Autocannibalism as a form of protest (It’s oh-so provincial)

16 Feb

‘Twas the season of awards, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse… And then a less-than-magnificent river of shit changed course and hit the theatre community, changing crisp new-year clothing into smeared rags that reeked equally of hubris and disappointment. The Naledi Awards (for theatre excellence in Gauteng, or some such bullshit) announced the nominees who performed and created above and beyond the call of duty. Yaysies! The hurumph-hurumphs in Cape Town began immediately. Several Facebook Fuck updates from Twitter Twats and their ilk indicated their dismissal of the Naledis as a celebration of over-produced, artless, non-progressive theatre shows. (Because Cape Town, dear reader, is the main hub for “important” theatre shows… be careful not to roll your eyes too much and cause them to veer out of control and fly out of your head and into someone’s steaming cup of Vida Mucho Americano.) A few people were enraged that not enough Cape Town-originated shows were nominated and claimed inequality because only the shows that could afford a run in Johannesburg were considered for an award. Yes, dickhead, that’s how it works.

How Cape Town hated the Naledis for a few days. How Cape Town unified and proclaimed their support for one another and the importance of their work. How we all loved one another. Jesus H. Christ, there is nothing better than a bad-guy to bring us together and make us forget that we are part of a crumbling, PC, class-based mediocrity-factory.

Then someone took a Fleur Du Crap on the chest and face of that unified community. The Fleur Du Cap Awards (The Cape Town equivalent of the Naledis, but more, y’know, Democratic Alliance-y) announced their 2011 nominees a couple of days after the Naledis “pissed in the mouths of real, hardworking actors” – a tidbit of bitterness I spied on someone’s Facebook wall. The nominations contained a few delightful surprises, but in general they adhered to expectations. As has become habit with the Fleur Du Caps, stars ruled the day (in South African terms. Let’s not get excited), broad appeal work was celebrated, personal work was ignored, and box-office generally seemed to indicate quality. I say this not out of spite or malice, I am merely stating the obvious.

The thing that inspires this author’s surprise is not the disappointment or resentment of the Fleur Du Caps, but the theatre world’s preternatural instinct to turn on itself. The arguments became not about the validity or importance of the awards, but about who didn’t rage enough about the awards; who raged too much; who celebrated (nominees were scorned for feeling flattered); and who refused to comment. Everyone seemed to pick a fight that week, and the Fleur Du Caps stopped being the issue. Grudges surfaced, old wounds opened up and people began to take sides where there were no sides to be had.

Very few of my peers celebrate the Fleur Du Caps. They, and indeed I, feel the awards have absolutely no place within our work. The awards do not hinder us, nor do they promote us. Once again, that is not criticism, just apathy. However, some people who are left out of the Fleur Du Cap (and Naledi) kingdom are enraged by the exclusion. So, every year those feelings fester, they are put on a slow boil and come early February, the steam is released. Unfortunately, as with most things in the theatre world, it’s so unfocused that it serves only to hurt colleagues and friends. It is unclear whether this habit of implosion exists due to a flaw in the cosmogony of the theatre community, or whether the fault lies within the continuing evolution of the art and its practice.

We should not abandon our anger, especially if it kicks up dust and causes new ideas to form and ancient practices to subside. The issue should be the work, not the civilian parades designed to stroke egos and validate what should already be dear to us. If a practitioner measures his/her value by what a panel of free-ticket hogging, network obsessed judges think, then the work is not good enough for an audience anyway. And that is who we serve: the audience. Not in cow-towing terms, or adhering to their whims and certainly not to impress Fluer Du Cappers or Naledi-ites. But in presenting, perhaps, something new, something unforeseen, something uncomfortable, something that an awards panel might not comprehend. Isn’t that what brings about progress?

If one is admired by everyone, it might lead one to think of one’s self as admirable. If one is hated by everyone, one will endeavor to inspire only hate. We give what we get, but that river of shit flows both ways.

Two Interviews: Juliet Jenkin & Diane Wilson

5 Oct

I recently conducted interviews with playwright Juliet Jenkin and actress Diane Wilson about the new play, “Mary and the Conqueror.” The interviews were intended for a new arts magazine that was supposed to be launched at the end of September. But seeing as I never heard back from the editor, about remuneration or the articles being published, I’ve posted it on this blog (yes, the one you’re reading right now, pal.) I hope you enjoy the now free-for-all-to-read interviews and please forgive the lack of bile… This was intended for mass (go with it) circulation.


An Interview With Juliet Jenkin

 

Juliet Jenkin is a Cape Town based playwright and actress and has proven to be one of the most prolific young playwrights in South Africa. Her plays in include “The Boy Who Fell From The Roof”, “The Night Doctor” and “Poisson”. Her new play, “Mary and the Conqueror”, concerns the life and work of Mary Renualt, an English writer who moved to South Africa in 1949 and made a name for herself by writing historical and fictional novels about Alexander the Great.

 

At the recent Gordon Institute of Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) Conference on Directors and Directing, an argument arose amongst the attendees and panelists that the theater industry is facing a writing crisis. It was put forward that not enough good local writing is being produced and that the industry suffers from a lack of decent writers. Do you agree?

JJ: Yes. No. Well, I agree that there are not many playwrights around. Playwriting in a traditional, literary sense. A sit-down-and-type-out-10 000-words sense. Considering the number of people who actually work in theatre, and the number of people who actually watch theatre, I think the number of decent writers is pretty decent. You know, someone will make that comment at the GIPCA thing, and all the directors in the country will be there saying, “Where are the good writers?” And then everyone in the audience will say fuck you, I’m a good writer! Where are the good actors? And the actors will all be at a KFC casting or something.

You recently told me that you’re considering taking a break from writing plays to keep yourself busy with other pursuits (like acting, one would presume.) Can I ask why you feel you need to take a break?

JJ: If you’re trying to tell your friend a story, and your friend won’t listen to what you’re saying, you should probably stop talking to your friend. For a while, anyway.

You’ve made a name for yourself as a writer and an actress and an all-round practitioner of theater. Is there one discipline in your arsenal that you prefer over the others or is there a balance between the things you do?

JJ: I don’t have a preference. I understand acting through writing, and writing through acting.

Your new play, Mary and the Conqueror, is directed by Roy Sargeant and you seem to have developed a productive professional and artistic relationship with him over the years. Can you speak about your relationship?

JJ: Roy produced and directed my first play The Boy Who Fell From The Roof in 2005. Since then, I’ve worked with him on several productions as a writer and actor. We’re very different people, but we have a weird sort of simpatico on a lot of levels. He’s been an unfailing supporter of my work, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Diane Wilson is acting in Mary and the Conqueror and she says this might be her swansong. Have you had discussions with her about your play and if so, what can you tell me about your relationship with her?

JJ: Really? I didn’t know this was her last play. Actresses are always saying that. Like I’m saying this is my last play. Well, I’m not, but maybe I should. I had a brief discussion with Di, I think. I sat in on a read- through of the play a while ago. And then we talked in a lift about her kids. I don’t know her very well, but I think she’s glorious. And she thinks the same about me. Obviously.

How did Mary and the Conqueror come to be?

JJ: I was commissioned to write the play by Roy Sargeant in 2009. He was a personal friend of Mary Renault and her partner, Julie Mullard. It’s the first time I’ve ever written a commissioned work, or a biographical play for that matter, and I had initial trepidations about it – I’m not a huge fan of biographies in any form. But I went ahead and researched her life as far as I could. I interviewed Roy Sargeant and Owen Murray – an ex-ballet dancer and friend of Mary and Julie’s. I read the only biography on Mary Renault and most of her novels. In her trilogy on the life of Alexander the Great, I found the angle I wanted to approach the play from. I decided that instead of focusing the work on a chronological life-narrative, I’d intersect her story with the story of her beloved Classical hero. So, the play became not only the story of two lives, but a symbolic or existential musing on stories themselves – how we create and recreate the stories of ourselves and our histories. In an introduction to one of her essays, Mary wrote “We go to the past, perhaps to find ourselves, perhaps to free ourselves.” Essentially that is what the play is exploring.

 

***

 

 An Interview with Diane Wilson

In Juliet Jenkin’s new play, “Mary and the Conqueror”, legendary stage actress Diane Wilson will portray Mary Renualt, the English born writer who moved to South Africa in 1949 and wrote seminal works on the life of Alexander the Great. The play explores her relationship with her partner, Julie Mullard and her fascination with the Macedonian emperor.  

You indicated to me recently that Mary and the Conqueror might be your swansong. Are you retiring after this production?

DW: Learning lines for a new production is becoming increasingly difficult. Once I have learnt them I can recall them more easily for repeat productions but that initial learning is such drudgery that I am beginning to question if it is worth the effort.

The little contact we’ve had has given me the impression that you have no time for the pretentiousness that the theater industry is so often accused of being swamped with. Am I right? Can you speak to that?

DW: I can honestly say that I don’t seem to be cast by pretentious people. I don’t know if the industry is swamped or not. I have seen a lot of productions that I have disliked for various reasons; usually for what I considered appalling casting. There are so many brilliant actors in Cape Town who are teaching to make a living. I have been told that Lara Foot has been quoted as saying there are no good actors in Cape Town. How would she know, because she never sees other people’s productions? The appalling casting I have seen, by the way, is usually with actors imported from elsewhere.

Some believe that the theater industry is in crisis and that good work is often strangled by complacency and a need to pander to the lowest common denominator. As someone who has, presumably, seen it all and done it all, do you find this to be true? Where is the industry headed and what can be done to improve it?

DW: Unfortunately theatre has always pandered to what the public wants. This is true all over the world except in subsidized theatre, which we don’t have any more. It was nice when we did have it and the cream of plays from London and New York were being produced here.

How did you get involved with Mary and the Conqueror?

DW: Roy Sargeant cast me as Mary Renault. I had suggested her as a theme for a play for the Dublin Gay Festival a few years ago. Roy then commissioned Juliet Jenkin to write the play.

You have a long-standing professional relationship with Roy Sargeant. Is there something specific that draws you to him as a director?

DW: We respect each other. He thinks I am a very good actor. I think he is a

very good director. He has a very open mind. I constantly question things as an actor. He is not bothered by this, in fact he enjoys it. He has a fine and educated mind. We have a similar sense of humour.

Can you talk about the rehearsal process for Mary and the Conqueror?

DW: I adore the rehearsal process. It is always interesting. This time round we have two young men (Armand Aucamp and Francis Chouler) who I think are marvelous. Hard working, very talented with a wonderful attitudes and great sense of humour. I have not worked with Adrienne Pearce before and I think she is perfect for the part of Julie Mullard, Mary Renault’s partner. The only problem is that we are rehearsing in the middle of an extremely noisy construction site which makes concentration difficult, but we are coping.

Is there something you still yearn for in your career? A specific role or the work of a writer you always wanted to be involved in?

DW: I don’t yearn for anything. At the age of 70, I am grateful to be alive and healthy and to have any work offered me at all.

“Mary and the Conqueror”

 

Directed by Roy Sargeant

 

Written by Juliet Jenkin

 

Starring:

Diane Wilson

Adrienne Pearce

Armand Aucamp

Francis Chouler

 

29 September – 15 October

Artscape Arena

The Wonderful Recruitment of Mrs. Whistlefarb (A Short Story)

27 Sep

Maggie Whistlefarb passed away due to complications relating to hip-surgery on May 27th of the year she was to celebrate her sixty-first birthday. Sometime after her death, she found herself walking through a thick fog that made her squint in hope of penetrating the grey color surrounding her. Maggie knew she was dead, but that fact seemed inconsequential to her, and she worried more about the anesthesiologist who gave her an incorrect dosage and caused her to aspirate into her oxygen mask and drown on her own vomit. He would feel horrible about his actions and attempt to alleviate his guilt by drinking too much and colliding with a station-wagon carrying a father of four who was being fellated by a rent boy. The anesthesiologist would survive, but the prostitute would die from head trauma and the father of four would succumb to his injuries two days later, having lost too much blood when the rent boy bit off his penis as a result of the sudden impact. The scandal would cause an unflattering light to shine on the dead father and his children, who would all suffer abandonment issues and battle substance abuse for the rest of their lives. The male whore was not mourned by anyone, except for the anesthesiologist, who would go on to resign from the hospital, move to the coast and drink himself silly until his liver gave out and his body remained undiscovered for two weeks.

Maggie had no idea how she knew this, but the need to investigate her ability to know all things, present and past, did not strike her. She merely moved through the fog and saw her entire life as if it was on a plate in front of her. Her husband, Dennis, was the manager of “Time 4 Bed”, a furniture store that also sold novelty clocks that were imported from Belarus. He was introduced to Maggie by her father, Michael Bensozia, when she was twenty-three and the two were married eight months later. Maggie knew she was the prize given to Dennis to buy the favor of his father, Lucas Whistlefarb, an industrialist who subsequently invested in Michael’s business (an import-export consortium specializing in the shipping of empty freight containers.) Maggie’s marriage to Dennis was a continuation of her relationship with her father, minus the obvious intimacies that come with married life. She served him well, as her mother had served her father, and as she served her father after her mother died from a heart attack in the middle of a farmer’s market. Maggie and Dennis never spoke in depth about anything; he never sought her council; they fought only about domestic issues; they stopped sleeping together after the birth of their daughter, Candice. Maggie hated the name, but Dennis and his family insisted on naming the child Candice, as they had an affinity for it. The Whistlefarbs had four other Candices in their ranks.

Candice Whistlefarb was raised as well as Maggie could raise her, but the child took after her father in ways that left Maggie out of influence’s reach. Candice treated Maggie as Dennis did: courteous, given to occasional false interest and hidden disdain. When Candice left home at nineteen, Maggie was relieved. When people asked her if she suffered from empty nest syndrome, she lied and told them she did. However, she wished her home was emptied of Dennis as well. She did not desire company, nor did she fear it. She merely ached to be alone, far from the noise of the world. Her life continued unabated as she continued to lie her way through social occasions and conversations with her husband. When her daughter got married, she felt happy only because she would no longer have to feign worry about Candice’s life. She’d met the groom only once before the wedding and he struck her as an unspectacular human who thought Chinese tattoos made him an individual and went on tirades about he, and only he, could revolutionize the advertising industry. Maggie was not surprised when he lost his job and went to work for a company that sold billboard ad-space near the airport. A few years later, he become a re-born Christian and divorced Candice and moved to small town in the mountains to become the reverend of his own church. He was murdered by an obsessed parishioner who believed the reverend was Christ arisen and who attempted to eat the body before the police, responding to a report of screaming and blaspheming coming from the rectory, pulled the mad believer off the loin-cloth dressed corpse.

Candice never re-married and she would move in with her father after Maggie’s death. The two would bicker constantly and be miserable at all hours of the day. Maggie felt neither woe nor pleasure at her husband and daughter’s predicament, and for the first time since she found herself in the fog, wondered why she no longer felt anything. It did not bother her, but it made her curious. She enjoyed feeling curious as she had never been curious about anything before, save for the obvious curiosities of adolescence. She had not been surprised by anything since the wondrous discovery of her own sexuality and those warm afternoons and cold evenings when her fingers would travel across the mounds and valleys of her body and cause her to tremble and marvel at her wet fingers dipping in and out of her and stroking her to orgasm. As she thought about herself then, Maggie realized she could still feel. She stopped walking through the fog and imagined pleasuring herself. She only had to think about the glorious feeling when she erupted in climactic ecstasy. It had been remarkably easy, and she gave credit to the surrounding fog and emptiness beyond.

With Maggie still in the throes of self-administered passion, it took her a few moments to realize a figure approaching out of the haze. The figure was that of a man, but not any type of man she had ever seen. He seemed to be made of the emptiness he emerged from. Maggie straightened up and waited for him to speak.

“I am Abraxas.”

“I’m Margaret. Please don’t call me Maggie. I’ve always hated it.”

Abraxas smiled and offered his hand for her to shake. She did.

“Where am I?” Margaret asked.

“You are where you want to be. It is important to realize that.”

“Can I be other places as well?”

“You can be wherever you want to be. It is important to acknowledge that.”

It was Margaret who held out her hand this time and told Abraxas that he should lead her to where she wants to be. He took her hand, interlaced his fingers with hers and guided her further and further into the fog. All that remained of Margaret was the previously rare sound of her giggling and the lingering aroma of her orgasm.

 ***

 It was three weeks after Margaret’s death that heaven realized its error and sent Samael into the fog to investigate. When Samael emerged from the fog and reached the gates of hell, he saw Abraxas sitting at the grand entrance peeling a mineola. The minor demon smiled up at the minor angel and the two greeted each other as old friends. Samael sat next to Abraxas and accepted half of the deceptive fruit.

“You already took her, did you not?” Samael asked with a sigh.

“I did.”

“Did you lie to her?”

“I didn’t have to.”

The two beings stood up and Abraxas pointed through the gates into the netherworld. Samael saw Margaret and what she had become.

“She’s vying to be Queen,” said Abraxas, “Doing pretty well in the polls, now that I think about it.”

Samael could see Margaret Whistlefarb was doing well and she had found a place among the upper echelon of demons and bringers of death. Abraxas informed him that she had gone back to her maiden name, Bensozia and everyone referred to her by that name. They sat down again and looked at each other with affection. They shared a laugh, toasted their friendship with the fruit and said their goodbyes. As Samael was leaving, he turned to Abraxas and said, “Some you win, some you lose.”

THE END

The Saigon Five (A Short Story)

30 Aug

When Ingrid Ballflower celebrated her forty-third birthday in her usual fashion, dinner at “Saigon” accompanied by those who thought themselves to be close to her, she already knew about her husband’s philandering. If interrogated about the evening, Ingrid’s guests would say they knew something was behind her green eyes the entire duration of the dinner, but in truth they neither suspected her of harboring doubts about her marriage, nor did they anticipate the unique way she viewed the situation she found herself in.

Among the invited guests was Ingrid’s closest friend and colleague, Anna Sapstein, who carried herself in a manner akin to a grey hound suffering from hemorrhoids and occasionally shot looks of guilty desire towards Damian Ballflower, Ingrid’s husband. Ingrid had found out about Anna and Damian’s affair a week earlier when she happened across a series of e-mails on the Ballflower home computer. Damian had forgotten to log off of his “Gmail” account and when Ingrid opened the browser the first e-mail she saw had the subject line, “My holes ache for you.” Attached to the correspondence was a photo of Anna bent over faux-bamboo two-seater couch, spread legged with chipped fingernails resting on her perineum (to leave unobstructed the holes that ache, one would presume.) Ingrid said nothing of this to Damian or Anna, and instead dedicated the slow hours of her week to finding out more about her husband’s secret sexual indiscretions.

Damian had never been much of a lover. In fact it was Ingrid who suggested perverse adventures in the bedroom. Damian would occasionally be tipsy enough to follow her commands, but the alcohol would wear off and he’d end up spending himself with two grunts while engaging in a missionary position hump. She’d pat his back, wipe his drool from her collar bone and open her book in preparation of a late-night read. He’d sweat in the night, get up to pee once or twice and always, in the darkest hours of the early morning find her awake, reading books he neither understood nor wanted to understand. Theirs was not an unhappy marriage, but not much more than a facsimile of a happy one. In the week before Ingrid’s birthday party, Damian did not sense a change in his wife. He could not see her studying him as if he were brand new; not quite shiny or interesting, but the way one would investigate the motives and nature of a lizard perching on a branch, dead-still, seemingly without the concern for time passing. Damian also didn’t realize that Ingrid had, by some miracle act of private investigation, managed to track down the bevy of women he’d been seeking and receiving sexual congress from.

The first woman she found was an administrator for an amateur theatrical company. Her name was Frannie and she had the thinnest hair Ingrid had ever seen on a woman. The auburn color made it seem fuller at first look, but upon closer inspection one could see her scalp and the little fluffy tufts that endeavored to conceal the patches of naked, barrenness. Frannie tried to hide it by pulling her hair back in a tight bun, which gave her the look of a frightened child, which in essence she was. Not in terms of age, but in composure. When Ingrid introduced herself and explained who she was, Frannie didn’t cry but grinned with such terror that Ingrid would’ve preferred it if the tiny, slightly round woman had broken down in tears. They spoke about Damian and the length of the affair (two years) and they shared a laugh when the subject of Damian’s habit of complaining about the malfunctioning printers at his office had come up. Ingrid asked Frannie whether she knew Damian was married, and with a sheepish nod and a subdued whisper she admitted that she did, but found out only recently. Her loneliness had prevented her from objecting to seeing the only man who wanted to spend a significant amount of time with her. Ingrid and Frannie parted ways without agreeing on a course of action and it would later occur to Frannie how strange it was that Ingrid sought only information for the sake of knowing it.

The third and fourth of Damian’s lovers used to work with him and the affairs only started after they had left his employ. The two women, Alice and Shandra, knew about each other, but never saw Damian at the same time. Ingrid had to admit disappointment when she realized that she had not uncovered a salacious threesome and confessed this to Alice when the subject came up. Alice fessed up that she had suggested the idea to Damian, as she had doubled up with Shandra on men before, but Damian appeared uninterested. They spoke it about it only once it was never brought up again, Damian apparently being happy in the way he and Alice fucked, which by all accounts mirrored the way he and Ingrid bedded each other: moments of adventure and spice, but closed down as quickly as it had arisen. It was only with Shandra that Damian appeared to let himself explore the boundaries of his sexuality. Shandra told Ingrid that Damian requested every so often that she insult his manhood by shoving her thumb up his rear and call him names like “Faggot Boy” and “Mommy’s Little Bitch”. This made Ingrid giggle and when Shandra joined her, the two women ended up laughing hysterically for what seemed to be the whole afternoon.

The fifth and final woman on Ingrid’s list was a widow living a half-hour outside the city. She had no idea that Damian was married and began to cry when Ingrid told her who she was. When she’d calmed down and had a cup of sweet, milky tea Ingrid made for her, she informed Ingrid about the nature of her relationship with Damian. They made love, but only on special occasions like birthdays and promotions, but what they did most of the time was watch television and eat meals that Damian would prepare for them. Ingrid shared her surprise about Damian going anywhere near a kitchen with the widow and was even more surprised to learn that the widow considered Damian to be a great cook, if not quite a chef. Damian had never cooked for Ingrid, and the thought of him doing so for someone else caused her an unusual amount of pain. The widow swore she would never see Damian again, and Ingrid left her by saying she didn’t care much either way. Ingrid had treated the widow with more cruelty than she did the other women, but she knew she did this only because it was easy to do so.

Ingrid had found and interrogated all of Damian’s lovers within a week and by the time she arrived, on Damian’s arm, at “Saigon” and greeted her friends with either a hug or a peck on the cheek, she felt at ease with the new knowledge about her husband, her marriage, her sexual proclivities, and her plan for the future. Upon first viewing there was nothing strange about either her arrival or her decision on where to sit and where to place her friends. She positioned herself far from Damian, but made sure that he and Anna were close enough to feel uncomfortable but apart enough as to not give the game away. She placed her family on the other side of the long table so as to not have to deal with them and she surrounded herself with the people she enjoyed the most. She seemed to pick a random place among the intimate group, but it is in this narrator’s opinion that she had a plan all along.

When the second bottle of wine arrived along with the sweet duck wrapped in thyme pancakes, Ingrid Ballflower placed her hand on my thigh and smiled at me over a raised glass of sauvignon-blanc. As the evening progressed and my hand found her exposed thighs, she parted her legs and allowed me to finger her under the table. Our affair didn’t last long and we never really spoke about it afterwards, but one moment we shared gave me an indication as to her motives. We were making love in the back of my blue-grey 2001 model Honda Civic and when Ingrid reached climax, she said with a shudder of pleasure, “One down, four to go.”

The End

Bitterness Requires Taste (Something rotten is a Foot)

15 Aug

At the time of writing this unfocused diatribe about a crippled theater industry and the victims of this wounded monster (Whoops, gave it away too soon,) I find myself thinking about Kenya and a particular stretch of beach called Diani, situated near the city of Mombasa. It’s a truly lovely part of a wonderful-enough country and my day-dream about it involves my escape to a beach cottage, slinging drinks to expats and locals, seducing sun-scorched foreigners and forgetting all about them by the time the sun rises on yet another gorgeous day. I would spend my free time writing and taking swimming breaks in between scenes of dialogue driven, dramatically straight-forward plays and satirical essays about shit that no one in their right mind could give a flying curtain-raising-blackout-inducing-theater-as-a-form-of-swine-baiting fuck about. Employment would be taken care of (the pushing of alcohol, the last non-judged drug known to man) and my self-proclaimed creativity would be sated and I could sit back, enjoy a very cheap menthol cigarette and watch the sun set on my problems and, indeed, my life. And like that, with a puff of minty smoke, it’s all over. “He didn’t do much besides from smoke, drink, eat, fuck and whine” they would say, “but he really decorated his downfall with elements resembling the natural rights of a free man.” The fact that my dream ends with my own demise doesn’t deter the smile from creeping onto my mug, because it seems better than what I have now. I repeat: it seems better.

It is however, in reality, just a symptom of something that affects many of my peers. People I know, and dare I say respect, are considering stepping away from what they are so good at. I am not worthy of sharing a room  with these talented folks, and the theater industry losing me is of no consequence as I haven’t done much and struggle to do very little, but there are others who are proclaiming fatigue and a desire to flee, if not to other countries, then into other lives. Their confessions are not your average run-of-the-mill bourgeois reactionary bullshit about moving away from the crime or the poverty or the government or whatever else the all-too-comfortable upper-middle-classes feel the need to update their Facebook profiles with. These confessions are about neglect, abuse and loss of faith in an industry that desperately needs them, but is unwilling to admit that these people even exist. Even though new blood is needed, it remains unwanted. We are talking (writing, arguing, fighting, saddened, enraged) about a dying miser unwilling to part with his gold and demanding to be buried with it instead of sharing it with his starving family.

I recently spoke with one of the most prolific young playwrights in Cape Town and after congratulating her on a recent play (which was summarily cancelled after a week by Lara Foot, the Biggest Kahuna at the Baxter Theater) she admitted that the recent blow was enough for her to step back and try other things for a while. In a town suffering from a lack of decent new work, the loss of a good writer is tantamount to an actor doing a one man show dying from TB just before the curtain rises. Show’s over folks. You paid your money and can hang around for a while, but enjoyment of the arts is not on the cards tonight. The industry will suffer a death by a thousand cuts if Ms Foot and her compadres do not allow newly hatched work time to breathe before shit-canning it into oblivion. What remains baffling to me, and to others I’ve drunkenly ranted with, is that these new-old guards would not be where they are if someone hadn’t given them and their work some chance at a decent run. Perhaps they are the children of an abusive father and have now turned into bullies themselves. “I had to suffer, so you will suffer more.”

The trend is affecting actors as well. I think immediately of two amazing actors who have stepped away from the arena because they are either too good (outshining the mediocre can be dangerous) or not dull enough; dullness apparently being a point of pride and reason for employment in Cape Town. They are Dorian Burstein and Gina Pauling. Avid supporters of theater, generous performers and, admittedly, friends of mine (my bias is showing, dear reader. Apologies.) Anyone who has seen them on stage can’t deny the fact that they bring energy, lack of vanity and intelligence to their all-too-few professional performances. Yet, they have not been courted by directors or acting troupes. And for Christ’s sake why not? Are we really going to allow directors and producers to continue casting whoever sucks them off the best? Are we going to allow the higher-ups to work only with those who toe the line? Are we really going to let the naturally talented and most interesting artists amongst us go into other areas and share their magic with motherfucking foreigners not because it’s a wise career move but because they’re too good for us and our hop-along industry? Isn’t that an admission of failure? And if it isn’t… what is the goddamn excuse?

Side note: In the world of hip-hop, the joy of a rapper rising to the ranks of “ones who have made it” is because for every one rapper that succeeds, he brings ten of his homies up with him (presumably, they make up his posse, if my knowledge about the hip-hop world hasn’t succumbed to whackness… or something.) For an industry accused of violence and aggression, that’s a pretty admirable way of doing things. Yet our theater industry, filled with fairy-chasing, smiling, doe-eyed forest dwellers, is all about keeping others down so that shitty work can continue unabated.

To leave is not an answer but it certainly feels like respite. One would rather go A.W.O.L than fight a losing battle for a general who loves the enemy more than you. The good fight cannot be won if no one wants it to be won. We are allowing the bad to triumph, the mediocre to succeed and the good to go the way of the lonely traveler or even certain unemployed and seemingly unemployable writers spending their time blogging and dreaming of Diani Beach. Do not join me, rather fight back and regain your right to be better than what we have right now.

With that, I return to menthol monstrosities, slightly tepid, but free water, thoughts of hard-boiled dialogue and a beach littered with the bloody corpses of those who are eating away at an industry that deserves better. (A bit much? Fuck it.)

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.”

Cold-Cocking As A Means of Progress (A Call To Arms)

14 Jul

The annual exodus from Grahamstown is in full swing as I sit down to write this. Those returning from performing or watching new (Fresh! Vibrant! Yay us!) theatre at The National Arts Festival are flooding the internet with Facebook updates and Tweets about the genius work they saw, the best of times they had, the glory of our unified nation and the general nonsense that comes with that sort of back-slapping, artsy-fartsy, communal experience. People are vomiting sayings like, “It changed my life,” and “It reminded me of how great our country and our theater has become.” The offence these people commit are not that they believe what they say, but that they say it so freely. Innocent as it may be to openly volunteer inane enthusiasm for what is clearly not as glorious as the bouncy, wide-eyed idiots would want you to believe, it is endemic of a larger problem that faces our fragile little artistic community: the ruling class of this community are so used to saying whatever comes into their sub-fame contaminated minds that the idea of anyone telling them to shut up will be tantamount to a serf’s betrayal of a royal’s trust in times long forgotten (by general society.)

Allow me to offer an example that may clarify my rant: there is an old actor who lives in Cape Town and remains a fixture on the stage and on television. He is a respected, beloved old codger who carries with him the aura and grace of a theater sage; he has seen it all; he knows all the angles; his public adores him. He believes, I assume, he has earned the right to say whatever he wants. I was acting alongside him in a play and one evening I found myself smoking a cigarette while waiting to go onto stage. Smoking with me was a young actress of immense talent who should command respect from her co-actors (and does, for the most part.) The elderly actor “God” walked outside to continue his voice exercises. He nodded to us, looked my friend up and down and said, “If you stopped smoking, your tits would grow back.” I stood mouth agape, not knowing what to say. My friend was so embarrassed that it affected her performance and the comment certainly didn’t stop her from smoking. A few years earlier this “Christ-on-a-Cross” of the stage was acting alongside another friend of mine, and just before the two took to the stage, the old fucker turned to my friend (another very talented person. I know, I know, I’m so lucky…) and said, “My boy, you should be in musicals. You have no place in serious theater.” He said that. Just before the lights went up. And… nothing… happened. Both those stories are well known in the Cape Town theater industry and there are many more incidents attributed to this man. What enrages is me is that nothing happens when he says these awful things.

Shift your imagination, for a moment if you will, to an office environment or any working environment that isn’t inhabited by ineffectual artistic types. Let the aforementioned incidents play out within those environments and try to imagine some sort of violent act not being committed in response. You can’t, can you? Sure, you can say stupid shit to whomever you want, that is everyone’s inalienable right. God bless free, offensive speech. But there has to be an expected reaction. Generally, a well placed “Go fuck yourself” can ease all ills, but what if you inhabit a world where no one dares to say that? Where acceptance of severe insults (to your person or by means of lame artistic endeavors) is met with nothing more than a wide-eyed stare, a contemplative gaze into the abyss and perhaps a drunken rant to those who will listen, but not spread, your pain? What then? Could there be a way out of this? A path to enlightenment?

Yes. Punch the cocksucker in the face. He might think twice about opening his trap around you ever again.

We cannot function in a sub-genre society that is seemingly dedicated to artistic freedom and the right to voice opinions, but refuses to accept that a public rebuke to any statement, by a person or stated within a work of art, forms part of what makes an open-minded community work. My argument is not against the dumb-as-shit, talentless old fart who offended my friends with his words; my argument is against me and those of my ilk who did nothing to make him think about whether he should offend us or not. There are no consequences to what people say within the artistic community. The answer is not censorship, but debate. However, before a debate can begin, the revolution must be jump started by extreme acts that might cause debate to be a more acceptable consequence. The violent French Revolution was the reason the British revolution was a peaceful transition from monarchy rule to some sort of democratic republic (Dig that comparison, motherfuckers!)

This brings me back to the people returning from Grahamstown. Of course they are allowed to say whatever they want, but they must accept that there will be those who openly doubt their blind devotion to a festival that has done more damage than good in the world of theater. This is not negativity, but merely a refusal to see it your way. You don’t have to shut-up, but I will tell you to shut-up. That is my right. And if you feel offended, we can have a debate.

If you refuse to debate any form of artistic expression, or if you think your opinion is above any sort of debate, then you deserve to get punched in the face.

If your ego is driving your work and public persona, then you should get punched in the face.

If you think your work and opinion is a revolutionary act (and you’re not an armed, with weapons or intellect, revolutionary) then you should get punched in the face.

If you abuse those beneath you or those who are following in your footsteps, then you should get punched in the face.

If you use race or racism to excuse your shoddy work, you should get punched in the face.

And, fuck-it, I will say it: If you do anything half-arsed and promote it as being important, then you deserve to get punched in the face. (That goes for you Janice Honeyman, Pieter Toerien, Malcolm Purkey, Bobby Heaney, anyone who misdirects Maynardville and those who fuck things up for the rest of us.)

PS. Anyone who disagrees with what I’ve said, can debate me. If I don’t want to debate you, you can punch me in the face.

We need more rumble in this jungle.

Theatrical Foreplay Requires Intent (Otherwise It’s Just Sucking Dick)

27 Jun

Allow me to make an argument for the return of the curtain in dramatic theatre. I remember attending plays as a child and taking my seat in the auditorium and seeing that beautiful, red velvet, bottom lit curtain bringing with it a sense of comfort. The revelation of the set, actors and story didn’t occur until the curtain opened and allowed the action to begin. The curtain signalled the beginning and the end and allowed the play to exist as a solitary experience, like opening a book when committing yourself to reading it and closing it when the last word is read. One’s expectation and sense of mystery is heightened by the curtain’s impenetrable shielding of what’s to come and upon lowering itself at the end allows one to accept closure of a (hopefully) joyful experience. There is nothing but you and your hopes before the curtain rises and nothing but you and your ponderings on what you’ve seen after the curtain comes down. This is essentially what all dramatic entertainment is or should be:  a singular experience. It does not diminish the impact a play could have, but in fact enhances it by admitting that it exists on its own, like any great experience (large or small; a beautiful wedding or a wonderful meal.)

There is a certain practice in the world of theatre-making which has prompted me to campaign for the return of the curtain. I recently watched two plays separated by a few weeks and done by professionals with histories of quality and years of experience. The plays didn’t have much in common, but they both committed an act of such arrogance and stupidity that I now view them as part of the same theatrical trend. When the audience entered the auditorium, one or more of the actors were already on stage. I’m sure you’ve seen this, dear reader. And if you haven’t, the evil of this world will ensure that you do in the near future. The play has not begun, but the director believes that he/she will enhance the audience’s belief in the world being created by having an actor on stage doing… fuck knows what. Perhaps the actor is waiting for another actor to enter, or perhaps they are “sleeping” or even “thinking” about what is to come. This, whether you know it or not, or whether it’s intended or not, is an insult not only to the audience’s willingness to experience for a few hours a world outside their own, but also to the story about to be told.

There is nothing before or after the story. That can’t be argued. There is, of course, the assumption of a world beyond the story, but that is up to the audience to acknowledge or ignore. The actor doing “something” on stage while the audience enters remains an actor; they are not a character. The character begins and ends when the play begins and ends. To have an actor on stage before the play has begun is to take the character out of the play and replace them with a self conscious actor who has been forced to do nothing. Character is action, the expression goes, and to have someone on stage who has no actions (or actions relevant to the play) nullifies the existence of the character. On stage you move only when you have reason to move, you speak only with intention, you portray the character in order tell a story. You are not there to fool the audience into believing the world is real and they happened to have walked in on the actions on stage.

Anyone attending a play (or reading a book, or going to the movies) has already given himself/herself over to the medium. We accept that this is not reality. We are there to be ignored and enjoy ourselves. We are not there to watch the theatre-makers add unnecessary trimmings to the proceedings. There is no reason for the actors to be on stage (waiting, thinking, playing, sleeping) while the audience enters, just as there is no reason to print “um… um… um…” for twenty pages to show us what an author was thinking before he typed the first words of his novel. I, like most people, get upset when I walk into the cinema to find the film has already started. You have no sense of the opening, the beginning of the journey. Why then do certain theatre practitioners strive to do this, and not even have the balls to actually start the play but invent superfluous things for the actor to do to entertain themselves and stop the audience from settling in, becoming comfortable and committing themselves to experiencing a story from beginning to end?

I spoke to a friend of mine, who happened to be one of the actors in the latest play which employed this trend. As was his right (and some would say duty) he defended the play when I hastily mentioned my disgust in a play I found to be lazy and ineffective. But when I broached the subject of his fellow actor being on stage before the play began, he responded by glibly asking, “How else would she have gotten on stage?” To my amazement, these very experienced actors had been fooled by a director into believing that there is no way for an actor to walk onto stage. Let me be clear, he convinced them that WALKING ONTO THE STAGE cannot be achieved. If that’s not the most damning evidence of the skewed actor-director dynamic in this country, then I don’t know what is. My friend, who is one of the most talented people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, forgot that one of the simplest things when staging a play since the end of the “curtain era” could have taken care of the problem: Lights up, lights down. Let the actor walk onto stage in darkness, bring up the lights, start the play. Lights are the most effective thing a director can use to start a play, end a scene, create a mood and close the play. Why this is no longer good enough, is beyond me.

There are, of course, playwrights who ask for the actors to be on stage when the audience enters. These people, however, should have their pens, laptops or typewriters taken away from them and made to atone for their sins by work-shopping Am-Dram (Amateur Dramatics) productions with sexually deviant prisoners while wearing revealing tank-tops and fuck-me pumps.

Perhaps by bringing the curtain back to dramatic theatre, we can save what is left of decent theatre in this country. It might force theatre-makers to go back to concentrating on story and present the audience with a fully-fledged world without employing unnecessary tricks to con the audience into believing that there is anything beyond the singular experience. Don’t take away the joy of the journey by denying us the beginning, because you might find us hoping for a swift end.

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.

Regards,

Louis Viljoen

A Tale Of Two Trinchados

31 May

There exists a great divide, beyond mere geography, between theater in Cape Town and theater in Johannesburg. Both cities conform to the same theatrical construction, so the difference does not lie in the obvious practicalities of theater-making. The two competing cities possess theaters of varying degrees of historical success and countless works from a variety of authors have been staged within the respective auditoriums. The fact that both cities produce and lure audiences to witness live performances from trained professionals and share a country and its people would make it seem as if the difference between the two could not be all that different. And yet, a profound number of theater practitioners and audiences would agree that a difference exists and that this difference is related to the philosophy and the type of work being done.

Without venturing too far into the validity and quality of the two cities’ plays, the question has to be asked as to whether the one is better than the other.

Johannesburg has a tradition of political theater (read: struggle theater) and this tradition continues for the most part at venues like The Market Theater, with revivals of “Siswe Banzi Is Dead” and “Woza Albert” being staged alongside modern struggle plays like “Truth in Translation.” Cape Town, although dabbling in struggle-centric productions and PC profundity on occasion, offers one more of a chance to experience, through theater, political viewpoints that are either foreign or, dare I say it, unpopular. This does not make Cape Town theater better in that regard as one can see from the various colonialist productions whose message seem to be that the troubles of the British Empire or the New World journey towards a (American) dream are oh-so-very-important to us, the conquered (by the colonialists of the empire or the capitalist Yankees.) The question of which city’s theater is most politicized becomes a Red Herring that confuses the plot as to whether any of this work is actually any good, which it very often isn’t.

Another point likely to be made by those in the know, is that Johannesburg is the home of the musical and that no straight, non-musical play with the ability to throw its size around can have a life beyond the two week run the producers have paid for up front. This seems to indicate that a straight, non-musical play will have a better chance at a prolonged life in Cape Town. This, dear reader, is false… in a way. The point is not that a play without song and dance numbers, but with size on its side, can do better in Cape Town than Johannesburg, but that a play like that would be booked in Cape Town at all. What is true in Jozi is true in the Mother City: if the play is not an immense crowd pleaser, which musicals often are, then there is very little hope of it being performed in either city. There are various factors that can guarantee a straight play (of appropriate size or financial backing) some success and it has nothing to do with the quality of work on display. It should feature a star, e.g. Anthony Sher and John Kani in “The Tempest”, a disastrous, infuriatingly lazy production, or it should bring with it some history of excellence, e.g. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, which turned out to be a showcase for almost-has-been stars and an exercise in directorial flimsiness. Both shows, however, were successful in reasonable, South African terms. But for all that supposed pedigree, a musical would’ve sufficed. At least it would have been done well – again, by South African standards. Those shows were booked in Cape Town for the same reason “Rent” started its run in Johannesburg: to make money from the pre-conceived notions of the theater world; big musicals start in Johannesburg, big straight plays start in Cape Town.

Small plays, on the other hand, suffer rape and pillage at the hands of both cities. It is true, smaller plays and new work has a better chance of success in Cape Town. That can’t be argued. The sheer number of smaller productions and new plays in Cape Town outweigh Johannesburg’s. Cape Town has more of a theater going populace than Johannesburg because there simply are more small theaters (I do not count cabaret bars, stand-up comedy venues or band stands) and they are affordable. The average price of admission is between R50 and R100 for a small theater, and it always depends on whether well-known actors/directors/writers are involved. A R50 ticket in Johannesburg is almost unheard of, and if you do find a play that cheap, chances are it will reflect the price in the work. That does not mean that these small or new productions that litter Cape Town’s theater world are necessarily going anywhere. They are almost never accepted by any of the big theaters, they never make money (those damn cheap tickets!) and the only way they will make progress in this country is if they are award-friendly, accessible, complacent, PC or preachy works. It is theater as a franchise wannabe restaurant; just another “Spur” in the making.

The difference between Cape Town theater and Johannesburg theater is comparable to the two cities’ approach to a Portuguese dish known as Trinchado. The basics of the dish are the same in both cities: a saucy, meat dish containing cubes of beef fillet in a spicy, red wine sauce. The difference lies in the viscosity of the sauce. In Cape Town it is thin and red, like a consommé, and in Johannesburg it is creamy and thick with a slight orange tinge. Those who frequent Diaz Tavern in Cape Town will swear that the Trinchado they serve there is the best, while those who eat at Nuno’s in Melville, Johannesburg will testify that theirs is better. I have tried both, and I too have a favorite just as I have a favorite theater community. But to argue about it would be moot. It’s all about taste, experience and one’s enjoyment of the moment. Yes, the recipes differ, but the dish remains the same.

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