Theatre Interview: Jenny Stead – Keeping A Promise, Or Booked For The Stage

September 14, 2023

 

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Jenny Stead stars in The Promise On Stage, directed by Sylvaine Strike, which runs at the Homecoming Centre in Cape Town from 14 September to 6 October and then at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg from 18 October to 5 November.

 

In the lead-up to a new production, how do you prepare physically, mentally and emotionally?

To be honest in the lead-up to most productions I would probably try to spend as much time with my family and just mentally and emotionally be as available to them as possible because the minute I step into rehearsals I tend to be quite submerged, distracted and unavailable in many ways. With The Promise on Stage we’ve been so fortunate because we’ve had the unusual advantage of a 5 week rehearsal period plus a one week workshop that we did prior to rehearsals. I read the book, made notes, read the book again and then I put it aside and spent time with the play. Emotionally I often end up accessing certain memories and experiences from my own life that resonate with the character. Physically, I’ll try and spend some time in the gym either doing some sort of cardio to help with breath control and fitness and some sort of stretching, yoga or pilates just to try and be more strong and flexible. The more supple you are, the less likely you are to get injured. The Promise on Stage is a blessing because we’ve been so lucky to have Natalie Fisher, our choreographer, with us every day and she leads us in a daily 30 min warmup. Sylvaine Strike works in a very physical way and when you see our magnificent set, I think you’ll understand that we needed to be fairly strong and fit to be able to navigate the space.

 

What is the single most influential performance you’ve ever seen – the one that made you feel: “This is what I want to do with my life!”?

My answer to this might seem a bit strange because it’s not really answering the question properly. I’ve seen so many performances that have moved me and made me want to be a better actor. But, to be honest, when I was about 13, my mum went to London with her mother for a month-long holiday and while they were there they saw Les Misérables and when she came back she told me how she had sat, right at the back, in the nosebleed seats with little binoculars. When Fantine sang, “Come to me,” dying on her bed with her long blonde wig, my mom described how the actress wept, tears rolling down her cheeks as she sang to Cosette and how incredible it was. That story of her experience of that performance moved me so much, I remember it so vividly. I really think it was that moment that made me feel like performance could be transcendental and I wanted to know more.

 

What is your favourite aspect of the industry – be it specific people, parts of the production process, particular venues/locations or something else?

There’s so much that I love about the industry. I really love actors and directors and writers. They are fascinating and smart and funny and often deeply insecure. I would have to say that my favourite part of the process as an actor is that first table read. It’s that first glimpse into who is going to be playing the different characters, what their voices sound like, what their interpretation of the script is. It’s a moment that is so full of promise and the anticipation of what’s to come. There’s a playfulness and a forgiveness and it’s the beginning of a collaboration which is so exciting.

 

What is an aspect of the industry that you feel could be improved (even if that’s only an idealistic wish)?

The boring answer is that our government would put laws in place that would protect actors in a much more substantial way. Getting residuals from our work in the same way international actors do, for instance, would be a good start. More subsidies for the arts. This country has produced some of the most wonderful protest theatre in the world and those stories made a huge difference in the way other countries understood what was happening during Apartheid and how we saw ourselves. Art is powerful. Art is an education, it’s entertainment, it’s a weapon, it’s important and it should be treated as such.

 

What has been your scariest onstage/on set moment so far (anything from forgetting words or cues to accidents or other unforeseen events)?

I broke my arm on a final preview of a Maynardville production in which I was in roller skates once, that was probably my worst on-set accident! But, my worst moment would probably be when I forgot to place a prop dagger in my sleeve pocket once. It needed to be there for two other actors to ‘discover’ while I was carried in, as my character had fainted. I remembered the dagger as I was being carried onto the stage but it was impossible for me to help resolve or even communicate the problem because I had to be passed out! The two actors improvised brilliantly but I felt awful!! And that, friends, is why you must always check your props!

 

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

I am currently performing in The Promise on Stage, based on Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel. I play the role of Astrid Swart. There are so many reasons that it’s a gift to a part. The cast is magnificent, the creative team is second to none, led by the intrepid Sylvaine Strike, and our soundscape has been created by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Natalie Fisher is helping with choreography and Josh Lindberg is lighting us and has designed our incredible set, so it’s just the best of the best. It’s been an interesting challenge to play Astrid because I didn’t like her when I first read the book. I had to learn to understand her and subsequently I feel desperately sorry for her and have an incredible love for the character. She’s tricky to play because on the surface she is quite juvenile, superficial and selfish and I have to be honest to who she is but I also want the audience to understand why she maybe ended up that way. She also ages and gains weight throughout the play so from a physical perspective it’s been an extra challenge. Physically I’m in a space that I’ve not worked in as much, and I’m learning to enjoy the convention and leaning into the style. It’s a real learning experience for me as an actor. I’m blown away by everyone’s work in this. I honestly can’t wait for people to see the production because I think it’s beautiful.

 

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