In the limelight: South African actor Gavin Werner talks about his work with Sugar-daddy Theatre Company
Cape Town based actor, Gavin Werner has had a prolific career on stage and on screen. In a decade, Werner has performed in eight plays and over 20 film and TV productions including Black Sails, Wallander, Warrior and Vagrant Queen. Yes, all that in ten years. The launch of his career as a professional actor happens to dovetail with the 10th anniversary of Sugar-daddy Theatre company which was established in 2010 by Marlisa Doubell and colleagues, intent on creating a platform of self-sustaining independent theatre for creatives. Werner met Doubell, while he was studying at ACT (Film and Acting Academy), Cape Town. He was 42 and had ditched a lucrative IT career to rekindle his love for acting- which had been on pause for over two decades. When he left school, he had enrolled for a performer’s diploma at UCT, but after a few months, he switched course and went on to complete two degrees at UCT – BA in Classical History and a BSc in Computer Science. He travelled extensively and lived and worked around the world. Acting called. He was ready and it was back to drama school at ACT, which led him to connect with Doubell. When she started Sugar-daddy, she cast Werner in Relationshit!, a romantic comedy that she wrote and which was staged by the new company Sugar-daddy is celebrating its milestone 10th birthday in 2020 and casting the spotlight on creatives who have been an integral part of its journey.
TheCapeRobyn: Tell us about your first Sugar-daddy production, Relationshit!?
Gavin Werner: There is always a great sense of fun in Marlisa’s productions. She famously said to the cast in one rehearsal for Realtionshit: “This is not Shakespeare, its bums on seats entertainment. So have fun”. In reality, while Realtionshit! is very light-hearted in its subject matter, it is also a very insightful look into relationships which I found impressive considering she wrote it over a single weekend in her early 20s. She’s got a great work ethic and, while she develops a clear vision early on in her productions, she is very open to creative input from the cast, so it always feels like a good team effort.
TheCapeRobyn: You quip that you have being serially cast as dysfunctional husbands in Sugar-daddy productions?
Gavin Werner: I’ve played Marlisa’s husband twice. First in 2012, I played Marlisa’s tormented and abused husband Arnall in Line, by Israel Horovitz. Then in 2018/2019 I played the abusive Walt in Blueberry Toast, by Mary Laws, directed by Sue Diepeveen I don’t know why Marlisa keeps casting me in as the husband in lousy, dysfunctional relationships, but they sure are fun roles to play. Blueberry Toast has been my favourite play to date and marks a pivotal point in my acting career, where I felt the skill that I had worked on, all came together. Having such a big role really helped that come about. We did three runs of Blueberry Toast [2018/19], which is a gut wrenching dark comedy, with the emphasis on dark. Without the comedy the show falls flat, so it was a great challenge to walk the line between the two. I once again got to play Marlisa’s husband in a highly dysfunctional marriage. My character, Walt, is the abusive one and Barb is his ever yielding wife, until the moment when she cracks. Walt is the most angry, embittered and outwardly unlikable character that I have ever played. An added complexity to this production was that Walt and Barb have two kids who bear witness to much of the dysfunction in their lives. They were played beautifully by Daniel Wolson, Chloé Gardner, Nikita Latimer and Jagger Cooper-Doubell. Sue Diepeveen did a wonderful job handling the subject matter with the kids, explaining it in ways that made sense to them. I really enjoyed working with Sue. She has the knack of telling the actors what she wants without dictating how they should get there.
TheCapeRobyn: It sounds like Sugar-daddy has provided a means of fast-tracking your career?
Gavin Werner: I think it has, but more than anything my involvement with Sugar-daddy has enabled me to grow as an actor. Sugar-daddy gave me two nice sizeable roles early on in my career which was a fantastic opportunity to hone my craft and build confidence. It has also nurtured a lovely community of mutually supportive independent theatre makers. This is especially relevant now when we are physically separated from one another. With so much of the casting happening remotely, it is great to be able to call on one another for help when we need to submit self-tapes on short notice. For me personally there were some critical periods when I was struggling to see my way through earning a living while getting my acting career going. I initially turned down the role of Arnall in Line because I needed to focus on earning money. I was tempted to give up on acting. Marlisa encouraged me to continue: ‘Oh for goodness sake you are an actor, we’ll make a plan’. Then she promptly hooked me up with a flexible day job that enabled me to stay afloat while acting for the next six years.
TheCapeRobyn: You have been involved with Sugar-daddy, from its inception in 2010- shortly after you embarked on an acting career and you have said that the support was pivotal to you as an artist?
Gavin Werner: This ethos of mutual support was very much part of Marlisa’s vision for independent theatre when she launched Sugar-daddy in 2010. Even if we are not actively cast in a particular production, many of us are involved in various ways to support the shows. I’ve been involved in many of the V-Day productions mostly doing IT related stuff like sending out the newsletter and running online marketing campaigns. The lesson being that a career in IT is like being in the Mafia. You can never truly escape.
TheCapeRobyn: Sugar-daddy is often perceived as a collective of female performers. How do you see yourself fitting into that?
That’s interesting. I don’t see Sugar-daddy as a collective of female performers at all. Most of the productions have involved both men and women. The cast of Line, included four men and one woman. I think that perception probably stems from the fact that Sugar-daddy has also become known for its active support of women’s causes, such as Rape Crisis and that it puts on Eve’s Ensler’s work for V-Day every year. But even there, men have been cast in some of the V-Day productions.
TheCapeRobyn: What led you to ditch a secure career in IT and the corporate world for an actor’s life?
Gavin Werner: My decision to start acting again was precipitated by a hectic but fascinating job that I had had in the IT industry. Looking back I think I was mostly tempted by what was essentially a great acting role. I got to be a corporate exec, which is not something that I have ever personally aspired to. But after I gave what was apparently a super impressive presentation to board, the CEO became convinced I was perfect for an executive position that he made up on the spot. My job basically consisted of travelling around Europe trying to convince various companies to partner with us. I had to adopt an appropriately high flying alpha male (so not me) business persona for the job. I found it exhilarating. My wife found it comical and still teases me about it. I had an absolute blast but ultimately I crashed and burned with stress. Adopting a persona on stage is awesome but in real life it wears you out. I knew I was burnt out on the IT industry but at the same time I was reminded of how much I loved playing a role. I have had a wide range of experiences. For example, my interest in Buddhism led me to living in mediation centers and monasteries all over the world. I worked at many jobs – cook, IT geek in Silicon Valley, complementary health practitioner- and more. Each job was akin to playing a role and I think that is what brought me back to acting. Going back into acting became the obvious choice. I enrolled at ACT Cape Town in 2009 and toward the end of that year I signed up with an agent. I had a great start to working professionally as I booked two TV commercials and the BBC mini-series Women in Love in quick succession.
TheCapeRobyn: When did you first think about becoming an actor?
Gavin Werner: I grew up in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and apart from one repertory theatre, there was not much of an acting scene at the time. That said, I was regularly in school plays from the age of eight and there was one play in particular, when I was fifteen that got me thinking that I’d like to act professionally- interesting enough it was the female lead, the young Raina Petkoff, in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. I attended a boy’s only boarding school, situated way out in the bush in rural Zimbabwe and the nearest girl’s school was 50km away, so the female parts got given to boys. It was particularly significant for me as, in that environment, any expression of femininity in a boy was judged harshly. I was extremely shy and somewhat effeminate and trying very hard to hide it. Yet, here I was being actively encouraged to get up there and show off my inner girl – and then get praised for it. It was unexpectedly liberating.
TheCapeRobyn: You mention a feeling of liberation when acting. Can you elaborate on that?
I think that’s why I love acting. It’s very freeing to take a break from one’s regular persona without incurring any judgement. Why that is the case is something that has puzzled me for a while. I used to think it was simply because it is fun to pretend to be somebody else for a while. But I don’t think that’s it at all. On the contrary I think it has got to do with having license to authentically express aspects of oneself which, by necessity, one has to keep under wraps if you are to function in society. As a teenager I got to express my feminine side through a female role. Then as a middle aged man in Blueberry Toast, having experienced various forms of hurt, disappointment and repression as we all do, I a) got to empathise with an outwardly ugly character and b) had full license to let it all out and be a complete asshole for over an hour every night.
TheCapeRobyn: Despite the lockdown, you have been cast and have performed in high profile TV productions which will screen in 2021 and you have been involved in other projects?
Gavin Werner: I think, as for everyone, lockdown has had its challenges but it has also presented many creative opportunities. I was able to book paid work in the early and latter parts of 2020, but during lockdown film and TV production pretty much ground to a halt. However this hiatus also unleashed many creative projects amongst writers and film makers around South Africa. I wrote a screenplay which was very much inspired by the lockdown circumstances and I was in three of the so called ‘Lockdown Movies’, all filmed remotely; Ground Under (Lukhanyo Gxashe), Grow (Estelle Terblanche) and Go Outside (Ricardo Arendse). I performed a monologue in an online theatre production, produced by Faeron Wheeler, featuring the work of Australian playwright, Pete Maliki called (Extra)ordinary, (Un)usual.
The screenplay that I wrote is currently in pre-production and is scheduled to shoot in June 2021. Matt Newman and Estelle Terblanche are slated to play the two lead roles and I will be directing. It is inspired by some unexpected friendships that I made over Zoom during lockdown and it looks at both the potential offered and the limitations imposed when getting to know someone over video chat. For many people chatting over Zoom or Skype feels like a barrier, but for some it can provide a kind of safety zone which actually helps people to open up and forge personal connections which might not happen in physical space. I find that fascinating for its implications for the future of human relationships.
TheCapeRobyn: What is next in these uncertain times?
Gavin Werner: I don’t think that these times are necessarily any more uncertain than any other, at least for film and TV. To be sure, there’s a shortage of paid acting work right now, but I suspect that as we come out of the Covid crisis there is going to be a massive demand for fresh content which will translate into lots of screen work for actors. Theatre is maybe less certain, but that is all the more reason to be involved in independent productions. If anything I feel excited at the prospect of opportunities that were not apparent to me before. Through my association Sugar-daddy and with the various projects during lockdown I can see how much scope there is to create one’s own work through independent theatre and film. I’ll be auditioning as much as I possibly can, I’ll be producing my own feature and shooting a series of short clips focusing on topical social commentary and satire.This month, [December 2020], I went on to set and performed U.S. President Taft, for an upcoming docudrama on Theodore Roosevelt for the History Channel. I will be playing a real life mobster by the name of Jerry Zimmerman in the latest season of Banged Up Abroad, to be filmed in January 2021.
Featured image of Gavin Werner – from Blueberry Toast, staged by Sugar-daddy. His character was not a happy dude and this is evident in this photo.