Backslapping As A Theatrical Form Of Self-Abuse (Not to mention entertainment)

4 Aug

Cape Town – Last Weekend

On the second day of the Directing Symposium, I arrived with a demon called Abraxas straddling my head and calling himself the master of all lies and both God and the Devil. He cleverly disguised himself as a hangover and seemed determined to haunt me for the rest of the very long day. I knew then that somehow I had made the mistake in thinking that any good could come from this symposium.

The Directors and Directing gabfest, presented by The Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA), was meant to serve as a forum in which the art of theater directing and the role of the director could be dissected and discussed by means of expert panels, selected pieces of work, lectures and interrogation by the audience. This was the intention and in some way, it was executed. The devil, as we all know and what Abraxas kept reminding me of, is in the details. The fault does not lie with GIPCA. In fact it does not lie implicitly with anyone participating in the forum (they are who they are, and that’s the way it is,) but rather in the fact that from such a seemingly important and much desired event came nothing but the growing divides between the “I have, I haves”, the “I want, I wants” and those of us stuck in the middle. The “I haves” are the ones that have made their names and are considered to be deities of the theater. The “I wants” are their disciples, their groupies and the ones who desperately want to be liked by those they count as important. The rest are, well, the rest: Those who do the work, worry about the work and want to participate in the evolution and not the devolution of theater.

The first evening was an indicator of how things would go, but only in hindsight. The audience was greeted by the very affable Jay Patha (who, throughout the weekend, was trying to stave off the apocalypse) and we were then treated to the mad ramblings of Gay Morris, who seems to be vying for the role of the Mad Cat Lady in the live-action “The Simpsons” movie, albeit with a better vocabulary. Following her was Aubrey Sekhabi who spoke with unadulterated joy and a modicum of intelligence of his time spent in the theater world and surprised the audience (or at least me) with his enthusiasm, especially in an industry and a town where showing your love for something is considered severely un-cool and is reserved for bloggers, children and retards (one and the same, some might say.) The true high-low-light of the evening was revered theater veteran and Grand Dragon of the Market Theater Malcolm Purkey, who displayed such supreme gas-baggery that he started to resemble a person farting into a bottle and trying to sell it as perfume. The audience was then invited to sniff at the bottle and the response was one of gratitude and reverence. He claimed to be a populist and displayed that fact by not saying anything of importance, but merely put on a clever magic show that fooled the “I want I wants” and impressed the “I have I haves” in a manner that Hitler was impressed by Napoleon. (Not that I’m accusing the theater Gods of being Nazi’s or warlords. No, no, no. That would be egregious.) Cheap red wine and awkward flirtation with American tourists seemed to be the only way that I could wash the evening off my skin. I suspect this to be the invitation Abraxas needed to cuddle up to my brain.

Day two, as I said, was hellish in its opening. Little was I to know that soon the state of my hangover and the invasion of my headspace by the demon would prove to be respite compared to what awaited us at the first panel: The Director’s Signature. Six directors were invited to speak about the idea of director as auteur and explain, in as many words as possible, what their specific signatures were. Janice Honeyman, that money-making machine behind the pantomimes that have strangled Johannesburg’s theater industry, started off by oinking her theories and success stories to the nine o’clock crowd. I didn’t much care what she had to say and instead amused myself by trying to find look-alikes of “Homicide: Life on the Street” cast members. (I found a Richard Belzer, a Melissa Leo and a Kyle Secor. Alas, no Yaphet Kotto. Not that that’s indicative of anything… or is it? No, it’s not… Or maybe it is.) Claire Stopford decided to bore the living shit out of everyone by reading from some sort of thesis that explained, very academically, her approach to theater. She used Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” as an example of how she would dissect a play, which seemed as relevant as quoting the Bible when asked to advise on a rape or a hate-crime (too much?) Master stylist and Kabuki, Noh and all things Japanese obsessed director Geoffrey Hyland found an excuse to refer to himself in the third-person by reading an essay written by an ex-student of his that examined his work. Wouldn’t we all like to oversee our own reviews, dear reader? Uncle Loo definitely didn’t agree with Hyland’s tactics. It was at this point that one of the shining moments of the weekend happened to me. Theater stalwart and force of nature Diane Wilson leaned over to me, who she doesn’t know, and whispered, “I came in late. How many of these fucking people have spoken already?” I informed her that we were half-way through the panel and she exhaled loudly, rubbed her face and said, “Ah, Jesus Christ! What the fuck are they talking about?” The last part wasn’t a question, but an insider’s comment about the circle-jerk that was happening before us. James Nqobo showed youthful exuberance and excitement about the craft and Mandla Mbothwe proved that he didn’t belong on the panel by actually making sense and explained his process without using the opportunity to fuel his ego.

The director’s panel was the most important panel of the symposium, but it showed the cracks in the industry, which are ego, self-obsession and a certain out-of-touch with reality viewpoint, with the exception of the last two directors I mentioned. As much as my bitterness might come across as gleeful, I was saddened by the fact that we learnt nothing about what these people do to improve the industry that supports them. They did manage to put the audience at ease by implying gratefulness to being listened to, but all in all the façade was left unchallenged as I suspect most of us prefer the status-quo. And we absolutely motherfucking shouldn’t.

The second panel of the day was one where veteran actors speak about directing and directors. This was mostly uninspiring and boring, except for three moments: Dawid Minnaar sounding like a cross between Marlena Dietrich and William Shatner (“I… have been working… in… theater for… a long… time.”) Diane Wilson (my new crush) spewing bile and not giving a shit about anyone and showing off a wonderfully vulgar mouth. And the moment Nicholas Ellenbogen decided to berate Chuma Sopotela and Faniswa Yisa for talking about how they still make “struggle” theater and plays that explore their cultural identities and what it means to be a black woman. The audience went very silent as Mr. Ellenbogen went on his mini-tirade and exclaimed that they (the two actresses) need to move on and “who cares if you’re black or white or whatever.” A clearly infuriated Mandla Mbothwe took the microphone and laid into Mr. Ellenbogen in a way that was reminiscent of the rebuke that Joseph McCarthy got from the U.S senate in the 1950’s (“Have you no decency, sir, at long last?”) Except that Mr. Mbothwe looked like he might jump up and cold-cock the old actor, which would’ve served as a fitting end to the day. Which it was, for me at least. The hangover had won, and I decided to retreat to my hovel and battle with Abraxas without the distraction of the theater community trying to make itself feel at ease about becoming redundant in its complacency.

Day Three started off with brunch, coffee and a performance directed by Sanjin Muftic that was capable, intelligent in its argument as an example of rehearsal technique and of absolutely no importance to anyone trying to make a living in theater. It was too academic; a trend that was emerging from the symposium.

The first panel of the day was given to young (emerging) directors and was a relief after the ego-driven nonsense of the previous day’s panels. Amy Jephta spoke with an authority and a clarity that seemed out of place for a twenty-three year old and I found myself respecting her despite not being a fan of her work (and I needn’t be in order to think she’s bright, you naysayers out there). Neil Coppen was the only person throughout the conference who brought up the lack of good writers in the industry and brought up the possibility of the old guard standing in the way of the new. He didn’t elaborate too much and I suspect this is because he doesn’t want to ruffle too many feathers in the industry that has now embraced him (ruffle, young man, ruffle!) The great moment of revelation came when audience member, trouble-maker and father of one Adam Neill asked what pisses these young directors off. It was as if a valve had been released and the pressure to be a pretentious theater dickhead had been relieved. The young directors became more animated as they started to bitch-slap industry sacred cows and conventions, but were too quickly halted by Janni Younge who seemed determined to smooth things over and bring the discussion back to what she thought was important: positivity, unity, smelling other people’s farts, bullshit, bullshit and bullshit. It was a pity, because for a few brief moments the bitterness and righteous anger that a lot of people have were allowed to shine through.

Side note: One can still be possessed of anger and bitterness and not hate theater. The one does not mean the other. Those who think that complacency has provided forward momentum in the arts should shuffle back to their happy caves and continue their metamorphosis into trees.

The final panel was made up of journalists and critics and an immediate truce was declared. “We’re on your side. Say it with me now: We’re on your side.” That was the summary of what was said. This is not the fault of the journalists, but the fault of the perceived audience. They did not want to hear from journalists that they could do better, but merely that the journalist were there to make them look good. Thank fuck for Marianne Thamm who, when asked how she could better serve the theater-makers, said, “I do not serve you. I serve my readers.” That was met with a very careful applause by some, and disgruntled snorts from others. Abraxas, my brain-drilling demon, wanted to jump up and kiss that feisty lesbian Ms. Thamm right on the lips, but I kept him at bay with promises of future forays into drunk-town.

Nothing much was learned at GIPCA’s Directors and Directing conference, at least not by me and most of the people I spoke to (those I enjoy speaking to) feel the same. What was a revelation was the theater industry’s ability to ignore the bigger problems (lack of good writers, audience pandering, archaic modes of communication, class-systems) and the fostering of a new breed of complacent rule-followers by those who wish to keep theater in their very slippery grips. To go back to Ms Thamm, who said it the best, “We are in crisis.”

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7 Responses to “Backslapping As A Theatrical Form Of Self-Abuse (Not to mention entertainment)”

  1. Adam August 4, 2011 at 20:28 #

    yup, pretty much how I remember it.

  2. Anonymous August 5, 2011 at 22:06 #

    nicely said uncle loo! And I agree with Ms Thamm, we are in a crisis. What is the solution? It feels like we need to cook a new soup in the kitchen. Please forgive the bad metaphor.

    scott sparrow

    • soup nazi August 6, 2011 at 03:55 #

      New soup and a whipping to be had this way. Bring your own tight pants. OInkers on the waiting list.

  3. Meganshippocampalcollapse August 7, 2011 at 06:10 #

    Spot the difference. Read Megan’s kindergarten teacher reply to being asked to do the same. Load up on pesticide. Repeat “Ants at a picnic”. Wade in spraying.

    http://www.meganshead.co.za/?p=2325&cpage=1#comment-17912

  4. Diane Wilson August 10, 2011 at 10:22 #

    Wonderful writing in my opinion. Ever thought of doing stand-up? You could become South Africa’s Bill Maher? Jesus Christ, how we need politically incorrect commentators in this country! David Bullard has now retreated, defeated. A dreadful loss I think.

  5. free iphone5 August 14, 2011 at 20:16 #

    Terrific review! This is exactly the type of article that needs to be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not ranking this article higher!

  6. James Lewis April 21, 2012 at 10:10 #

    A sorry state of affairs indeed.

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