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.

    EBT 4 Credit Reatile Moalusi

    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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Punching Theatre in the Face

People are trying to save theatre all the time. I recently sat in a circle of shell-shocked arts administrators at the PANSA Western Cape offices in Salt River and saw the zeal glinting from underneath the exhaustion. They try to grow theatre in townships and preserve particular art forms like dance, puppetry or spoken word. They battle bureaucracy and antipathy. Many of them started in the ‘industry’ as artists, gradually realising that art depends on someone filling out forms and sending out fifty emails a day. They wrestle and they keep going – some of those present represented companies that have been operating for over 20 years, each year entirely uncertain. Looking around that circle it’s hard to lay the blame on the arts administrators for the dearth of funding allocated every year.

Not represented except by myself were the ‘independent’ theatre makers (I can’t the label ‘independent’ seriously. I depend on so many people willing to do favours and take risks that I am more dependent than any company able to raise funding). It’s not that they couldn’t benefit from a workshop on fund-raising; it’s that they don’t believe in the funding system. I know I don’t.

Independents rely on a forward momentum to build in their careers. They start off shoving hard against a Sisyphean boulder; sweating and losing money they earn working for the establishment. Eventually people start calling them, start arriving at their openings and experiments and offering them better jobs, roles, collaborations, etc.

But neither of these strategies counts on the audience arriving.

The wild card ‘independent’ theatre makers try to get people with money to love theatre, and try enticing the intelligentsia and that massive stratum of Cape Town’s young middle class, the designers and advertisers.

However they will fail. And it’s not entirely their fault.

Newspapers and some radio stations maintain an interest in the theatre world and it’s possible to draw an audience through these narrow canals alone. However, they are reaching the people who already like theatre, who read the paper looking for a show to watch. My crisis of marketing is not how to reach those people (although on my list of things to work out is: ‘how to reach them sooner’) but how to reach the intelligentsia, the hipsters, the wired generation. I’m looking specifically for vectors that (in the words of the PR Institute of SA) objectify the information. Word of mouth is more valuable than a flyer not because you pay nothing for it, but because you can’t pay for it.

But what do we do when reviews become homogeneous? Surely positive feedback is good for marketing? Yes and no – if no one disagrees with your opinion then no one is listening. A hard statement, but if theatre is to be relevant then a spectrum of critical opinions must exist and they must be accessible. So I am left with this conclusion: I want people to criticise my work and to do so vocally. However, some reviewers will hold back a negative engagement because they feel it’s impolite or under the mistaken idea that their silence is a favour. I know some theatre makers and companies who believe that is true. I am not one of them, and I am just arrogant enough to believe I’m right about this.

There are people who are trying to save theatre and so they treat it with kid gloves. I think theatre needs to get smacked in the face a couple of times.

So, with thanks, I link to Scarlet’s review of Owl.

A Simple Guide to Marketing

Actually just some ideas that anyone could come up with if they take a minute to think about it.

Theatre marketers assume there’s a market. There isn’t, there’s only a target market. That one erroneous assumption is why theatre makers believe they’re in an art that is becoming irrelevant. From this flow the dull mailing list based strategies that people ignore. Once you realise that you don’t have a market you can start asking yourself how you’re going to get one.

Step 1: Who are they? What do they do for fun?

Let’s say you’re doing a play about… oh, I don’t know… a haunted house and it’s ghoulish inhabitants. It’s a black comedy, it’s not for kids. It’s not the kind of play that draws the regular theatre crowd – the silver foxes who love a bit of Fugard, read the newspapers, listen to Fine Music Radio and get their Sunday best on for Dame Janet and Sir Anthony. No – this is the kind of play made for people who download movies, argue about the difference between nerds and geeks and dress a little… oddly. Look at who likes your subject matter, not as individuals but as subcultures. In Adam Thurman’s words: “what flag are you flying?”

Step 2: Find someone who speaks their language

If I asked you to name as many theatre publicists in Cape Town as you could I doubt I could get more than three names out of you, maybe five at a push. Independent hired guns – Not employees of a single entity. And they are all white women of a particular kind right? No disrespect intended – The three I can think of are top of their game, working magic for big shows and companies. They are well connected and talented and they understand the regular theatre crowd. And that is why they can only help you so much. If you want geeks to come to your show, you need a geek. You want hipsters, you need a hipster. You want kids, you need a mum.

Marketing is the creation and management of a relationship, for it to thrive you need to speak the language. Authentically. When I worked in book store, customers would constantly be recommending books to me because people love to share their passion. And of course I recommended book as well; I shared my opinions. I loved working there because I was passionate about books too. What stuck out for me was that I wasn’t a salesman in these situations, I was sharing not selling. We had a clerk who didn’t work out, let’s call him Shelby. Shelby didn’t really read. He could read, he just didn’t. He got hired because we suddenly found ourselves short staffed over the holidays. He could direct people around the shop; he could tell people about best sellers, he could point out our staff picks. But he didn’t understand what it was that a crime reader wanted out of a story if they preferred Mankell to Grisham. Or what someone wanted when they had exhausted all Gaiman’s books and wanted something similar. Shelby was an outsider, he didn’t speak the language.

The image we have of a publicist is out of date. We cannot stick with what we know, what we think of as ‘safe’ – safe is staying at home on Friday night. Safe is dull. Safe doesn’t change the world, not in the smallest way.

Step 3: Do it

So you found a geek to help sell your theatrical horror comedy. Hopefully you didn’t just grab the first one you thought of, hopefully you picked someone with drive, organisational skills and a bit of charm. Now sit down and make a list of everything that has to be done:

  • The Basics
    • Press mailing list and widely read release carriers like Artslink
    • A press release with expanded content – So that’s your basic grab and 100 words with a pack of print quality photos and biographies to back it up.
    • Everyone involve posting on their social media about how they feel about/what they are doing for the show. Everyone ignores advertising.
  • Now, time to get creative. Your insider knows things you don’t know about your target market, you need to use this insight to figure out new strategies. (If he doesn’t actually know any more than you and you hired them because you’re too busy, fair enough. But be careful: hand-holding isn’t fun and doesn’t save time.)
    • What do they read? Draft an alternative press list, contact newsletters, online forums and clubs that share similar interests.
    • Who do they follow? Find the connectors, the ones open to interesting experiences and sharing them. The bloggers, the party organisers. Doing a Horror in Cape Town? Find the guy who started Zombie Walk here, email the Legion Ink moderators, go meet the DMs of the various Ds.
    • What do they want? Find what appeals to them and add the incentive. Is it going to be free wine or block booking discounts? Dull and done. Give people discounts for coming dressed for Halloween, get a popcorn machine, make it something they’re going to talk about. The whole experience. I’m sure your play is great. But will the whole night be? People talk about they didn’t expect, they talk about little touches like wine served in teacups or that Lurch sold them their tickets.

I’m sure someone is going to accuse me of making it sound easy. It’s not. But coming up with different ideas is. It’s hard to implement a different approach, but let’s admit that it’s not the reason we hold back. We play it safe because we are tired. The theatre makers I know and admire work damn hard, they work long hours and routinely turn their living rooms into workshops. But pouring all your creativity and time into the work and not finding a partner capable of doing the same with the marketing is a waste. Let the people who’ll love the work as much as you see it.

Oh and by the way – if you were intrigued by the idea of a haunted house filled with ghoulish characters then go watch Beren Belknap’s Madame Touxflouwe at the Artscape Arena5th January 2012. It’s really very funny. In a macabre way.

An abandoned letter to Theatre makers

Theatre is great. Most anyway. Actually only some. But 90% of everything is crap and people don’t avoid cinemas because 90% of the films suck. Your theatre is definitely in that magical ten percent of goodness. I know this because you tell me. I can see by the care you put into your facebook event, letting me know who the cast and director are and the dates and time while leaving out any info on subject matter so I would have a nice surprise when I come watch your show. I don’t even know whether I’m going to laugh or cry. Or the way you playfully make a hideous poster and stick it up on poles all over the city, I’ll certainly not forget that image no matter how much I want to. I love the sassy way you challenge Capetonians not to be lazy, because that’s obviously why they don’t come to theatre. Sheer laziness. Never mind that they flock in droves to night markets, gigs, gallery openings, beerfests and quirky little film festivals.

Oh shit, I moved off sassy satire into outright sarcasm. That’s not what I meant to do. I meant to parody the thinking of marketing in the theatre scene, instead I just got angry.

Look, I don’t have a degree in marketing or sales or anything other than theatre. But I can see that if you are not giving people reasons to see theatre then they won’t. I go watch shows because I work in theatre, I have a professional interest. So if you see me at your show it’s not because you did anything right. You can only measure that by counting strangers.

TheatreSports has lasted for 18 years, which makes it a pretty successful company. It has no sponsorship or funding other than what people pay for tickets. I’ll be the first to admit that our marketing is patchy at best, but we have one incredible strength: we give people the reason to see our show. We don’t tell people how good we are, our awards, how long we’ve been running for or that theatre is an amazing cultural phenomenon that deserves support. We tell them that it’s hilarious improvised comedy. And when they come for hilarious improvised comedy, we give it to them.

Essentially marketing is telling people what you have for them. You cannot get people to pay to see something they don’t want to and you can’t get someone to come back if you can’t deliver.

So, semi-fictional people I began addressing at the start, look at the points of contact you have with the public – your posters, releases and facebook/blog posts – and ask yourself what reason you’re giving people to see your show.

 

How to get a head

Yes, out of all the possible titles I opted for the most obvious pun. Guilty as charged – etcetera, etcetera.

In my slim defense I have been somewhat sort of almost high on the rich aromas of liquid latex and cough syrup; the earthy smell of clay is just layer of the crafty bouquet of my flat right now. What have I been caught up in that my flat should be put through such punishment?

iQonga. Which probably just deepens the mystery, since very few people seem to actually know what iQonga is. In brief it means ‘platform’ in Xhosa, and that’s the goal of the project curated by Handspring’s Jason Potgieter, to give artists working with puppets and in visual theatre a platform to show off their style. Six or so companies and individuals each get to produce a 10 minute piece, once off, with some money and support from Handspring.

I’m lucky because I get to work on two. And I didn’t even get my proposal accepted. Kim Kerfoot (that mysterious cipher of a theatre-maker who produces work all too rarely) and Sanjin Muftic (my Bosnian buddy and long time conspirator) both wanted a slice of the Keevy. So now I’m designing and building for Kim and fully collaborating with Sanjin.

Kim’s piece is called Guillotine and is about [SPOILERS!] a Guillotine. The biggest challenge of this project is the severed heads. Which are also puppets. After a good chat with Janni Younge about the process I dove into a bucket of rapidly hardening plaster of paris. I would be working with materials that were new to me and with clay, which I haven’t seriously played with in years. I’ll put the whole process into a tutorial (including where to buy the good stuff cheap) and post it after iQonga, I promise.

The clay was like coming home to Sunday lunch. I didn’t even know how much I’d missed it. I first made about 10 ‘sketches’ in plasticine and then Kim picked the characters he wanted. I sculpted them full size in clay and cast plaster molds. I messed up a couple of times and ruined one bucket before I nailed the process. I like working alone and at my own pace. I’m a slow learner, but a tenacious one.

So then the latex went in. It smells disgusting. Like ammonia. Like week-old urine.

But when I peeled the dry faces out of the molds I was stunned. I knew it was meant to be an amazing material – I just sort of assumed I’d have to have a few duds before I got the hang of it. It is such an easy material to use, as long as the clay and the plaster have been done right.

They need to painted and dressed, but I’m feeling pretty pleased right now.

Guillotine is on at the Out the Box festial as part of the iQonga line up on the 10th September 2011

Home safe from the KKNK

On the 31stof March at 6am I hit the N1 out of Cape Town with Gaetan Schmidt and Jason Ralph. Together we drove for 5 hours and at some point crossed over the mysterious “Boere Wors Curtain” and into the land of Die Taal. We arrived in Oudtshoorn just in time to get to work. What were we doing so far from our Soutie homes? We were taking part in FTH:K’s latest step towards global domination: Iets Anders.

This seems like a great way to transport set.And actors.

Built up on the same model as the Cape Town Edge, Iets Anders is a group of theatremakers making independent work but coming together to provide support and lower the costs of things like accommodation, transport and, most importantly, marketing. This is the first year Iets Anders has run and the lineup was: Rumpsteak, …miskien, London Road, Hats and Pictures of You. The marketing encouraged the title, that the venue was ‘something different’ from the rest of the festival, noting the English, Edgy, Physical and Visual theatre elements. In retrospect the KKNK isn’t the kind of festival that people come to for something different, let alone something English. Still, FTH:K worked hard and Next year they’ll be ready to knock the sokkies off for real. You can check their blog of the fest Here.

So we arrived and got straight to work. I’ll give the KKNK its due, the Techies are good. Better than NAF? They certainly think so. I still have my doubts. There were a lot of comparisons between the KKNK and NAF flying around – most of them not very flattering to the NAF. I’ll say this: Both had good and bad aspects, they both have great people working for them, they both are trying to run huge festivals with limited resources – sometimes you get faulty lights/dimmers/bulbs. It’s the nature of festivals in this country.

Despite 4 hours of get-in, I still hadn’t run the sound for London Road by the time we were kicked out by the next production. Still, despite one of the lamest rigs ever proposed, the Ladies were looking good on their island of carpet.

The next couple of days were pretty mixed up, trying to get into a rhythm and create a smooth running get-in and strike. Too many braais happening all the time. Too much Klippies. Finally a balance was struck and I could relax into a good daily ritual with the ladies. I even got to see some shows, despite ticket prices that were about 95% of my daily S&T.

First of these was Lot directed by Nicola Hanekom, which was the buzz of the festival (at least among those I was standing near to) and it was certainly an ambitious piece. A solitary security guard in a parking lot in the afterlife sits awaiting the arrival of those killed in car accidents. I wasn’t sold. Although there were moments of real magic it veered between pretentiously silly and pretentiously dull. Neels van Jaarsveld however stood out from the ensemble with his madcap pop star.

I had a better time with Wees (Orphan) directed by Hennie van Gruenen; I had seen the original production performed in Edinburgh in 2009. The text was fantastically gripping – perhaps more so in its new Afrikaans context, to which themes of Us versus Them are uncomfortably well suited. The piece was only let down by weak design – from set through sound and lighting, good ideas were just poorly executed. The performances were great from Nicola Hanekom, André Weideman and Gustav Gerdener.

Messe en Henne was a South African and Dutch collaboration from De Appel directed by David Geysen and performed by Albert Pretorious, Nadia Amin and Hugo Maerten. Here was something really exciting – the direction and performances were a daring interpretation of a monstrously intense text by David Harrower. I didn’t like all the choices, hated a couple even, but they were a muscular expansion on the South African directing vocabulary (the very same reason I love the work of Jaco Bouwer).

Overall the festival was great fun and I definitely want to come back and conquer it thoroughly.

Crowsong: the Thank You list.

On the 16th and 17th of March we took over Theatre in the district with a theatre experiment called Crowsong. Here’s who I’d like to thank for making it possible.

Caffeine: Jason Potgieter frightens me. He’s a force of nature that sweeps up medium sized trees and Korean cars and rearranges furniture. So when Jason says you have spare time to put on a show, you have spare time. Or you make it. Because otherwise you’ll have missed out on something that’ll change the way you think.

So we met and bounced ideas and sat in bars with inappropriately large sheets of paper and koki pens. We doodled and shmoodled and made a script with stick figures and arrows. I was the builder of devices and Jason was the dynamo – arriving at the theatre in the district after a full day at Handspring but bringing the sound and fury with a dash a of significance.

The story started out as ideas about mad puppeteer-alchemists. Jason gave me a stack of photocopies of kabbala mysticism, medieval mythology and astrological charts. I gave him China Miéville’s Kraken. Together we scavenged lamps and clamps and cables and tables and all kinds of goodies to make magic with. We came up with the story an ordinary man who loses his lover. And tries to bring her back. So he seeks out the services of specialists.

Freaky specialists.

So we needed an actor to join us.

Gumtree: James MacGregor has been around the block too often for one so young. So he must be talented, surely? Doesn’t really matter, we told ourselves, the part is easy.

Turns out we were wrong. The part is difficult. And James isn’t talented. Talented is what your five year old nephew is when he builds a sand castle higher than him. What do you call him when he installs working elevators and a suspension bridge? What ever word you decide on, that’s Jimmy. He hurled himself at this for no money. The lights? He did ’em. The music? He did… Well, he found and edited it while Jason and I were quibbling over pleats.

I have seldom been so impressed with an actor on so many levels. He’s committed, passionate, funny, talented (or whatever) and he manages it despite being forced to live life as a ginger and looking a bit like Matt Damon. If you have the right light.

Happy Crate: The Theatre in the District is cool in that way that only not caring about being cool is cool. Do you follow? It cares about art and community. Brian and Trish Notcutt have made an amazing space to work. With almost no money we were able to rehearse and perform and transform a real theatre into our mad lab. We hung brown paper all over it and strung up cardboard crows.

Bosnia and Ethiopia: Sanjin rocks. Nothing surprises him. He comes home to find wheels being fitted on to the coffee table and doesn’t even blink. The flat is covered with torn paper, sawdust and offcuts of plastic. The painful shriek of a file on wood destroys his quiet enjoyment of the world cup. But he bats not an eyelash. He leant us the camera and projector gratis despite the danger of oil, ink and noodles. And lets not for get who first thought up live drawing…

He also filmed the show. Here’s a clip he posted on Youtube and the CT Live blog:

Genetics: To furnish the space with crates and rope and stools and bits and pieces required more theft than expected. Fortunately our parents rarely press charges. But that’s a minor part of why I have to thank the folks. I would not be able to make my own theatre without them, without their support. And I know how rare that support is for people. Thank you.

Corner Store: Dillon and Beren, they came in, ate some chicken and drank some coke and called it even for lifting, rigging, pushing buttons, taking donations, getting people seated and striking the set. Well, we’re not even. I owe you guys some grunt work. You know where to find me.

The final thank you is for everyone who came to watch or sent support to 3 crazy theatremakers. Especially to all those who spread the love on facebook, their blogs and face to face. And a super big one to Jesse Kramer for bringing along her magic camera. I’ll sign off with one of her shots. You can get a hold of her on her website.