Like Gas, This Too Shall Pass

6 Jun

I recently served as an adjudicator for the annual Edenvale Acting & Dramatic Society (EADS) Schools Play Festival, during which I, along with Clara Vaughn, watched and critiqued 18 one-act plays performed and directed (with a few original scripts) by high-school students. Some of these plays were superior to the rest and I was more than happy to laud them with praise and EADS agreed… for the most part. Seeing as Edenvale High and Edenglen High are the go-to schools for the children of the EADS members and form a huge part of the festival’s base, they were dismayed by our (the judges) criticisms of the work performed by the these schools. We were kindly instructed to take it easy and not piss in the eyes of the preferred regulars. This, of course, was something we refused to do and the wave of outrage was palpable, if perhaps a little passive-aggressive (very few people actually said anything, instead choosing to eyeball me from dark corners with glasses of sherry and packets of salt and vinegar chips keeping their mouths busy.)

The other major upset of the festival was our consideration of “Anti-Clockwise” for the top prize. “Anti-Clockwise” is a play written and directed by Rifumo Mdaka, a very talented grade 12 student from the National School of The Arts (NSA). The play contained some sexual suggestion and mild violence, but nothing worse than your average episode of Name-Any-Shitty-Show-On-SABC or, for that matter, more mild than some of the other plays in the festival. What followed was something that might seem rare to some, but is actually a regular occurance in the arts and entertainment world. The shit hit the fan as EADS told Clara and I not to consider the play for the final round of the festival due to the “shockingly inappropriate” content and the reactions of the audience (mostly made up of Edenglen High’s supporters.)

The situation got increasingly worse when a woman wrote a letter to EADS and to the NSA accusing the school, the actors, the director and the judges (hey… that’s me!) of human rights violations, exploitation and child pornography. Predicting that more complaints would follow, EADS barred “Anti-Clockwise” from performing in the final round and forced the play to accept a third-place award, without allowing them to compete for second or first place. The prediction, however, proved incorrect. No one else complained. In fact, the overwhelming support from schools and parents not associated with the NSA made the decision that EADS came to look like the knee-jerk reaction it was. This is very often the case of brilliant art exposed to people who are unwilling to venture out of their comfort levels.

The play was rewarded with numerous awards, and when the time came for the director to accept the third place award, he rightly and graciously refused to accept. My affection and respect for that young man reached preposterous levels in that moment.

What follows is a letter I wrote to EADS during the festival. I have removed the name of the woman who caused the ruckus, seeing as she might get litigious on my ass. (Kiss my puckered asshole, you filthy creature.)

Dear EADS Members,

As you may know, I am very disappointed by what has happened regarding “Anti-Clockwise”, the play submitted and performed by The National School of the Arts on the last night of the preliminary round of the EADS Schools Festival. I remain dismayed by your reaction and your decision to penalize them by not letting them perform on the final night and disqualifying them from winning the top prize in the festival. You have essentially nullified any say we (the judges) have in the decision of who will win, which makes it clear that our position in the festival was merely ceremonial and not worth the effort. We gave each play its due, but the game, it seems, was rigged. We should’ve realized something was brewing when, on the first night, our adjudication of Edenvale High’s play was met with outrage, by parents and some of your members. One explanation you gave when defending Edenvale High and criticizing NSA, was that the festival is about “having fun.” In our adjudication of both plays we clearly stated our impression that Edenvale wasn’t having fun, and that NSA was having fun (serious work can be fun.) This worries me tremendously, because it seems that the people participating in the festival have to adhere to your standard of “fun” instead of their own. That, unfortunately, is not the definition of fun.

I realize that your decision has been made regarding the final night of the festival and NSA’s position therein, and I’m not attempting to reverse that. My reason for writing this letter is to warn you of the dangerous precedent you are setting for future festivals. The message you are sending is that the kids who enter your festival are possibly allowing themselves to be treated unfairly, judged morally instead of artistically and generally left at the mercy of angry, uncreative and sour adults who cannot distinguish between a school concert and a play (they are not the same.) Added to that, the fact that you caved so easily in the face of a morally hypocritical onslaught makes for a doubtful future of your organization being a force of good in terms of fostering new artists into this fragile industry. As facilitators of art, which you definitely are or should be, it is not your job to pass judgement on the moral values of a play or its participants. You can judge the quality and therefore keep it from being exhibited, but to claim offence or a lack of understanding due to the uncomfortable content and therefore disqualifying certain works, goes far beyond your purview.

I urge you not to go further down this road. The question of whether a play merits entry into your festival should be based on the play’s ability to entertain, provoke thought and encourage learners to continue in their endeavors. It should not be based on whether your members understood the work or agreed with the content. Censorship is the enemy of art; it always has been, it always will be. Reactionary tactics that may result in your decisions to bar certain works to be performed will be construed as a failure on your part to view theater as a subjective experience, and will shine a light on EADS as a censorship-heavy, bullying festival where one has to toe the line and not risk exposing oneself as a progressive artist. The vetting procedures you are considering putting into effect will do more harm than good, even if some of your members won’t see it that way. When you begin to decide on whether a play is morally acceptable for your audience, you set in motion a series of mistakes which will result in the neutering of good work. No one seemed to object to Greenside’s “The Pillowman” and that contained swearing, fratricide and graphic descriptions of child-murder. That play also reached the finals, but because Ms P_____ K_____ and her fanatic cohorts didn’t see that play (or if they did, failed to see anything objectionable in it) and perhaps because EADS views violence as acceptable and sexual suggestion as something shameful and dirty, NSA had to bear the brunt of the “moral” attacks. If you implement your new strategy of vetting plays because of the perceived moral objections of your audience, then plays like “The Pillowman” would also be cut from the festival.

So, I urge you once again to not bow to the fanatics and the hypocrites. They have no interest in the progression of art. Their interests lie in making themselves feel superior to the grunts who make their living trying to entertain people like Ms K_____ and her army of nincompoops.

To conclude, I’m not writing this for selfish reasons. I am very aware that I will never be asked for my involvement in any of EADS’s future projects or festivals. I am writing this because of my naïve care for this industry and the young people who are interested in entering this world. EADS can provide a safe environment for aspiring writers/directors/actors to hone their craft and I hope this will be the case in future festivals.


Louis Viljoen

One Response to “Like Gas, This Too Shall Pass”

  1. Fiona Wallace June 13, 2011 at 21:56 #

    You beat me to my blog! A fabulous piece. What would PK and her EADS acolytes have said about the two plays that came first and second in RAPS?

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