Tag Archives: South Africa

Trimmings of the Fringe (an Edinblurb)

3 Sep

At the time of writing, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has released its last performance of the year back into the wild, with a pat on the back, a knowing wink and a roll of the eyes as the unlucky son of a bitch returns to a world that needs theatre like it needs an arsehole on the elbow. I was a participant of the festival, albeit an incidental participant as I authored the play in question (Champ) and remained pretty much removed from the production and staging and dropped into Edinburgh for eight days, mostly to drink and get in the cast and crew’s way. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume my presence in Edinburgh was purposeful and not merely in aid of personal debauchery. For doing so will make headway with this tale, and provide me with purpose beyond explaining the presence of the drooling, masturbating monkey that sits on my neck, calling itself my one true friend and sifting through bits of my soul for a final nub, an unsmoked treasure, a dream amongst the ashes.

I must pause to inform you that my return from Edinburgh coincided with my decision to give up the one thing that has remained a constant in my life for (almost exactly to the day) half my life: cigarettes. Oooh. The mere word sends certain people into fits of rage and disapproval. Goddamnit Jesus Monkey Christ, how I miss smoking. My hope is to never return to the habit, for it is a nasty, cancerous thing, but I’m not yet released of it’s grip. I still laugh at its stupid jokes, I still blush when it smiles at me, I still lie awake wondering if it thinks about me. This is, I believe, the first reason why it has taken me a while to write about Edinburgh. The motherfucking addict in me has been keeping me busy with scrounging adventures for sugar or booze or anything that might make me forget about my one true love.

The second reason is that, and if I’m lying I’m dying, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was quite uneventful. Let me be clear, it’s the Edinburgh period Fringe period Festival period, the biggest fringe festival in the world and a play I wrote was invited to participate and that, ladies and doodlebugs, is aces in my book. The festival is a throbbing muscle of theatre and performance and is fed by the veins of pubs and restaurants and, like visits to best call girl in town, no one goes without coming. I say uneventful, because unlike something I would usually relish to write about, nothing was seriously amiss during my eight days nestled in the bosom of Mother Theatre. And fuck if that isn’t a mess. (The hearty, supportive ones among you might glow proudly at my restraint. The dark, negative shits in the crowd are cursing my name for selling out.)

Imagine, for a moment, the closest thing we have to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Who said Grahamstown? You did? Good for you. Yes, The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Boy, what a heap of sloppy shit when compared to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (Then again, it’s a heap of sloppy shit when compared to a heap of sloppy shit.) With ’round ’bout 2500 shows to host and promote and programme (I include stand-ups) it’s a wonder the thing gets pulled off every year. Cast and crews were found adequate, if not slightly extravagant, lodgings; shows ran on time; programmes were accurate and all of this in the middle of a busy metropolis that doesn’t skip a beat and manages to be one of the prettiest places this untravelled lout has seen in his life. Grahamstown, by comparison, can, frankly, suck a dick (and not only in terms of organisation, but in terms of content. Nonetheless… dick.)

That isn’t to say that Edinburgh was perfect. No, no, no, silly billy. We are, after all, taking about a theatre festival, run by theatre people, with theatre-makers from all over the world coming to make theatrical shits on the faces of audiences who pay up the arse to be defecated on by these theatre-makers and theatre people. My eight days only allowed me to see a few shows, but more than half were loose stool water, bum gravy of the highest order. But unlike seeing a bad show in Cape Town, which depresses me because I know it will probably become the biggest thing since Lara Foot invented black people, seeing a bad show in Edinburgh made me feel better about what we’re trying to achieve in South Africa. If a world-travelling, critically acclaimed play can suck so much donkey cock in Edinburgh, then little Cape Town plays (the honest ones; liars need not apply) stand a chance at living a good life.

One also has to deal with some of the hierarchial bullshit one deals with locally. At one particular jamboree (specifically meant to bring together the South African show-makers and introduce them to the various street teams assigned to each show and also served as a shindig for us Saffas to hang out, spend some time with each other, try to spot the cracks in each other’s shows) we were made aware that our importance was fleeting and only in effect when Dame Janet Suzman wasn’t in the room. There we were, hoisting our beer filled glasses, toasting each other after one of the festival big-wigs praised us for being so wonderfully South African and reminded us that Mies Julie (Jesus, that play just won’t die) exists and that we can never be as great as that and then summarily dismissed himself from the room to sit in the V.I.P area, a table away from us slobbering maniacs, to which you had to be invited and was (I assume) specially set up for HRM Suzman. What? The old girl couldn’t have a drink with the plebs?

So, I spent my second evening in Edinburgh drinking various room-temperature beers, flirting with Mark Fleishman (let him deny it) and staring at the festival big wigs taking turns putting their heads up “Damnit” Janet Suzman’s behind and wearing her like a hat. Oh, and smoking. I did a lot of smoking that night.

Perhaps it was the feeling of not being ended by Edinburgh that gave me the guts to stop smoking. Perhaps I felt a sense of accomplishment as I, and a few of my peers and countrymen, strutted our stuff and presented world-class work. Perhaps it was that I felt at home there and realized that I would like to return, free of addiction and cancer. Perhaps I’m fooling myself and I’ll never write another play again and a month from now I’ll be back on the smokes, working an admin job at UCT’s drama department,being ignored by that flirt-hound Fleishman, dreaming about Suzman and Edinburgh, convincing myself it was a half forgotten oasis.

I probably won’t let you know, so you choose how you want it to end. (Ooh, very fucking mysterious, Loo.)

Peace? I Hate The Word (But not as much as I hate you, dickhead)

9 Feb

Let us, for a brief moment, gather our thoughts and discuss with frankness the state of relationships within our beleaguered little theatre industry. Perhaps “industry” is the wrong term. It conjures up images of factory lines and products instead of attempts at artistic expression. Shall we say “world”? Our theatre world? Jesus, that recalls some fantasy realm where knights with impossible names rescue maidens with impossible necklines. We can’t say “within South African theatre”, because the differences, in aesthetics and practice, seem different from provincial capitol to provincial capitol. I must admit that I have no idea of the inner workings of theatre being done in Durban and Pretoria. I won’t even venture near those cities if there isn’t a paycheck attached to the reason. (I’m fully aware that my ignorance is showing beneath my unformulated ideas, thank you very much.) It happens upon me now that I should speak about what I know, or what I think I know: The Cape Town Theatre Industry World Place Village Hamlet Bumfuck Jerkwater One Horse Town Whatever You Goddamn Wanna Call It. Not concise enough for you? Fine, but let’s move on lest the cobwebs gather and lethargy sets in.

Ah Christ fuck, where was I? Relationships. There you go. The Cape Town theatre community (fucking nailed it), like so many other enterprises, of an industry standard or sub-industrious, is built by and functions through relationships. As a writer and theatre-maker I would like to say that the work is paramount and integral to the momentum of theatre. This, however, is wish-fulfillment tantamount to retardation. To use, and possibly bastardize an old maxim, it’s not what you know, but who you know. If I was a cynic, I would it put it more succinctly and say that it’s about the cocks you’ve sucked and the ones you haven’t. But I am not a cynic, and I will not stoop to such a level of inane explicitness. If one has fostered a relationship with a person or persons with whom you would like to work, then the chances are in a community as tiny as ours, that would happen. Or at least attempts would be made.

But, here’s the “but”. The practice of making connections has become a vertical line from which nothing travels down, only up. This, of course, is not new to any system functioning as a hierarchy. The boss doesn’t know your name, but you sure as shit need to know his name and your goal becomes for him to know your name. Where this becomes a problem for us, you and I dear reader, is that our community is tiny. Everyone already knows everyone else’s name. We’re all connected like the characters from a euro-centric three hour long drama about the search for truth, happiness and oh fuck I just fell asleep. The name game, the relationship ship (what the fuck, Loo?), has been mutated because of the diminished size of the playing field/ocean battle grid (enough with the metaphor, dickhead). The new rules state that you may know someone, but that you may un-know them depending on whether they’re proving themselves useful to you and your plans for global domination.

The executives who sit atop the theatre structures, like warlords surveying their fiefdoms, have to contend with bottom lines and need a secure investment to keep their tenuous positions. It really bodes well for a theatre-maker if one of these House Masters likes you and takes an interest in your work. Perhaps you have to give a performance that impresses them, or write a piece that makes them and their arm candy laugh their pretty little heads off, or you have to direct/produce something that makes an elephant shit sized amount of money for someone else. The theatre bosses, like most people in positions of power, want what others of their ilk have. Johnny Stealmuch has a Ferrari, so Cindy Rapist-of-Good has to have one as well. Substitute a Ferrari for the next hot production, and you’re close to knowing how this works. If the one can’t have what the other has, then a pursuit for a competing production begins (a Jaguar, perhaps). On occasion the two Dons will put aside their turf war and collaborate on a production.

Stuck between the two, sweaty, heaving bodies is the artist (or the production, if you expand it to include those involved in the process). Their position may resemble the cat’s meow, but there is now a possible negative outcome to this arrangement. Let’s say little Dolly Theatre-maker made her name at a different theatre, ruled over by another tiny, foot-stomping lord. That lord now hates Dolly for spreading her wings beyond his reach. As do that lord’s frequent collaborators. Having felt Dolly was one of them, they now hate Dolly for calling someone else Father. Dolly, whilst walking in the woods contemplating her fate, comes across another problem. The critic who praised her has nothing but contempt for the Master in whose house she now has residency. She knows that the critic will utterly destroy her production in the press, calling her a one trick pony and a flash in the pan, instead of focussing his rage on the person for whom it is intended. The critic cannot complain about the theatre management, instead he ruins Dolly’s play in the hope that Johnny Stealmuch will feel a slight tickle in his ballsack.

And what of those under the theatre-maker’s care (actors, crew, etc.)? Are they subject to the same institutionalised abuse suffered by their fearless leader? In certain cases, yes. If the transgression, real or not, has been big enough, then an actor’s relationship with a writer, a director, or even someone on a management level could make them untouchable to possible future employers. Eg. “You worked for Dolly and Johnny Stealmuch, so how could I trust you to put my fever dream of a script in your hands?” On occasion this swings the other way. An actor could be such a burden on a production because of his behaviour in the past or his personal feelings about management, that the theatre-maker instantly has a problem when choosing to collaborate with him. The play may be perfect, the cast may have magical chemistry and the budget may be balanced enough to ensure a decent production and satisfy the financial needs of those involved, but the mere presence of this hated actor derails the production and sets back any thought of negotiation. I use “actor” as an example, but this could be a director, writer, designer, production manager or investor. The point is that because of a fractured relationship and an incident resting uncomfortably in the past, the work has become the least important item on the agenda.

Perhaps it behooves us to move beyond what has worked, if what has worked has resulted in a lower standard of work. For once I won’t pontificate on what makes bad work, but I will rather state that sometimes it’s because of our need for relationships, the practice of oiling the gears with friendship and loyalty, that the work suffers from lowered standards. The opposite (contempt, back-stabbery and motherfuckery) won’t get us far and might only serve to stroke our victimised egos. So, is it not in our best interests to find a middle ground that is neither hot nor cold, but just right? You don’t need to know someone to decide you hate them, but you also don’t need to like them in order to work with them.

If the focus is the work, the little play born from the muck, birthed through blood and sweat and tears and terror, then who the fuck cares how much we like or dislike one another?

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

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.

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