In The Limelight: South African actor Leon Clingman talks about his theatre journey and his prodigious work as a creative during the global pandemic

In addition to the stage, South African actor Leon Clingman has had a successful career in film and TV [including the Golden Globe nominated, The Girl, Black Sails, Netflix’s Seige of Jadotville and the ITV mini-series, Tutankhamun]. He speaks to TheCapeRobyn about his career and his stage work with Cape Town’s Sugar-daddy Theatre Company which celebrated its 10th birthday last year [2020]. Clingman was part of the Sugar-daddy journey from the beginning back, in 2010.

TheCapeRobyn: How many productions have you performed with Sugar-daddy Theatre Company?

Leon Clingman: I have performed in four Sugar-daddy Theatre Company productions: Relationshit! (2010/11), Line (2012), I am Hamlet (2012) and in its V-Day production A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer [2018/19]. It was thrilling to be part of I am Hamlet, which received the People’s Choice Award at The Fleur du Cape Theatre Awards ceremony in 2013. Eve Ensler’s A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer was very different to other work I have done – performing individual monologues yet still working as an ensemble. It was also a huge eye opener as each monologue detailed the horrific abuse so many people endure every day; male and female, young and old. It has been awesome, to be part of Sugar-daddy, with a group of actors who are passionate about independent theatre and acting in general and dedicated to getting the job done.

TheCapeRobyn: What brought you and Marlisa Doubell/Sugar-daddy together?

Leon Clingman: I met Marlisa in 2008 at an actor’s workshop. She mentioned that she had written a play, Relationshit! which she had produced successfully in London. She was keen to stage it in Cape Town and asked if I was interested, which I was. About a year later, after participating in a table-read of the play, I was offered the part of Mark. We began rehearsing in early 2010 and opened in November at the Intimate Theatre and did another run in 2011 at the Arena Theatre. It was great to be part of the Sugar-daddy journey, from its 1st year -in 2010.

TheCapeRobyn: After Relationshit, you suggested that Sugar-daddy consider staging the hit USA play, Line by Israel Horovitz, because you had directed the play in the USA?

Leon Clingman: Yes, after Relationshit, I gave Marlisa Line to read and she loved it. She got the rights and we opened in April 2012 at The Little Theatre. I knew about the play, because I had worked as a director at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre in New York, on Line, which had been running there for about 20 years -at that time. That was in 1999 – shortly after I completed my acting studies in New York at The Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute. Who would have known that fast-forward ten or so years and I would be acting in the play in Cape Town.

TheCapeRobyn: Can you tell us about your journey as an actor?

Leon Clingman: I was born in Johannesburg. After matriculating I went to the army for two years, as it was compulsory. I had always wanted to be an actor but after the army, family and friends talked me out of an acting career and I went for an administrative job and did the old 9 – 5 thing. After five years  I couldn’t ignore the acting bug anymore. However, at 25, I felt that I was too old to go to university. There wasn’t much available in Johannesburg in terms of drama training but eventually I found a Saturday morning acting class with Trudie Taljaard and Shirley Sacks. That led me to my 1st professional acting job, in 1994, doing children’s shows for PACT. I started doing extra work and learned a lot being on film sets. My big break was in 1996, when I was cast in Pieter Toerien’s production of Master Class at the Alhambra Theatre, written by Terence McNally and starring Jana Cilliers. Wanting to learn more, to explore the world and broaden my mind, I headed for New York – to The Lee Strasberg Film and Theatre Institute- for a three month course which I was able to extend into two years- after receiving a partial scholarship. After that, in 1999, I secured a practical training visa which allows you to work for a year in the field in which you have studied. I worked solidly getting roles in new plays as well working on Shakespearean, Moliere, Eugene O’Neill and Harold Pinter plays. I directed Line in Manhattan and co-founded a sketch comedy troupe, The Circle in The Squirrel.

TheCapeRobyn: What led you to your journey to Cape Town and Sugar-daddy?

Leon Clingman:  In November 2000 I returned to Johannesburg and in 2001, I booked a role in Pieter Toerien’s production of The Graduate at the Monte Casino Theatre. It was a busy time initially with Chekov’s Three Sisters at the Wits Downstairs Theatre and at The National Arts Festival, TV roles in Generations, Egoli and Isidingo. My plan was to get a work visa to go back to the USA but that avenue closed when on September 11, 2001 the World Trade Centre in New York was attacked and my opportunity to get a work visa fell away. Challenging theatre work in Johannesburg was not easy to find and I missed the buzz of New York, so in January 2005 – I packed my belongings into my car and drove down to Cape Town. I immediately felt at home, made new friends and started rediscovering myself as an actor.

TheCapeRobyn: Shortly after arriving in Cape Town, you got involved with improv (improvisation) which brought in another layer to your craft?

Leon Clingman: Yeah, as soon as I arrived in Cape Town In 2005, I signed up for an improv course with the then Theatresports Cape Town troupe, taught by Megan Choritz. I was invited to join the troupe– performing short form improv- like the kind of improv they do on Whose Line is it Anyway. In 2012, after attending an improv festival in Australia senior members, Megan Choritz, Tandi Buchan and Candice D’Arcy were  introduced to long form improv and brought their newly learned skills back to Cape Town. We changed our name to Improguise and focused primarily on long form formats but continue to perform Theatresports every now and then. Since Covid struck we haven’t been able to perform live on stage but we still meet on Zoom every week and play around and try new things and we’ve also started doing live shows on Facebook.

TheCapeRobyn: Sugar-daddy has built up a resource for acting skills and brought you on board as improv coach. Can you talk about that?

Leon Clingman:  Sugar-daddy facilitated sponsored and subsidised actors classes in 2014 and appointed me as head improv coach. This gave me an opportunity to establish myself as a coach in the industry. I also did a video on improv in 2014, for SugarTube and that is there as an online resource.

TheCapeRobyn:  Covid disrupted everything in 2020. Have you managed to work in film or on the digital stage, during the pandemic?

Leon Clingman: Yes I have. When lockdown started, South African director Tim Greene created the Lockdown Project in which actors would be sent a script and then film themselves at home and send the footage in to be edited. He had such a big response that he opened it up to other writers, producers and directors. I was contacted by director/writer Lukhanyo Gxashe to be in his film The Ground Under – about a dysfunctional family who gather online to have a funeral for the patriarch of the family who has died during lockdown. I did a scene in another lockdown project, Grow, a comedy TV series created by actor/writer/director Estelle Terblanche, which provides a peak behind the locked doors of a little suburban neighbourhood in South Africa.  After hard lockdown ended and the industry opened up, I performed in Good Life, a local romantic comedy written and directed by Bonnie Rodini and in a local feature film.

TheCapeRobyn: Before lockdown clicked in, 2020 had started off well – professionally but you had health issues to contend with along with the curve ball of Covid?

Leon Clingman: Yeah, work wise things were going great before lockdown, I had roles in The Mauritanian, opposite Jodi Foster and in Around the World in 80 Days, opposite David Tennant. However, I wasn’t feeling well and after some tests I was told that my bone marrow had stopped functioning. I completed filming on The Mauritanian and Around the World in 80 days and then once lockdown began I started having blood transfusions and a type of chemo therapy that could possibly kick start my bone marrow into working again but after four rounds of chemo it was clear it wasn’t working and I was told my only option was to have a bone marrow transplant. Not knowing how sick I would get from the transplant and whether I would be able to look after myself I decided to have the transplant in Johannesburg so I could be with my family who live there. I was supposed to have the transplant in November 2020 but due to all the blood transfusions my iron levels were too high and it would cause problems with the transplant so the transplant was moved to January 15, 2021. Unfortunately with the 2nd wave of Covid causing infection rates to soar and hospitals to fill with infected patients it became too risky to have the transplant so it’s been postponed again until infection rates and hospital admissions go down. In the meanwhile I will continue to have weekly blood transfusions to keep going. Due to my health I haven’t been able to work again since September 2020.

Leon Clingman. Supplied.

Tips on upskilling, improvisation for creatives, using improv on Zoom and in the corporate world, in pandemic times by South African actor Leon Clingman – veteran of Cape Town’s Sugar-daddy Theatre Company  

Upskill with drama coaches

A lot is available online – YouTube videos with coaches; online workshops and webinars with coaches like Amy Jo Berman, Wendy Braun, Erin Burns and Matthew Harrison. SAGA (South African Guild of Actors) offers great online workshops twice a month on Zoom.    

Improv as a tool in theatre  

Improv skills may be used in all spheres of acting – not only as improv as a genre. As part of my work as an improv coach, I teach how to create an environment on a stage where you have no sets or props; how to quickly create strong, complex relationships among other basic skills needed to create a successful scene.

Improv in the Zoom room and on the digital stage  

Improv has helped me adapt better to the challenges of new platforms, such as Zoom meetings, Zoom rehearsals, Zoom performances, Facebook Live performances, Zoom auditions etc. For example: when doing a Zoom show, ‘connecting’ with the other actors is challenging because you can’t feed off the energy of the actors in the way you would live on stage- if you were physically together. On video calls, eye contact is more difficult. There is often a delay in sound which makes listening and responding more difficult. Working online is new to all actors around the world. We are all learning as we go along, making mistakes and learning from each other. I think in time technology will adapt and make things easier at least technically.  

Improv in the work-place  

Having improv skills is very helpful even if you’re not an actor. Using improv in the corporate world is still relatively new in South Africa but is very big in the UK and America.  For example, corporates are using improv skills to build teamwork; to help staff to be more confident, less judgemental, more creative. Improv creates an environment in which people are more open to sharing ideas and brainstorming. Basic tips on Improvisation by Leon Clingman – SugarTube, South Africa 2014  

Line: Sugar-daddy’s production of Line, by Israel Horovitz , staged at The Little Theatre, Cape Town, 2012. From left to right: Marlisa Doubell, Leon Clingman , Gavin Werner, Aidan Whytock. Bjorn Steinbach in front. Supplied.

Leon Clingman- Showreel

CapeTown agent -ERM Johannesburg agent -Contractors  
Social media:   Instagram: @leonclingman

See Leon Clingman’s Facebook page, Resources for Actors – includes links to free workshops, videos with coaches, articles, tips on acting. 

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