Bleatings of a Maynardvillain (Why can’t we be frenemies?)

15 Jan

It was the first week of the new year, and not a creature was stirring. The Theatre Town of Cape was scandal free, or rather free of new scandal. The Fleur Du Caps, still months away, had not poisoned theatre practitioners (yet) and turned them against their peers (yet). No festivals were under way, so madness and pioneer-blindness were not issues to be dealt with. As far as theatre was concerned, the week had that new born baby smell. But then I did a fart on the baby.

I arrived home one fine evening after visiting my local pub and perhaps it was the one-too-many Guinnesses (Guinni? Guinnessees?) or even a harmful streak that lives behind my forehead and gets bored a little to easily… in any case, I sat down in front of my computron and booted up the old Facebook and was met with the poster for the annual Maynardville production of a Shakespeare play, this year “Richard III” is the chosen one. Maynardville, the famed outdoor theatre, a branch of Artscape, attended by all ages, a summer ritual, a Cape Town past-time, is the only South African institution (as far as my research intern knows) to guarantee a fully realized Shakespeare production every year. Quite a few of my actor friends have appeared in the plays over the years and various directors, from visionaries to hacks, have attempted to wrangle a decent production out of its cage and onto the moonstruck, windswept stage of Maynardville.

Here’s the rub: in my opinion Maynardville is not very good. Or hasn’t been for a long time (before my time). It’s had acceptable moments, a performance here, an interpretation there, but that makes it even more unacceptable; a promise unfulfilled is worse. My opinion is not shared by everyone, but it is shared by some. And you would think it’s alright to say something, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you? A-ha! You’re wrong. Take that. Shove it, Mr and Mrs Wrong. You are absolutely not allowed to say anything negative about Maynardville, because you are not saying words; you are shitting streams of foul smelling faecal material into the mouths of Grandma Friendly and her knitting circle friends made up of Ouma Rusks, Mrs Balls, The Mandela Family, Woolworths and little AIDS babies.

Before I plead for sanity, let’s go back for a second. There I sat, burping Guinness, the blue glow of Facebook highlighting the pubic-quality of my wannabe-moustache, looking at acclaimed actor Warrick Grier staring at me through Richard III’s eyes, dull text surrounding him, inviting me to travel to Wynberg, bring a bottle of wine, settle in for some Shakespeare-ing and get ready to… um… wait… I almost have it… ugh, damnit… At this point I opened up that little status thing-a-majig and wrote what can be considered the first shot in a war that will ravage the landscape (it won’t, but it’s fun to imagine). Here it is, the first exhibit in the prosecution’s case against me with my puppy dog eyes:

I love the disappointment that comes with the inevitable fuck-up and bastardization of Maynardville’s annual sodomizing of a great Shakespeare play. Go theatre.

“Woah, woah,” I hear you say, “The fuck did Maynardville ever do to you?” Well, not much, dear reader. Not much. Most of what I’ve seen has been dull, obvious and lazy. Some of what I’ve seen has been offensively dull, obvious and lazy. And on a few occasions it has been tantamount to a criminal offense for anyone who loves theatre and in particular, the work of Billy-Bob Shakespeare. It was with this in mind that I said what I said. And I stand by the intention, if not the sarcastic tone. Should I have said it? Why not? Am I allowed to say it? You’re goddamned fucking-A right I’m allowed to say it.

Let’s skip forward to the next morning and the days that followed. I wouldn’t say that shit hit the fan, but the hushed tone of those who took offence was comparable to a threat. Rebuke came from unexpected people who all share the same sentiment: I’m a trouble maker who will only end up hurting myself if I take on Maynardville (Remember, this is Maynardville, not Godzilla. So, you are allowed to laugh.) How dare I, was the theme of the day. My Facebook statement was taken as unfair; an attack on those who live with the angels. A few friends informed me that I was making new enemies. Enemies? Like, bona-fide A-grade enemies? Wait… new enemies? New? I have old enemies? Holy mind-fuckery, who was I? And what… did… I… do…? (Insert obnoxious fart sound effect.)

Let’s start with the obvious plot-hole in this terrible tale: why in pluperfect hell would Maynardville and her play-pals give a flying Cohiba-shaped shit what I have to say? Why is the theatre industry so insecure that institutions, safe and secure and well funded institutions, force us to defend them in the hopes that these institutions, who do more bad than good, will look upon the industry with benevolence and stroke our heads approvingly. Why are we not taking a stand against bad theatre? If the notion that Maynardville does shitty theatre annually sits uncomfortably with you, then let’s change the parameters of the argument: If Maynardville is not bad, then can we all agree that it can be better?

I believe it can be better. I am excited by the idea of a great (or at least with the fully supported plan to be great) fully funded Shakespeare every year. I imagine that world and I smile. I do not smile at the thought of Maynardville’s destruction, because I don’t believe that a void is better than mediocre work. I believe that we, you and I, should be able to say, “This is not good enough.” We should be able to criticise Maynardville without it being taken as an attack on the people who work hard for months to make it a reality. I do not begrudge anyone taking a long-term job, especially in an industry that believes it’s acceptable to underpay (or not pay at all) actors, stage-managers, directors, stagehands etc. I do not criticise a director who attempts to lift the quality of Maynardville’s output, but is shackled by a committee of soft-handed, paranoid, detestable, on-the-verge-of-extinction layabouts who are as terrified of progressive theatre as they are of their own shadows.

How’s that for making enemies?

As I write this, “Richard III” is three days away from opening, and I plan on going. There are talented people working on the production; there are also untalented shit mongers. What if it’s good? Wouldn’t that be something? I would praise it, but more importantly I would be expected to praise it. And if it’s not? Should we shut up? Where do we draw the line between allowing something to float into obscurity, and fighting for the idea of doing better?

I’ll admit my expectations are low, but this allows me to enjoy it even more if it’s good. Then I’ll eat my words, Maynardville. Go ahead, prove me wrong. I dare you.

17 Responses to “Bleatings of a Maynardvillain (Why can’t we be frenemies?)”

  1. Diane Wilson at 10:23 #

    Louis, remember how you felt when a critic (I think Peter Tromp) gave you a bad review for “Champ”? If I remember correctly you felt quite hostile towards him? It is a fact that actors and directors and writers (except those like Shakespeare who are dead and couldn’t give a fuck what the critics say) who are in the midst of a production are hyper-sensitive about negative criticism. Maybe the more mature among us can look back at past criticism and think in retrospect “Well maybe I was pretty shit” but all I was saying to you was if you write negatively about a production/performance before it has opened or while it is playing, the chances are that those directors or performers you have denigrated are not likely to feel anything but hostility towards you. I avoid opening nights in case I am forced to give an opinion and I know from experience that if my opinion is a negative one, I will make some enemies.

  2. Uncle Loo at 10:50 #

    Diane, I completely understand you cautioning me in regards to what I say about a production in process, but I was commenting on Maynardville as I have experienced it over the past five or six years. I am hoping that this next production is an improvement, as I don’t enjoy (as much as people think I do) going to the theatre and seeing a bad show. I think Maynardville has been a wasted opportunity for many years, but I don’t feel the same towards the people who work on it. Work is work. But to keep quiet about bad theatre, especially funded theatre, goes against every instinct I have. Most of us don’t make a cent on the shows we do, but we endeavor to make good theatre. Maynardville hasn’t tried in years. And why should they? Everyone gets their paychecks at the end of the day, there is a guaranteed audience and they know the following year they’ll do it again. And if you play nice, don’t make waves, and listen to and cow-tow to the hierarchy, then you may get the chance to be involved again. I think it’s time they earn an audience and earn the right to have talented people working for them.

    In regards to last year’s little tussle with Mr Tromp: I was reacting (quite strongly, I admit) to a review he wrote of another play, where he name dropped my play (CHAMP) as one of the year’s disasters. My issue with him was that he never reviewed my play and made a statement without backing it up.

    I have received bad reviews in the past, as we all have, and my work has been criticized by many people. It is the audience’s right to criticize. I would never attack someone or make an enemy of them if they didn’t like a play of mine. It is not personal. So why am I being “warned” by people to keep my mouth shut lest I want to be hated in the industry? And I don’t mean you, because we are friends and you expressing an opinion about something I write is your right. I mean the people who question my right to do so. My friend ran into a respected director, a man I like and admire and someone not involved in Maynardville, and he told my friend to tell me to watch myself, because I’m making trouble for myself. Can you believe that?

    Anyway, thanks for reading. Please feel free to continue this discussion.


  3. Diane Wilson at 11:15 #

    Dear Louis,
    For many years I have shared my opinions and I have decided after all these years to keep my mouth shut unless I have something good to say. One has to have a very thick hide to endure the hatred that a discerning theatre critic gets for speaking his mind. Speak to Wilhelm Snyman , one of the best reviewers we have ever had. I don’t know why he doesn’t review any longer. A great loss to theatre. Still, if you are brave enough to handle the ill will that will come your way, good luck to you.
    My attitude now is to wait until people whose values I respect tell me that something is not to be missed, then I might go. However, recently I paid a lot of money to take my grandson to one of the most lauded shows in Cape Town’s history and I found it utterly dreadful and so did he.

  4. Duncan at 11:50 #

    Imagine if you can for a second if more people in the community stood up and actually took a stand for the mediocre mush that we’re meant to hold up in relation to international alternatives. Admittedly – and as you nailed it – funding is always given as the bottom root or at least the excuse for the reason why we get what we get – but this in my opinion is a complete misonomer. I believe it is an attitude that is the bottom root cause of a shows success or failure – depending on your expectations from the show, and what you understand, want or believe to be successful or not.

    Louis, you’ve touched on (and ripped a new one) a very important aspect of the industry that I believe can actually be applied across the spectrum in all industries in our country, if not our world. Basically, we are prepared to put up with bad service and low quality goods/products simply because we have forced ourselves into a corner where we think that is all there is for us, the grass is much greener on the other bank and boy will we complain about it all but because of ‘extenuating circumstances’, our lives, our friends, our jobs (or lack thereof), or any other number of excuses – we will never have a taste of the fresh, vibrance of that lusciously tasty vegetation and get to hang with the cool goats.

    The truth of the matter as I have come to understand it – is that we actually can. Realy – we can. The truth is that we simply need to make a choice and stop complicating things. Do we want to have good theatre? Yes. Ok – so then let’s make good theatre! Let’s actively work together towards making it good for all of us. You’ll never really be able to please everybody, but we can certainly listen to those that have valid points about work. Why can’t we just look at stuff as it is, talk about it – and come to some really awesome compromises and then just implement them? Personal feelings aside – if you’re in the business to make money – there is no time for personal feelings. If you’re in it to make art and express yourself, well then – you’re putting yourself out there, don’t be too surprised when people disagree with you. And they will.

    Wait, what is that I hear you all cry? We don’t have money for good theatre. Really? Well – then let’s get some! Let’s actively start researching and looking into ways to fund raise that will then allow us to finance projects without some sort of entitled expectation from our government or other ‘charity organisations’ to hand it out to us. Being handed funds to create a work certainly enables work to be made, but the expectations, attitudes and other stipulations that normally go along with it – not to mention the huge potential for waste and misappropriation – lends itself to limited work and a bad product. The feeling of earning money to spend on something you love breeds an added sense of “I will try make every cent worth it”. Certainly an oversimplification of it all – but much the gist of it. The important point here is – it’s a matter of attitude and mindset – all starting with a CHOICE.

    Why then is it all so difficult? Well – I guess it comes down to the first stage of difficulty – which is perception. We often look at things we don’t have and start to see only the obstacles and hoops we’d need to jump through to attain it. This immediately rattles our convenience-ridden mindsets and makes us feel like it’s not worth it – or not even possible. Then comes the idea of “what will everybody think of me if I fail!?”. Herein lies 2 of our greatest (and fairly recently fostered) flaws. If we are to succeed in theatre, and indeed other aspects of our life – we need to really step out of our comfort zones and start taking on that oh most famous of latin phrases – Carpe Diem. Ceasing the day is not only about making the best of a bad situation, or taking up opportunities when they arrive – but going forth and MAKING the opportunities – and grabbing onto them knowing that should they start fading – we should be brave enough to ‘throw away the gems’ and grab or make another one until it works. Truly – in this we are literally limitless – even more so than Bradley Cooper without the drugs.

    So – to cut a short rant even longer – stop feeling sorry for yourselves. Pick yourselves up, brush yourselves off, stop worrying about what other people think, make the choice and just do it!

    Seriously. Do it.

    • Uncle Loo at 13:04 #

      Thanks for the comment, Duncan.

      I think you’ve hit on some interesting things. What confuses me about the state of arts funding, especially theatre funding, is the constant claim of poverty. The subsidized theatre institutions claim poverty when ever the question of new theatre (or a shift from the ways of old) is presented, but why in the fuck are they subsidized then? I recently heard from a head honcho at a major theatre that they have no money for new productions in 2014. (??????) Then you are not a theatre, but a waste of space. They all still get their paychecks end of the month. To do what? Host musicals and rent space to conferences? It makes no sense. But maybe I’m just stupid and naive. If your job is to facilitate the creation of theatre and you get paid handsomely to do it, and yet you DO NOT facilitate the creation of theatre and still get paid, then you are a fucking drain on the economy and I wish you interrupted sleep for the rest of your miserable life. Or am I being harsh?

      Please feel free to keep the discussion going. I will try to keep up with you. (My readers are often smarter than I am.)


      • Duncan at 14:28 #

        Ha – you hit the nail on the head there Loo. Institutions that have the ‘burden’ of being subsidized seem to lose the focus and desire for striving for truly great stuff – not just in terms of the theatrical content – but in the overall experience for everybody involved – audience, cast and crew. I went to see Jersey Boys last year, and for a spectacular international show hosted within the confines of a popular and pretty busy theatre… the place felt cold and unwelcoming, forcing us into the theatre with strict instructions and countdowns… totally contrary to a successful theatre rising through the ranks in Cape Town, where every show I’ve been to has engaged me as an audience member from the minute I walk in the front door. It’s not that they’re just trying hard as a temporary trick or novelty… it’s part of the general ethos and mindset of the building. Everybody trying their best to make sure that when you leave, you damn well tell as many people as you know what an awesome experience it was even before and after the show had started/finished. Without the restrictions imposed on you with charitable or government funding – I guess you get to focus on doing stuff you want to do and what people want to see in a manner that will not only make you more money but bring about an unforgettable experience – both working on the show or watching it.

        You know – for a second there I figured maybe this is the difference between privately and publicly funded theatres. But then, as soon as a patron buys a ticket, that construes a form of public funding, right? I guess the bigger difference is that funding which is earned rather than that which is simply given (or expected).

        A street performer can potentially build an empire. It’s all down to choice and attitude.

  5. Diane Wilson at 12:32 #

    Duncan, “mediocre mush” is a subjective opinion. Two of the shows I have hated most in my whole life have been the most praised by the general public. And do you mean “SEIZE the Day”?

    • Duncan at 13:34 #

      Thanks for the correction Diane. I did mean seize the day, my bad!

      Everything I said was my opinion, subjective or otherwise and declared pretty clearly throughout – but that should go without saying. It is the reader’s choice whether to take offence to that or not – which would then be the beginnings of another subjective opinion. Should they then take that on as something to growl about for the rest of their lives, well – that is their choice – as is looking at the essence of my opinion and forming their own based on that rather than the bits that distract from it.

      Everything utterred in existence is merely an opinion – and a subjective one at that. Even scientific accounts can be seen as a series of guesses and opinions based on the guesses and perceptions of others before them in the context of certain degrees of evidence or statistics that appear to support them taken from samples that potentially only apply to life on our planet. Who knows what happens to what we think we know when you ‘step out our front door’ and enter another solar system, galaxy or even another universe?

      I find your comment interesting though. With respect and out of curiosity – and of course you are entitled to your own opinions – why do you say you hated the shows? What was it that caused this seemingly powerful emotional response?

  6. Diane Wilson at 15:30 #

    Duncan, the main reason that I hated the 2 shows in question (although I’m sure I can think of other lauded shows I also loathed) were that they bored me because they were written in an obvious way meant for the uneducated or the unimaginative and in the most recent example I found the performances over-stated and over-acted and the direction handled with a heavy and vulgar hand. The evaluation of sports and most sciences by the way are NOT subjective. They can easily be measured by results.

    • Duncan at 18:19 #

      That is your opinion, Diane – Sure, one shared by many, but still an opinion nonetheless.

      I really could evaluate anything (results, stats, opinions, you name it) with a heavy sense of subjectivity (pertaining to my own sense of feelings, opinions and perceptions) and promote it as an objective ‘fact’ or truth. In most cases these days people would probably not even bother checking the accuracy of my claims or statements. Established institutions have misconstrued (unwillingly or no) ‘facts’ for personal gain time and time again throughout history – and they still do – and we let them. I’d say a ‘fact’ after all is essentially an agreement between 2 or more people wherein their opinions coincide for whatever rationale. Bearing in mind that a human description or word for something doesn’t make it universally so, infallible or not subject to personal interpretation. It only gives us a reference to work with here on earth until we find further agreement elsewhere.

      Truth be told – over the last year or so, I’ve developed the mindset that unless I personally experience something, I view anything as potentially open to debate and questionable – regardless of who they are or the proof or evidence they provide. And even then, I understand I am still limited by my own preconceptions and biological perceptions of things – which I understand also affect how I absorb ‘facts’ and knowledge.

      Herein lies the root of why I really can’t take anyone elses opinion for a show, let alone a critic’s (especially critics in fact), as any basis for whether I would enjoy it or even if I should see it or not.

      If it relates to things or people that I am interested in, I see it – maybe – depending on how I feel and for what reason I decide I want to see it.

      If I enjoy it, well then great, if I don’t enjoy it – well so be it, it was my choice to see it, not anybody elses. Either outcome rewards me with the benefit of learning something new – either I should stay away in future, or go again to the next one.

      What made you see those shows?

  7. Diane Wilson at 18:32 #

    The first one, I was invited to the opening night by the producer who told me that it had been highly praised throughout Europe and America. I told him that the subject matter did not appeal to me but still he insisted that I see it. When I told him afterwards that it was one of the worst theatrical experiences of my life, he was disgusted with me. On the second occasion I had seen an earlier production which I had loved for its campness and subtle humour. After I read the rave reviews and Facebook ravings of excellence I splashed out to give my grandson a treat. He found it embarrassingly bad and so did I.

    • Duncan at 00:17 #

      Ah – that sucks. Truly. The producer is an asshat for reacting that way. He should consider himself lucky you gave him your honest opinion – especially after you warned him that it wasn’t your cuppa tea! And you should feel awesome that you gave it to him. The industry, and life – is all about taking the good with the bad – however we rationalise good or bad – and put in equal proportions we get the all important balance of life. No matter the reaction – he’d be a fool if he didn’t take your comments and at least think on them for future works – or at the least – future invites!

      Pity the other show didn’t live up to your expectations, but then again – so many things can intervene with how we perceive things we initially had high hopes for. I saw the pilot episode again recently of one of my most beloved childhood shows – and upon seeing it with a new perspective – I found it almost too terrible and cheesy to watch – far removed from the original impression that still to this day inspires me. It doesn’t destroy the original love I have for it – and the original memories of it still hold true – but it did give me a realisation of how things change based on the context of what you are currently going through. I thought that watching a modern remake of it would help – and in fact that made it worse. I decided to retreat to my original memories in the end.

  8. Diane Wilson at 08:19 #

    You are so right Duncan. As I say, the assessment of works of art are ALWAYS subjective. We had a big debate on my Timeline recently about this very subject. I realized that the general public believes that if a performer is rich and successful and especially if they have been knighted or honoured then they are above criticism and anyone who DOESN’T think they are great is small- minded or envious. There were people on my link who did not like the work of Meryl Streep, which would amaze most actors but it is a fact. A friend of mine owned a Tretchikoff painting which he has just sold for 2 million rand and yet the art experts still denigrate his work. That is what it is all about. Personal opinions! But nobody can deny the greatness of certain sportsmen and women. If you have won Wimbledon 6 times, your greatness is PROVED.

  9. Diane Wilson at 08:46 #

    So Nu you guys? Anything to say about Maynardville that opened last night? I’m waiting with bated breath.

  10. guy at 21:29 #

    Subjectivity or objectivity has little to do with the issue. It is critical thinking and critical activity that do.

    No critical activity in the theatre is valid without a concomitant analysis of power in its complex manifestations.

    To distinguish the nature of power and to identify the nature of power’s circulation is a political endeavour. Theatre cannot act on politics, but critical theatre is political to the degree that it causes “theText, the Dialogue, the Actor,the Director,the Structure” to be subjected to “a creative line of flight” the way “the Masters”and “theSystem”would be taxed by revolutionary and subversive elements

    Representation in theatre always sides with codified power (even when it dramatizes conflicts and oppositions) and is necessarily the manifestation of political power on stage.

    Maynardville has sunk to a new incompetent, arrogant and self involved low. As a consequence of the politico- structural power arrangements it operates under, and the almost total lack of critical debate on the wilful mediocrity of its choices. Awards will be won.

  11. Diane Wilson at 23:31 #

    Well that makes it very clear Guy. The trouble is that I believe the director really means so well and cares so much. Life is tough. Is the inability to cast well the problem do you think?

    • guy at 13:34 #

      They suffer the inability, almost to the point of dysfunction, to understand the fundamental nature of what it means to think “what comes next”.

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