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

Keep Digging

As the winners of the various categories basked in Fleur du Cap’s glow and the spectators and commentators prepared their annual dissection of the event I happily kept working on my own projects. Every year people question the issue of representation. It’s not new. It’s not edgy. It’s not journalism. It remains the stubborn, flatulent elephant in the room that we all know is there. It doesn’t only hang around in the auditorium where the FdCs are being held. It’s at the opening night of Maynardville, it’s in the wings waiting for it’s cue in the majority of productions and also sitting in the audience at most shows.

By far the most articulate of the commentary so far has been Mike van Graan’s defence of the awards. He uses good solid numbers to peel away the first layer of blame that Lara Foot’s speech unleashed. But he could have gone further.

In digging past the FdC panel he showed us the disproportionately white industry – “how can the FdCs show transformation when they must reflect this?” he argues. He raises an example of a mostly white company, the Mechanicals, as something that could offer great experience and training for young black actors. He raises questions about why there are so few. And then he doesn’t deign to do any of that research that made the rest of his article so compelling. He doesn’t ask them to comment on why, he doesn’t propose a theory and look at the available evidence.

Mike van Graan’s article is a successful attempt to exonerate Distell and the FdC awards. He is right. They are not to blame. So he looks around and vaguely gestures at the “theatre managements and independent theatre-makers” who need to be more inclusive, at “the Cape Town’s theatre sector” who need to rise to the challenge, and at “the people of colour across the theatre industry” who need to participate and have opportunities created for them.

In the end, despite Mr van Graan’s well reasoned and researched opinions, he can only cast the blame over everyone. I would appreciate if in the final paragraph he at least had the good grace not to refer to the Cape Town theatre industry as ‘it’ and instead owned up to his conclusion with ‘we’.