Mr Muftic speaks!

Hello dear readers. Yesterday I posted about the GIPCA symposium Directors and Directing: Playwrights. I expressed some frustrations and reservations about the focus of the platform and whether it really spoke about playwriting in a significant way. Sanjin Muftic has pointed out that I missed his presentation at the final panel (the burger I got in lieu attendance were tasty though… ) and so I can’t really sum up the symposium. Of course I can (I argued) after all the panel was New Directions and featured only one playwright. So Sanjin sent me his presentation. Check and mate by Mr. Muftic.

Here follows Sanjin Muftic’s presentation at the symposium:

I must start by saying that I feel that I come to this presentation as
a bit of an outsider. I am not South African. I am a Bosnian refugee
who found himself in Ethiopia during the war of the 90s, and managed
to study in Canada as an immigrant before arriving to this country
when I was 22.  But I have spent the last 8 and half years in Cape
Town – which has recently become the one place I have spent the most
years in my life.   Having started out as student in theatre, I now
spend most of my time as a drama lecturer, I feel as if I might have,
just like most of you, made little footprints in the sand that is the
theatre industry of South Africa.  And my concern, just like yours, is
to work towards doing my part to contribute to the future of this art
form, as a lecturer and director, even if I am not of this land.

My concern for this “New Directions” panel is for the future of this
theatre role that we call the “playwright”.  From this weekend’s
thoughts I have found that a playwright covers everyone from the
director/auteur, the facilitator of a workshop production, to one who
feels compelled on their own to put words on a page.  Thus for me a
playwright, is anyone who writes down a blueprint for a future
performance and playwriting is the craft of creating that blueprint.
With that in mind, my question is where are the future playwrights of
this country going to come from? From where will come the scripts for
future directors? I am concerned about this because I feel that there
are not enough true craft playwrights around and not enough new texts
being produced today to inspire the playwrights of tomorrow.  I
believe we need to find ways to improve that.

At this moment, and it might seem like a bit of a generalization, but
we proudly claim that everybody can be a playwright.  If you have a
story, and have we acknowledged that all of us have stories, our
stories that we want to say- write it and you might end up a
playwright.  However, some playwrights are better than others, more
supported than others, have more education opportunities than
others…so we are not all equal playwrights. While experience and a
certain amount of incubation can help you tell your story, it won’t
necessarily make a good play, no matter how much the actors, directors
and producers contribute to its development.  It seems to me that what
is missing from our focus on playwrights, and perhaps all of ours, is
the issue of working on and developing our craft.  Not enough
attention is paid to the training and the improvement of each
playwright, ensuring that their end product on the page, their script
is as much art as the sum of their experiences.  For all the talk of
live productions, and even in this digital age, where it is much
easier to capture the visuals and somewhat communicate the experience,
it is the script that is the starting point for many a creative
process.  Playwrights outlive the actors and the directors, future
generations pick up the pieces of paper they set down and realize them
into life, much as we do with Shakespeare today.

So how do we go about improving the playwrights and also increasing
the number of playwrights? We celebrate the notion that to survive in
this industry you need to be multi-talented and multi-skilled while
many of us play different roles in order to survive.  A lot of
students are trained with this logistical necessity in mind – being
responsible for everything from writing a script, rehearsing it,
designing it and even performing it.  This is indeed a series of
remarkable achievements and many artists are fantastic examples of
this multi-skill set.  However, while it is necessary to have an
overview of the whole theatrical process, general exposure doesn’t
breed mastery in any one of those crafts.  We need to set up
structures, especially for future playwrights, which would allow them
to focus only on that aspect of the theatrical craft.
Playwriting needs more South African opportunities to be taught as a
craft, and those that are passionate about setting words on a page to
take place on stage, need to be given the space and the time to have
their interest and talent nurtured.  To my knowledge, no higher
education programs in this country, offer focused playwriting
programs.  We struggle with the education system at a basic level
because reading and writing are not supported or encouraged as much as
we would need to have future playwrights, and students not held
accountable for not gaining proficiency in each one of those skills.
But we must fight this trend even at an undergraduate level with
playwriting and dramaturgical classes that look at the writing and the
development of a theatrical script. We don’t need to have an aversion
to written words, but in order to conquer it we need to be wrestle
with them from the very start of our training.  The training should be
continuous, forgiving, multi-voiced, multi-styled, personal and
practical.   We don’t need to prescribe a certain method of writing,
but rather take students through various approaches, using examples
from South African and from the rest of the world – thus allowing for
each voice to find its own style. A playwright does not need to wait
until a certain age to begin writing or to be considered as a
playwright, it is not only experience that makes them one, but also
the mastery of their craft, and that can be trained.  Playwriting
needs to be taught at more South African tertiary institutions, more
student playwrights need to be signed up, more attention must be paid
to them, more scripts need to come out, more scripts need to be
performed and developed. And thus more scripts may exist for us to
pick up and direct in the future.

But what can we do today? It is a very idealistic view to say that the
increase in playwriting programs will generate plays and more
individual stories, and perhaps allow for a wider reach for our
audience. I also understand the difficulty in setting up such programs
especially with the personnel required to teach this new stream of
playwrights.  But how could we go about setting that up and what would
we teach?  The idea of introducing dramaturges has come up, and others
have mentioned mentorship as something that young artists need to
improve their craft. Both of these, I believe, are something that can
be done anytime from tomorrow, if we open up our creative processes a
lot more than they are at present.  A dramaturge is somebody who is
trained in the art of developing plays, but why can’t that role be
outsourced to other theatre practitioners in the country? Why can’t we
serve as each other’s dramaturges, offering our point of view (as we
have shown that we have) about scripts, rehearsals and productions?
Can we also be humble enough to understand, analyze and act on it?
Can’t we crowd-source the training of playwrighting until we build up
those who can teach it? Is it possible for current playwrights to
offer courses and workshops to be aligned with higher education
institutions to mentor those who show interest and promise in the
craft of writing? Can those be set-up in some kind of continuous
engagement?  Is it about increasing the accessibility and transparency
within our methods of creating art? Can larger theatrical institutions
and companies take on recent graduates or promising writers to align
them with resident practitioners who can offer advice, support and
work experience? Should current South African playwrights make their
texts more accessible to a younger population, allowing them to study
and investigate their written words and how they would be put on
stage?  Do we need to investigate new methods and formats of writing
down script? Does writing now also include curating and archiving as
some of its activities? Do we need to move away from the belief that
writing something down claims authorship more than it allows for easy
dissemination among people?

For all the discussions and opinions that have come out of the GIPCA
symposiums such as this one, and how they force us to confront the
experiences and the craft of the art we practice, we must leave these
sessions with some kind of plan. What is that each one of us can do to
further the development of theatre in this country?  The development
of new writing voices has to be placed into our teaching curriculum,
lifting the playwright to a more stable and proficient position within
the South African theatre society.  It needs to be celebrated,
respected and taught as a craft of its own. Performing your story is a
transaction between you and your immediate audience, but creating the
blueprint of your story is a transaction between you and a future

Word of the Weekend: Problematic

I missed the final panel of GIPCA’s weekend long symposium Directors and Directing: Playwrights. Kim Kerfoot and I ducked out to grab a carnivore’s lunch. We never came back. We were too busy arguing about the keynote speeches we’d just listened to. We ended up going back to my place to continue the debate over tea and then wine as the day corpsified into night. It ended a weekend of being smart very appropriately.

I skipped the Friday stretch of the programme so I missed the opening addresses by Lara Foot and Mike van Graan, fortunately GIPCA seems to have been recording everything going on so I’ll be able to catch these when the video is uploaded. As for Waiting for the Barbarians, I’ll have to hustle a ticket to it sometime this week (unless they’re uploading that too?). Saturday was a marathon; I arrived at 8.30am and the day ended at 9.45pm after Kragbox at the Arena at the Artscape. Sunday I overslept and only just arrived in time to catch Mark Fleishman delivering the first of the final keynote addresses of the weekend.

Playwrights were supposedly the subject of the symposium, but Director’s and Directing trumped it, with Dramaturgs coming up with regularity too. Last year a question came up over and over: where are the writers? Well, here they are apparently. Satisfied? OK, back to directors.

I found the first panel particularly frustrating. Five writers in turn got up and introduced us to their work. Only Juliet stirred my brain with her 30 thoughts about writing. I think it was because I came to hear about writing, about why there’s a perception that the writers are missing, about who our mentors are meant to be. I came to hear about what it means to be a writer. I came for some real opinions please. Last year I heard Athol Fugard speak about what it meant to be a writer; that moved me, messed with my head a little. That’s what I wanted and what I didn’t get.

Regardless of what I wanted though, I had one major problem with what I got. It wasn’t a big statement, no one presented a fat theory that I felt I needed to deflate. It was in the way people were talking about subjects. Kim disagrees with me about this, but hasn’t convinced me I’m wrong. There was a recurrence of phrases and sentences that equated passivity with action. “Not engaging” became “silencing”, “not using stories” became “denying a right to be heard”. The simply being was to be the obstruction. In a moment of supreme irony that one of the audience members pointed out, Brett Bailey raised a point about the constituency of a panel at a European festival he was presenting work at. The panel was all white European men bar a lone white European woman.

The audience at GIPCA was mostly white. That is a problem. It is not a problem that I was there. Should I do a reversal and frame the non-attendance of black theatre-makers as an active rejection of the academic institution it represents? I could. But it’d probably be better to ask how the event was marketed. We first must make sure people have a choice before we frame their simple absence or presence as statement – or even more problematically, as a unified statement. We tend to frame actions in groups – in masses – but they are the choices of individuals and that act of framing them as an overarching political narrative is worse than silencing or denying the rights, because it does these while it shifts the discourse from the concrete solutions to practical problems of access. The solution to the problems of individuals rest with the decisions we can and some do take as individuals.

Alright, that’s enough of the politics. Here are some quotes and some things I liked in a list (just like Juliet, and Megan, and Gabriella):

1.)    It was more difficult to buy tickets for this from Computicket’s website than it was to buy tickets for my flights to and from Joburg next week.

2.)    “The form demands familiarity” – Juliet Jenkin on playwriting

3.)    “Writing, like dancing, is to expand yourself through space and time” – Juliet Jenkin again

4.)    James Ngcobo on politics and debate: “There’s a place for that – it’s called parliament”

5.)    “Work must be made in a place of joy” – James Ngcobo again (of all the speakers I felt he really loved theatre)

6.)    “The obsession to make the perfect theatre, kills theatre” James on letting go

7.)    Malcolm Purkey described our industry by referring to a documentary that showed chimps and crocodiles so desperate for water that they fought to death, the chimps becoming vicious carnivores.

8.)    “more love or more resources are needed to resolve it” – paraphrasing Malcolm on integration in theatre

9.)    Thando Doni’s merging of performance and music is beautifully done.

10.) Kragbox balances the joys of youth and the fear of a gangster movie perfectly.

11.) “assert order on a maelstrom of language” – Brett Bailey on tackling the text for medEia