“Hedwig is a human being in its most painful and raw state, it’s the humanity of this character that makes him/her so deeply interesting and so deeply moving. For me, the interesting thing will be exploring the character’s pain, exploring the character’s search for identity, for acceptance, for healing.”
Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with Paul du Toit, who wowed us as the sexually charged Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, and now crawls under the skin of Hedwig, one of the most unique and divine iconic characters to ever hit the musical stage in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Gate 69 in Cape Town.
It’s extremely easy to fall in love with Paul du Toit. When you see him in performance on stage, you’re hooked. When you meet him in person you are immediately addicted to his infectious personality, inviting smile and piercing gaze.
His talent knows no bounds, his humility and humbleness obliterates any sense of egotism.
When I first saw you in Offbeat Broadway 16-years ago, a mesmerising show you created with Anton Luitingh and Lindy Abromowitz, it was clear that you were going to become one of the greatest (and most versatile performers) in South Africa.
Every project is a stepping stone in your career and lays some kind of foundation for the next. Gosh, we were all so young when we did Offbeat Broadway and we had all done some musical theatre work at the time, but were still just starting off really. Anton Luitingh and I concievd and wrote the show from the perspective of young people starting out in the industry. Its context and comment were very much informed by our position as outsiders then. Things have, thankfully, changed somewhat now. How ironic that I performed an excerpt from WIN IN A BOX all those years ago in Offbeat Broadway 2!
I suppose it wouldn’t be to twee to say that was a show about what we dreamed of for our careers and here am today living that dream. But then again, in the words of Sondheid: “carefull, the wish you make!”
You trained in Opera technique at the Stellenbosch University Conserve and has sung in venues both dubious and illustrious from Alberton to Zanzibar. Tell me about some highs and lows?
Lows, hell honey, have there been lows! Often interesting when you have those lows … Singing a collection of 80s songs to a house bought out entirely by the Boksburg Chapter of the Hell’s angels…….. in Boksburg, was pretty interesting. I was introduced to the master at arms afterwards and he told me if I ever had a problem and I need “only contact him”. That was cool! Oh! I am not proud of it. I needed the money, I was young, I performed on a Passenger liner working on an Ocean Islands gig. We were anchored off an island in Madagascar, and I was singing ‘I Am Going Bananas’ in a Carmen Miranda hat to an audience composed exclusively of Russian Eurotrash, …… It was one of those nights where audience and performer didn’t really connect. But hey, I had an entire staff full of beautiful Germans that I was working with on the ship, so hell, it was okay. Highlights .. I remember a very young performer doing Into The Woods playing Jack I took over after the guy who played Jack walked out. Our first zitz probe was the first time I got to sing with a full symphony orchestra … the hairs on my back and arms are standing up as I recall that experience. It was incredible. It was absolutely incredible. Playing to hundreds of full houses with the Fugard Theatre’s wildly successful run of The Rocky Horror Show, to have that full standing ovation at the end at every single performance, that was fantastic.
You have a special bond with Brendan van Rhyn, playing Brad opposite him as Frank’n Furter in The Fugard Theatre’s The Rocky Horror Show, and now starring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, presented at Gate69 by VRG Theatrical (Niall Griffin and Jaco van Rensburg), with Brendan’s alter ego, the super sexy diva Cathy Specific as the hostess, welcoming guests nightly. Tell me about this and how you landed the role of Hedwig?
Yes, I am very good friends with Brendan. I am very fond of him. Spending 440 performances next to another performer like we did at The Rocky Horror Show, you are bound to become good friends. I, naturally, also have the greatest respect for him as a performer, as an artist, and I am really looking forward to working with him. How this part came about, I was contacted by VRG Theatrical about the possibility of playing the role, but just them being interested wasn’t good enough. I had to send an audition tape off to New York for approval from the creators on that side. Hedwig comes with such a lot of history behind her and they are very keen to maintain the standard, so I had to send a recording of myself singing Origin of Love, and also a video recording of myself doing one of Hedwig’s monologues. Interestingly, they wanted it performed without any make up, without any costume, they wanted to see the actor stripped bare, as it were, performing the role. I am happy to say that they approved me. I believe there’s also a couple of other videotapes sent over. Luckily they went with me and, the rest is history, as they say. You couldn’t give me a bigger honour than to play the lead role in a performance opening a brand new theatre. It really is like a dream come true, to play Hedwig in the first place, and then to be opening such a beautiful theatre, is just such an honour, and I am so very happy, the superlatives have been flooding out of me, one is which I feel like a virgin on matric dance night (laughs)
You also delivered an amazing performance as the sexually charged Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show at Ratanga Junction before playing Brad in the Fugard Theatre’s staging of Rocky Horror, and now you are crawling under the skin of Hedwig, one of the most unique and divine iconic characters to ever hit the musical stage? Tell me about this?
Frank N Furter was a fantastic role to play, a part I wanted to play since I’ve been a school kid. It was an absolute joy to play such an iconic role. With Hedwig, on the surface, it seems like the same thing happening; it’s an iconic role, it’s a musical, it’s drag, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end for me. For me, Hedwig is completely different. It’s a much rawer role, a much more poignant role and, one has to remember that, fundamentally they are two different creatures, completely. Frank N Furter is a send up of B-grade horror, and an alien. We’re not really dealing with a human being here. Hedwig is a human being in its most painful and raw state, it’s the humanity of this character that makes him/her so deeply interesting and so deeply moving. For me, the interesting thing will be exploring the character’s pain, exploring the character’s search for identity, for acceptance, for healing. It is, in a bizarre way, a much more serious role, a lot of the seriousness is sugar-coated by the juxtaposing comedy that lies on the surface, but deep down inside we are dealing with a very scarred and hurt human being, shouting, railing against the heavens to try and get acceptance, all against this beautiful background of punk rock from the 70s, and off course the history of East Germany, and the collapse of Communist Europe, this person finding herself in the America that she had always dreamt of, but the dream very soon turns to a nightmare. It’s a fascinating role to play, with so many complex layers …(a deep sigh) I need to start doing a lot of homework.
Hedwig is very demanding, vocally, physically, and emotionally. You are quite right. Is that what attracted me to the role in the first place? I don’t know. I first came across the musical when I was travelling in Canada of all places and saw it. Before that, Pieter Toerien had introduced me to the music. I saw the movie and I was just blown away. It is a maelstrom that hits you. It’s unbelievable. Is that what attracted me to it? Off course. There are other things that also attracted me. The fact that it is funny … the costumes are so amazing … I don’t want to let any secrets out of the bag here, but we are doing something very interesting with this staging which has never been done before which I am absolutely excited about. And, what I am especially excited about, is it furthers the story for me. It tells it in a clearer, more powerful way and contextualises Hedwig where she is at the moment when she does her cabaret. I am so excited. I can’t wait
Hedwig is a touching and heart-warming story of a gay man embracing his sexuality and poignantly shows how important it is to be true to yourself. Your views on this?
I think this is where we get to the crux of Hedwig. He is a gay man and embraces his sexuality, is his sexuality. He is, however, a reluctant sex-change, he didn’t choose that, that was forced upon him. As he says to Tommy, when Tommy, rather surprisingly comes across his ‘angry inch’, and what he’s got left. Tommy says: ‘’What is that?’’ And Hedwig says: ‘’It’s what I’ve got to work with.’’ And Hedwig …. that for me, is a defining line of the character. She is damaged goods. He is damaged goods, he isn’t sure if the little slip of a girly-boy that he was once is a woman now. But what he is looking for is completion. He is looking, with a sense of Aristophanic love, for his other half, the thing that completes him, and obviously, when we get to the end, he discovers the universal truth, that the other half doesn’t lie outside there, it lies within yourself, knowing to accept yourself is the root to healing yourself and to becoming whole. That’s what’s really interesting about this character for me.
Hedwig is also an incredible sad journey into the heart and soul of a lonely and conflicted man who wants to be loved for who he is and not for what his image of a woman signifies.
As Hedwig says to Tommy, ‘’However you want it, honey, just kiss me while we do it.” He has that universal trait of just wanting to be loved, wanting to be accepted. And, that is where Hedwig’s humanity lies, that’s where everyone can associate with this character. For me, the real substance of it isn’t about the transgenderism – obviously it plays a large role – but the place where it doesn’t matter who you are, where you can identify with this character, is it’s just a human being looking to be loved, and looking to find someone that will love them. The realisation that they come to, that the most important person that a person needs love from, is actually themselves. That’s a beautiful simple universal truth that somehow still rings true all these centuries later after Aristophanes philosophised about it. It’s amazing.
How do you relate or identify with the complexity and challenging sexual confusion of Hedwig, that is both comical and tragic?
I think how I relate to the sexual complexity and the fact that it is sugar-coated in comedy, or the tragedy of it, the fact that it is sugar-coated in comedy or tragedy is just a dramatic device, it doesn’t really have an effect as to whether or not I relate to it or not. In terms of the sexual complexity, I think every single human being understands what it’s like to wonder about their sexual complexity. What makes them up as a sexual human being. I don’t believe in a gay and straight switch, I believe in just a huge big grey scale, from white to black. That as human beings at different times in our lives that we find ourselves at various positions on that scale, it’s just part of the crazy dance of being human. And, our sexuality is just one of the many aspects of who we are as human beings, and we’re constantly grappling with, and trying to make sense of that, and that’s what’s inspired every single song and painting and poem throughout the centuries. We are all constantly trying to figure out who we are and exactly what the part is that we’re playing in this tragic comedy called life. And Hedwig just does it in such a beautiful and fabulous way, that her version is entertaining, and is a fantastic hit on Broadway.
We are living in a country that celebrates the freedom of sexual expression. Do you think the chastisement of sexual freedom is what catapulted Hedwig on his amazing journey.
I think what makes the Hedwig character interesting, is that he/she is reluctantly on this journey of sexual ambiguity. He knew who he was, he was a gay, East Berliner who longed to be in America, listening to American music, pop culture. The sex change was forced upon him. So in a way, I kind of see it almost in an opposite way, that here is someone who had a clear identity of his sexuality, and then, was turned to a freak, turned into the freak show, and that, as he says: ‘It’s what I’ve got to work with.’ And, the unwillingness to go there in the first place, but, being forced to go there by his mother, by Luther, and now finding himself as they say in Afrikaans ‘met die gebakte pere’, alone in America, in a body that he does not belong in. ‘How do I make this work?’ That for me is a fascinating question to grapple with and a fascinating idea for an actor to explore. We live in a country sure, where on paper we are very liberal in terms of sexuality and in transgenderism I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Living in Cape Town you can be forgiven that, thinking that things are easy, but, as we know, hate crimes are still perpetuated. There still is prejudice in terms of sexuality, in terms of transgenderism, in terms of race, in terms of so many things. The fact that there’s a document saying that it allows a status quo, doesn’t necessarily mean that the general populace will follow it. And I think a work like Hedick and the Angry Inch will do a lot towards challenging people’s views, for showing people a side to a story they might have never known. And, besides that, it’s just massively entertaining to watch. But we often forget, though I just have said that hate crimes happen and that there’s still an amount of prejudice, I find South Africa to be one of the more enlightened places to be. With the series Rough or Smooth, with Terence Bridgett being gay and I am who I am, the response from America was that it could only be considered for the gay market whereas, strangely enough, with the SABC and MNet, the gay thing didn’t even come up, and with audiences. We were taken to the Independent Broadcasting complaints commission for disrespecting a school’s uniform, but never because of sexuality, which I think is a feather in the cap of the South Africans as a whole. That, compared with of the the rest of the world, we’re pretty cool with regards to that kind of thing.
Have you see John Cameron Mitchell’s performance of the character he created in the film version? If so, did this influence your portrayal?
Off course I have seen John Cameron Mitchell’s… To say that his performance doesn’t influence your portrayal of Hedwig is like saying that Tim Curry’s version of Frank N Furter doesn’t influence your Frank N Furter. Off course it does. Tim Curry as an actor was the creator of Frank N Furter. John Cameron Mitchell was the creator of the text. The very notion of Hedwig was his primal scream in the first place and he was obviously so magnificent in the role, his will always stand as the benchmark by which any performance will be judged. I find a great inspiration in what he has done. It was his performance in the movie that first blew my mind when I was in my early twenties. It is such an honour to say his words, to sing his and Stephen Trask’s songs today.
What do you think makes Hedwig such a dynamic creation (the musical and the character)?
I don’t think everyone who sees, experiences Hedwig and the Angry Inch, realise just how brilliant a piece of musical theatre it is. In the words of John Cameron Mitchell, it started off as the Goth in the corner cutting herself, and now, almost twenty years later, suddenly she’s the cheerleader, out there with the football team. It is an incredibly complex script in terms of the fundamentals it’s based on. The background of punk rock, those crypto homo punk rockers, the Lou Reeds, the David Bowies, the Iggy Pops, they have informed it, musically. You see it reflected musically in the use of the open chords, the dichotomy of the character, the neither man nor woman, where in so many of the songs, the use those open chords create that androgynous feeling. Where the music is neither happy, nor sad. In terms of its musical structure, it just is, and in that punk rock way, raises the questions as opposed to giving the answers. I think musically people are able to inform the music a lot more with their own emotional response, as opposed to a work like a Sondheim, where Sondheim, with his musical structure, imposes his will on the music so brilliantly, as he does, but Stephen Trask hasn’t done that with this musical. I think that has a lot to do with its success and why it was something that was so new. In terms of the dramatic, it is a very standard structure in terms of boy meets boy, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end, with a bit of a twist. It is a show within a show where you are seeing Hedwig perform her show for you, and in it, she comments on her life, and then towards the end, something else happens. When Hedwig is transformed, singing at you, the audience member, suddenly it becomes on a completely different level. It raises questions. It prods uncomfortably at the things audience members aren’t expecting from a normal bourgeois night out at the theatre. It truly is a brilliant work!
As an actor, performer and singer you have enjoyed success in many productions on stage, film and television. Is there still one dream role that you hope to perform and add to your many accolades?
I’ve been very fortunate in my career, I’ve been able to do some very interesting roles. , some work that I absolutely loved, and some roles that I absolutely hated, but let’s not talk about those right now. It’s all part of the school of hard knocks. What I do know is what I am looking for is work that interests me, usually because it challenges me, because it’s something I haven’t done before, because it’s something that pushes me out of my comfort zone. It’s a terrifying thing to do, you don’t know if you will be able to pull it off. You don’t know until you are up there on that stage, baring yourself before an audience, as to whether it has worked or not. But that’s what I am looking for, I am looking for work that interests me, that challenges me, that challenges my audience, and if I can keep doing that until the day I die, hopefully I will go with a smile on my dial.
We all adore Paul, the man fully invested in the characters he plays. Who is the man behind the diverse personalities?
Who is Paul? (sniggers). Paul is a deeply private person and Paul is also not someone who considers himself to be particularly interesting. Part of what I enjoy about performing is that the me gets left behind in the dressing room, and when I walk out on to the stage, or out in front of a camera, I can be anything. I’ve been a piano prodigy … a slacker barman … a wife beater … I’ve been transgender, I’ve been straight, I’ve been gay … I’ve been depressed, I’ve been happy, I’ve been drunk, I’ve been sober. I’ve been funny. I’ve been sexy … ugly … I can be all those things. I can experience all those things. I was even a pirate. How cool was that? Since I was a kid, I’ve loved playing in the world of make believe. I absolutely love it! It’s what really gets me going, to walk in someone else’s shoes for a day, to see the world they see it, to have the world look at me, the way the world looks at that kind of person, that’s what attracted me to this business in the first place. Paul is almost not what my job is about. Paul is almost irrelevant. What I can become, and what of me I can bring to those roles, and how through those roles I can express myself, without sounding like I have completely contradicted myself, is really what it is. I find the characters to be a wonderful outlet for who I am, and a way to experience me.
If there’s one word that pays justice to your diverse talents, its versatile.. Do you think your multi-faceted nature as a performer is the secret behind your success?
I think diversity is very important. I think it is makes you more interesting. It also increases your chance of work. I always say about being able to work in both English and Afrikaans .. If Bi-sexuality doubles the chances of a date on a Saturday night, being able to work in both languages does exactly the same in terms of your work. But, all experiences add to your versatility and your ability to bring it to a character. The fact that you can sing, the fact that you can play an instrument, the fact that you know how to handle weapons, the fact that you can ride a horse, the fact that you can swim, that you can skateboard, surf. The fact that you’ve studied various subjects … that you’ve read philosophy … The fact that I can speak German to a certain degree, it certainly helped me in my understanding of Hedwig. I worked on a German passenger liner for many years, I had a German girlfriend. All of that will inform how I know the German people. Having any kind of versatility like that in your life naturally adds to any role. I always say to young kids starting out in the business: ‘Do everything. Experience everything.’ Because absolutely everything you experience informs who you are, because acting is just expressing who you are through other characters.
You are a diagnosed adrenaline junkie and when not performing can usually be found in, (on or under!) the water; surfing, diving or paddling a boat and has frequently courted divorce by completing numerous Dusi, Drakensberg and Fish River canoe marathons. And in between all this madness he is trying to be a husband and father too! HOW DO YOU COPE? What is your secret?
It’s more the people around me that have to cope with me. I cope easily. I have adult ADD. I can’t sit still for a second. I pace around learning my words …..I constantly need new stimulus in my life. If I don’t get exercise I literally go nuts. So I find myself on top of a roof, on a bridge, on a ship, on a skipping rope trying to get energy out of my body. Not a day goes by that I can’t do some form of exercise, and my mind also needs similar stimulation. I constantly need new ideas. I constantly want to try new things, I want to read things. I am an impossible person if you are trying to have a conversation with me and there are books in front of me, because I am opening them, reading them, trying to consume the whole time. My secret is adult ADD, basically. But I think us ADD babies are drawn to this profession . It makes sense to us. We are working with our bodies. We are constantly looking for new ideas. It’s not like once you finished rehearsing a show, and then you open it and that’s the end of the growth. It’s only the beginning. Now your conversation, your dialogue with the audience has to start and that is different for me every single night, constantly changing. And, we have to be completely comfortable with the idea of flux. No day is ever the same. No performance is ever the same. I can’t reproduce. I can only take what is now, and immediate, and go with that, and build on what was before. If you enjoyed last night’s performance, don’t expect me to do it again, because I can’t, and I don’t want to. Boring!
Copyright © 2016 Daniel Dercksen
An edited version of this interview was published in the OUT Magazine