Theatre Interview: Paul Du Toit – The Unlikely Secret Agent, Or Holding The Brush

June 7, 2022


Paul du Toit recently won the Fleur du Cap Theatre Award winner for Best Director for The Unlikely Secret Agent.


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

I don’t think live performance ever stops being stressful, to be honest. I think some of the wisest words I ever received were from the late, great maestro Graham Scott, when I was young and took over playing the role of Jack in Into The Woods. I was nervous and he said, the nerves are good, the nerves keep you sharp, they keep you focused. Don’t let your nerves dominate you, use your nerves, let them work for you. That’s always stuck with me. If you don’t walk onto a stage and don’t feel any nerves, then something is wrong. Part of what I love about live performance is the rush of adrenalin, the excitement, and the butterflies in your stomach backstage.


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)?

The incredible thing about theatre is that it’s a dialogue between performers and the audience. Every night the audience is different, so every night the conversation is different. I don’t think audiences realise to what extent they influence a performance. If they come in and start laughing at things that other audiences wouldn’t normally laugh at, the performance naturally gravitates towards a more comedic one. If you feel them responding more to the pathos, your performance goes there. It really is completely different every night and that stops it from being boring, for sure. For some audiences, you have to work hard to get them interested. It is like entertaining a child. You can’t just demand that they are entertained – you have to find out, by listening to them, by tuning in to them, and seeing what it is that is going to work for them. It can be difficult sometimes. So being bored is not something I have ever had to worry about! It can be stressful with things such as the pay. You have to try and make it financial viable – have your side hustles, do other things and produce your own work, for example. If there isn’t work, you have to go and look for it and try and have multiple revenue streams. I work in English and Afrikaans and I work in film, TV, theatre and musical theatre. You have to remain as versatile as possible. The long hours? There’s nothing you can do about it, but I so love what I’m doing that those long hours don’t get me down. It can be tough if you are working on a project you don’t like, but luckily I haven’t had too many of those. I can always find something that keeps me interested in a project.


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

You don’t always choose projects. Sometimes you do it just to pay the bills. You have to find what keeps you inspired and excited. When I heard that Hedwig And The Angry Inch was being done, there was nothing I wouldn’t have done to not get involved in that. My interests are so broad that it’s often not one thing. I’ve enjoyed dabbling in the world of drag characters, or I’ll enjoy a skop, skiet en donder because of the craft and how you make it work doing stunts. I did judo in my youth so I enjoy that aspect of it. I enjoy comedy and I love the classical stuff, so there isn’t one particular thing that I’m looking for. What makes me like a piece? What makes you like a person when you meet them? Everyone is so different, but there is an X factor that just talks to you and resonates with you, and it can be so different for each project. I’m a history nerd and with The Unlikely Secret Agent, there was a historical story that I have never heard of before. The character of Eleanor was so inspiring to me. It made me think, if I was in that position, at her age, at that time, would I have had the courage to do the right thing, to make the sacrifices she did? With something like Stiekyt, it appealed to me because it was the story of an out of work actor who ends up working in a drag club, so there were parallels there – being able to pay the bills, it’s stressful, bringing your character home – so I could relate to that.  I liked the dramatic structure and the choices in the script that made it shift genre. I love film and loved that this film played with our expectations.  It starts off as something like Priscilla Queen of the Desert and shifts into a Coen brothers-esque horror/ thriller, then it goes into comedy. There’s never one thing, so it’s difficult to answer that question, but you know it when you see it.


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?

That depends so much on the script. Some scripts give you everything and you just have to research the script and keep going over it, looking for what this character is. I read the script for Constellations, which we did in Afrikaans called Hemelruim. The character is all there, he’s on the page. He’s a beekeeper because he likes the organisational structure of it. He is a passionate person, but he lives it out in a very measured way. He needs to make sense of the world around him and understand everything. When life breaks the rules according to the way he likes to live it, he has a hard time dealing with that. Then if you’re doing something like Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, there is very little on the page to construct the character with,  but at the same time, you know you are going to be compared to Tim Curry all the time. You don’t want to copy him, but you know you can’t move too far away from him. You find inspiration from your own experiences of life, and then play with the other actors and the energy coming at you.  So I don’t have a system by which I do stuff. Sometimes I will go and teach myself a skill. When I did Skilpoppe, I taught myself origami. I thought it would be a nice expression of who the character is, his studiousness, his gentleness, his seriousness and his need to make something beautiful, so I went and learnt that skill.  In doing so, it becomes a bit of a meditation where you think about the character and you create him. If you are playing a Shakespearian character, that’s on the page. That’s studying the rhythm and finding the humanity behind the words and how it relates to you. There is never is one particular style; every play is different. You can’t approach a straight play in the same way you approach a musical. It really depends on the piece. Whatever the piece gives me, I find things in there to build my character on.


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?

Who says I make it work? I sometimes wonder. It is difficult, but there are advantages. If I have to say to my children that they have to come to work with me, they say “awesome”! When I was shooting Vagrant Queen, my child would come and spend the night in my trailer and love being there, watching the pyrotechnics on set and everyone in their prosthetic make up! It’s wonderful for them to come to this world where the adults are really behaving like children because we are in the world of telling stories and playing make-believe. So, that’s an advantage. I met my wife in a theatre. She’s not in theatre, but she was in the audience. I saw her from the stage and thought I had to go and find her in the bar afterwards! I have always been doing this, so my family gets it. I am incredibly grateful to them for sharing me with the industry, because sometimes the industry does feel like a lover. It’s always been what I’ve done and we make it work. I can be there during the day on holidays because a theatre run will only be at night. As I have pretty much the opposite schedule of a normal working person, it does sometimes help in a partnership to be there to take kids to their Wednesday afternoon rugby game. So there are advantages and disadvantages, and we make it work.


Especially now things are starting to open up again, 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?

Touring – that’s a young person’s game. I didn’t ever really do that. By the time the big musical contracts started coming to South Africa, I was already settling down, so I never did the long touring shows. I did do The Rocky Horror Show, which toured for 19 months, but a lot of that time was in Cape Town and I was still young – there were no kids in the mix.


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?

That’s an interesting question. It’s tough. The weird thing is, if I have a bad day at work, it doesn’t result in a quiet discussion in the office with my boss, with him telling me to get things together. It can result in a bad review – it’s public. What we do is public, by its nature. The definition of theatre is someone performing and another person watching. If there is no-one watching, it’s just a rehearsal. So you have to be careful whose expectations you deliver to. The director, by the nature of the work, has to come first. They are the artist holding the brush. If you disagree with them, you can try and talk it out but at the end of the day, if you are fighting the director, you are fighting the play, fighting the production. For the playwright, his/her words are the words. It’s not your job to change the playwright’s work, unless there are collaborative works where it does change, but that is rare. You can always listen to experience, and that is the glory of working with people such as Diane Wilson,  David Butler, Sandra Prinsloo or Marius Weyers. I’ve been lucky to do that and you learn so much from them, just by watching them. Their opinions are certainly ones to listen to. I listen to my fellow performers, my peers and my director, whose opinions I trust. Beyond that, it can become dangerous. Flattery can go to your head and there is nothing worse than watching an actor wrapped up in his or her own vanity. If you listen to condemnation, it can crush your soul and kill your self-confidence, and an actor without self-confidence is invisible on a stage.


What other roles do you, or would you like to, play in the industry?

I’m enjoying branching out now into writing and directing. As an actor, you are paint on someone else’s brush. As a writer, you are the paint, but as the director, you are the artist holding the paintbrush with the paint on it. I feel that your vision comes through far more strongly because it is diluted so much less by the collaborative process. Perhaps it’s come with age, being more confident with my own voice. So yes, I’m enjoying both directing and writing. When we did The Unlikely Secret Agent, I ended up doing too much just because Covid meant we had no budget. I wrote it, based on Ronnie Kasrils’ book and I directed it, which was supposed to happen from the start as I had a clear idea in my head of how I thought it should be directed, but because we had no budget, I had to act in it as well, which was not an ideal situation. I have also recently worked on Die Goeie Pa. I didn’t write it, but I translated it into Afrikaans and contextualised it within a South African situation. It was written by British playwright Gail Louw in English. So I set it somewhere in SA and in Afrikaans. There is a cultural shift that comes with that. Instead of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on a Sunday, they are having a braai!