By BRUCE DENNILL
Musanete Sakupwanya stars in the new VR Theatrical production of Forever Plaid, the story of Jinx, Sparky, Francis and Smudge, four young male singers who landed their first big gig at an airport bar in 1964. But on the way to pick up their tuxes, they are slammed broadside by a busload of Catholic teenagers. The boys are stuck in limbo and given a second chance to fulfill their dreams and perform the concert that never was.
Live performance is both one of the main drawcards of being a performer and one of the most stressful parts of it. At one point in the process of being involved in a new project do you cross that line?
The line is really easy to cross mostly because of people. Personalities can make the difference between a getting through a challenging experience feeling like you’ve accomplished something, and feeling like you’ve wasted your time – or worse, that you’re not good enough. For me, when nobody is enjoying the process, it’s hard to stay motivated. As a performer though, I love being in front of an audience, that – hopefully – enjoys what I do, so I always look forward to that part of the run, which is usually longer than the potentially difficult rehearsal process. It’s important to be aware, for yourself, of what’s happening to you and around you, and to make a very conscious choice about how you are going to respond. I believe strongly that how you respond to situations is way more important than the situations themselves.
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 way I try – emphasis on “try” – to keep the joy of performance alive is by focusing on what I’m personally getting out of the show. Whether it’s a song I enjoy singing, or a moment I know has been a personal challenge to achieve that I can finally share with an audience, that’s what I make sure to keep on my mind throughout a run. Of course, things like iffy pay have to be dealt with before you get on stage. My view is that if I signed the contract, I have to live with it. But I also make sure not to get exploited or taken advantage of on top of that, like doing things that aren’t in the contract, or being expected to be available at all times. So I have strong personal boundaries regarding how far I’m willing to go for the sake of the show, protecting my own love for what I do, but also knowing it is a job and sometimes you just have to suck it up. That applies to all potential issues for me. I have my boundaries in check, and if I need to have a tough conversation with a colleague or management, I will. That and prayer. I find myself praying a lot! Lastly, making sure you keep some contact with other activities that keep you grounded helps. For me that’s church, Taekwondo or working out, and gaming. That helps mitigate any stress I experience during a run.
How do you choose projects? What needs to turn you on before you audition for something?
I’m only starting my third year in theatre, and I’m trying to get as varied and as much experience I can get. So I tend to go for as many auditions as I can. I’ve seen that, as time has gone, I’m definitely more excited by meatier roles as I do relish a challenge, and I’ve been fortunate to mostly be cast in some form of lead role up until now. I think I’m still trying to find out just how much I have to offer in this industry, as I have bit of Imposter Syndrome I need to get rid of. Can I act in a very serious role? Just how good is my voice for real? Am I funny? Can I handle the responsibility of being a lead, on and off stage? What should I avoid as an actor? I’m always trying to answer these questions, and each role gets me closer to that.
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?
I thoroughly enjoy the process of discovering the full expression of whatever character I’m playing. From the sound of their voice to their mannerisms and discovering what motivates them. I like having a backstory to motivate me, but even more than that I enjoy scripts that allow for that backstory to be seen by the audience, whether it’s in clever references or actions that can only be explained by that motivation. I also love comedy because it comes naturally to me, but I don’t get to do it often on stage. So I’m really excited about Forever Plaid in this regard because I get to do something that’s written to be funny.
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?
This difficulty cannot be understated because being a working actor literally doesn’t square up with normal, or should I say “expected” life at all. You’re obsessing over being someone you’re not, you’re at home when everyone else is at work and vice versa, your salary changes depending on when you’re in rehearsal and when you’re performing, generally and so on and so on. The way I make it work is to try be patient with myself, and those around me who may not understand. Learning to accept that this is my “normal” is key. And helping my loved ones to see why this is so also helps them to love me better, because I need it. I’m thankful to have an extremely understanding girlfriend who has supported me over the years through all the changes. A big part of that was communicating where I was going, and how it would impact us, and for us to plan how we would deal with any hurdles. Of course, I also don’t want to live in an echo chamber where my only friends are actors and performers, because sometimes we do have some pretty bad habits or make questionable lifestyle choices, and I like having that opposing voice in my life asking, “Musanete, do you really have to live like this?” It really helps to keep the balance in my own mind of what parts of this lifestyle are unavoidable or necessary and what parts are just what people do because it’s an easier way of coping and not necessarily good for them in the long run.
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 is definitely fun, few times I’ve done it, and I’ve noticed I do enjoy experiencing new cultures. However, it’s not an absolute must for me right now, specifically because I know what it costs personally. I’ve started this journey in theatre later in my life than a lot of the people around me, and my priorities do differ. I’m not desperate to disappear for a year. I’m not against it either, because if that’s part of journey, so I will enjoy it. Whichever door is open at this point, I’ll walk through it gladly because work is not as abundant in this industry and there’s lots of competition. The money is definitely a factor because you handle other responsibilities with money. But is touring the most important thing for me as an actor? Not really. I’m grateful if it happens, I’m hopeful for other things if it doesn’t.
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?
Delivering expectations is the name of the game for the most part, and as an actor, I’m fully aware that in this industry you kinda have to “earn” your right to input. I definitely prefer having input, and I think as time has gone on, I’m seeing that’s a very important part of being an actor. If I have no say in how my character comes alive, then I’m just being a robot. Once I do have a say, I can engage it the process a lot more honestly, rather than simply regurgitating someone else’s instructions. Of course, I never want to compete with the director. Rather, I’d like to be part of the team and know I do have a voice in the process.
What other roles do you, or would you like to, play in the industry – now or in the future? Writing, production, direction? And what about each or any of those excites you?
In the near future, I really would like to do more camera work. Whether that’s TV or movies, I’d love to develop and flex that muscle more as an actor. Like I’ve said before, I want to know just how far I can go as a performer so I see the camera as a challenge I’d like to conquer one day if possible. Behind the scenes, I’d love to direct one day. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed but don’t have enough knowledge about currently. I’m always trying to learn from all the people who have directed me. Knowing what to look for, having a vision, helping a group of performers get to that place – that all excites me. It’s definitely a lot more pressure, but I think it would a be a good progression.