Behind the scenes with performing legend Ilse Klink

The former ‘Isidingo’ actor has had a sparklingly successful career. The pioneering performer reveals the realities of what it means to work in the arts.

Being backstage before a show is an exercise in revelation. Navigating the corridors of the Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg, each turn exposes the mechanics of the theatre. It’s a glimpse inside a machine, the lights turned on in a nightclub’s dying hours, a selfie without filters.

Here, the roses for the final scene rest on a chair, suddenly plastic. There, the prompt script lies waiting for the first cue. Bodies stretch limbs and flex vocal chords, beginning a lesson in appearance and disappearance.

Ilse Klink opens the door wearing Vanessa Booysens’ face. The character she played on television drama Isidingo lends Klink a strange familiarity. For five years, she entered our homes at precisely 6.30pm, becoming a daily fixture in our lives and lounges.

In her neatly organised dressing room, Klink has long left Booysens behind, now shapeshifting into Matron Mama Morton in the musical Chicago. It’s a role she has reprised twice before, slipping into it like a tailored suit.   

The long-running musical set in the jazz, vaudeville and liquor-soaked 1920s chronicles the murder trials of two women, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, offering sardonic commentary on the connected cultures of criminality, corruption and celebrity. With a strong South African history, it was first performed in 2005 and 2008, with the recent run travelling through New Zealand, China and Cape Town before landing in Johannesburg.

15 May 2019: Like the set, costumes, music and choreography, even the actors’ make-up adheres to a set standard.
15 May 2019: Like the set, costumes, music and choreography, even the actors’ make-up adheres to a set standard.

The countess of the Klink

When Klink makes her first entrance as Mama Morton, she stands, suspended in a moment of stillness. The audience bursts into spontaneous applause. Nothing has happened.

“I don’t know what that’s about,” Klink says in disbelief, as laughter ripples around the room. “It happens a lot and it takes me by surprise. I’m always like, ‘What are they expecting from me? They’re clapping now and I haven’t even opened my mouth. What do they waaaaant from meeeeeeee?” she dramatises, bending vowels into comic contortions.

There are many reasons for the unsolicited applause. In this phase of her career, Klink is touching the hems of legendary status. Naledi, Fiesta, Avanti and Fleur du Cap awards for theatre and television testify to her success, recently joined by a South African Film and Television Award for her work in the film Stroomop. The performer, who has worked in film, theatre, television and radio dramas, is recognisable, respected and revered in an industry that demands versatility from performers.

“You’ve got to be able to sing and dance and act and write and produce and direct. The more things that people can do, the longer you’re going to stay in the industry,” she says.

Pausing, Klink offers a reason for the applause: “You know that as a performer, as soon as you take your first step, that audience has already decided who they want you to be, or who they think you should be. That’s why Mama’s chest is out, her arms are in and she walks. We sum people up within the first couple of seconds, so that’s what it is. If I’m going to tell you that I run this jail, you’ve got to believe me from the moment I walk on to that stage.”

Perception and upheaval

Every time any of us steps into a space, a range of things have already been decided about us, based on the way we look. Our history is a story of appearance and its effects. A thread of hair became a sharp dividing line between families, the shape of a nose morphed into a site of investigation, the hue of our skin built borders between us that still remain.

Klink spent her early years in Athlone in Cape Town before moving to Mitchell’s Plain in 1978. It’s a time she looks back on fondly: “It was great, because when we were kids, you played in the street with your friends and you ran around and got hurt. But it wasn’t what it is now. It was very safe when we lived there. So it’s changed quite substantially, but my heart is there, always.

“That’s my childhood, massive parks, kids running around and also, in those days, we didn’t know any better. These are your friends, this is where you grew up. You are so isolated, you’re not looking towards ‘there’. It’s all very present, when you are a child, you are not necessarily yearning to get out of a place that you didn’t know you were stuck in”.

Moving to Pretoria at the age of 15 was a culture shock and a confrontation with South African reality. “It’s very apparent how people were separated in Pretoria, it’s the capital city. You have Eersterust township here and you have Mamelodi next door, and on the other side you have Laudium… Everybody’s kept in their little pockets. It was very hard for me.”

15 May 2019: This is the third time Ilse Klink has taken on the role of Mama Morton. She last played the matron of the women's block in Cook County jail a decade ago.
15 May 2019: This is the third time Ilse Klink has taken on the role of Mama Morton. She last played the matron of the women’s block in Cook County jail a decade ago.

The weight of expectation

As Klink sits in front of a mirror lined with lights, make-up carefully laid out on a towel like parallel streets, her journey from Athlone to Mitchell’s Plain and then Pretoria is illuminated, mapping a route that has led her to the most venerated theatre spaces.

Klink went on to carve out new space as the first black South African to graduate from the University of Pretoria’s drama department. In an era that still celebrates “firsts”, the actress offers a sobering perspective on what it means to shoulder success:

“I always say it’s very hard to be a pioneer, no matter what it is that you are doing. Because you are figuring out things for yourself and you don’t think about the ones that are coming behind you. But the ones that are coming behind you are saying, ‘Hang on, she did it, so I can also do it,’ and I think that’s the lesson out of it, I suppose.”

Looking at Klink was to imagine new worlds; it still is. As a young child, looking at Klink was like seeing a world of possibilities. I could consider a face like mine, hair with a similar texture, a career path that could be followed. Seeing people in the art and media industries who look like us is permission, possibility and prayer. Can we be more? Not just gangster, pregnant teenager, drug addict. Can we be more? Not just a full stop, but fully human.

Pioneers and stereotypes

Before Klink came Denise Newman, Shaleen Surtie-Richards, June von Mesh and others, a generation of pioneering actresses classified as coloured during apartheid. “They paved the way. They worked hard and they changed things for us, each one of them were pioneers in their own little sphere,” Klink says. “As a young actress, I looked up to Denise.” She seamlessly switches to the third person, “and now you are the age that you would have met them at when you were a young actress … You have to be the example, you have to be professional, you have to do your job well every time. You can’t let it slip … But I find that sometimes people forget about that and they are more interested in the fame.”

A new generation continues to carve out this space, actors, writers, directors and producers like Lynelle Kenned, Layla Swart, Lorcia Cooper, Lesley-Ann Brandt, Amy Jephta, Jabu Newman and Nicole Fortuin. As Klink recently told Sarafina Magazine: “Young people really inspire me … because they are not afraid. They just take things. They are not waiting for somebody to tell them they can own it. Layla and Nicole are just so inspiring. They just go, ‘Here is a thing that I want. I’m going to work hard to get it, but I am going to take it’.” As Klink looks to the new generation, the lesson reverses its direction.

Presently, it can often feel like depictions of people identified as coloured remain dominated by gangs, drugs and violence, soaked in stereotype. It’s not that these historically rooted realities do not exist, but rather that they are not all there is. We need to see people simply living, loving and discovering themselves, their lives textured by politics but not wholly reduced to politics.

“There are a lot more stories to tell,” says Klink. “Now we are playing the professional career woman, we are playing the downtrodden, we have more variety. And so the next generation will have even more variety to play,” she says, noting that it’s important to tell and own our stories. “I think South African film will evolve … We are still carrying heavy baggage and we will carry that baggage for years to come.”

15 May 2019: Ilse Klink (right) and other company performers begin their vocal and dance warm-ups as showtime approaches.
15 May 2019: Ilse Klink (right) and other company performers begin their vocal and dance warm-ups as showtime approaches.

The performing arts in South Africa

An hour before the performance there is a stark contrast between the rows of empty red seats waiting to be filled and Chicago’s actors, who begin to populate the stage, each going through the rehearsed routines of pre-performance. This distinction quietly questions, what is a performance without an audience, and then pivots, what is a performer without employment protection?

Part of the evolution of which Klink speaks will require changes to laws and protection for arts workers. Being a performer in South Africa today is a trapeze act with no net, a space where receiving several awards does not translate into financial security. Beyond concerns over the instability of freelance work, which affects all industries, artists receive little fundamental support by way of unions, pension funds, Unemployment Insurance Fund benefits or medical aid.

“We do need the protection, really,” says Klink, referencing reruns of Isidingo being played in multiple countries. “I see pictures of myself all over the internet … For me, it’s very interesting when you see that your face as a 29-year-old, 30-year-old is still being shown on a screen and you don’t receive any money from that.

“What does that mean for me? It means you’re sitting at home and you’re dying poor, whatever, and you can’t afford the medical aid that you’re supposed to have and all of those things … Your face is everywhere, but you don’t benefit from it in any way. So that’s the kind of protection we need.”

As she speaks, the mirror and side table offer up reflections of her face, creating three versions of Klink. One wonders what it means to see yourself everywhere, but only own a fragment of your image.

“We still don’t have medical aid that we can run to, or unemployment,” says Klink. “You have to have a stable job for them to be able to give you a home loan. You’re just not treated like an equal, but you paid as much money as everyone else to study. You’re a degreed person, you’re a professional.” 

One of Klink’s former Isidingo colleagues and the chair of the South African Guild of Actors, Jack Devnarain, is advocating for changes to the law that grant actors further rights under the Performer’s Protection Amendment Bill.

As Ivar Anderson reports: “Freelancing involves difficulties getting bank loans, and lack of retirement plan contributions. But contrary to many colleagues abroad, South Africa’s actors also lack statutory copyright to their work. In the case of reruns, DVD releases or online streaming, all earnings stay with the production companies.”

While the proposal had “been passed through both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces”, it was time-bound, requiring the president to sign it into law before new members of Parliament entered the house, Anderson writes.

“I want to be able to know that there’s some sort of security,” says Klink. “It’s really difficult and things need to change, because we are in your lounge.”

15 May 2019: Ilse Klink warming up her vocal chords before the curtains go up.
15 May 2019: Ilse Klink warming up her vocal chords before the curtains go up.

New frontiers

“The arts are important,” says Klink as she applies her make-up ahead of the show. Like the set, costumes, music and choreography, even the actors’ make-up adheres to a set standard – Chicago here is Chicago on the West End is Chicago on Broadway.

“It takes a certain bravery,” says Klink, talking about the decision to choose an artistic career. As she considers her future, the actor is looking to new frontiers. “I’ve never done classical theatre,” she says. “I’d like to write, at some point. I’d like to write a play that’s been brewing in my head for 102 years. I haven’t been brave enough to explore that yet. I think that’s going to take a while, that’s okay. Everything is a process, I don’t like to rush things.”

Showtime is approaching. The company begin their vocal and dance warm-ups, in full make-up with stocking caps and tracksuits, mid-metamorphosis. The mood is expectant, the theatre soon to be filled with hundreds of people waiting to be entertained.

As the brassy tones of the show’s overture start and performers take to the stage, we see half the story. The reality of what it means to be an arts worker in this country is reflected in fraction, the curtain partially pulled back.

When Klink appears onstage as Mama Morton, the moment of suspended stillness occurs, followed by applause, as if scripted. In the warm gleam of the spotlight, her earlier words echo, “There are more stories to tell.”

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