Tag Archives: Artscape

The Maynardville Bridgehead (Like war, but for theatre sissies)

20 Jan

BRIDGEHEAD:

  1. A strong position secured by an army inside enemy territory from which to advance or attack.
  2. Super-cool war terminology that a lazy writer can use to spice up the title of his/her essay.

Let us, you and I, sit for moment and calm the fuck down. As we breathe, using our diaphragms to suck the air in and push it out, we must endeavor to let go of the things we can change and the things we cannot and hope to christmas and the angels of malarkey that we will know the difference. “Why this plea for tranquility”, I hear you whisper, your hot breath tickling my earhole. Because, dear reader, I’m about to discuss Maynardville and I wish to do so without the usual mouth frothing and skin tearing that comes with a discussion, critical or favourable, of a theatrical institution, tradition, legend or practice.

A quick recap: (Previously on Uncle Loo): When I say Maynardville I refer to the annual staging of a Shakespeare at the Maynardville open-air theatre. This is a production of The Maynardville Theatre Trust, supported first and foremost by Artscape. I have publicly stated my dissatisfaction with past Maynardville productions and my previous blog was in anticipation of 2014’s “The Tragedy of Richard III”. What I learnt is that public criticism of such a sacred cow is frowned upon and viewed as troublemaking for troublemaking’s sake. Privately, however, there seems to be a lot of agreement, especially surrounding the issue of Maynardville’s quality (or lack thereof). Asking publicly for Maynardville to be better is akin to shitting on Athol Fugard’s forehead, even though privately everyone is shitting on Mr Fugard’s forehead and gleefully sharing the sight of their well aimed turds with their friends.

*Please Note: I have never, nor will I ever attempt to make a shit on Mr. Fugard’s forehead, nor do I condone such nasty business. The analogy (ANALogy, haha) was purely for illumination’s sake.

Back to the business at hand (And now for our feature attraction): It was a muggy Saturday night and I held in my left hand an opening night ticket courtesy of a friend and in my right a Castle Lager cooler bag which contained two bone-chilling Castle Lites, a bottle of cheap-as-dirt-but-not-fancy-dirt-more-like-dirt-poor-white-trash-dirt white wine and a single wine glass, wrapped ever so carefully in an unwanted page of that morning’s newspaper (the arts section, perhaps? Stop it, you sly buggers.). The ticket ensured my entrance and the booze ensured my full attendance and yes, my full attention. Not because of the booze’s effects, but because it kept me occupied, which is essential when attending a a 3-hour+ play with unpadded seats. Yes, perhaps fruit and cheese would be better, but I couldn’t goddamn afford it, okay? Who are you? My mother? (Okay, settle down, Loo. Diaphragm, remember?) During the next three hours, two significant things occurred: A decent amount of the audience left at the interval, and I, having stayed until the end, exited Maynardville Park disappointed that I did not enjoy the play.

At this point, you may be asking, but is that not what you (me) expected? And to tell you the honest cross-my-heart-hope-to-die truth, it was expected. I was not surprised that I didn’t like the play. I could name, almost scene for scene, performance by performance, what I thought was wrong with the play. There were moments I didn’t hate, as there is with anything, but in general I walked away thinking it was pretty much par for the course when it comes to Maynardville (which, in my opinion, is not good enough, to put it mildly.) My compatriots and I met for a drink afterwards and we laid out the problems we had, lamented moments which could’ve worked but didn’t, and laughed at instances we found ridiculous. But then, half way through another ice-cold Castle Lite, a draft this time (wearing my big-boy pants in front of my theatre cohorts), a feeling of melancholy settled over me. I wrestled with this feeling through late hours of that night and until the evening of the next day. Why did I not run home, as I expected to do and what was expected of me to do, and write with glee about the faulty production I witnessed?

My best guess, as I still struggle with it, is that I wanted “Richard III” to exceed my expectations and when it didn’t there was a sense of celebration amongst those I know and those who share my feelings about Maynardville. And this is what made me melancholic. We were glad the production failed (in our estimation and opinion, which is not shared by everyone). I reason that we were glad, because it’s another nail in the coffin and that it’s one step closer to an implosion which might lead to a serious change. The truth, however, might be closer to the childish joy of saying “I told you so.” We can revel in our own superiority by pointing at the failure of an institution that cannot win us over if it tried.

This is an not an attempt to vindicate Maynardville or “Richard III”. The play was not good. The faults outweighed the merits, but in saying that. I am admitting that there were merits. And there were. There’s one thing I can’t fault the production with and that’s the fact it was obviously trying. The director (the very talented Lara Bye), her mostly-miscast actors, designers and crew were definitely attempting to break from the confines of mediocrity for which Maynardville is so famous. That they couldn’t rise above the history is a shame, but should we not be hopeful that an attempt was made?

Another reason for my lugubrious mood may well be the realisation that Maynardville won’t change because no one wants it to change. No one. Not us, nor them. If Maynardville and its shadowy cabal of a board (I imagine them in a castle, pale, feeding on virgin boys and singing Prussian monastery hymns) continue to resist change, then we, their critics, get to continue our criticisms. Welcome to the circle of unimportant, egoistic bullshit. Am I ashamed of my critique? Not at all. Is there something to be done about it? Of course. Why haven’t we done it? Because it’s easier to point out Maynardville’s flaws than to make a serious, loud, positive attempt to change what bothers us.

I don’t want Maynardville to disappear. There I said it. I’m glad it exists. It has employed many of my friends and will continue to do so in the future. That is also the reason I will continue to demand an improvement. At the risk of being rousing, we, the schlubs who make up this tiny, fragile little industry, can fight for something better. It is not only our right, but our duty. What good is it to sit in the back row, hurl insults and claim fraud, and then refuse to take the broom and sweep up the trash that so offends our art. This is not a call for group-think or inclusion or even forgiveness, but if we want challenging theatre then perhaps it’s time we challenge ourselves.

Maynardville has earned our scorn. And scornful we shall be. But what happens then? We can make it hard for them to do another weak production, or we can make it easy for them to do a good one. I hope to choose the latter.

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.

The Cat Ass Trophy Goes To… Peter Peter Theatre Eater

16 Nov

Peter Tromp, the esteemed Cape Town theatre critic, is a dickless motherfucker. Wait… wait… I apologize, dear reader. It was not my intention to start like that. I have no research to back my opening statement. There is no proof that Peter Tromp, the esteemed Cape Town theatre critic, lives his life without a penis or that he had sexual intercourse with his mother. One can only speculate on such things. Unfounded accusations of genital mutilation and incest are better left to editors and publications that employ people like Peter Tromp, the esteemed Cape Town theatre critic.

So, let’s try again.

Peter Tromp, the infallible trend setter and scourge of bad theatre, who time and time again has answered the call to deliver critical analysis of why a show produced by people of a lower class than Mr Tromp, is worthy of his praise or condemnation and has shown himself to be an immovable object when it comes to his opinions, is in fact… a dickhead. (Perhaps that’s where his penis migrated to. Someone will have to research that.)

The reason for my umbrage towards Mr Tromp is due to an article that was published in “48Hours”, an arts magazine that carries the honour of employing Mr Tromp and sending him on noble crusades to shit on or praise other people’s work. This, of course, is part of the game. Theatre-makers have to endure the good reviews and the bad ones and if one does not ask “why” when you are granted a good review then the same goes when one receives a bad review. The article in question is Mr Tromp’s review of Nicholas Spagnoletti’s “Special Thanks to Guests from Afar”, the fourth play in Artscape’s 8th Spring Drama Season (an annual season dedicated to showcasing new writing.)  I was also part of this year’s season and my play “Champ” was the second in the season, after Amy Jephta’s “Other People’s Lives”. Mr Tromp did not review “Champ” and gave no indication of his immense dislike (spoiler alert!) of the play when he interviewed me for “48Hours”. I say interview, but what I mean is he e-mailed me a generic list of questions, which I answered and the exchange was published as an interview. The sub-heading even read “Peter Tromp spoke to Louis Viljoen…” Peter Tromp has never spoken to Louis Viljoen. Peter Tromp is too important to speak to a lowlife like Louis Viljoen.

But back to the article. In his glowing review of “Special Thanks to Guests from Afar” (a review the play richly deserves. Mr Spagnoletti is a very good writer and the actors were superb) Mr Tromp referred to my play, “Champ”, as a catastrophe and one of the reasons for the Artscape’s 8th Spring Drama Season being on the verge of dismal failure. He also included Ms Jephta’s work in that statement, but I will let her start her own fight with Mr Tromp. (And I suspect she will eviscerate him.) Granted, it is his opinion. He has every right to hate my work and I don’t hold it against him. “Champ” was not for everyone. As much as it irks me to say, Mr Tromp has been reviewing theatre for longer than I’ve been working in it, and he’s seen more theatre than I have, so his opinion comes not from the mind of a neophyte but from experience in watching theatre (that he never has to pay for) and he gets paid to give his opinions.

However, (ah, boy, here it comes.)

The reasons critics are paid are not only to give their opinions. They are expected to say whether a play is good or bad, but more than that, they need to qualify it. “The play is good because…” and “the play is bad because…” and so forth. You get the idea. Of course you do, because you’re not a moron. Mr Tromp’s unqualified statement that “Champ” is a catastrophe comes out of nowhere. He uses his hatred of the play as a forward for his review of someone else’s play, but draws little to no comparison between the two. It is not expected of him to compare Mr Spagnoletti’s play to mine, but he introduces the possibility of comparison without following it through. This would be acceptable if he was an unpaid commenter or a blogger (hey, that’s me) but as someone who I’m sure refers to himself as a critic and who would not write a word about any theatrical endeavour without attaching an invoice to the article, he is in dereliction  of duty as a writer for the arts.

Later in the review, Mr Tromp takes time to denigrate the work of Gabriella Pinto, a young playwright who has proven herself, one year out of UCT’s Drama School, as a prolific writer/director who is growing with every new play she produces. Ms Pinto was not part of the Spring Drama Season, but fell afoul of Mr Tromp for reasons that are unclear. He hated her play “Chickens” and he felt he should mention it in a review of “Special Thanks to Guests from Afar”. Again, he doesn’t qualify his statement. Firstly he insults Ms Pinto’s work without explaining why it so appalled him, then he lumps her in and somehow makes her seem implicit in the “catastrophes” that were “Champ” and “Other People’s Lives”, therefore lowering her work and her achievements by asserting his disapproval of her writing and that she exists in the same industry as me and Ms Jephta.

Why did Peter Tromp feel the need to vent his anger about other people’s work in a review that had nothing to do with those people’s work?  It can’t be his hatred of women (I’m a boy-man with no penis attached to my head). It can’t be inexperience (he is THE Peter Tromp, esteemed theatre critic).  It can’t be his personal feelings towards an industry that he doesn’t understand anymore (surely that would make him unemployable in his field). You know what it can be? Lazy fucking journalism. Lazy, unedited, frustrated and unqualified rants from a man who should know better.

And what makes my rant any different? I don’t get paid to insult Peter Tromp. I’ll do it for free.

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

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