an actor?

The expectations are often the hardest part of performing, and if one focuses too much on them, one can fail miserably. I find it important to focus on maintaining the integrity of the text, the playwright’s vision, and blending that with the director’s vision. I try not to give too much weight elsewhere. As an actor, it’s crucial to have a director with whom you can communicate easily and openly. If the communication is strained, compromised or challenged in any way by external – or internal – factors, it makes the job difficult. I prefer to be in an environment where there’s a place for that open, honest communication and authenticity. That’s the foundation for me. It hangs on that.


What other roles do you, or would you like to, play in the industry – now or in the future? Writing, production, direction? And what about each or any of those excites you?

I am as passionate about directing as I am about acting. My current production is a collaborative effort, where I have directed the performance and the theatre element while Alan Farber has directed the filmic element. I have thoroughly enjoyed the behind the scenes / behind the camera part as much as I enjoy being in front of these scenes and sets and in front of the camera. It is also a piece I have written – or compiled – having researched the life of Olive Schreiner and woven the story of her life through excerpts of her letters and writings. This has been a very rewarding experience.


Tell us more about BreaThing Space and what makes your character interesting to play.

My current production is called BreaThing Space. It is the story of a great South African storyteller, Olive Schreiner. This year marks the centenary of her passing. She lived from 24 March 1855 to 11 Dec 1920. I hope to honour her memory through the choices I have made in BreaThing Space. Originally written for the stage, for the Arena Platform for the National Arts Festival, it has since turned into a collaborative theatre and film piece as a curated piece at the Virtual National Arts Festival. We did not want to just perform the play on a stage and live stream it; we felt that the chemistry and important audience to actor relationship would be lost. So we have tried to create a new space where theatre and film merge. We are taking an enormous risk; the skeleton of the piece takes place on the stage at The Joburg Theatre with cutaways to scenes shot on location in an effort to draw audiences in and keep them interested. We cannot pretend to create the magic of theatre outside of a theatre in a live streamed show, so we haven’t even attempted to do that, but we have used Johannesburg and it’s locations as our stage. We are working within the parameters of emergency measures, and trying to emerge from this artistically. Having been given five days of pre-production during Level 3 lockdown, five days to shoot and a week to edit, it has been a challenging project, but an incredible experience. With the talents of Alan Farber, the film director; Justus de Jager, our director of photography; Natasha Sutherland, as Rebekah Schreiner, Olive’s mother; and Lauren Urmson, as Young Olive, we hope to make this an authentic experience of theatre and film merging. I play the character of Olive Schreiner in her old age. Olive is an actor’s dream. She presents the depth, nuance and complexity of the strong characters we love to play. A deeply passionate, principled woman who was a great visionary, prophet, orator, and outspoken activist, she was deeply brave, amazingly humble, startlingly compassionate and supremely loving. However she was also tempestuous, extreme and insecure. The strength of her character, and her political and religious views, juxtaposed with her marked personal vulnerability and suffering, make her a fascinating role to play, and fall in love with. I could talk about her all day.

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