KEEP CREATING — No matter how many rejections one faces, keep creating. Always look for ways to be in something, to be an extra, to help on set, ask friends if they want to make something. Don’t wait around., keep chasing with enthusiasm and energy. My colleagues and I made a short film in three days called “Vamos Carajo” inspired by the World Cup. It won an award for “Best Editing” and “Best Smart Phone Film” awarded by the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. I wrote the story and played the lead along a very talented cast including Juan Tesaire (Before You Go).
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Bella Kouds
Bella Kouds, a Zimbabwean born drama enthusiast first started acting in the National Theatre of Zimbabwe in 2013, and has taken part in several workshops in London, Stratford Upon Avon and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Other productions include The Sound of Music, Les Miserables and The Crucible. Bella has performed in “Carnal Hall” Switzerland and was a finalist in “the Kids Voice” 2018. She continues to sing. Bella recently graduated from the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York (2022) and dedicates her energies pursuing the dramatic arts. Her most recent roles have been Eurydice in “Eurydice” directed by Illana Stein (NYC), and Anna in “Anatomy of a Suicide” directed by Olivia Songer (NYC). She’s thrilled to be a part of her first Off-Broadway production of “Hamlet” where she will be playing the role Hamlet. Bella believes in looking through the other side of the telescope, and sees magic in almost everything. A quote she strongly lives by is “your attitude determines your altitude”.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this interview series. I was fortunate to be born and raised in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, which is the most incredible country. My childhood was filled with the wonders of nature, where towering trees replaced skyscrapers and the outdoors became my personal sanctuary. Within my home, creativity thrived. My mother would constantly fill our living room with music, introducing me to diverse languages and cultures through different records. Movie nights were treasured family moments, the first film that profoundly impacted me at the age of 10 was “Cinema Paradiso”. It was astonishing to witness how cinema and music could evoke such deep emotions within me. I was certain that the entire world must of felt the same way and that each one of us connected someway to the performing arts. Despite my initial shyness, I was encouraged to join the drama club in second grade, a decision that would ultimately shape my life. Little did I know that this simple act would become my true calling. Acting quickly became my comfort zone and safe haven. Growing up in Zimbabwe was vastly different from the bustling streets of New York. We were not exposed to the street corner theatres or an abundance of performing art venues, nonetheless we had our esteemed National Theatre of Zimbabwe, Reps Theatre, a single venue that held the key to my dreams. I distinctly remember auditioning for “The Sound of Music” and eagerly seeking feedback from my parents in the garden. To my delight, I was cast as Brigitta, a role that held immense significance for me. It marked the beginning of my true journey in the world of acting-a career, not just a fleeting hobby. A year later, I was honored to receive the AFDIS award for Best Performance by an actor under 16 in Zimbabwe.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Being the third child often called for sudden or rather automated skill to enable attention or to deter from it — depending on the situation. This sparked the “performer” or “entertainer” in me. Witnessed the laughter and joy on my family and friends faces enabled me to communicate and connect with them on a different level. This fulfilled me. Drama fascinated me and I was a keen participant in primary school, and this extended to theatre classes as extracurricular outside school. My noticeable ability to create and perform was noted and my family’s support and encouragement to attend improvisation courses and further acting training began.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Susan Grace Cohen, my acting coach, is the person I am incredibly grateful for. As I’ve grown older, doubts and insecurities have crept in, perhaps due to the harsh realities of life. When I began my professional training in New York, uncertainty clouded my mind. People around me were pursuing university degrees, and when I mentioned being in acting school, I faced questions about my degree or ignorant remarks about chasing fame. It was in my first 9 am acting class with Susan Cohen that my nerves kicked in. I wondered if I was good enough amidst the presence of Al Pacino at the institute. Susan Cohen, a stern yet endearing teacher, called us up one by one. I introduced myself, and she urged me to speak up. She assigned me a scene for the following week. When I read the play “Danny In The Deep Sea”, I questioned her motive : was it to test and challenge or provoke my inability or ability. The following week I performed the scene, she asked me to stay behind after class, which only heightened my anxiety. With everyone gone, she asked me to step onto the stage and inquired about my singing ability, stressing its importance for actors. After I sang, she asked how long I had been training. I mentioned two years, to which she responded, “You don’t need to train for that long. You should go out there and start working because you’re ready”. In that moment, something within me clicked, and I began to believe in myself more than ever before. Since that class, Susan Cohen has been an unwavering mentor, teacher, and friend throughout my acting career. Her support and unwavering belief in me have instilled the confidence that I can tackle any role that suits me. I believe her influence has somehow attracted favorable audition outcomes in my journey.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I recently had an incredible opportunity to attend an online seminar on “Actor’s Connection” where I got the chance to showcase a short monologue to three talented managers. It was a nerve-wracking yet thrilling experience as I eagerly awaited their feedback. One week later, to my astonishment, I received a call from one of the managers expressing interest in representing me. It was a dream come true, knowing that my hard work and dedication had paid off and opened up new doors in my acting career.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Of course! Mistakes are often our greatest teachers. When I was starting out, I applied for an audition that required cabaret dancing skills. Feeling confident, I submitted my application, assuming I could handle the cabaret section if I got the role. After all, I had experience in ballet and tap dancing. To my surprise, I was called in for an in-person audition. I presented myself well until the judge announced, “Time for everyone’s favorite part”. The realization hit me that I was not prepared for everyone’s favorite part, especially in cabaret dancing. The following moments involved three uncomfortable and delusional minutes of improvised cabaret dancing that left both the judges and myself feeling uneasy. We all left the theater pretending nothing had happened. From that experience, I learned a valuable lesson: never lie or exaggerate about your skills. It is important to be honest and only present yourself for opportunities where you genuinely possess the required abilities. The incident served as a reminder to always stay true to my capabilities and never overstate my expertise.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Currently, I am thrilled to be playing the role of Hamlet in an off-Broadway production at the Flea Theatre in Tribecca. Directed by Emma Tadmor, this adaptation of Hamlet features four different characters, each representing a theme of Hamlet’s mental state. Many consider my portrayal of Hamlet to be the most intriguing, often referring to it as the “crazy one”. It’s an exhilarating experience as I explore the blurred lines between genuine lunacy and calculated performance. Once I step onto the stage, I surrender to the impulses that guide my character, allowing for an organic and dynamic performance. I believe in maintaining an open interpretation of the “lunacy” aspect, embracing the fluidity of the character’s state of mind. The show has been incredibly well-received, with all performances thus far sold out. If you’re interested, I recommend securing your tickets promptly through
the RJ Theatre Company website.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
Embarking on a career in acting can indeed be challenging, but I have a few words of advice for those who may feel daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure. First and foremost, it is crucial to understand that rejection is an integral part of an actor’s journey. It should never be taken personally. Repeated instances of rejection can understandably lead to feelings of discouragement, but it is essential to constantly remind yourself that this is an inherent aspect of the profession. The moment you do land a role, it reignites the spark of hope within you. The success of one role serves as fuel, propelling you forward amidst the forthcoming rounds of rejections. It is vital to recognize that rejection is akin to an actor’s “9–5”. Accepting this reality allows you to detach personal feelings of failure from the craft itself. Instead, you develop a resilient mindset that enables you to persevere. Moreover, finding ways to stay creative and engage in your craft is crucial. Embrace the opportunity to create, whether it’s through personal projects, collaborations, or continuous skill development. Remember, every rejection is a step closer to the right opportunity. Stay focused, dedicated, and committed to honing your craft. Embrace rejection as a stepping stone on your path to success, and let it fuel your determination to keep pushing forward.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Listen to your body. Our bodies are constantly telling us what feels right or what feels overworked. Pay attention to what routine your body leans into. When we get too in our heads and aren’t aware of our body, burn outs tend to happen. It takes a bit of time to fully understand how to be on your best and healthiest form, but your body will tell you. There’s a fine line between pushing yourself and burning out. Burning out is often caused from lack of awareness, or putting too much of your energy and time into the wrong things. In rehearsals I ask myself “how can I conserve my physical energy today?” if I am feeling physically drained. Or If I am feeling emotional, I’ll do something to help me release that emotional tension. I also believe in being present. Being in a rehearsal space, and leaving stresses outside the space, grounds me. Connecting to the material and your fellow actors is a beautiful way to stay present.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- GO THE EXTRA MILE — Arrive a little earlier to an audition, leave a thank you note, bring a clean copy of your headshot and resume, be polite, be grateful. After I got the role of Bella in the short film “Our Song” directed by Sophie Fazio, she reached out to me 3 years later and asked me to be a part of her new upcoming short film. We wrapped that film a week ago.
- CONNECT — Connect with everyone. Invite people to watch plays you’re in. Collaborate with fellow actors. Lift one another up. Create a base of artists that all use and support one another. The director whom directed my graduating conservatory programme was holding auditions for Alice Birch’s play “Anatomy of A Suicide” at the Imra Sandrey Theatre NYC. I heard about the casting, read the script and went in for an audition two days later. I had made a previous connection that benefited me in the future and allowed me the opportunity to audition for this play. When I was awarded this incredible challenging role (Anna) I was filled with gratitude although playing a drug addict was disturbing and bouts of depression engulfed me to the realities around us at large.
- KEEP CREATING — No matter how many rejections one faces, keep creating. Always look for ways to be in something, to be an extra, to help on set, ask friends if they want to make something. Don’t wait around., keep chasing with enthusiasm and energy. My colleagues and I made a short film in three days called “Vamos Carajo” inspired by the World Cup. It won an award for “Best Editing” and “Best Smart Phone Film” awarded by the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. I wrote the story and played the lead along a very talented cast including Juan Tesaire (Before You Go).
- TAKE YOUR CHARACTERS SERIOULSLY — Indeed, this is vital! Taking oneself seriously is essential. Preparation is key. You need to have knowledge on the play, your character, what they’re dealing with, what they’re going through, their wants, their needs, their insecurities, their secrets, their favorite song, their biggest fear. You need to respect them and make room for them to be in your life. Our job as actors is to serve our characters and to serve the story, we are just a vessel for our characters story. When the auditions for Sarah Ruhls “Eurydice” were called, it was imperative to consume the characters emotive state of being. The procedure is often demanding and sometimes draining and yet once one is able to deliver this, it is an incredibly liberating feeing. I made many choices before walking into my audition. You cannot just ride the talent card, it goes hand in hand with work. Talent is there — sure, but the effort and work is apparent. I was ecstatic when I got the role of Eurydice in Eurydice directed by Illana Stein in the Marilyn Monroe Theatre NYC.
- ROUTINE AND KEEP BUSY OUTSIDE OF REHERSALS — As an actor we will have days, maybe months where we don’t get work. This makes me feel unmotivated at times and then I get sluggish and lose faith. NO! Make a routine and stick to it, working actor or not, we have to create our own different active day to day job. After working on a play for months, putting in my heart and soul and physical energy into my characters, it all goes out the window after closing night, and the blues that hit after a run of a play are not easy to handle. I often feel as though I crafted and created this character into a living state. I took them off the page and made them exist and then I have to let them go just like that. Having an untouched routine outside of rehearsals keeps me grounded especially when I’ve finished the run of a production. Currently, I am honored to be an assistant teacher at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Film Institute where I teach kids acting on the weekend.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
Theatre is LIVE, it’s living. There is no chance to redo anything. It’s a once in a lifetime moment. It’s impulsive and it’s riveting. One needs to constantly be aware and allow the artistic-ness in the performer to engage in the moment, with no second chance or retake. An actor has to let their guard down, you has to let their desire to be good down. They cannot have or create any expectations of how they want the scene to go. After working on a character, we must move ourselves out of our own way, and make space for our character to exist and be. The actor must now let it fly, trust the work and everything that was put into creating the character. Film is more tedious. Hitting the exact mark, being on set all day and waiting till you’re hair and makeup and crew are ready before you can do your scene. In theatre the most obvious skills needed are making use of the space, projection, and behavior. In theatre you have to find a way of making your vocal projection and movements through the stage feel natural and easy.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Raising awareness for mental health in Zimbabwe. Advocating for affordable and accessible healthcare for all, supporting medical research and innovation, and working towards equitable healthcare systems. My sister has created an app that offers free mental care and help in Zimbabwe, “The Nani Wellness Project” which focuses on mental health, an overlooked health issue that has begun to affect many Zimbabweans and I would love to help develop it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
YOUR ATTITUDE DETERMINES YOUR ALTITUDE
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
That would have to be Greta Gerwig, I bumped into her on 5th avenue and couldn’t stop gleaming all day. My short interaction with her was nothing short of magic. I love her work and she had the most beautiful energy. I hope to work with her someday.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
Through my Instagram, I post all of my projects and work there.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
I am grateful for your kind and warm words of encouragement, it is much appreciated and thank you sincerely for taking the time to listen to my journey.