Theatre Interview: Michelle Douglas – Dusk, Or Of Adrenalin And Angst

August 17, 2021

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Michelle Douglas stars as Tessa, a wife and mother who is struggling to come to terms with terrible loss in the Market Theatre‘s production of Mark Scheeper‘s play Dusk.


Live performance: the thrill versus the nerves – where are you on that curve as a new show starts? How do you find a balance during rehearsals or other preparation?

If a play is well-rehearsed, and one has had enough preparation time, the thrill is generally greater than the nerves. But nerves are sneaky things; they never leave. It occurred to me just before opening night that actors are nothing more than adrenalin junkies. Opening night is akin to jumping out of an aeroplane, really. That said, if one has a pretty secure foundation to rest upon, the work will generally speak for itself. And that is why adequate rehearsal time is vital. Having a pandemic-induced break right in the middle of our rehearsal period was interesting! In a way, it messed a bit with the lines getting into our ‘muscle memory’, but in an odd way it was also advantageous, as one had more time to reflect on one’s character and see things in a new light, which is always the gift of time. The best preparation to me is just rigorous, and sometimes tedious, going over and over the play, with no expectations in terms of outcome. Really just like practicing scales. If you are faithful to that, the rehearsal space will give you the gifts in terms of new ideas and interpretation of lines and gestures. You won’t need to look for them.


In a best-case scenario, what are you looking for in a role? What is the main basis for that decision – the script, the people involved, the challenge to your skills, the impact (positive or negative) it might have on your life in general, or perhaps something else?

In my new best-case scenario, I’m looking for a few laughs – the last few roles have all been pretty traumatic! Anyone out there have a good farce we can stage? Seriously though, you always want to play a layered role; multi-faceted and complex – when it’s a drama. A good script is so helpful, especially when the dialogue is well written. Sometimes one is confronted with work which seems superficial and one-dimensional and that’s a difficult one for an actor, especially as one doesn’t want to turn down any opportunities. If one lands a role like that, the challenge is to make the work believable and steer away from the stereotype. It’s glorious working with a great team where there’s trust and respect – it enables one to take more risks with the role and make bolder choices, because you’re in an environment which upholds that. It’s also incredible to land roles that demand more of your skills and require you to raise the bar a little bit higher – what a privilege for any actor. It develops our muscle.  No matter how difficult the work, if it’s a good team, the impact on one’s life is generally positive, because you’re in a good space. We won’t talk about the converse…


Acting is often a vocation, a thing you can’t not do. How true is that for you now? Has it changed over the years – for practical, perhaps banal reasons? And how do you, or would you like to, keep your calling front and centre in your life?

I love this question! Not many people get this about actors. It’s something you can’t not do, exactly! You don’t choose it – it seriously does choose you. I think that’s true of all forms of art. I have experienced a wonderful flow of work, as well as ways to express this desire to tell stories, even over this difficult time. I have a strong faith which keeps me going, and I see the expression of this in my life and my family’s life. I couldn’t do it if I was just relying on myself.


What are the toughest expectations to deliver on – all the way from the first audition to the end of the run?

Other people’s expectations. If one becomes consumed with other’s expectations and opinions, you’ll be a wreck. This is a constant challenge for any actor, I feel. Or any artist, for that matter. Not everyone will like your work – it’s impossible. If you start performing to satisfy people’s expectations and opinions, you’ll end up confused. The balance for me is finding the excellence in the work, making bold choices, and knowing that most people, especially your peers, will say “I would’ve done it this way”, and being ok with that, because you’ve striven for excellence, not approval.


Tell us about your current production, and what makes your character interesting to play?

I am currently performing in Mark Scheepers’ Dusk, directed by Palesa Mazamisa. It is an awesome team: Loyiso MacDonald plays Kgotso, a family friend who grew up on the farm and who pays me a visit after my family has been tragically murdered. What makes Tessa so interesting is her many layers. Mark has written the character with huge understanding. She is in a state of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder bordering on psychosis and dissociative disorder. The challenge is to underplay the psychosis while finding ways to hint at it. Psychosis also presents itself as ‘normal’; many people in this state appear normal and high functioning, until triggered by stress. But much of the façade is just that: a façade, and so the efforts at keeping up the ‘normal’ façade are exhausting and ironically lead to more imbalance. The challenge is to be convincing in Tessa’s at times insincerity – so that it doesn’t look like bad acting, but rather like a character who is being inauthentic or keeping up a façade. Through that, one has to weave exciting threads of paranoia, regret, loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. Your average role, really! Mark’s clever plot, which keeps the audience guessing at every turn, and is full of red herrings, lightens the load a bit, as the genre of suspense thriller prevails over Tessa’s demise. Palesa has been a wonderful ‘container’ for all these elements, holding us and supporting us in all the madness and idea-overload. The exquisite set by Karabo Legoabe-Mtshali makes it so much easier to perform convincingly; a Chekhovian realism sets in and magically helps one out. And, together with the lighting design by Josias Mashiane and the sound design by Mandla Mkaba, the mood is supported and it all supports one’s performance and upholds the integrity of the play. Tiisetso Mawane-Madzhie is the magician who holds it all together every night for us.

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