BILLY SUTER chats to award-winning South African actress and queen of musicals, KATE NORMINGTON, who discusses her new online showbiz talk show, Spotlight, starting on May 27, and other things.
“Spotlight”, your new Wednesday &Scene channel talk show, is scheduled to debut on http://www.andscene.live at 8pm on May 27. The show, co-produced by Rowan Bakker and Collett Dawson, will have you chatting to South African showbiz personalities that have cracked it abroad. What is planned for the first episode?
We are to talk to the indefatigable Amra-Faye Wright (star of Chicago on Broadway) and, hopefully, have her answer questions about herself nobody generally knows. We want to introduce a casual, chatty format to the show which we hope will encourage performers to reveal a bit more about themselves than they might ordinarily on these social platforms.
Looking ahead, what other artists are you hoping to chat to on the show?
The May line-up will include Edward Baker Duly (seen in London in The Bridges of Madison County), Sifiso Mazibuko (recently in the London production of Hamilton) and Suanne Braun (Summer of Rockets and other shows in London).
Your regular Facebook posts, during lockdown, have been a delight, highlighting your re-enactments of movie scenes, with each episode ending in ‘Saul’ arriving to botch things up. How did the initiative originate… and please tell the people who Saul is.
My best friend and colleague over 30 years, Kate Barry, whose other profile is that of Carte Blanche producer/writer, and I have shared some insane moments in combined careers that have spanned 60-odd years.
We share a similar sense of humour and although she is definitely the brains in our duo, we come up with collaborations that satisfy a shared sense of the ridiculous. We don’t like to take ourselves too seriously and lockdown has, I suppose, afforded us the opportunity to turn perceptions around with this mandatory incarceration.
We have always enjoyed turning particular situations on their heads and not kowtowing to any perceived status quo. We are the rebels who used to sit in the back of the class, but who were also taking notes.
Saul is my husband and reluctant on-screen partner. He is the grown up in our household so also needs to do real work most of the time.
What views on lockdown in South Africa, the restrictions and the endless conspiracy theories?
I don’t have any views worth elucidating. I read information from particular sources, but if it hasn’t been endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) it, frankly, isn’t worth wasting any time on. The virologists and epidemiologists out there are many-voiced and have a limited central knowledge about this virus except for the manner in which it needs to be avoided.
It is a killer, very simply, and until they have a global vaccine available for all to use, we should err on the side of caution. Especially if we are in privileged positions and CAN stay at home.
For the rest of our poverty stricken country, the answers are not so easy. I have been amazed at the petty whingeing from individuals I considered substantial and upstanding members of the community – irate at not being able to return to their lives as they were before, who have sounded aggrieved and inconvenienced by the effrontery of this pandemic.
It has made me enormously angry at the entitlement with which people have looked at the situation. That they have not thought about the ramifications of a two-and-a-half-million-HIV-and-TB-compromised community, still not on antiretrovirals and medication, astonishes me. Mercifully they will all go back to the gyms soon. That day can’t come fast enough for the end it will bring to their self-involved drivel.
What was your first professional job and at what age did the showbiz bug bite?
My first job was as a cabaret singer at a restaurant called Piaf in Loveday Street, Joburg. I performed with the inimitable Didi Kriel, who taught me my first baby steps in this business.
I couldn’t quite believe I was doing what I was doing and although it was terrifying I knew I wanted to be in the ring. It was the most exhilarated I had ever felt in my life. I had started my first rung on a very tall and wobbly ladder.
What have been your three favourite roles – and why?
Understudying and performing the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, in London, was one.
If you are a woman you will relate to Norma Desmond. She is the musical version of Marlow’s Doctor Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil to have the universe at his fingertips. She becomes lost in a particular moment in time and is then never able to capture the same close up, ever again.
An object lesson in how not to grow old. She is a character who does not go quietly into the dark night, and although she rages against the dying of the light, does so in a very limited and tragic manner. The quintessential narcissist. As opposed to the artist, who commits themselves to the work, she gets caught up in the illusion and becomes disassociated from the real world.
We all have a sense of what that might involve depending on our personal degrees of self deception.
The Mother Superior in Sister Act was an entirely different animal. Pragmatic and deeply religious. She is a good woman who has lost her way until Dolores Van Cartier reminds her what true spirituality is all about again. And the answer is joy, song and love.
The Witch in Into the Woods is another favourite. She is the archetype of every visionary, writer and philosopher, an oracle of our time, or certainly in the time that Sondheim wrote her.
He imbues her with a whip-like wit, irony, pathos and deep love and insight of the world, although she, too, gets it wrong and falls prey to her own vanity and pride. She is a woman with heart and considerable brain who is also human as well as magical. Which woman can’t relate?
Have you ever wanted to punch a fellow performer or director? Do explain.
Many times, although I’d imagine they have wanted to do the same to me.
There was a female director I once worked with who was enormously unkind and pedantic, with an unfortunate and inflated opinion of herself. She was undoubtedly talented but it was her ruthlessness that finally got to me.
I will never forget the pain of having to work with her, knowing that she despised me. It was physically painful having to do the work, as I could feel the ill will she bore me. Horrible stuff. But that was the worst of it. I got over that molehill quickly.
How many awards have you won and is there any one that is particularly special for any reason? Please elaborate if so.
Three Naledis and a Fleur du Cap. They were all beautiful prizes for hard-won characters.
One Naledi was for supporting actress, playing Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray in 2007, and in 2010, I got anotoher Naledi for the supporting role of Tanya in Mamma Mia. In 2006 I got the best actress Naledi for the one-woman show, Bombshells. My Fleur du Cap Award was as best actress in a musical for my role as Sister Mary Amnesia in Nunsense, thirty-odd years ago.
What has been your most forgettable moment on a stage?
Definitely playing the mother in Dirty Dancing. I didn’t enjoy any aspect of that particular , except for the expert dancing and joie de vivre of some amazing talents in it.
Beyond that, the piece was stolid, badly written, stilted and ill-conceived for stage. The music was sublime, as was the dancing, but the writing and general lack of production value and stage creativity brought to a piece that should have remained unsullied on screen, was sometimes breathtaking. It was also humourless which has to be the worst criticism you can level at any theatre piece.
They could have asked the receptionist at our hotel to play the mother and it might have been an improvement on me.
What has been your most embarrassing moment in the public eye?
Attempting to sing the top ‘e’ in Phantom of the Opera at a corporate event one night a hundred years ago… and not getting it right. It was mortifying to hear people murmuring ‘Oh mys’ and ‘Oh nos’.
Nowadays I find the memory hilarious. It’d be a great scene for a movie. I used to measure myself against this impossible standard of perfection every day. It’s a ruthless neighbourhood to live in, and doesn’t make for much joy. But funny in retrospect. As most things are.
What are among bucket-list dream roles?
Rose in Gypsy. And something by Tennesee Williams. I’d still like to give A Streetcar Named Desire a bash, I guess. I’m listing these like they were sandwiches you could buy from Pick ’n Pay but you know what I mean.
If you could act alongside any two performers, who would they be and why would you choose them?
Maggie Smith has always been my heroine. A woman of intriguing, funny, understated brilliance. I would not want to be at the receiving end of her tongue, but even that could be enjoyable depending on how far I could socially distance myself.
I’ve always loved American actor, Sam Rockwell. His standout performances in The Green Mile and Three Billboards… are highlights of film glory moments.
To perform in anything with these two, even a Weetbix commercial, would be a dream come true.
Do you have any superstitions or lucky charms?
I talk to Saint Anthony a lot. He is the patron Saint of lost causes. I always find things I’ve lost when I pray to him. He never lets me down.What has been the best place you have visited?
I think visiting Paris for the first time made me wish I’d lived in another era. In the 1400s perhaps, but not when there’d been a plague about. To be around when architecture, art and music was not an instant affair but a ritual of painstaking perfection and arduous labour. And then be able to come back to current time for the great medications available, but not much else. I’d go back to the Renaissance in other words.
What has been the most frightening thing that ever happened to you?
Being stung by a bee and going into anaphalactic shock. A friend saved my life and took me to hospital. Her name is Ashleigh Harvey and she is going to be a big star one day. Mark my words.
What five words would you choose to describe yourself?
Vague, funny, reticent, passionate and loving.
What are some things you would like to change about yourself? And South Africa?
I’d like to be more industrious and work smarter.
South Africa needs housing and education to take the forefront after lockdown. We need to feed, clothe, house and educate South Africa’s poorest. We need to vanquish the trough-hoggers and get money to where it needs to be.
I’ll say it again. Housing and education.
Could we also pay all the outstanding pensions that government is sitting on at the moment? Millions of people’s life savings are being withheld for manifold bureaucratic reasons. Government must pull finger and pay out. Especially now when people are going hungry! It’s the people’s money, give it to them!
What are two of your most treasured possessions ?
My husband. It took me 50 years to find him. And my mom and sister. Those are three things, I know, but they make up two parts of a whole heart.
What five things would you list under the heading Absolutely Fabulous? And what five things would you place under Definite No-Nos?
Ab fab: Sunshine, laughter, love, compassion and insight. No-nos: selfishness, arrogance, ruthlessness, tax returns and leaf-blowers
What are among your favourite things and pastimes?
Reading, movies and food.
Have you ever had a supernatural experience, or know someone who has?
No. I come from a family of pragmatists and cynics who are not suggestible. I, on the other hand, am one for imagining the incalculable so I am ever-hopeful for an encounter.
What are three of your favourite songs and what are among your favourite music albums of all time?
Harold Arlin’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Elton John’s Your Song and Stevie Wonder’s All is Fair in Love, from his album, Innervisions. Albums I love include Elton John’s double, Yellow Brick Road, and The Second Barbara Streisand Album.
Tell us five things about yourself that the general public is unlikely to know
I am shy, irascible, insecure, courageous and funny (I hope.)
Some of your favourite musicals and movies?
Cabaret, A Little Night Music, Tootsie, Postcards from the Edge, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, My Cousin Vinnie, Sense and Sensibility and Love Actually.
What are some jobs, if any, that you had before acting? And were you not in showbusiness what would you most like to be doing for a living?
I worked in the Classified section of the Rand Daily Mail a year before going to Drama School. If I couldn’t act I’d want to be a writer (like everyone else).
Who are among the sexiest of celebs?
Mark Ruffalo and Sam Rockwell.
What’s a memorable moment involving an audience member?
I remember a woman whose cellphone had gone off one night being really mortified. This was during a performance of Bombshells at Montecasino. She eventually sat on it. I loved that. She had tried to make it all right and finally was willing to humiliate herself to make it stop. I thought that took courage and humour. Hahaha!
What would you like enscribed on your tombstone?
I told you I wasn’t feeling well. Or The words to Fill the World with Love.