Carmen Pretorius Steals Our Harts

We sat down with Carmen Pretorius, star of Chicago at Montecasino, to chat about her theatre journey, performing as Roxie Hart, and some favourite theatre tidbits!

Hey, Carmen. So it’s not often we can say that I get to speak to you, or speak to anyone, after preview weekend and your first show in Joburg, so thanks for meeting with TheatreZA. So Carmen, we want to talk about Chicago, but more than that, we want to also talk about Carmen Pretorius. We want to know who she is, where she was, where she’s been, where she’s going. Let’s start with: when did you know you wanted to sing and act and dance and be the triple threat that you are, in front of people? How did that happen?

CP: Thank you. I appreciate that! I don’t know. I’ve never had a moment where I knew. It was always a part of me, really. If that makes sense? I remember there was a memory – my earliest memory. I think I must be about two or three, I was sitting in my mum’s car, at the back. You know, in the footwell of the back seat? I used to just sit there while we were driving. And my mum wouldn’t want me to, because it was dangerous, but that was my favourite place. And I would just sit there and I would just sing. And I would sing and I would repeat what I heard on the radio or something. My mum would play me a lot of music – like Bonnie Tyler, ’80’s stuff. And she did play Andrew Lloyd Webber and other musical theatre music. But I would just sing in my little place. And that’s my earliest memory. And then I also have photos of me at home in the garden, about two or three, singing. My parents took photos of me just singing. So, I believe that we are born with soul journeys, and we are born with ingrained passions. And that is just what mine was. And it was quite evident from the beginning. So I never really didn’t do it, as it were. I was inspired by Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, and the Spice Girls, and Pink. And I wanted to be a pop star, not necessarily musical theatre.

See Carmen, now you’ve skipped ahead in my questions – there were supposed to be smooth segues! [laughter]. So now I have to ask you: what is your favourite high school jam? Since we’re talking about Britney and Christina and Pink?

CP: Oh my gosh, it’s so weird because lately I’ve been going back to ’90’s hits. On my road trip now back up to Joburg, from Cape Town, I Googled all the ’90’s hits on iTunes or whatever. I’m trying to think… You know what? I love – is it called “Spice Up Your Life,” by the Spice Girls? “Spice Up Your Life.”

Yes! We love the Spice Girls.

CP: It was absolutely one of my favourite songs. And it was in my favourite movie, Spice World. [laughs]

Well now once that passion had been ignited in you, and you’re born with this talent, and this vision inside of you, what did you do? How did you go about it? Did you study? Did you get a big break? How did that whole process work for you?

Carmen Pretorius as Roxie Hart in Chicago
Picture: Christiaan Kotze

CP: I believe in grabbing opportunities when they come. And I’m kind of a maximiser, which is quite irritating to my close friends and my boyfriend and my family, at times. But if something comes along that I think will benefit me, that will take me closer to a goal that I have, I will do it. I’m very goal-orientated. So when I was younger– when I was, in my primary school days, I was always just singing, and I wanted to start singing lessons and I expressed this interest to my mum and she found a vocal coach. So some singing lessons, and at the time I did dancing, and I didn’t do any acting. And then when I got to high school the only way that I could sing – which was basically the hook for me – was to be part of the school production. And then I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll audition for it. I don’t know how to act, but I’ll audition and see.” Just so I could sing, that’s all I wanted to do.

So you were a musician before you were an actor.

CP: I was a singer. I was like, “I don’t care about acting and dancing, but I want to sing.” So I auditioned, and I got in, and then I got a solo. It was “The Sun Has Got His Hat On” and it was “Me and My Girl”. It was a classical one. And I got the solo. A little tap solo singing number. And then from there on I would audition every year and get into the show, and we would tour to the Durban Playhouse and that awakened in me this whole new world of musical theatre. And obviously, the school eventually recognised me as one of their actresses. So they would keep casting me, and then eventually in my matric year they chose the musical with me in mind.

Which one?

CP: It was Hello Dolly. So I could play Dolly.

Oh wow. [laughter] Okay.

CP: So that was just kind of how it happened, and then when I was in matric, I saw an opportunity to audition for a TV show called High School Musical Live on Stage. And that was just a way for me to perform, to get my name out there. I didn’t think, “Oh! I’ll win and become a musical theatre star,” or whatever. I just thought, “I can make some connections. I don’t know where this is going to take me.” Because at that stage I still wanted to be a recording artist. So I wanted to get my name up there, write my own music and then leave high school and pursue that. Because it was one of those shows where you all live in a house together, and you get voted out every week. So I left high school to do it, and then I didn’t go back to high school. So basically, I won, which was quite crazy. Actually, in this theatre where we are now was where they announced the winner. And winning meant getting the lead role in High School Musical on Stage, which was a Peter Toerien and Hazel Feldman musical. And then from there, I auditioned, and I got an agent.

So you were what, 17, 18 at the time?

CP: I was 18. I got an agent, and then I auditioned for Footloose: the Musical, and got cast in that. Then I auditioned for Mamma Mia, and got into that. So then from there it just snowballed!

Amazing!

CP: And I was planning on going slightly musical, but at that stage I didn’t want to be Elaine Paige, you know? I was always a reluctant performer, and I still am. It takes a lot for me to perform. Mentally and emotionally. I need it, but I also… It’s like a marriage. We have a relationship. There’s a part of me that’s introverted that I need to overcome in order to go onstage

So then, do you have a ritual or something that happens before you walk on stage that gets that side of you out?

CP: Yes. A big thing for me is, I always do a sign of the cross. I’m not religious, but that’s just a thing that I do. And before I walk out before every entrance.

Every entrance? Not just curtain?

CP: No. Every entrance. But for me, the biggest thing is having my time before the show, whatever that routine is; coming in, doing my thing of going into my dressing room and putting on my makeup; stuff like that. I don’t like anything to be changed in that routine. I don’t like anyone interfering with that kind of thing.

And do you like the quiet time, or do you like being around people?

CP:I like quiet. Well, not necessarily quiet, but if I’ve put myself in a space where I don’t want to talk to anybody – and this is only before a show – then I do get a bit annoyed if I don’t have that time because I feel like I’m not focusing in the way I want to focus. And literally, at the moment, focusing for me is putting on my makeup and watching crime shows on Netflix. And if anyone interferes with that time, I get a little bit angsty. So I’m putting on makeup and watching Women Who Murder, or whatever.

So there you go again, ruining my segues [laughter] because my question at the end was going to be, “What are you currently watching on Netflix?” So: crime shows?

CP: I’m such an addict. Yes, crime shows. I just watched Missing Madeleine, about Madeleine McCann. I mean, I love reality. I like documentaries and spirituality, and yoga and that sort of stuff.

Have you ever been in a drama? Have you ever been in a straight play?

CP: No. And that’s actually something that I was talking to my director about, yesterday. Because we were talking about the monologue in the Chicago, and it was almost the first time I’ve done something like that. I was saying to him, “It’s just good to be doing this monologue because it’s taught me so much about just straight acting.” Although I’ve done a lot of television and film, straight theatre is a different beast and I’d love to do that.

That’s really cool. We often find that in our industry, our musical theatre stars don’t get that opportunity. So it would be amazing to find a way to cross over where there are performances of straight actors in the studio and you can go do your thing and explore that role and that sort of thing.

CP: Yeah. And I think, as a musical theatre performer, it’s quite a crutch to have a song and then a dance number, and then for all of that to be torn away and all you have is an acting piece, it’s hectic. So I’d love to do a play, yeah.

Amazing. Well, we’re going to keep our eyes out for that [laughter]. So speaking of which – I mean, you’re speaking about Roxie’s monologue and that sort of thing, how do you feel – and I’ll go back to Maria as well – about playing these iconic roles, performed by incredible actresses over the years? How does it feel carrying the weight? What comes with being Roxie Hart, or being Maria in The Sound Of Music? Do you feel like, oh, it’s just another day on stage? Or do you feel pressure?

CP: I absolutely feel pressure. And the more I perform, and the older I get, the more pressure I feel, and the more neurotic I get about it. I used to just be super chilled. Like, okay, this is where God has put me. I’m just going day to day. But it’s changing a lot. During The Sound Of Music, it’s a big responsibility and for me, I want to do the best I can every day. But life is life. So some days are up, some days are down. But I do feel an amazing amount of pressure.

Fascinating you should say that because very often – and it frustrates me because I’ve experienced it in my limited time involved in the industry and theatre, is that you expect these performers to be robots. That something could happen in your own life, and then you leave it at the door. But what they don’t realize is that not every single performance is going to be the same. It’s going to resonate with you differently at different times.

Carmen Pretorius as Roxie and Samantha Peo as Velma in Chicago
Picture: Christiaan Kotze

CP: I think for me, part of the skill set of being a musical theatre performer is singing, dancing, acting, yes. But the fourth thread is the ability to deliver eight shows at a certain standard. And that’s the skill. So for me, that’s the pressure – to be consistent. And what do I need to do to be consistent? How much do I need to sleep? What do I need to eat? But then also if I’m having a day where I’m sad, don’t leave the sadness at the door, necessarily, but use it where I can, within the show. If you’re happy, use that where I can, so that what I’m embracing is part of my reality and is honest on stage. And other days, I don’t feel like performing. Other days, I want to be in bed alone. I don’t want to perform. Sometimes I don’t want anyone to watch me. I don’t want anyone to see me. I don’t want to sing. I don’t want to act. I don’t want to dance. I just want to be left alone. And then I have a double-show where I have to– that’s when it’s like with any job, you go in and—

Deal with the fact that there’s a person behind the role.

CP: Yeah, and I think the honest truth is, I feel like a lot of performers don’t want to talk about that because it’s like this taboo thing. You’re not allowed to feel like you’re tired. You’re not allowed to feel like you don’t want to do a show today. And I don’t believe in that. I feel like we are human beings and it’s authentic to feel tired. And I guess some people do want to perform every day but that’s never been my reality, ever. I have always struggled with the balance of wanting to perform but needing my own space. That’s always been a struggle for me.

So speaking of which let’s talk about the reason why you feel like this some days. Rumour has it, that apparently you’re playing a very – what’s the word we can use to describe her – a very intelligent, sexy, determined, self-motivated character on the stage around Joburg somewhere? [laughter] Tell us about what you’re in at the moment.

CP: So I’m playing the famed role of Roxie Hart in Chicago, which is actually one of my top three dream roles.

You’re killing me here with my questions [laughter] because my question was going to be, “What is your dream role?” But we’ll come back to that.

CP: So that’s top three. And I wasn’t going to audition for it because I had a crushing rejection before this musical, and I just couldn’t deal with another. And it was close to home. Yeah. So I thought I’m not going to audition for another musical that’s close to home and then get rejected. And then I was like, “What does that mean for me in my life?” Like, who am I? Yeah. And then Hazel [Feldman] helped me, she called me and encouraged me to audition, as did my boyfriend, Keaton, who is actually auditioning as well. So eventually I thought, “I’m going to try.” Simply because I knew that the auditions were starting with the ballet round and I’m not a ballerina. So it’s like, “I’m going to get rejected.” They’re not even going to hear me sing or see me act. Because I’m not going to make it through the ballet round, I’m not going to put myself out there again and be rejected. I think as actresses, and as performers, we go through these – and I think in any career – you go through ups and downs. I just wasn’t in the space where I wanted to put myself out there. I was still dealing with trying to get my head around being rejected.

And that must be hectic because, I mean you’re in a big show – like Sound of Music, for argument’s sake – and you’re doing all of that sort of stuff, and then your spirit gets crushed.

CP: Exactly! Because it was a role that I really wanted. If it was in a huge musical, but a role that wasn’t one of those top three, then maybe I wouldn’t have felt that rejected. But I’ve felt super frustrated.

Okay. So then clearly you’ve come out to the other side amazingly and wonderfully well. But what’s a little advice that you would give to people that are going to auditions all the time and feeling that crushing heavy weight? What advice do you have to them about auditioning or getting over that, the director’s, “Sorry, you’re not going to get a callback”?

CP: I think the best way to get over it is just to keep going to the next one, if you want to get over it. It’s easier said than done, but put yourself out there. Because that was how I did my entire career, I put myself out there. The first time I auditioned for the musical in high school, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just put myself out there. And this was the first time where after putting myself out there, the rejection was really crushing. I almost felt like I didn’t want to continue performing. I have had rejections before, but I would just say you have to be 100% committed to it.

What are your Top 5 musical theatre roles?

Carmen Pretorius as Maria in the Sound of Music

CP: My Top 5 musical roles are in Evita, playing Eva Peron; Roxie Hart or Velma, in Chicago – which I’ll play hopefully when I’m older, [laughter] and Elphaba, from Wicked. Then I would definitely say I would love to be in Side Show, to play one of the twins. And then the other one would be, it’s like a tie between Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which I’ve understudied and played, and then Wild Party. The one by Michael LaChiusa. There’s a female role in Wild Party. It’s very dark. It’s in the same vein as Cabaret and Chicago. But you know what? It’s so weird because now, I’ve been so transformed. Having played this role – for me – was about wanting to prove to the industry as well that we shouldn’t be typecast. That’s the idea. Don’t typecast us. Because that’s what’s continually happening to many people in the industry. And now, a lot of people have said to me, “When we heard you were playing Roxie, we didn’t think you’d be good. Because you’re not a Roxie, you’re a classical musical theatre actress.” And I’m like, “No I’m not! Who said that?” I didn’t say that.

So Carmen, fighting typecasting is a genuine struggle for you?

CP: Well yeah. One producer, after seeing me as Roxie said, “Oh my gosh. When I heard you were cast as Roxie, I didn’t think it was going to be good. I didn’t think it was a good idea.” And for a big producer to say that to you, it’s like, “Oh my gosh.” But then he said, “I’m so happy it happened. You have totally stepped into the role.” And I realized that that’s what I want to do. I want to break boundaries.

Wonderful. And isn’t that what actors and actresses are supposed to do?

CP: Yes! We’re supposed to be versatile. And musical theatre’s bad with that. It’s typecast, a lot of the time. And I get that people have vocal styles and vocal sounds and what not. But within a realm, I’d like to be able to leave that realm. People who think that they know who you are as a performer get angsty when you’re not playing up to that. So I’m also learning where I am now in my life. I’m learning to start talking about everything. I’m not always wanting to perform. SO I can say, “No. And I don’t want to do this. Yes, I want to do that.” I’m tired of being dictated by people. And look I am still very black and white, very toe-the-line, goody-two-shoes. I always have been, and I think I always will be. But a part of me is now becoming a bit more assertive.

Speaking of being assertive and coming into your own, we live in this global social climate now, where the #metoo campaign, #menaretrash, that sort of thing exists and there are new conversations about it. What do you think Chicago does for these movements in terms of empowering women and holding men accountable?

CP: First of all, I have a problem with any extremist view. So “Men are trash” is terrible to me. And then “Women are trash” is terrible to me. So any unhumanitarian view for me is totally crazy. I also feel like the power of the media is so intense that one woman accuses a man of something and if the media jumps onto it also, that poor man is also ripped to shreds. So it’s that kind of thing I think we should all be very aware of how we consume media. I have to say that. And this show is a classic example of how ever since the fricken 1920s it was happening. The media can twist whatever you’re saying to what they want it to be. And that’s dangerous. But there is a big movement, as we all know, with women speaking up against abuse and I think that’s so important, and if it was men that had been suppressed for many years, it would be the same. It’s just about reaching equality, and I think that this musical offers these things about women who aren’t afraid to talk about what they want, and say what they want. It’s a tad violent and extremist [laughter]

But does it feel liberating for you? As a woman? Because, look, we are in a male-dominated society. Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve come to at this point in history.

CP: Yeah, actually, it does. Look, I suppose in my frame of reference, if I had come from a very male-dominated household, I would probably feel more liberated. I don’t. I come from a very female-dominated household. My parents are divorced. I grew up in Joburg with my mother and two sisters. And my dad is very much a part of my life – and my dad is remarried and living in London. But he’s always been such a strong, positive male figure in my life, and I have three very strong female figures, so it’s quite balanced. But I must say, I’ve always been taught to verbalize. I’ve always been taught to be strong. I’ve always been taught never to let a man walk over me. My mum taught us those ideals. So I think as an Afrikaans girl, we were quite different, we were quite an exception. So I almost feel like it’s just part of how it should be instead of, “Yes, we are gaining ground.” I was saying to my boyfriend the other day – it’s very irritating. I’m saying to him, “You won’t understand what this feels like when a man comes up to me, a beggar for example. He’ll come up to me and ask me for the money, because I’m the weak one and you don’t experience that.” He was like, “No, I know.” So that’s the kind of thing that even though I’m very lucky to have a voice as a woman, I still do suffer from that kind of stereotyping, and as a blonde woman, I suffer from stereotyping. So I think it’s important. I think it’s important that the world view shifts and it’s exciting, but I also think it mustn’t go the other way like, “Men are trash.” I mean, that’s absolute crap. So I think it should all be balanced.

What’s your go-to audition song?

CP: Oh, my God. I don’t have one. [laughter] I never know what I’m going to sing. Ever. I am constantly– I actually have a list on my phone called: “Good female audition songs,” but I don’t know all of them. Shall I look for you? See, this is how not musical theatre I am. I don’t have a Cats t-shirt [laughter] and I don’t have a go-to musical theatre audition song. Here! Good audition songs. So I would say “Someone Like You” actually, from Jekyll and Hyde, is one of mine, I have sung that a few times. There’s a song from Side Show. It’s called “Out of the Blue”. But I don’t have go-to songs. Also, I’ve been touring for so long that even if I had go-to songs—

You’d have forgotten them by now [laughter]

CP: I haven’t worked on them in a while [laughter].

So after Chicago, what’s next for Carmen Pretorius? I think I want the factual, “What’s next?” and then I want the “What would you like to be next?”

CP: I think the biggest thing for me after this is that I want to do more TV and film, or straight theatre. So I don’t think musicals. Because artistically, yes, that’s what I want to do, but also, I want to be home. I want to build a home. I want to be in Joburg and study. I’m studying marketing. So I just want to explore other avenues of this industry and of myself. And then maybe after that, after a couple of years of that, I’d love to go into the business side of this world. I don’t know if I’ll produce but maybe I’ll work in the marketing capacity or something similar.

Can you talk to us about the marketing? That’s interesting that you’re studying at the same time as you’re performing.

CP: I feel like I’m a very realistic person. I feel like I don’t have any rose-colored glasses on regarding fame and fortune, the bright lights of the city, blah, blah, blah. So I’ve always felt like it’s good to have a qualification. I’m always making plans, just in case. In case this happens. In case that happens. And I battle to live in the present moment which is one of my biggest soul journey lessons, I think. So that was like kind of a choice that I made was to get a degree. I’m interested in business. I’m interested in how that works.

Carmen, you have been amazing. And really, you have been a breath of fresh air and we’re really just looking forward to whatever you do in the future. So TheatreZA have got their eye on you. We wish you all of the luck.

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