We sat down with Naledi-nominated theatre and television actress Michelle Mosalakae, who told us her path to performing professionally, shared her views on South African theatre, and gave some tips on getting into the industry!
Hi Michelle! Thank you so much for the opportunity to share your story with our audience. We’re privileged to have you speaking to us. Firstly, can you share a little bit of your story? What did you study? How was the experience? Do you think there are better or worse ways to go about studying Drama in South Africa?
MM: Let me begin by saying I am so honoured to be part of this interview and important process. Thank you! Acting has been with me since… well, since God decided to make Michelle Mosalakae. I sort of believe He said: “Let me make another actress, and her name will be Michelle Mosalakae.” Acting, or let me rather say entertaining – at least initially – has always been part of my DNA. I grew up performing and making lots of noise – in my head I believed I was singing, but looking back now, it was just noise! For me, everything changed in high school, when my Drama teacher – who I am still very close with – asked me something along the lines of : “Are you an entertainer or an actress?” I was not sure how to answer, because at that time I didn’t see much of a difference between the two. He told me that if I wanted to act, I had to work at it every single day, because that’s the only way to make your passion your profession. I began to realize that I need to train myself to be in that creative space as much as possible. I realised that’s what it all boils down to: fine tuning my instincts. So I worked everyday on various monologues, reading plays, watching plays, watching films, writing and so on, and having to convince my parents that this is my destiny and there’s nothing else I would rather be doing with my time.
I finally won them over and enrolled at Rhodes University to study Drama. I graduated with my Honours degree in 2016 and specialised in Acting, Directing and Applied Theatre. Having had the opportunity to study performance past the high school level and get my tertiary qualification was the best decision I think I’ve ever made regarding my career. The skills and techniques I learned are aiding me all the time. However, I also completely understand that many people do not necessarily have the opportunity to study further. The beauty of Art is that although it is ideal to get a formalised, structured teaching, it is definitely not imperative or essential to do so. There are so many actors and actresses with no formal training, but who still possess a different kind of training. What matters is that there IS training: attending workshops and improvisational classes, accessing information online, creating classes amongst like minded people, et cetera. There are just so many ways to understand Performing Arts, it’s not an elitist profession, it is relatable and accessible. I don’t think one way of learning is better than another – it’s just about learning. It’s a profession about human beings communicating with each other, and understanding that is the beginning of all beautiful things for anyone wanting to enter the dramatic arts. I think that even people who began without having studied are probably looking at ways of studying now in whatever way because when you’re in an industry where things are constantly changing and shifting, you need to be able to change and shift with it, and for that reason education is key.
I also think Drama and History, with a very specific syllabus, should be compulsory in all schools in South Africa, regardless of whether children want to be actors or performers. The sheer number of valuable life skills one learns through these subjects is extraordinary.
Can you also share a little about your journey as an actress thus far? What was the initial process of finding work like? Where did you go to “break in” to the theatre world, as it were? Was this process difficult?
MM: One thing about my journey in becoming a professional actress in learning how every single person’s journey is different and unique. I graduated in 2016, came back home, got an agent and didn’t know what to do after that. All my ducks were in a row but nothing was moving the way I wanted it to move. I started attending auditions in early 2017, but I was still unsure of what would happen going forward. So I thought, let me continue studying, I have the opportunity to do so, and so I’m going to use it. I enrolled at Wits Drama for Life to do my Masters but I think I had only attended a handful of classes when I received a call to do Isibaya. It was the best news of my life, but it was still bittersweet as it meant that I couldn’t continue with my Masters studies.
So essentially, I studied for theatre but my “big break” wasn’t actually through theatre. I think that was also integral to my journey that it happened that way because I was able to really understand how blessed I am to have been able to aquire the skills I have from studying theatre, and also find out that they work almost perfectly for TV and other work too. The first play I auditioned for in terms of theatre in the SA industry was Shoes and Coups. It was extremely challenging, as we had a very limited time to put together what was a very dense and complex play, but it was absolutely worth every moment and I am so thankful to have been able to audition for the role, receive it, and tell a story with my peers that was so hilarious but so important for the political space we find ourselves in today.
What tips would you share with people starting out as performers in South Africa today? What is absolutely essential for these people to know?
MM: I would definitely start off by making them understand that this is a profession. Just like any other profession which requires a certain mindset, and various skills, this is no exception. Having said that, it is vital to equip yourself with those skills and to be part of the creativity process. Developing an inquisitive mind, a mind that is always thinking, critiquing, and researching is vital in being able to tell stories effectively. Watch as many plays as you can and understand WHY people are making the work they are making. This is one of the most rewarding and cathartic professions for so many reasons, being able to fulfill your passion and tell real stories in an entertaining way is wonderful but still very much a job.
What is unique, in your opinion, about the theatre industry in South Africa?
MM: I wouldn’t say I am very familiar with the theatre industry in other parts of the world, apart from reading about it. However, being a creative in South Africa, I believe there is an undeniable agency prevalent in the theatre industry which makes it so unique. There are a multitude of people making their own work, and more so, making work which they want to see and be part of. People are active in making theatre; gone are the days where people would simply wait to receive work from others. I think this is an important progression and development in the nature and fabric of what it means to be a theatre maker in South Africa, and we are finding the strength to embrace the agency that we inherently have, and in doing so, I think we are passing that boldness and courage on to the audience members that come and watch each show.
In addition to that, what makes the theatre industry even more unique is the collaborative process. The idea of being able to truly involve everyone involved in the play to contribute to its creation and fruition I believe is extremely unique to South African theatre industry. This is fundamentally an African way of storytelling, and workshopping a play. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that there is no formalised structure to devising a play, but essentially the foundation of this technique is to be holistic and inclusive of most things, and to understand that telling stories is not just a cerebral pursuit.
In what ways has South African history informed contemporary plays and performances? Do you think this is important?
MM: Yes, I certainly do believe this is important. South African history informs Theatre all the time. The roots and birth of certain South African theatre techniques came from people needing a way of getting information out regarding the political climate.
Protest Theatre, for instance, is still quite prevalent and powerful today. It has taken a different shape, of course, because of the contemporary climate, and people are different theatre makers than they were before! However, the idea of theatre for social activism is still very prevalent in South Africa today. I truly believe that’s also informed by our history and as I mentioned, seeing how a lot of our country’s history was relayed to us on stages and the power of that is still something we evidently find effective today.
Do you have any tips or tricks for the audition process?
MM: Well it all depends on what you’re auditioning for but essentially, for everything: BE PREPARED! An Actor always prepares. This will assist you in being able to bring life to the character, and it will enable you to navigate anything that is given to you. Be on time, professional, patient and listen attentively to what is asked of you and always be honest. When it comes to theatre, there might be a lot of text so you may not be asked to be off book but that’s only ever a bonus.
What have you learned about yourself as a performer in the last year?
MM: Woah! This hits home! [laughs] What haven’t I learned about myself as a performer in the last year? I identify primarily as an actress and creative. I navigate myself in the world as that 80% if not more of the time. As a result, when I am learning anything as a performer, I am also learning as a human being. Being a performer has completely changed the way I look at the world, myself, and the people and situations around me, and most importantly, it has taught me how to communicate effectively.
However some of the most important things I’ve learned is the importance of being truthful in every single moment. As a performer, I always used to think I needed to get things done perfectly, and with excellent technique. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s important to realize that it goes way beyond that – it’s a holistic process, everything matters. I have learned that the more prepared you are the better you will be at being able to bring truth and believability to the role and play overall.
What was the most challenging role you’ve ever played, and why?
MM: Every role I have played has been challenging for me, it has always been a welcomed challenge but a challenge nonetheless. I recall playing the role of Lil Bit in a play called How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel in my final Honours year at Rhodes. I remember it being extremely challenging for me to play one character at 3 different times of her life – I needed to change her voice, her mindset, and her movement each time which was extremely challenging. Playing the role of Lascivia in Shoes and Coups by Palesa Masamiza was also a huge hurdle to overcome, mainly due to the eloquence my character spoke with and her over the top accent – not to mention her ideals and beliefs! Another example that sticks out to me is the character I played on The Queen called Kamina, she is what one would call a sociopath. My challenge was to make people see her beyond her “label” and to believe her story and see her pain and more so understand that no matter how obvious things may be, there are multiple sides to every story. So essentially there are challenges in every role I’ve played – even the ones I haven’t mentioned here have contorted my brain, body and voice in ways I never imagined were possible.
What are your three favourite shows you’ve appeared in thus far?
MM: Everything I’ve appeared on has been my favourite – I promise I’m not just saying that I truly mean it – for different reasons. For instance, Isibaya gave me my first chance to share my passion on a huge platform, to learn about the industry and to learn that it’s not always about what you know, but about what you are willing to learn. Shooting various smaller projects has taught me that no matter how small the role or project, if you give it your all you will receive so much more from that experience. Shoes and Coups reminded me of just how rigorous theatre is – you’re always working, and although my entire existence was exhausted most of the time, I absolutely love that about theatre. As I mentioned, everything has been my favourite for many different reasons. If I don’t stop now I might just go on forever!
What is your dream role?
MM: Wow, I think my dream role is anything that truly makes my heart stop, like I literally want to feel a sharp pain in my chest when I read the script and think painfully to myself: “How on earth am I going to do this??” – that will be when I know I’ve stepped into my dream role. I never want to feel completely comfortable, a role that challenges me in every aspect is the ideal. I’ve actually always wanted to go through a grueling 10 hour make-up and prosthetics process for a role to make me physically unrecognizable even to myself – that would be a dream come true. More importantly, a role that gets audiences from all walks of life to question things they’ve never thought they needed to question. I love acting with every single part of my being, but I love it more because of the power it has to bring about not only entertainment – which we honestly do need – but also shed light onto situations we don’t often think about or critique.
What’s next for Michelle Mosalakae?
MM: I am in talks with some phenomenal creatives about being part of their projects, as well as writing and making work in collaboration with many of them. I am realizing more and more the importance of making my own work as well as having a voice in any work I am doing for someone else, in order to manifest their vision as effectively as possible. This year and next year I am also hoping to create platforms to get people talking about the effect of Art in our society as a vehicle of opening up discussions about issues we face today – as the youth for instance. I would also love to travel the world and see how Drama is being used around various parts of the world.