By Arno Cornelissen
The lights dim. Her eyes are wide in the blinding stage lights and looking out at what it is she imagines in front of her.
Sophie Joans is the name on everyone’s lips this Festival. Following the hugely successful debut of her solo show Île at the 2022 Festival, Joans is back at this year’s NAF with Dog Rose, Play Things, Raunchy Renditions, and Île, which is back on the Fringe.
The theatre-maker, producer, comedian and storyteller is also set to perform her solo work at the Edinburgh Festival in August this year.
Naturally, Cue reached out to one of the most prolific artists at the 2023 National Arts Festival.
Q: So, Sophie Joans, is that a stage name?
A: How did you know? Is it that obvious? It’s the quirky spelling, isn’t it?
Yes, it is a stage name. It used to be Sophie Schmidt, but the people at home affairs and anyone filling in legal documents would misspell my name.
I think I had an identity crisis, so I changed my name to Joans. All my female heroes are named Joan – so why not use the plural?
Q: Why theatre? Did it come to you naturally, or did you actively seek it out?
A: My parents forced me to do it! No, I’m just joking. They’ve been very supportive. It was here at NAF where the seed was planted. My dad used to bring me and my sister here. In grade 10, I saw Undone by Wessel Pretorious at the Gymnasium, where I’m performing this year. It’s cool to be all full circle. [Undone] is a performance about identity, finding yourself, your relationship with your parents, and how you always hope to connect with them and impress them; never quite getting there.
I just wept… I never felt that way before. Screw greenpeace; I want to do theatre for the rest of my life!
Q: Who are your biggest supporters?
A: I feel lucky. I come to Fest every year and see my heroes like Rob van Vuuren and Jemma Kahn. It’s people telling stories, funny stories that hit you. I’ve seen many of Rob’s stand-ups, and they’re funny – then he hits you. I wanted to learn how to do that. Maybe I’ve just been ballsy. I walk up to them and say, “Hi! Can I go for coffee with you? Hi! Can I job-shadow you? Hi! Also, by the way, do you want to direct my play?” You gotta warm ‘em up, groom them slowly to work with you.
Rob is flipping amazing. He transformed the original script I brought him into what Île ended up becoming. Jemma, from Dog Rose, has been excellent. They should be credited as co-authors because of their influence on my writing.
My heroes have been my supporters and my inspiration.
Q: Is Play Things a new venture for you?
A: Not really. I used to work at the Alexander Bar Theatre in Cape Town. Play Things was inspired by the concept of having a festival venue all year. They do two plays at night, one at 7pm and one at 9pm. It’s short – get in, get out – quick stuff.
I did front of house there for about three years. Other than NAF, this was the biggest influence on my theatre career. I would watch two plays every night, watch the same plays over and over again to see the small changes in things and how these impact the quality of the performances.
Play Things started at NAF. I think there was a car crash or something, and someone had to cancel their show, which is terrible, but then Play Things was born. Every night of the festival, artists would come together and share new stuff, polished stuff, fresh ideas, and scribbles in a book.
Q: What are some of your recent awards and those that shine for you?
A: In matric, I won the drama prize. I broke the trophy, but I put the arm back on with Prestik. It was me! I did it!
Getting the Gold Standard Bank Award last year was a total mind-fuck. “What is this sorcery?” I didn’t see that coming. I was dressed like it was the last day of Fest at the award ceremony. They announced the bronze, then the silver – I swapped jackets with my friend, and then they said Île.
Q: Spark in the Dark. Is this your company?
A: Yes, Spark in the Dark is our theatre production company. I started it as we came out of COVID-19. The idea surrounds this dark time for theatre. I wanted that little spark. I read a lot about fireflies, beautiful creatures – so our logo is a little firefly with a theatre light as a bum.
We’ve introduced two of my plays through Spark in the Dark. We do Play Things and Raunchy Renditions. This is by far my favourite show. My jaw drops a little bit more every time. People are authentic. There’s so much shame about sex. South Africa is starting to talk about sex more. But there is still a long way to go in grappling with the shame of sex and having better sex ed.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say…? Or anything you would like to rant about?
A: Yes! I’ve got a rant about the phrase: ‘Support the arts.’ We’re not some fucking kind of charity. We are the single most important thing for humans. We are the tradition of sitting around a fire, telling stories. It’s the only way we can cope with the fact of being alive.
We need to reframe how we look at that phrase. It’s not ‘support the arts.’ It’s ‘let the arts support you.’ Every good play makes you feel more alive. It makes you remember who you are, and it makes you feel either through laughing or crying.
Even bad theatre – I love bad theatre. You never get the time to sit and think because life is too busy. But man, bad theatre… You’re locked in, in the front, and these people are just spewing bullshit. Someone wrote this, someone read this, and no one stopped them?
All theatre is fantastic. We support everyone’s existence.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Watch the full interview on Cue TV.