Whether on stage or in front of the camera for a TV or film project, Jennifer Steyn commands attention. The confidence she exudes is wonderfully offset by her gravitas as an actress.
She recently walked away with the Fleur du Cap Best Actress honours for her role in The Inconvenience of Wings.
Steyn comments, “It was awesome to have had the opportunity to play Sarah in The Inconvenience of Wings and Nora in A Doll’s House and then to be acknowledged for both. Obviously, I was wildly joyous. To win one, is always a relief... I have been nominated twice in the same category before and scored neither, as have some of my colleagues.
“Awards are contentious things and it is painful that ours are marred by a society which is still not one of balance. I do believe we need to appreciate sponsors who celebrate the arts and hope that they will continue to have the guts to evolve with our unfolding heartbeats, rooted uncompromisingly in all that is artistically excellent.”
Having planted deep footprints in the different mediums, Tonight asked her about the appeal of each one of them.
She reveals, “I am so very lucky to revel with exhilaration in my work. Theatre is the oldest ritual of storytelling. It is gritty and tough. Making moments true takes skilled detective work and total immersion. Theatre allows me to chew on the words of geniuses, who with the discipline of the obsessed, string sentences together for our pleasure.
“The end result is a story, which is immediate, in the moment, a kind of electricity and a spirit channelling. And it is, of course, always collaborative. The camera is different. You are witnessed by the quiet observer of the lens. It sees everything. The moment of the observation of what is in the frame may be manipulated and elaborated on by the complex work of filmmaking, and the story is only received many months after the initial moment. It has long gone out of your hands.
“So, as an actor you have less control. You are a much smaller part of the muscle of storytelling… the technique of revealing truth differs quite dramatically. It is like being observed by a magnifying glass. You have to be so still in yourself/character. It’s a different challenge and I love that.”
Steyn continues, “Television brings me into your home. It creates an everyday relationship the audience. If it is a happy one, then television can be very rewarding. Shooting is often fast, so it requires another kind of mental and technical muscularity. I am not so keen to move fast in the world except with comedy.”
Well-versed in different role-play, she reflects on her anti-heroine character, Galactia, in Scenes from an Execution.
She hints, “You can expect an explosion of opinion. She will tell you to look at your world. She loves to teach this to her daughters. She will ask you to love passionately. She does this while she is being torn between her obsession with her young lover and her art. It’s all rather sexy.”
Delving further into the complexities of her conflicted character, she adds, “She is fire and fragility as she wrestles the personal and the professional. She is arrogant and passionate, ecstatic and agonised. She has a good belly of laughter – wry and full-bodied. Galactia is first and foremost, the one who looks hard and deep. She reflects on what she sees with devotion and determination to find the truth. She is absolutely uncompromising in her hatred of hypocrisy…”
On Clare Stopford directing this production, she offers, “Way back, Clare directed me in David Hare’s Skylight. It was significant in the development of my craft. She gave me freedom to ‘make a mess’.
“Years later, we worked on Mike van Graan’s Green Man Flashing. This was a politically charged play and her pinning down of Mike’s story was superb. It was a hit. Ever since, there has been an appreciation of each other…”
As for how Stopford’s direction meets her vision, she says, “Her method is intense. Like an enormous dress-up box of ideas. The cast are invited to play freely. And because there is so much space to play, you might not be sure of her vision, but be not fooled. She has a very muscular vision. The canvas is layered... and the ‘painting’ slowly revealed.”
She also sang the praises of the five talented UCT postgraduates: Khathu Ramabulana, Elizabeth Akudugu, Lauren Blackwell, Cleo Raatus and Phoebe Ritchie.
Steyn says, “I feel like I have known them for years. This is what happens when you work intensely over a four-week period. Perhaps I feel
I know them because they are so easy to like and I am so humbled by their work ethic. I forget the massive age difference at times. In the struggle to create our characters and the world of the story, we are all equals.”
As for what theatregoers can also look forward to from her, she says, “I am off to the Market Theatre for Lara Foot’s The Inconvenience of Wings. But, first, I will take a little break. Scenes from an Execution is a brilliantly demanding role.”
Scenes from an Execution runs from April 4 to 22 at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, with previews from Thursday to April 3. The show starts at 7.30pm, with a 2.30pm matinee on April 1. Tickets cost R130 (previews and matinees), R140 (Mondays to Thursdays) and R160 (Fridays and Saturdays). Discounted block bookings are also available.