By BRUCE DENNILL
Justin Swartz and James McPhail (both Oakfields College alumni) are two of the pantomime first-timers in this year’s Bernard Jay production, Jack And The Beanstalk, at the Joburg Theatre – written and directed by Janice Honeyman.
What were your perceptions coming out of studying and training scenarios, looking at acting, singing and performing as a career?
Justin: One if the things was that everyone would go into children’s theatre to start with. I started before I went to college, and I already had an agent. The first thing I did out of college was West Side Story! What was not expected was having to have stuff on the side in order to maintain yourself and keep up your ongoing training. I’m also doing music, choreography and photography. So far, meeting industry professionals has been great. They’ve been a welcoming network. They see that you’re starting and allow you to work with or for them, which opens doors for other work outside of theatre.
James: Coming out of high school, you think you’ll just walk into work, but it doesn’t work like that. You need to go through the hustle, and that can take some time. It’s possible to get despondent if you don’t get anything for a while.
Justin: Yes – are you willing to sit at home for 10 months if you can’t get a job? Are you able to?
James: That’s the kind of thing that separates us as performers to start with; shows who will last. This kind of show – the pantomime – is a big learning opportunity. We’ve been rehearsing from 10am to 6pm every day, seeing how the professionals approach certain things.
What are the realities so far? It’s a different lifestyle and community, where a friend can also be a rival for a role, for instance?
Justin: I’m loving every moment. It’s a lot of work, but this is what we studied for. Now I see other people still studying and moaning about deadlines for assignments and all that. They’re not ready for the industry yet. I am still nervous for auditions. Sometimes if you don’t get it, it seems like the end of the world. But I’m learning to look at it as a free class – a place where I can get a chance to do something and then ask questions about how to do it better. I’d like to also do as many types of work as possible. I want to do straight plays, and explore roles where the character is key, not the actor, so they can be played by a black guy or an Italian or even someone of a different gender without it making a difference.
The pantomime versus what you’ve done already – it’s so much bigger and more complex.
James: For the last few years with Oakfields, I was working in the Lesedi Theatre here at the Joburg Theatre, and moving from there to the big stage, everything is different. You have to work harder and look bigger. It allows you to delve into more – the sets assist the actors.
Justin: In the Mandela Theatre, you need to over-act a little to reach the back of the room. It teaches you to remember the basics, and be very clear. And working with the celebrities is great, too. I had a thing of seeing a famous person on a poster and thinking they might be difficult to get on with. Now I’m in the same show and they’re lovely.
James: Moving up shows that you are growing. You can move from this theatre to other big stages.
Justin: The panto also brings out your inner child, and reminds you not to take yourself too seriously.
James: In a way, it’s kind of adding to my memories of being in the audience at the pantomime when I was younger. And we have a great cast. We support each other; get each other through the tough times. You spend so much time with people on a show like this – they become your family. We learn from the older performers, but we can support them too.
There are also the traditions that go with the panto – ideas that have been enjoyed and developed over a couple of centuries.
James: Being part of the ensemble – that’s already a traditional aspect of theatre. You need to learn to create the world behind the principal, keep the reality alive and the audience invested.
Justin: It’s about sending the audience – and ourselves – into a different world. You can improvise to keep it fresh for yourselves, and live vicariously through the other people on the stage.
James: You need to be aware of the different tracks carrying on at the same time so you know what is going on. Everyone is on the same level. The principals don’t treat us as something less. You feel, if someone is not there, like something is missing.
Justin: Supporting each other on stage is also part of that old tradition. I’m doing two roles and am an understudy. I’m only able to do that because of the energy from everyone else.
This year’s panto is Jack And The Beanstalk, What is your own history when it comes to fairy tales and folk stories?
James: I’ve always liked being in that world, where a suspension of disbelief means you can be anything. The panto is a fairy tale upon another fairy tale. It’s a complete escape from reality while still addressing what’s going on in our communities and the country.
Justin: When I was growing up in Eldorado Park, immediately after we watched a story, we’d go outside and act it, so this is like reliving a childhood experience – go outside and play!
Janice Honeyman is skilled at including contemporary references – pop songs, sayings, hashtags and so own – in her scripts. As youngsters, with a slightly different take on culture, how useful or meaningful are these references?
Justin: Janice asks everyone; what are the trends, what is a more current dance move or social media platform? We’ve changed quite a lot since we started. We’re doing a song from a previous production of Jack And The Beanstalk, and we’ve had to come up with new angles for the lyric.
James: With certain lines, Janice will ask, “Does this offend anyone in any way?”, and if it does, she’ll change it. She’s willing to listen to everyone and do the best thing for the production.