Oral Sex As Superb Theatrical Etiquette

19 May

There exists a culture of fear within the South African theatrical world. This is often unmentioned for two reasons: it is unknown to the general populace (whose interests may or may not be in the theater,) or the participants and propagators of the culture are too complacent to discuss or acknowledge that fear has made itself the sole governor of the theater. Examples of the latter are obvious to anyone who has had even a cursory involvement in the mounting of a play. It is, however, easier to ignore this mongering and acceptance of fear than to tackle it head on. The reason practitioners give to explain this blissful ignorance is that it’s theater, it should be fun; it should not be taken too seriously; why rock the boat? Could this be the only industry that sacrifices the quality of the work on the basis that no one thinks it’s important enough to fight for? Perhaps. Although the South African political arena makes a good go at it (an argument left for another time, I should think.)

The clearest example can be found in the professional relationship between actors and directors. It is true, actors can be a fickle, self-obsessed group of miscreants and directors are, for the most part, prone to ego serving outbursts about their “vision” and the lack of dedication that the actor brings to the work. This cannot be disputed, but it is not the reason for a fearful and fear inducing environment. The problem, it seems, lies in the accepted class structure within the theater. As with any class system, there is a certain amount of abuse that happens because of the acceptance of one’s place in that system. Directors practice their assumed right to talk down to actors and make them feel the wrath of a person suffering from years of desired, but not received, oral sex. The actors then have to service the insecure director in hopes of pleasing him or her enough so that the abuse is halted long enough for the actors/un-paid whores to do what they are there to do, which is to bring the words on the page to life. The actors, however, are not innocent in this abusive relationship. They arrive on their knees from day one, ready to suck or eat the tiny, insecure little organ the director thrusts in their faces (I mean that metaphorically, but it does happen in literal terms on occasion. I’m looking at you, you certain theater “giants of the industry” bastard fucks.) This is either because of the residue that remains from the years spent in a tertiary educational system where they are trained to be loyal subjects to failed theater practitioners (professors and lecturers) or it is because of their belief that the director is not there to direct, but to tell them what to do instead of letting them figure out what to do. If one constantly asks for permission, the person to whom the request is made will, for the sake of expediency, give their permission for something which should not require permission but should be a natural journey of discovery.

The phrase, “Because I said so,” has been heard by almost every actor who has spent a significant time rehearsing and performing plays. This phrase is most often uttered by directors, and I contest that it should be struck from the lexicon of any director. It is unacceptable for a gallery owner to demand that an artist use more yellow in their pieces merely because the gallery owner likes the color yellow. The gallery owner is there to create a safe, marketable environment for the artist to thrive in; he/she is not there to satisfy their own wants and desires where art is concerned, otherwise the gallery owner would not book that artist to exhibit their work in the gallery. The same theory must be applied to directors. If an actor has been cast, and hopefully they were cast for the right reasons, they must be allowed to flourish using the talent and spark that they were cast for in the first place. They must not be cast in order to be molded into the director’s version of what the role should be. But just as the artist showing their work in the gallery shouldn’t add more yellow to their work to satisfy the gallery owner, the actor mustn’t subjugate themselves by agreeing to something they do not understand. They must enquire and strive to find the truth of the character and the work and fight for a middle ground where the intention of the piece meets the best way to bring that intention to light. If they are not given the opportunity, then they should not lie down in defeat but rather create a beachhead and fight for their right to maintain their dignity and let their talent flourish.

That being said, the fear that is evident in this fragile little industry, is not being abated. It is marching through the theater world in full regalia and not enough lovers of theater are doing anything about it.

A few years ago, I had the privilege to act alongside some of the most talented young actors South Africa has to offer. We were directed by a minor legend within the industry in a play that carried its historical importance and international acclaim with the grace that often comes with popular works (decide on that yourself, dear reader.) At one fateful rehearsal, I was asked to perform an action and not understanding the significance of the action or agreeing with the validity of the action, I asked, “Why?” This was met with a collective, shocked intake of breath from the other actors in the scene and the response from the director, who had directed the play before, said, “Because I said so.” When I challenged him on the basis of the character not performing the action considering the historical context of the play, the director’s reasoning behind his wanting me to do the action, was that the actor who previously portrayed that role performed the action. And without objection, I assume. The fact that I had to perform an unscripted action which I disagreed with, only because another actor had done so made me doubt anything else this director had to offer. It also made me doubt the performances of the actors around me, which all of a sudden seemed not to have been created from a place of neutrality, but rather a dogmatic, ego-driven darkness of a successful past. When I complained to my fellow actors about the error I believed the director had made, I was told to respect the great man and to remember that I’m there to serve his vision. And if I couldn’t do that, I should at least learn to keep my mouth shut.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the fear. Yes, the dick wants to be sucked, but you don’t have to suck it. And if you choose not to, no one has the right to rape your face.

2 Responses to “Oral Sex As Superb Theatrical Etiquette”

  1. Kate Pater May 19, 2011 at 14:00 #

    All hail Mr Viljoen! You are certainly not a mincer of words!Note to self: never incur the wrath of Louis…

  2. noclarityhere September 4, 2011 at 13:55 #

    “dogmatic, ego-driven darkness of a successful past”

    Loved this little phrase. I think what you’re saying is so true. I have a friend who has acted in a number of dramatic works both in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and he’s had similar experiences when it came to a clash between the a director’s vision and what he feels is more true to the character. He, unfortunately and inevitably, acquiesces to the director, for fear of rocking the boat, even when he doesn’t understand certain choices.

    I think this constant and unquestioned defering to the director must limit the creativity and joy actors can experience in their performances and translate to mediocre theatre watching for audiences. I always thought theatre was a collaborative process and the director’s role was to help the actors to create a consistent performance and help them to how best to bring the text to life, based on everyone’s input. Obviously, I was grossly incorrect in my idealistic vision of the behind-the-curtains of the theatre-making industry.

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