By BRUCE DENNILL
Carmen Pretorius is on a fantastic run at the moment, following up an award-winning turn as Maria in The Sound Of Music with one of her dream roles as Roxie Hart in the Showtime Management production of Chicago, currently running in Johannesburg in the Teatro at Montecasino.
This is what you’ve been aiming for, but it’s still a challenging scenario. You’ve already toured this production, which is physically and emotionally exhausting – as is the performance schedule, as are your publicity obligations… How do you maintain a work-life balance in all of this?
It’s something that’s really coming to the fore at the moment. When I was younger, I was only focused on the work and the travel, and that was fine. Now, I’ve just bought a little garden flat – owning my own place was another goal I wanted to achieve by this stage of my life – and I just want to be there. I’d like to be around family, and home. But it’s difficult.
In the last 12 months, I’ve only been home for 12 weeks. When you’re coming into the industry, that’s super-cool as you explore all the possibilities. Later, there’s a shift in terms of what you want to achieve.
For me, I’m glad I’ve played this role. There’s a feeling of achievement and fulfillment that will probably result in me being happy to stay in South Africa and only work here going forward – in film, theatre, TV…whatever I can find.
It’s not an easy life. You’re working when your friends are relaxing. I have no community outside of the industry; that’s part of the lifestyle. In a more normal scenario, you have your colleagues – the people you sometimes have to compete with – and other friends. It’s a little more balanced.
I think you can achieve balance with all of this going on. I refuse to believe that it’s an all-or-nothing devotion to one part of it. But some days on tour prove me wrong…
Those sorts of professional ups and downs are mirrored in Roxie’s story: she’s nothing, then the talk of the town, then back and forth again. Do the parallels help in terms of understanding her better?
With all of my characters – and this sounds a bit pretentious, I suppose, but it’s true – I try to find the reality in their experiences. My hook is to find truth in their emotion from my personal experience.
For Roxie, I took feelings of past rejections; of how I felt as a teen wanting to be a star; of difficult family stuff in terms of isolation in the world. She’s a survivor, and her goal is to be a star. I had to address what that actually means – things like: once you get there, are you prepared to do whatever it takes to stay there?
If I haven’t experienced something my character has, I will ask those who have been there, or who are empathetic to those feelings.
It’s an ongoing process. Once I’ve accessed Roxie’s reality when working on scenes, then I have to combine that with song and dance. Fortunately, my natural expression when I’m feeling something is to sing.
Roxie is superficial, selfish and fickle – more or less the opposite of your public persona. Now of course it’s acting, and the show is fun and challenging, but how difficult is it to get under her skin?
That is the biggest challenge with Roxie. She has so many qualities and values I don’t have. But maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned is not to judge the characters I play. I find it possible to love her because she’s a human, like the rest of us. I believe you need to make an effort to understand why a person is a certain way.
In playing her, I need to make her forgivable. She is unapologetically authentic, and sometimes that’s better than someone who doesn’t talk at all. She’s manipulative, but she doesn’t actively plan evil things. I’ve struggled with temptations and lying and all the rest; we wrestle with the same stuff.
I think Roxie and Amos are the two characters who don’t really belong in the world of Chicago. They’re both naïve. Roxie is clever in that she discovers things, but she thinks that the people she’s talking to are only learning those things at the same time, which is not the case.
Even as that shallow, heartless person, Roxie is still attractive – to the other Chicago characters and to the audience. Is there a philosophical angle you need to grapple with to make that ok?
Yes. It’s that challenge in making her forgivable. It means you have to like her a bit, which means confronting bits of yourself that you’re uncomfortable with. And it makes you ask questions. The sexuality aspect: is that why these women get off? Would they have had the same treatment in the media and the court if they were ugly?
Base human needs will never change. This role has made me confront a lot of stuff, like why we perform. Is showcasing myself moral? Am I helping the world?
Samantha Peo [who plays Velma Kelly] and I were talking about that backstage and one of the wig ladies pointed out that when we’re acting, we allow people to temporarily escape from stress. I’m not a doctor, but maybe there is someone who will feel better after the show; who will be lifted by what we do.
I like that Roxie makes people ask questions; that she’s multi-faceted. I love her now, actually. I get quite defensive about her!
As you get more experienced, particularly in lead roles, you’re both teaching and learning as you perform. You and Samantha are close friends – what are the benefits of her experience for you?
My connection to Sam is long-lasting and I really love her, like a sister. She’s taught me so much – about generosity to other actors, about professionalism and discipline, about craft, and about self-acceptance and spirituality. I hope I can pass on what she’s passing on to me to others.
Understand that this is not active teaching – it’s just her example. She doesn’t take nonsense, but she’s fair, and she doesn’t apologise for who she is and what she feels. That’s helped me. I can voice what I feel now on my own, like when I’m not happy, or when I’m too tired. Those things are important when we’re working this hard, and for so long.
What about Chicago-specific learning – the dance and vaudeville movements and all the rest? When does it start to feel natural? And does it stay that way?
The muscle memory and the strength kicks in after rehearsals and about two weeks of performances. Mind you, that’s subjective – Bob Fosse might have watched me and said something else…
But every night comes with the same amount of stress and effort to get it right. It’s never easy to do, but it does become more familiar. If it did get easy to do, it would be better for my exhaustion levels, but not for my heart.
You really need to be a quadruple threat – act, sing and dance, but with the fourth thing being the ability to deliver eight shows a week at a certain mental and physical level.