Someone Wrote on the Wall… With Permission, Naturally (The Art of Jerking-Off a Corpse)

29 Aug

To begin with, I must confess to envy. I envy the reasonable success of my peers and even the continued successes of those who came before me. I cannot help but measure my progress against the theatre-makers around me. My envy does not necessarily stretch to the quality of work, but let’s face it, the admiration of the industry (and the cash, little as it is to the real world) is something that I cannot help but want. Who doesn’t like having their genitals stroked by the movers and shakers of one’s chosen profession (a term to be used very loosely, unless you’re the GM/CEO of a theatre – Malcolm “The Percolator” Purkey, Lara “What’s that on your” Foot, Daniel “Big Red” Galloway, or Pieter “Jesus do we hate you” Toerien.)

It was with this hidden envy that I attended the Gordon Institute of Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) Directors & Directing Conference, with the focus this time around being on playwrights and their role in the theatre industry. I will relieve your suspense about what was decided the role of the playwright should be: The playwright should be shot and buried in a field on the outskirts of SA Theatreville. That’s a bit overstated, so allow me to re-phrase. The idea of the sole author with a distinctive voice and a personal vision of the world (real and created) that doesn’t play into a state sanctioned social agenda was frowned upon the entire weekend. Socially uplifting, community orientated, multicultural, all inclusive, positive, life affirming, comforting, false theatre was decreed as the way forward.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of the elements I mentioned above (even false theatre can have its rewards), but if it’s the only theatre we are committed to, then we are making eunuchs of ourselves. As it turned out, the conference was there not to actually explore the role of the playwright (as author), but to come together and wallow in our own destruction by our own means and talk about our industry as one might talk about archaeology: in academic terms, with historical reverence and an admittance that all this “writer” shit belongs to another age.

As a writer I shudder and reach for the gin.

While I agree that various forms of theatre are what could make the industry great, to ignore the singular voice of the author is to ignore the possibility of truly original visions. The group-think that comes with workshop theatre and the allowance of every voice to have a part in the story, is on occasion a bore. It is choral work versus a single person singing. Both can be beautiful (or awful) but the true personality of the singer emerges clearer when heard on its own, as opposed to in a group. Both can be moving, both have value, but to eschew one in favour of the other is moronic and dangerous.

The theatre of Mandla Bothwe and Mark Fleishman’s work with Magnet Theatre are great examples of workshop theatre that works, as much as the present day plays of “King of sole authors” Athol Fugard is theatre that doesn’t work (because it’s boring as fuck). But the successes of workshop theatre is now being used as ammunition against the idea of someone sitting down and writing a good play (unhindered by social responsibility, political correctness, inclusion of different points of view) and having it produced and living a life on the stage as well as the page.

What worried me most about the conference (besides from me taking to the free wine like a cat to an injured bird) were the clear voices of some of my peers and the way they were admired for their views, but completely ignored when it came to discussing solutions to our dire-as-motherfuck situation. Writers Juliet Jenkin and Amy Jephta (two lady chicks who make up a lot of my envy) both gave presentations urging the industry to acknowledge and nurture the singular voice in theatre. They spoke with joy and weariness about the process of writing and the need for truth over wish-fulfillment. They were applauded, their names were dropped in other people’s presentations, and then they were shoved aside in order for us to hear more from the elders (not only in terms of age, but also in position) of this world and how their solutions are dependent on our of acceptance of their strangle-hold over the industry.

The conference ended with a discussion of what we’ve learned (that’s right, folks. Like a classroom) led by Malcolm “Sophiatown: We get it!” Purkey, which seemed more like a group eulogy (workshop theatre practitioners take note). The final message seemed to be, “Walk the line, play the game, keep your fucking mouth shut.” The last word of the symposium came from young playwright Joanna Evans. She asked what the future for someone like her would be. How could she survive in this industry and keep making work that is personal to her while not necessarily playing by the rules set forth by the bureaucrats who run the theatres and head up the National Arts Council and bring about storms of mediocrity from the highest (lowest) echelons of government and non-governmental institutions?

At that point two things happened: I added another person to my envy list, and more significantly, no one answered her.

No one could answer her.

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3 Responses to “Someone Wrote on the Wall… With Permission, Naturally (The Art of Jerking-Off a Corpse)”

  1. Adam August 29, 2012 at 12:48 #

    stupid bastards.

  2. JK August 29, 2012 at 14:56 #

    If we are fortunate enough to keep getting an annual theatre weekend such as this, I would suggest next year’s symposium focus on: ‘solutions for theatre/ ideas that are working’ or something along those lines. I was only there for one day but there seemed to be a serious lack of answers to the basic questions of ‘making it work’.

    • Tara August 29, 2012 at 15:21 #

      I second that.

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