A Week to Talk About

Grahamstown is a week away. Literally. The first performances are Thursday the 28th – that’s Stories of Crime and Passion, the Shadow of Brel, London Road and Owl. That’s a hell of a day. In the fever of preparation it’s been hard to find time to write a meaning post on something significant like research or practical ideas on marketing and producing. Instead of writing it I have to be doing it. A pretty common excuse for artists, but ultimately we need to be writing down our thoughts for them to develop. Art grows when a thought is planted, in the hurly burly of production we have to find time to sit on a park bench and let our minds wander. It’s not that I can’t work under pressure, I can and do, but I can’t think freely under pressure. That stroke of insight, that ‘Ah ha!’ moment, needs space to happen. The gap between the first musing and the flash can be huge, sometimes years can pass before you’re ready to make an idea you had into art. That’s why I keep a notebook; it’s my external memory.

As much as this is fundamental to the personal act of making art, it is also crucial to the practical and social act of making art happen. The Cape Town theatre industry seems to have academic writing hanging around the university libraries and reviews at various points along a popular/critical spectrum. It’s hard to find out how people actually make art happen. It’s pretty much the point of this blog and I’ve been letting that down for the past month. So on the one hand, sorry, and on the other, let’s start a conversation about theatre that doesn’t happen over beer in smoky bars or in a library or a lecture hall. Let’s start talking about what it takes to make art in this country.

Direct it Yourself

Warning: This Post May Contain Traces of Nuts

Heeeey… so you’re a writer? You’ve been sitting in front of a computer screen, hunched over and away from natural light or maybe you’ve been sterilizing your baby-maker by perching a humming laptop on, obviously, your lap. I can tell these things. You’ve probably spent a couple of weeks or years working on your script. You’ve revised it, rewritten it, thrown it away and started over a couple of times. But now it’s ready. What do you do now?

Direct it yourself.

No, no, no! That’s what everyone tells writers not to do! You need another mind on it, you need a trained director to shape and mould it – someone who has experience, or a degree, or something.

And they’re right. A good script does need all of that to reach its potential.

But …

Have you ever heard a director say he has an idea for a production and get this advice: “Great idea, go find someone to write it for you. You need another mind on it, you need a trained writer to shape and mould it – someone who has experience, or a degree, or something.” I haven’t.

Writing is regarded as an innate skill in the Cape Town theatre industry. Everyone has it. While overseas the writer/director is a rarity, here it is almost impossible not find a director who is also a writer. And it requires very little to bring out this wonderful storytelling ability that lurks in the heart of talented people. You don’t need to study a degree or even read a book on it; after all you’ve read/watched /listened to stories your whole life. What if I was to say the same about directing or acting? UCT has 4 year long programmes for each of these. But not for playwriting, that’s something you’re meant to have picked up along the way.

When a person is a writer first they create opportunities for actors and directors. They often take on the role of producer too. Look around: Nicholas Spagnoletti and his play London Road; Duncan Bulwalda and Dream, Brother; Louis Viljoen just finished a run of his new script The Verbalists at the Arena; Amy Jeptha who is too prolific to cite only one example;  and, yes, me.

Directors generate jobs often – for actors, designers, techies and musos. Actors generate jobs too. But in all my wracking of my brain the only independent production I could think of where a writer was approached to write something is Damage Control. Well played Lauren Steyn.

Independent theatre doesn’t generate jobs for writers but writers generate jobs for independent theatre all the time.

This is an absurd situation.

Surviving the Festival

The truck, all locked and loaded. Photo: Amy Jephta

Survival. Supposedly it’s for the fittest. In that case I really didn’t expect to still be standing after the festival, but though I’m out of breath I am still breathing. I went up this year with London Road and the ladies conquered St Andrew’s Hall and the fest generally (I’m not sure of the final figures, but London Road looks to have taken the title of highest grossing production this year). But the real sweat had come before the festival began with the preproduction for the Cape Town Edge.

For a little back story: Tanya from FTH:K had approached Tara and me to run the Edge in 2011 at the end of last year; we accepted and set about planning, with Tara bringing fellow Pink Coucher Mat Lewis in.  We divided the project up as best we could; my portfolio was the budget and marketing materials. As Tara’s schedule began to fill up with amazing opportunities we brought in Fiona Gordon to be our Tara surrogate. But enough about them… back to me.

Marketing materials boils down to all the print and web media and making sure it could be accessed by the groups and by interested press people. So we started small with a revamp of the CTE logo and built up through posters, press kits, badges, flyers, facebook pages, a blog and then to the hardest part: the Booklet. I went a little mad. What I’m most proud of if kicking the ass of skeptics who believe that Photoshop is a bad choice to do a booklet in. Using my full knowledge of the program (and learning a couple of new tricks) I worked out a damn efficient method. I now know that anyone who tells you it can’t be done is just someone who can’t do it (put that on an inspirational poster).

During the fest itself I stepped back from the Edge and let Mat and Fiona handle things. Mat is an exceptional and imaginative techie, which is a shame considering how gifted he is as an actor, and got everything running smoothly inside while Fiona and Dani Le Chat made the outside fun and funky.

But all the hard work would have meant very little if it wasn’t for Mark from Fushin. He is a legend and saved the day, bringing in amazing tents, delicious hot food straight from a mobile kitchen and, best of all, a liquor license.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. On the drive up the Nic Danger team were in a car accident and had to cancel the show. There was a lot of confusion that first day and the feeling was that the slot was a loss. But as it became clearer what everyone’s injuries were a spirit of togetherness kicked in. Trent was the worst injured and he was flown back to Cape Town. The remaining ninjas banded together and decided to use all their contacts to put together a comedy variety show. Lots of comics and performers came to the party, giving their time to look silly on stage to help raise funds to pay for Trent’s hospital bills. It was really a moment of feeling that the theatre is a community, not an industry. Other artists and producers made donations direct to the hospital. So, a big thank you to all everyone and especially to the audiences. Thank you a thousand times.

So we survived. Now to start planning for next year…

Fugard at the Fugard

a post that’s actually about writing and not really a review at all

Drive or walk around the city and you can see my work. A blazing sunset with a thorn tree silhouetted against it. Three small figures can be seen under it, while a flock of birds pass overhead. “Athol Fugard’s The Bird Watchers” the title states in letters taller even than municipal regulations would have them. It’s not the kind of poster I generally like, I’m not a fan of landscapes and the iconography is a touch too clichéd (I should probably mention that I am the designer, but I’ll leave that hanging). But it does make sense in the context of the story Fugard tells, if not with the scenography of Saul Radomsky. Fugard is a writer driven by the wisdom: “write what you know” and in the Birdwatchers he draws on the setting and memories of his conversations with Barney Simon and Yvonne Bryceland. The Central character is Garth, a writer revisiting a time with Lenny, a director, and Rosalyn, an actress. But these roles don’t sum up the relationship between the 3 of them. The play comes in two acts split by an interval and an understaffed scene change. The first half is set in the real world, under the unGwenya tree of Garth’s home and the second is a return to that place and time by an aged Garth in his imagination. The stark simplicity of the stump of the tree and the sear decay of his re-imagined home was biting. The story is a self-flagellation as Garth regrets words, attitudes, selfishness and wasted potential. What I found to be greatest flaw and also the most thought-provoking aspect of the production was this self-absorption, a feedback loop of pain. At one pointed I wanted to give Uncle Athol a hug, in part because a lot of his cutting words I’ve used on myself many times.

There’s this tremendous ego at work when I’m writing.  I’m creating a world of events that I think, believe, know are fascinating to others, are relevant, important and irreplaceable. Did I say Unique? Yes, I believe that too. Against the cacophony of cries that nothing is original, I believe my work is. We are all snowflakes. All writers believe it although they don’t all admit it.

I wasn’t absorbed by the story on stage, either emotionally or intellectually and at the close I wasn’t moved to my feet. But the naked self-portrait followed by the man himself blew the top off my head. Fugard emerged to handle the Q&A with a sneaky and witty answer to anticipated questions of autobiography: he was wearing the same clothes as the character Garth. Justin Cartwright lead the Q&A with Fugard, but we struggled to hear our host, even though Fugard was as clear as the actors had been.

Essentially my thoughts were caught up in this question: Why do we write what we write? Fugard tackles this quite early on. “Love her.” He tells us, referring to all the ugliness, despair and human decay the world has, personified for him in an encounter with a homeless woman. This idea, that writing needs to be driven by compassion, clicked for me. Looking at the plays I’ve seen recently I think that audiences have always known this. While the political satires become shrill or petty and the beautiful, witty pieces of escapist fantasy struggle to be understood, stories of simple compassion genuinely touch people. Look at London Road, look at …miskien. When writing doesn’t let itself love something, or when the director doesn’t see it or the actor doesn’t feel it can still be a lot of things, but it can’t change the audience.

There are a lot of other ideas I’m still processing, about performance styles, politics and morality. For now, let’s leave it on the lesson learned.

“Love her.”