Woman of the month: Sylvaine Strike

For the first portrait of the woman of the month, the French Embassy in South Africa has chosen to interview Sylvaine Strike, multi-award winning director. Ms Strike directed the play Devil’s Wood, a performance Ambassador Barbier had the chance to attend in June, as South Africa is commemorating the Centenary of the WWI Battle of Delville Wood this July.

Ms Strike has established herself as an actress, voice artist, creator and director, having a diverse career in the mediums of theatre, television and film.



Could you please present yourself and your career in a few sentences?

I was born in Pretoria, South Africa, from a French mother (from Aix en Provence) and a South African father.

I have ties with France and I specialized there, which was really important to me.

Concerning my studies, I initially took the route that people who want become actors take. I went to the University of Cape Town Drama School and worked as an actress on TV and in theatre for five years after that, soon realizing I needed more from my craft. Inspired by two teachers I had at UCT who had studied in Paris I then applied to a bursary to study at the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris. This bursary was made possible by the French Institute in South Africa. I studied there from 1998 to 2000. This school was a turning point because I learnt skills that I could use as an actress, a creator and a director. There are not that many actors who create their own work. I always wanted to be in control of my career, I felt that I had a lot of stories to tell, and this school equipped me with tools to tell them. Once back in South Africa, other South Africans who also studied at Jacques Lecoq School contacted me to work together. I worked in collaboration with James Cuningham at first: it was a Lecoq-inspired collaboration. Together, we created 2 plays, and continue to collaborate on and off through the years.

What do you remember most from your experience at Jacques Lecoq School?

The time spent studying there changed my entire outlook on life. It is a life school, first and foremost. As artists, we are responsible for creating “works that work”. The Jacques Lecoq School is specialized in mime, the physical dynamic ad movement analysis. We were taught to look at the world very differently, to steer away from intellectualizing our trade. Performance is a holistic skill, body heart and soul cannot be disconnected, at any given point. When you arrive at the school as a post graduate the aim is to start all over again, with a blank page. It is a place that essentially promotes self discovery, what it is you have as an artist that no one else can offer, you discover who you are and you make your own work - this is fantastic.
For the first time in my life I was understanding a new language “la poesie visuelle” (visual poetry) and I have been applying it to my own creativity ever since.

In 2002, you broke through at the National Arts Festival with Baobabs Don’t Grow Here. Could you please give us some information about this play?

Baobabs Don’t Grow Here is the story of a gypsy couple in Romania who cannot have children. They have been married for ten years. In their village, they are cast aside for not having children, which they desire to have deeply. One day, they hear of a legend that the flower and fruit from the Baobab tree can magically increase fertility. They set off through Africa to find this flower: they go through the Sahara, Tunisia, all the way through to Venda, Limpopo, South Africa, where the Baobab grows. I worked in collaboration with James Cuningham and Helen Iskander. We were all from the Jacques Lecoq School and living in Johannesburg at the time. They then directed me in a collaboration on two shows, Fortunately and Black and Blue. To share the language of Lecoq means that you share a visual understanding of the world and a particular sensibility towards clowning and physical expression.

If you had to give us one word that best describes you, what would this be and why?

I would say that I am emotionally in tune with others. It is how I exist in the world. My process as a director and in my personal life comes from an emotional understanding of people, where they are at, and an ability to empathize. I also have a deep and dark love of comedy, and I always use it as a vehicle to carry tragedy in my work. The two are never far apart. In fact I would say they are inseparable.

You have been the Artistic Director of your own company, the Fortune Cookie Theatre Company, since 2000. I guess this was not that easy to create your own company. What was the most difficult part and how did you overcome this?

I am still overcoming it. Learning with every show I make, every budget I submit, every actor I cast. The most difficult part is fundraising. Raising money and getting sponsorship is not easy here in South Africa. It is very hard to have a consistent source of funding.

What do you like most? Being an actress? A director? A creator? All three?

I like being all of them but what I like most is directing and creating. Nevertheless, I love performing on stage, I was on stage last September and I loved it, and I also really enjoy film acting. I would say film and television acting have become more of a luxurious hobby which I really enjoy doing when I get the chance, whereas making theatre is my full-time job. Having said this, I am really hoping to make films one day too.

Could you please give us a description about the play Devil’s Wood that was performed in June in different cities throughout South Africa?

This play was commissioned to commemorate the Centenary of the WWI Battle of Delville Wood.

I was commissioned but the French Embassy in South Africa, the French Institute in South Africa, the Alliance Française network in South Africa and the Goethe Institute in South Africa.

South Africans soldiers went, on behalf of England, to the battlefields in order to protect France. 3 200 troops of the South African Infantry Brigade arrived on the battlefield of Delville Wood in the department of La Somme (France). 80% of the South African men who fought there perished. Since then, the relationship between France and South Africa has been secured as allies.

I was given three months to research in order to find material to write and cast the play. We then rehearsed/created it in two weeks. I wrote the play from the many letters written by South African soldiers to their mothers, fathers, siblings, wives at home. I had access to military journals and letters and the entire 45-minute play was woven together from these findings.

Why were you interested in the Battle of Delville Wood?

I am ashamed to say that when I was approached by Marion Claudel, Director of the French Institute in South Africa, I did not know much about this battle. I did not realise then how massive the losses were for South Africans. This battle was the beginning of the implication of South Africa in both World Wars. What interested me mostly was the concept of how, in the battlefields, people could be treated differently because of the colour of their skin. France realised this mistake and wanted to honour all South African soldiers, irrespective of race, who perished in the war. And I wanted to be part of this commemoration.

What struck you most about this battle?

How absolutely disconnected we are to the horror of that particular war. This war is almost forgotten.

Reading the letters of what these boys were going through was devastating. The big challenge for me was: how do I make it poetic? How do we represent this war on stage?

Although it covers the many tragic aspects of this particular war, the play also echoes the story of two men – one black, one white. We witness their unlikely connection in the face of the daily hell that was Delville Wood. Relationships between soldiers and our ability to connect to this survival-necessity as an audience is what allows us to watch the unwatchable. The little human stories amidst the epic horror is what Devil’s Wood is about.

There were no letters from black men that time, they could not write, and if they did, were not allowed to. The minute they left the South African soil, they had no way to connect with their family, and if they died in battle, no one knew. In some extracts of the letters I could see why they all, black and white men, needed each other.

There is also a woman in the play, who represents Africa and the role of women in general in relation to the war. She is the voice through which the letters sent home are read. In the play, there is also the visual presence of a mounted springbok’s head, representing Nancy the Springbok who was given to the South African batallion as their “mascot” who was taken into Delville Wood. Whenever the regiment went up the line into the trenches, Nancy stayed behind in the transport lines. In the play, the actors’ bodies are used to make the springbok come to life. She represents the fragility of man in the face of such atrocities. The entire stage is scattered with envelopes and letters representing contact with loved ones that so often became a soldier’s reason to stay alive.

Do you plan to do performances abroad of Devil’s Wood?

Devil’s Wood is going to travel back to Cape Town for the Armistice in November. I really think it would be wonderful if this play could travel abroad too, it is a timeless piece about war in general.

Read the full programme of Devil’s Wood here



If you had to give an advice to a young lady who wants to work in the theatre industry, what would it be?

Theatre comes from a place of passion. You must be in love with it 24/7 and like Jean Louis Barrault said: “be prepared to starve for it, for it will reward you in other ways”. It is a very exciting profession to be part of, especially now that the digital age is taking over. We are responsible as theatre makers to constantly allow audiences to be in touch with something we are rapidly forgetting: How to feel, how to live intelligently from an emotional perspective.

Has it been difficult for you, as a woman, to get your break in South Africa?

Interestingly a lot of theatre directors who have emerged and are emerging from South Africa are women. It is not that we don’t get respected, but it is sometimes difficult to get funding, to propose ideas and to have the powers that be (who are often men) believed in these ideas, but on the whole theatre making is not a very discriminatory job.

You have already been awarded with several awards such as the Naledi Best Director, Best Production in 2012. Which award would you like to win next?

I don’t usually think about this. But if I had to think about it…I would say that an international theatre award would be nice, a Molière or a Tony perhaps.

Seriously though, it would be great for the work South African theatre makers make to get more international exposure. We need this opportunity regularly, and be ambassadors of South African theatre abroad. The world has not completely realized just how unique and powerful and universal our theatre work is.

Click here to know more about Naledi Theatre Awards

Read Sylvaine Strike’s biography.

Visit the Fortune Cookie Theatre Company’s website.

publie le 29/07/2016

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