by Stephanie Williams
Depending on what stage of life you’re at, Zindzi Okenyo will be familiar for different reasons. Having spent formative years in Hobart, Zindzi is now an accomplished actor, RnB/hip hop musician and PlaySchool presenter.
You’ve lived in a few places around Australia. How did Tassie make that list?
My mum remarried when I was 13 and we moved down to Hobart where my stepdad was working. After moving around a lot it was really nice to stay in Tassie for the whole of high school. Hobart is such a gorgeous place to grow up, the air is so fresh and it felt so lucky to have so much access to nature and quiet.
Where did you go to school here?
The Friends’ School. Absolutely loved it there! It’s an incredible learning environment, very nurturing.
Has that time contributed to your creative life?
Definitely. In year 10 I’d realised I really wanted to become an actor so I focused as much energy as I could in that direction. The facilities there are incredible and it was a definite privilege to be afforded that kind of education. I also had such support from my drama teachers, in particular Tammy Giblin who I remember stayed after hours to coach me for my National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) and Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) auditions. I got into both schools and contribute a lot of that time to the focus and support I had from teachers and family. Having support and encouragement is paramount and I feel very fortunate to have had it from the very beginning.
You ended up studying at NIDA in Sydney. What was the catalyst for that?
Ultimately I just really wanted to be an actor and saw studying as the most direct route. When I arrived at the school I had just turned 18 and had no idea of the expanse of things I was about to learn. It was a good time to go, young and single-focused, I was incredibly porous. It was such a treat to have my life be so consumed by my passion and obsession. That time was also a coming of age. Over a decade on, the friends I still have from that period are very dear to me. It’s excellent to see them out in world striving and succeeding.
Which acting role have you been most proud of?
I did a one woman show for State Theatre South Australia called Random by Debbie Tucker Green. It was a shame because a lot of my peers in Sydney didn’t get to see it but I’m really proud of achieving such a feat. At least 20 characters and one actor. Every time I’m scared of doing something I always remember I did that, so it doesn’t really get any more thrilling and terrifying!
How did PlaySchool come about? I’ve heard it’s a pretty coveted gig.
They hold auditions very rarely. I knew I was right for it but I still had a lot to prove. I was exceptionally nervous at my callback audition to the point of having shaking hands and I thought that I had absolutely stuffed it! Luckily the director at the time, Karen Gail, saw past the nerves and I got the job. It’s really such a joy to be part of, especially when we had the 50th anniversary a few years back. It means so much to so many Australians, young and old, I feel so fortunate to be part of something so iconic, challenging and fun.
Your new show PlaySchool Art Time take kids deeper into art theory, but in a fun way – was that the plan? It’s well-loved in our house.
So glad it’s a hit in your household! Yes that was absolutely the plan. The ABC is such a champion of the arts and sees it as a vital part of society, so I believe it to be a genuine attempt to encourage children to expand their minds when it comes to art and being an artist. It’s incredible to have significant Australian artists and their art on the show because it shows children its importance in culture and also as a career path. I love seeing their work properly framed or presented in a real way, I think it’s so encouraging and fun. The children were exceptional, very focused and free, and the work they produced was out of this world. It was a great reminder that the imagination has no bounds and as adults, at some point, we begin to shut that down but it needn’t be that way.
Who is your favourite PlaySchool cast member?
Jemima of course! She’s so versatile, sweet, fun and tough.
You’re an accomplished musician, releasing your first single in 2013. How do you describe your style?
My style has changed a lot since I started writing but I would say it has always sat somewhere within the RnB, Hip Hop world. Being a musician is mostly for me to have another outlet to my artistry. Yes they are songs, but it’s another chance for me to push myself creatively. It’s a different medium to acting however. It’s really beneficial for me as the artist in the middle of it all to be learning from different disciplines and seeing how they interact. Having recently switched into mostly rapping, I’m loving the play and freedom that comes with that kind of poetry.
I think many people can identify with your lyric in Woman’s World, “I’m a very busy woman with a lot on my plate.” What does daily life look like for you?
Stupidly busy! I think with that line I created a monster! In seriousness though, I’ve always thrived by being engaged and doing something. When we were young, my siblings and I were not allowed to say we were bored. I think the last time I said that was probably when I was six years old. It was such a good lesson, to continue to open my eyes and find something to do. I have learnt how to take breaks and not run myself into the ground, which is hard because the industry I work in requires a constant hustle. I’m currently touring nationally with Much Ado About Nothing for Bell Shakespeare in over 100 performances. I’m also writing my debut album. I love that mothers have identified with that line in the song because to be honest, they are the ultimate, amazing, busy woman.
Who do you find recognises you publically most – theatre goers, under-sixes or music fans?
It’s becoming a mix but I would probably say because of the scope of generations – PlaySchool takes the cake!
"I’m a very busy woman with a lot on my plate."
Artistically, where do you feel most comfortable and where do you feel challenged?
Great question. I feel quite comfortable in the practice of theatre because I’ve done it for so long now and very consistently. Strangely, I feel challenged when I’m not being challenged. It’s such an important thing to evolve as an artist, and as I evolve as a person I need new things to challenge me. At the moment it’s becoming clear that I crave to be creating work with like minds, minds that are striving for the same things as me – to question, to interrogate why we make art and why we tell the stories we tell. I’m hoping 2020 will be a year in which I can find out many new things about making art and what’s possible.
When you hit Hobart, where do you like to visit?
I always go down to Fish Frenzy because I used to work there when I was a teenager. Can’t leave Hobart without eating those chips! Always get out to MONA for the art of course but I absolutely adore that architecture. But my favourite place is a cafe in New Norfolk, at my family’s cafe Black Swan (formerly known as Badger’s Bike Cafe) and although I’m biased and love my brother making me coffee, I can say it is such a lovely space to spend time in. Worth the trip out of town for sure. ■
Zindzi’s new single Eyes to the Sky
is out now. Check out okenyo.com