And if I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere; It’s up to you, New York, New York…
When Frank Sinatra first sang this eulogy to New York way back in 1979 (it was originally recorded by Liza Minelli for the 1977 Martin Scorsese film of the same name), he spoke to the souls of so many aspirant performance artists whose hopes of stardom have been dashed on the unfeeling reefs of the city that never sleeps, but it is in this same city that Somerset West-raised Esther van Zyl is making it big in pursuit of her dreams.
Performing captivated her imagination early in life. “I said my first poem at an Eisteddfod in Grade 1, and I completely fell in love with performing,” says Esther, and she embarked on a rich and successful scholastic career (Parel Vallei Dux Pupil 2011, Senior Artes Award in dramatic arts and music, three Cambridge A levels), which paralleled her remarkable achievements in the performing arts (a slew of achievement certificates, honour rolls, and competition achievements), and which culminated in a one-year acting scholarship at the New York Film Academy.
“I saw an advertisement for auditions just before graduating from Stellenbosch University in 2014, with a BA degree in theatre and drama studies, with psychology – and two weeks after the audition I heard I’d been granted the scholarship. Within three months I’d packed my bags, and was on the way to New York.”
Esther arrived in New York on January 20, 2015, and now lives in the apartment of her dreams – a fourth-floor walk-up, atop a building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which she shares with four flatmates.
Her greatest achievement to date, Esther says, is the film A Life After Her, which she co-wrote with Brazilian director Guilherme Festa.
Currently in post-production in Brazil, the film tells of a young catholic girl coming to terms with the death of her best friend (played by South African actress, Jana Coetzer), through an unexpected romance.
The film was co-produced by Melvin James and Anna Cianculli, well-known industry names, and she got to act alongside the likes of James Price, the founding artistic director of The Acting Studio. The film will hopefully screen at several acclaimed international film festivals during 2017.
On her acting ability Melvin James observed that “… she definitely ranks among one of the best young actresses that I have had the pleasure to work with in my many years in this industry.”
Several other film, TV and theatre projects followed, and she was recently cast as one of 12 young professional women successfully pursuing careers in the entertainment industry in New York in an upcoming TV series called Make It.
Although she cut her teeth on stage, her time in film-acting has led her to favour this medium. “There’s a magic about film-acting that is much more intimate than on stage, and whereas the theatre experience is very intense, and offers immediate catharsis and this wonderful, tangible relationship with your audience, there’s something eternal and far-reaching about film,” says Esther, adding that she hopes to write and produce in film in the future.
But making it in the Big Apple is no easy task, and for one so young – Esther is just 22 – she has made remarkable progress. Aside from being a semi-finalist in the Manhattan Monologue Slam earlier this year, Esther also worked as a member of award-winning theatre company, BrickaBrack.
Esther was fortunate enough to become a regular performer at The Players Club, a famous community of established entertainment industry professionals in the heart of New York. Well-known playwright Pamela Yaco has cast Esther as female lead in two concert readings of her new works at The Players Club.
“In both play readings, I got to perform with a cast of veteran Broadway and TV actors. It’s been a very special experience, and a wonderful personal affirmation for me that I am able to hold my own in a room full of seasoned professionals,” says Esther.
Speaking about Esther’s talent, Ms Yaco says:” Ms Van Zyl’s ability to assume the soul of a variety of characters is a rare gift that very few artists will ever hope to possess.”
Esther draws inspiration from some of the great actors of our time including Michelle Williams, Brie Larsen, Kate winslett, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling, Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence, but she singles out Kate Winslett for her versatility, and Meryl Streep for her sheer acting ability and strength of character, as her greatest idols.
But aside from making it in her chosen career, Esther also wants to give back to society. “I want to align my career with humanitarian work,” she says. “One of my dreams is to work with the United Nations to combat social issues, particularly pertaining to women and children in Africa.”
And back home in Somerset West, parents Deon and Elsa van Zyl afford Esther every bit of support they can. “It goes without saying that Elsa and I, as her parents, are incredibly proud of Esther’s achievements,” says dad Deon. “We really had very little to do with her decision to study drama and to move to New York to further her career. It was her dream, so we gave her our full support when she made that decision, and she will continue to have our unconditional support in anything she chooses to do.”