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GROWING up in a time before television became the principal form of entertainment for children, Michelle Maxwell attended boarding school St Cyprians in Cape Town where the girls would put on shows for each other in the evening. Sort of a serial play following each other every night, she remembered fondly in an interview in Cape Town last week.
Maxwell is about to step back on to the stage for the first time in a long time – her last stage role was in Silence of the Music in 2011 at the Baxter – in Show and Tell with Roland Perold at Kalk Bay Theatre.
While she started off as a serious dramatic actress, Maxwell has run the gamut of every kind of performance from (Fleur du Cap nominated) cabaret to television comedies (Fishy Feshuns anyone?), soapies (Scandal and Isidingo) and music (she’s worked with Mike Oldfield, thank you very much) and even a couple of feature films.
While she started off doing a BMus at UCT (she is an accomplished pianist), Maxwell admits she just did not have the discipline to keep that up and switched to drama after two years and has never looked back.
When she relocated to London during the ‘80s, a potential agent was very surprised by the kind of stage work she had been doing, because “South Africans generally cast younger” and she’d been doing some meaty roles like in Tom Stoppard and Tennessee Williams plays.
Back in South Africa in the late ‘90s she switched to television and films, but lately it has been more teaching and mentoring now that she has permanently relocated to Cape Town after years of trying to maintain households here and in Joburg.
She is of two minds whether there are fewer roles for older actresses, or whether it is just because there is a bigger pool of really good older actresses available in Cape Town.
But that doesn’t phase her either way, because as a respected pianist, she can also rely on the music. While economics of scale force her to do solo shows, lately she has been dipping into the jazz scene which has opened her to the peculiarities of improvising within a structure with other musicians.
“Acting used to be my bread and butter, and singing was for joy,” she said, but lately that has switched.
Roland Perold is the one who approached her about possibly doing a show together, which is where the idea for Show and Tell came about.
When they first sat down together, each brought out a list of songs which now form the basis of the cabaret.
“It turned into the showbiz aspect, with the tell aspect in between the songs,” she explained.
While it isn’t quite a gossip tell-all blabbing session about the nastiest people to work with in the biz, the show does touch on what it feels like for the artist working in the industry.
For Show and Tell every song requires different acting elements and they have even done a few of their own arrangements on particular songs.
There’s the big opening showbiz medley and all sorts of songs ranging from Sondheim to Randy Newman.
While they can’t go too deep in just 70 minutes, they do touch on where the South African entertainment industry currently finds itself, at least through their eyes.
The age gap of about 30 years between the two makes for very different viewpoints. She also talks about how different things were when she first started performing for a living 40 years ago.
“More and more today, the artist brings their own audience, and you do your own marketing,” being just one point she raises in the show.
Her first professional acting role on stage was at The Space (she’s a founding member) in 1974, acting opposite Bill Flynn in Tennessee Williams’ Out Cry. She considers that role and playing opposite Flynn in Death of a Salesman at the Baxter in 2001 as two of her acting highlights.
At the same time, though, Show and Tell is not just the Michelle and Roland show, so the balance between the general and specific is crucial.
It is all a balancing act for Maxwell, who wonders whether audiences ever realise just how much effort goes into the performer containing their insecurities and anxieties “in order to become the empty house for a character to come through and serve the piece”.
She calls it the paradox of performance, needing the techniques and learnt skills to step on to the stage, but then balancing that with the showbiz demand for a personality.
So, while acting in a play means stepping aside to become the character called for by the script, it is the performer’s own personality that has to shine through in a cabaret. And all of that while singing and sometimes playing an instrument too.
• Show and Tell at Kalk Bay Theatre from May 7 to 31.