A
 
Web www.artsmart.co.za
A R T S M A R T
arts news from kwazulu-natal

drama
www.artsmart.co.za
enquiries@artsmart.co.za
 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
 

NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

INTERVIEW WITH HAZEL BARNES (article first published : 2006-12-3)

Noel Coward memorably sang, "Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington", but Professor Hazel Barnes, the retiring head of the Drama Studies Department on the local university campus, is proof that a little parental help at the beginning can work wonders.

"My mother tells me I was such a shy child that I would hide behind her if anyone came to the house," says Barnes when I ask if she was stage-struck from the word go. "So she sent me to Joan Little's Elocution Studio to give me a bit more confidence." This was in Durban, where Barnes grew up. She started her elocution lessons at the age of five and started a friendship with her teacher which continued until Little died in Australia. When Barnes saw her there in 1995, she was still teaching new immigrants to speak English. And when Barnes got the University of Natal in Durban as a student, Little was second in command to Professor Elizabeth Sneddon. Those early elocution classes also began an engagement with the world of the stage, poetry and stories that still continues.

"The insight into human nature in the various characters and plays has always fascinated me. It's an opportunity to experience beyond gender, time and place and a way to imagine what it's like to be anybody - it's the same thing that attracts one to reading. Getting into other worlds."

In her late teens, Barnes was offered a part in a play in Johannesburg, but her parents decided this was a bad idea, and would not let her go. "At 20 or 21, I had dreams of being a performer, but as I got older, I came to realise that academia suited my personality more. I don't think I would have had the audacity to sell myself in the marketplace, and being in a university has given me opportunities that earning a living in the profession wouldn't allow."

At university Barnes has been able to act, direct and become involved in applied drama programmes, including working with Dain Peters in a drama project for survivors of violence and, since 1997, in the Walk and Squawk performance project, based in Detroit and which has had major spin-offs in local community theatre. "You don't get those chances in professional theatre," she says.

She has also loved working with students, despite the occasional frustrations. "There are two kinds of students - the quirky, unusual, talented ones who are secure in that talent. You can pick them out immediately, and they are usually successful. And then there are the ones you think are never going to get anywhere - it can be fascinating to watch their progress over three of four years. You pull your hair out over them in first year, and then, later, they suddenly take off." She talks about watching students mature during their time at university, and how important it has been to provide an environment in which they can have the courage to develop their talent. "We try to create an atmosphere where people will dare, and try," she says.

During her time there, the Drama Department has flourished - a quick roll call of now well-known names Barnes has taught includes Greig Coetzee, with whom she has worked closely on projects within the department in recent years and an anthology of whose plays she is currently editing for publication next year; Greg King; Graham Hopkins; Jeremy Crutchley and the Broderick sisters - Jocelyn and Judy.

But while teaching has been a fulfilling career for Barnes over the last 37 years, the passion for acting is still there. In the past two years, local audiences have seen Barnes do outstanding work in two major roles - Amanda, the faded Southern Belle in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Mrs Alving in the recent production of Ibsen's Ghosts. "I did a lot of acting when I was younger, and I've been doing more again recently," she says. "And now that I am retiring, I would like to spend more time on creative pursuits, acting or directing. I'd be keen to do it if the chance came up. I think of Vera Clare - I remember her as a young woman acting here in Pietermaritzburg. She's a shining example of how to soldier on. So I'm available to anyone who has a part for an old woman!"

I ask her what roles she would still like to play. "I would have loved to play Medea (the heroine of Euripedes' tragedy of the same name, who killed her children to avenge herself on Jason, her unfaithful husband) but I'm probably too old now. And I love Restoration comedy and Jacobean theatre - very bloody and full of revenge. They're not easy to engage with here right now, but they could be made relevant, and the extravagance of them would be so lovely to play with." They were also written at the time when women could first appear on stage, and contain harsh criticism of gender relations." They deal with how to sell yourself to the highest bidder as a woman - sex was the only thing you had to bargain with."

Another role which Barnes played and enjoyed is Miss Helen in Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, based on the life of Helen Martins of the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda and one of not very many roles for older white actresses in South African theatre. She would also like to act in or direct Chekov, and maybe play some of the roles in Shakespearean tragedy.

Of course, the bigger the role, the more lines to learn. "Words do become more of a challenge - for the last five years or so I have decided I have to go through my lines every day before a performance." But, says Barnes, if you have analysed the experience of the character so that you know why they do what they do, if a word does slip, you can paraphrase. "Your makebelieve world must be believable to the audience, so you can improvise if you have to." And, of course, as a lecturer, Barnes has also had to set an example for her students of being prepared and concentrating. "And I do believe you concentrate better as you get older," she says. But, as Barnes says, the thing about making theatre is that it is ephemeral. "Part of me would like to make something that doesn't disappear," she says, explaining that she has always done things like building garden walls. "I might make things - perhaps it's the inspiration of Miss Helen. I've had no visual art training, but who knows..."

Retirement presents its own challenges, and Barnes knows that if she does not organise herself some kind of schedule, the prospect could depress her. She will miss her colleagues, and the stimulating environment of the university where, as she says, there is always questioning and debate going on in many different fields, not just in her own. "I want to make sure it will continue in some way," she says. Her husband, Professor David Pike of the Classics Department, is retiring at the same time, and, says Barnes, one thing to be relished is that this means they can do the things they have had to miss because of work commitments in the past. And theatre-goers will be hoping to see more of Barnes on local stages from now on. Margaret von Klemperer




 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
a co-production by caroline smart services and .durbanet. site credits
copyright © subsists in this page. all rights reserved. [ edit ] copyright details  artsmart