In which a writer returns from a journey

New Visions New Voices

Thoughts and thanks by Jon Keevy

I arrived in Cape Town back from the US on the 17 May. I felt invigorated despite the forty hours of traveling it took to get home. Maybe it was the jet-lag rewiring my brain, or the cold slap in the face of Cape Town rain – but I doubt it. Instead I’m fairly certain it was the journey and processing everything I’d seen, experienced and learnt in the US as part of the Kennedy Center’s International Playwrights Intensive at the New Visions \ New Voices festival, and as a traveler in that strange country.

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The other writers were a kick-ass bunch, 5 of us from SA, 3 from India and 1 from South Korea (who didn’t make the picture)

It’s taken me too long to write this. As soon as I got back to Cape Town it was back to the theatre and following up on the business cards and handshakes I picked up on my trip.

It started off with quite a lot of intense work (actually it started off with snacks and local brews, but the work came along soon after meeting the team). The University of Maryland based team had us foreign writers earning that title – rewriting and rewriting our plays for the full reading at the end of week one. I found it really rewarding to have a robust, opinionated engagement with my play from such a thoughtful group of dramaturgs, directors, actors and writers. I can also say that the down time spent talking theatre and life through the early hours with the other writers on the program was thought-provoking and at times utterly hilarious.

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My team at the University of Maryland  – such excellent notes on the story from these champions.

Moving over to the Kennedy Center in D.C. meant less work and more time to check out the cultural side of the city (not enough time though, DC has a vast number of museums, parks, monuments, galleries and theatres – we hardly cracked its shell). We had four days of rehearsals and minor rewrites in preparation for the festival itself. Knowing that this would be presented to professional playwrights, companies and producers ensured that I bit my fingernails down to the quick as I poked at the final cut of the play.

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Andrew Whiting gifted Lereko, Mojalefa and me with tickets to The Nether at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in DC

I was lucky to be invited to speak on a panel discussing theatre ‘on the edge’ and got to punt my views on technology expanding the possibilities of theatre – from access to content, administration to collaboration. Access and diversity were on everyone’s minds not just as an area theatre had to improve in, but also as an area rich in creative potential to spark new theatrical vocabulary.

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This is just my favourite picture. Lereko and I taken by Tumelo Khoza

The festival itself was a big success – we only did extracts of our plays but there was a lot of interest from attendees. It’s these connections that are difficult to make outside of settings like festivals and conferences and while attending them is essential to building a career in any field. I’m still following up on these connections and I hope to have exciting news and more to thank you all for in the near future. In fact I got some exciting news while I was there: the National Arts Council approved my funding proposal for The Underground Library – so I’ll be able to present it in 2017.

13221280_10153444583145163_3931054151756030425_oI spent the last week of the trip in New York staying with friends. I saw some great theatre, places and people, and bought scripts to start building a little theatre library at Alexander Bar. The highlight was Sleep No More, an immersive theatre experience remixing Macbeth with dance and film noir. And of course every trip to New York needs a visit to Yankee stadium to see the bleacher-creatures and pinstripe pride in action.

I arrived back feeling inspired and fired up for the mission – tell more stories in more ways and make space for others to tell theirs.

And all thanks to you and the support of Yvette Hardie and ASSITEJ SA, The Kennedy Center, and The University of Maryland.

In my appeal I also promised to pay you all back somehow, and the options are taking shape:

  • We’ll be doing another reading of the updated Underground Library soon! All contributors get comps.
  • I’ve been sketching and doing watercolours again – hit me up for requests
  • My macaroni cheese is incredible. Come for dinner.
  • I’ll be running two courses in August/September – one on Playwrighting/Stories based on my workshops on writing and conflict; and the other on producing and marketing theatre. (Because the fundraising was so generously supported I will also be paying it forward and making sure that any young writer or theatre maker who wants to do either of my courses but can’t afford it will still have a place in the program.)
  • Theatre tickets! Comps to my upcoming shows, like Anthology: After the End, Dirty Laundry (sequel to Dirty Words featuring Alicia McCormick and Danieyella Rodin), or Every Beautiful Thing.

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    Every Beautiful Thing will be at NAF this month

  • A monologue on anything at all…

Thank you all so much!

Here’s a last pic…

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The Cap’n

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New Visions / New Voices

I’m wracked with nerves and anxiety and electric shivering excitement.

I’m leaving on Thursday the 21st for the US. I’m going to be a part of New Visions | New Voices at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. While I’m there I’m going to meet fellow writers from around the world, see brain expanding theatre, and hear my play – The Underground Library – done with American accents.

This is a favorite play of mine – a South African action/scifi about a young girl caught between an oppressive government and mysterious hacker group. (You can listen to it HERE.)

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The amazing cast and director of the reading we did at Alexander Upstairs

The problem is that I don’t have any funding and those randelas don’t go as far as they used to when buying dollars. The Kennedy Center is putting up accommodation but that’s all the support I can rely on at the moment.

So please give me money so I don’t come back so thin I’m transparent. And so I can maybe pay back my flights please. And so I can pay Maggie and Jamie to look after Alexander Upstairs while I’m away.

In the Kickstarter spirit I can make your generosity benefit you too. In August I’ll run two courses – one on Arts Marketing and Producing I developed while a Business Arts South Africa fellow and lecturer on Professional Practice at City Varsity, and one on Play writing that’s based on workshops I’ve done for schools and festivals. Doesn’t appeal? Something you’d like I can help with? Short play? Limerick? Poster? Putting up shelves? Carrying furniture? Let me know. I’m flexible and can reach high cupboards.

Email me at freelancer@jonkeevy.com for more details.

Thank you so much for reading,

JK

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11×11: Three Complaining

March was a bit of a win and bit of a loss, but overall I’m leaning to calling it a success.

The month started off a bit crazy at Alexander Upstairs and got progressively more crazy as it went on. In addition to the regular work I got a number of design jobs for people’s National Arts Festival productions. Then there was the BASA/British Council fellowship, which included workshops and a conference in Joburg where I spoke on a panel and pitched for funding.

All of which is to say I have many excuses and they’re not completely unreasonable. Sort of the point of an excuse isn’t it? But I don’t buy them either. I don’t buy that me taking on more than I can handle is a reason not do the thing that I promised myself. Being there for other people is important. So is being there for yourself. Finding the balance is the most important.

This month my writing was a short play for Anthology, opening on Tuesday the 7th (this evening). It’s called Bullet Points and is a classic con story: two characters manipulating each other with layers of tricky deception. The dialogue is full of detours as they chase down the quirky reasoning and get distracted by little things. They’re not very good cons. Or are they?

I also added a lot of new material and substantially rewrote parts of Every Beautiful Thing, my January play. A lot of writing got done in March; enough that I could call it 3 down, not enough that I feel like I deserve a high five.

Lessons:

  • Regularity breeds creativity. Don’t try to squeeze all the juice in snatched moments and odd places; that’s notebook time.
  • Rewriting is an art unto itself, fear and respect it.
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11×11 – Boom! That’s Two Down

The second play of my 2015 writing challenge 11×11 is done. The Underground Library was an idea I’ve been kicking around since the National Arts Festival in 2013. It was going to be building the style of Get Kraken. Set in Jozi of the near-future, the Underground Library is about education and inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the thread of pro-autodidacticism that runs through the work of black intellectuals from Carter Woodson to Steve Biko. It’s an adventure story with spies, hackers, shady interests, and samurai (you know you like samurai).

The biggest challenge for this was that it was a radio play. My first ever. My preference is to write whatever pops into my head and let the director and designer work out how to make it happen on stage (in Get Kraken a stage direction reads, “The submarine rises up from beneath the little boat, stranding the panicked pair”). But in radio it’s all on the writer to figure out how to convey the info. None of it is visual, and since it was for a competition (SAfm radio playwrights) I also couldn’t leave it up to a sound designer – I needed to show that I understood the medium. It being a competition added more pressure. This one had to be good. Every Beautiful was written to be performed, but I will be doing further drafts, I’ll be revising. The Underground Library I had one shot at, and it kept me up late this last week.

Lessons this month:

• If writing is the most important thing to you, then you have to make finishing the most important thing. Prioritise finishing. Life will make you choose. Choose finishing.

• I’m useless at night. Rather take it off and recharge.

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11×11 – One Down

The first month of my 11×11 project has come to an end and I have done one play. Sort of. The rules I laid out put the page target at 30, but I finished at 26. Apart from a two page prelude, the play is a single continuous scene without entrances or exits. Two characters having a conversation.

So what did I learn? Firstly, finishing is the most important thing and how that may be defined is a not hard and fast. 30 pages is a good goal, but a piece that’s shorter but with a continuous spine and a real ending is also good. Secondly, to be careful of excuses. The one above makes sense but other excuses I made to not write were lame self-sabotage. Among them:

  • I can make up the page count tomorrow (no, you won’t)
  • I don’t have an idea what to do next (not writing is the opposite of solving this)
  • I’d rather answer this email (that’s a damn lie)
  • OK, but I have to answer this email (you know you don’t really)
  • I’ll write better after a power nap (you won’t get back up)
  • What’s happening on Facebook/Twitter/News24 comments section? (What is wrong with you?!)

And Finally, I confirmed it’s possible. For me. (So probably for you too)

The result of January’s labour is Every Beautiful Thing, promised to Briony Horwitz last year and finally delivered. It’s an emotional drama and comes from the same place as A Girl Called Owl – a spiritual sequel. To keep the 11×11 challenge interesting I’m going to pick very different projects each month, so February’s play is going to be The Underground Library. This is more in the Get Kraken! mould, multiple scenes and locations, an action adventure aimed at teenagers. Conveniently there’s an SAfm radio play competition and the submission deadline is the end of the month. Whenever possible I’m going to try incorporate opportunities like this into the challenge (because I like money).

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Awards Shmwards

Awards are great – recognition descending from on high to give you a firm slap on the back. An award tells people that you’re one of those rare artists doing good, making work and being successful. If it comes with cash you can even pay rent this month. The glamour of the ceremony, the snacks, the champagne… rubbing body parts with the movers and shakers of the industry.

I got my first award in 2013… what a day. I was elated. I was free with my high-fives. It felt good. I’ve gotten a couple more since then and it’s a thrill every time. Getting an award is almost enough to quiet that niggling voice in the back of my head… that maybe… possibly… awards aren’t great. That awards may actually be the opposite of great. That awards maybe actually be terrible.

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Awards are inarguably good for two entities: The organisation giving the award, and the individual receiving it.

We’re in an incredibly unequal society. Awards can function to pick out talent and push it forward, forming part of a virtuous circle (the opposite of the more famous vicious circle – a virtuous circle is where good things lead to more good things, a positive positive feedback loop). This can be a force for social change, combatting the inequalities of the system, but only if that is a conscious goal of the award. We see this in targeted awards for basically everyone who isn’t a white heterosexual male, they are addressing persisting historical equality.

In these virtuous circles sit not just awards but many opportunities that we want to believe are based solely on merit. But the rewards are disproportionate, the person who came second rarely gets any prizes and certainly not the publicity that leads to more offers of work. One instance of this is fine, it’s the circle we should worry about. Let’s take a look at a kid who went to a school with good drama program, they audition against others who have passion but no training. They get into a top tier university with opportunities for bursaries and residences. Their peers are mostly like them, passionate with a talent that has already been nurtured. Competition and collaboration drives them further. By the end of their university career they take a production to the Student Festival at the National Arts Festival. They win some categories like best production, best writer, best director. Part of their prize is to present a new show at the next NAF. Focus is on them and they get an Ovation award. The next year it’s the Arena program. A virtuous circle.

How far back do you trace a person’s success? Is my career dependent on growing up in a house filled with books? Or unconsciously absorbing the cues all around me that told me I could do whatever I wanted? Is it being brought up in the language of the global hegemony?

There are advantages being handed out all around us all the time. I believe that talent, intelligence, and passion are distributed equally across race and class. But that is not the story that the advantages handed out tell. That story is that advantage leads to advantage.

Awards and opportunities need to be open to questioning. In 2014 we saw outcry on social media about the all-male Standard Bank Young Artists for 2015 and we saw people questioning the selection process of the Cape Town Fringe. People were questioning the gatekeepers about their decisions from Maynardville to the NAF. And that’s important. Awards and opportunities innately stratify industries so we need to be aware of their effects and cautious about how they’re handled. Above all else awards need to be proportional to the achievements (and opportunities to the potential) not only of the recipient, but of their peers. Setting one person above another is a great responsibility and who ever does so must be able to answer for it.

Perhaps the best way awards contribute to change is in their fallibility – the value of high profile awards like the Grammies, the Oscars, or the Standard Bank Young Artists is that we see how untransformed we are clearly. It is an opportunity for us all to address it.

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11 x 11

There’s a pleasure in symmetry, a pleasure in pattern. Rituals and habits are reassuring. Looking at 11 x 11 with its palindrome promise, makes me think it doesn’t stand for anything out of the ordinary. It can’t represent anything challenging or impossible. Can it?

As a matter of fact it can. 11 x 11 is a project I’m embarking on, a gauntlet I’m throwing down against my common sense. It stands for something a bit ridiculous in its audacity: a promise to write eleven plays in eleven months. One play every month from January to November.

This year I’m not producing any shows. I’ve produced eight shows in the last five years (four of which I wrote) and it is time for a break – time to rethink my strategy. What better way to do that than to rewire how I think about writing? If you’re like me you’ve got a folder of ideas and bits of scenes lying around, maybe a couple of promises to write the script of an idea that your table of drunk friends came up with. If you’re like me you’ve got the material, you just sat on it.

11 x 11 is about quantity, not quality. None of these plays needs to ever be produced. The goal is not the stack of pages but the experience and the practice. What does it take to be prolific? How will my process change? What will I learn from this?

The rules are simple. I have to finish a play by the end of every month. It should be about an hour (or more) so if it’s a one hander then over 20 pages, and if it’s dialogue over 30 pages. So I’ll be writing between 220 and 350 pages.

Best of all? I’ve already started and have 8 pages to go to meet my target by the 31st. This is possible and I am going to do it.

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