THE BLOG

Janice Honeyman: Grande Dame Of Many Different Parts

About to embark on her 30th panto season in Johannesburg, the veteran director chatted to Diane de Beer.

01/12/2017 06:07 SAST | Updated 01/12/2017 06:07 SAST
Joburg Theatre

A panto without Janice Honeyman is unthinkable. This year, the much loved and completely apt "Pinocchio" is her 30th season. This is how she unleashes her inner child, something that has always been part of her creativity –– and when you listen to her speak, it doesn't seem she will ever stop.

With some help from Honeyman, DIANE DE BEER explains why:

Joburg Theatre

I hate Horrible Hook, I adore Sweet-sweet Smee, and the lonely Lost Boys creep into my heart. But then Snow White, as the first one, also has a special place for me. In every panto I've written and directed, I get immersed in the excitement and stimulation of creating a favourite for our audiences.

That response from the unstoppable Janice Honeyman is why she has never been allowed to let go of the panto reins.

She took her first scary steps towards writing one for Joburgers when her colleague and friend Lynette Marais asked her to get going 30 years ago. She was astonished, as she had never seen a pantomime, and had no clue where this would lead to. She was simply told to jump, as she took that first flying leap...

Janice being Janice, you simply have to run through her resumé to know that her life has been about taking risks –– and those that didn't pay off, taught her lessons.

"Yes –– I knew nothing 30 pantos ago, but by now I should be able to fiddle with the formula, knowing that I have learned lots and lots of truths, techniques and tricks over the years. I try to keep the spirit and heart of each story pure and unique, but still use what I know works for audiences."

Those of us who have been around with her for as many pantos know that Marais knew what she was doing all those years ago.

Joburg Theatre

In Honeyman's own words: "I think that the panto has grown and developed and upscaled itself over the years, to achieve more audience satisfaction, but it has essentially remained a fun-filled storytelling presentation of well-known and loved folk and fairy tales.

"They have essentially been "family" shows, with something for everyone, an experience to be enjoyed together –– perhaps I have always had 'the common touch', and that is why they've worked across a very broad age range and cross section of the public. And I hope I can stay in touch and continue to give people what they want."

She thinks about the next one all year long –– as she must. "I know there is a constant pressure to come up with something new every year, and so I try to check on the news, read newspapers, kids and teenage magazines, watch what is trending on social media and take note of worldwide lunatic politics (great lines for the script are handed to me on a plate by some of the current world leaders!)

"I listen to popular music on radio while driving, or the background supermarket-song choice while shopping. And I try to sense what is hot with youngsters, nostalgic for grown-ups, and what will aid and abet the classical story I'm busy embellishing at the time. The rehearsal period is always fun, sharing interpretations of topical events with the cast, and trying to integrate some of their suggestions into the show."

Joburg Theatre

Casting is another trick up her sleeve, and she wants to pay tribute to the contributions of actors like Marc Lottering, Robert Whitehead, Desmond Dube, Fiona Ramsay, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Judy Page, the late Greg Melville-Smith, the late Dale Cutts, Val Donald-Bell, Seputla Sebogodi, Louise St-Claire, Michael Richard, Maralin Vanrenen, Christopher Japhta, Bongi N'thombeni, Graham Hopkins, the late Frantz Dobrowski and many, many more – including, of course, the long-standing (and she wants to know if we get the pun!) expert dame and villain, much-loved Tobie Cronje –– who will be stealing hearts this year as Gepetto.

There is also a whole range of good performances waiting in the wings, with Andre Schwartz, Chi Mende, Garth Collins, Ilse Klink and Kanyi Nokwe, descended from theatre royalty, as Pinocchio in this year's panto.

She praises her panto sidekick Timothy LeRoux, who has been at her side for at least half the time she has been at it, for his wonderful theatre sense, his choreographer's eye, and his understanding of pace and rhythm. "It feels like long, long ago! He is definitely the crown prince who should succeed the panto queen when she abdicates."

And then she moves to the prime minster of panto, executive producer Bernard Jay. "He enabled me to continue this tradition over the past 17 years. Credit must go to him for the wow-factor each year."

As soon as "Pinocchio" is up and running, next in line is "The Color Purple", which opens at the end of January. Producers Joburg Theatre and Bernard Jay have recently announced the casting of Lerato Mvelase as Shug Avery, the popular bluesy singer whom we meet at death's door in the musical. The all-South African cast also features Didintle Khunou as Celie and Aubrey Poo as Mister.

That has been Honeyman's trademark –– moving between genres ranging from serious drama to opera to TV presentation, from storytelling to rowdy, raucous rude comedy (as she did in Stratford-upon-Avon for the RSC earlier this year), prose adaptations like Andre P Brink's "Bidsprinkaan", and workshop productions. "That's what has kept me excited and stimulated these 48 years."

In her early days of fame as TV's "Bangalory Time" storyteller, Janice clicked: she could tell stories. And a better way of doing this was to become a director rather than an actress.

"I couldn't have had a better time in the theatre. And I can't see myself retiring, giving up the joys of theatre. I've quite a few more goodies to create up my sleeve."

Hear hear, bravo and encore for as many as she is still up for.

"Pinocchio" opens officially at Joburg Theatre on Sunday (November 12) and runs until December 30. It is followed by The Color Purple on January 31 until March 4.

MORE:Voices