Theatre News South Africa

Child's play

It all began when he was about five years old. This was when Emily Child saw a production of Oliver Twist that would have an impact on her for the rest of her life.

"In one of the scenes was a giant chest of drawers, she recalls. "As the chorus sang, a drawer opened and out of it leapt a little boy. He had been sleeping inside it. I thought this was the most amazing thing I had ever seen! A boy who slept in a drawer!"

Even though she tried to fit into her drawers at home without any luck, Child started to understand that theatre was magical: iIt could make real what she thought was impossible.

"If people could fit into furniture, then I could live in the Barbie-land that I so often dreamed about, if I could be on stage!" she says. "I decided then that I needed to be a part of that magic."

Child performed in her first school play when she was about 13. Her role was that of The Grand High Witch in an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches. And even though she was young at the time, she remembers clearly that she wanted to make a life out of theatre after that opening night.

Child's play

So nervous

"I was so nervous that I hadn't slept for days, but the minute I stepped onto stage, I felt comfortable and calm," she says. "I guess Oprah would call it an 'aha' moment. Performing felt like the most natural thing in the world to me. I considered [studying] law for about a minute and a half, until I realise I could just play a lawyer in a play one day!"

Despite her strong beliefs, Child remembers being terrified when she first started out. She was going to auditions and castings, but wasn't getting any work. She also didn't know who to call, so she decided to make her own luck.

"I collaborated with Luke Ellenbogen on a show based on Dorothy Parker's short stories called Gone Dottie," she recalls of the production, which later appeared in a newer version called A Certain Lady. "We performed in the Arena Theatre on Hiddingh Campus [part of the University of Cape Town] and at The Grahamstown Festival."

Child put all the money she had into the rights and production costs, invited everyone she knew (including all the critics she had heard about but didn't know), and hoped for the best. The show didn't sell out, but their reviews were positive, they covered costs, and she survived.

"The first big lesson I learned is that taking risks is important," she says. "It's a huge part of our job. If I hadn't jumped in and gotten on stage as soon as I could, I might never have got on stage at all!"

It is through that show and her collaboration with Ellenbogen that she met theatre troupe The Mechanicals. And it is with them that she really started to work in the industry. But there have been many challenges along the way.

Child's play

Hard to motivate yourself

"For actors, every job we don't get is a minor setback," she says. "It's hard to motivate yourself to get up and audition every day. It is even harder to 'sell yourself' to be seen and considered for work. It feels desperate and is often depressing. It's also tough not being able to commit to anything personally in case you get 'the call' or 'the audition' or the 'the big job'. As freelancers, we have to be on constant standby."

Throughout the ups and downs, Child has learned to 'keep on trucking' and that success comes from good old-fashioned hard work. As long as she works hard and keeps her word, she'll earn her keep.

"Every time I get down about a job I didn't get, the people I love motivate me," she says. "I am lucky to have a wonderful husband and supportive friends and family. They remind me that each let-down teaches me something and that work is just one part of what makes me happy. I think it was Maya Angelou who said that rejection is just redirection. I like that."

Child is enjoying a successful time in 2015. In March, she won the prestigious Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Lead Actress in a Play. She also performed as part of the ensemble in Born in the RSA, a play re-staged to mark the 20th anniversary of the sudden passing of theatre legend Barney Simon.

Child's play

A strange new family

"I love the camaraderie," she says. "In every show, you find a strange new family. One bunch of crazies with one goal: make great theatre and don't screw up. But if you do, I love when you look at the other actor mid-scene, blank and in a panic, and their eyes tell you that they will help get you out of trouble. And they do. Theatre is the best."

Her plans for the future (besides getting a puppy) are to keep on working. One of her goals is to do twice the amount of work she did the year before; it's the only way to get stronger and become a more rounded actor.

"I can't say that there is one role in particular that I would like to play because I am discovering new plays all the time and am overwhelmed by the amount of dream roles there are," she says "I worry I won't even get to play half of them in my lifetime! But there are certain writers' works that I want to make sure I perform, like David Mamet or Harold Pinter. I would also love to do Shakespeare again. Also, I secretly want to be in a musical but I have to learn how to sing first!"

As part of the second annual Cape Town Fringe Festival, which runs from 24 September to 4 October, Emily Child performs in Porno 88 from 24 to 28 September. Bookings at

About Eugene Yiga

Eugene graduated from the University of Cape Town with distinctions in financial accounting and classical piano. He then spent over two-and-half years working in branding and communications at two of South Africa's top market research companies. Eugene also spent over three-and-a-half years at an eLearning start-up, all while building his business as an award-winning writer. Visit, follow @eugeneyiga on Twitter, or email moc.agiyenegue@olleh to say, um, hello.
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