The Flying Dutchman is coming in for Landing

A week from today about 2000 people are going to take their seats in the Artscape Opera house. The stage will be shrouded by an unlit scrim. It’ll all be very mysterious. The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra will be doing their last minute checks and tuning their strings and making that really interesting low level cacophony that gets made before you her some serious music. The lights will dim, the conductor, Kamal Khan will take his place before the musicians and then it’ll start. The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner. 20 seconds in and an invisible brush will pass across the scrim, creating a living illustration of the ocean.

I’m really glad we still have a week to go.

It’s probably almost a year ago that Lara first approached me for the Dutchman; Sanjin and I had done the multimedia for her previous opera with the Wagner Society, Rossini’s La Scala di Seta in 2009, and were very excited for another. It’s been 2 years since then and our techniques have developed considerably as well as our understanding of each other as artists. What can we do this time around? I took lead on design – first gathering samples and inspiration for the style and then working through the beats of the story and music with Lara to storyboard the footage. I worked with ink and brush to evoke my main design focus, a painted world. The sea is vital to the story so I wanted everything, from the clouds to the rocks to have a sense of flow and life to them.

The biggest contrast between Sanjin and I is in the realm of technology – he knows cameras and computers upstairs and downstairs while I am always trying to find a chunky, unpredictable analogue solution. But these 2 approaches complement each other well. I went about planning to capture footage in weird ways and he figured out how to make it look good. We ended up getting a glass drawing table built and then buying a fish tank for our effects. 2 weekends were spent dripping, smearing, brushing, stirring, pouring, seeping, folding, tearing, soaking, splattering ink, water, paper and glitter in a studio.

A lot of beautiful effects were found and filed but less than a quarter of the recorded footage will be used for the opera, the rest will be filed away for future reference on another project. The next phase was to create the drawings that would actually feature in the video – this was me sitting at a table with ink and brush churning out waves, masts, shorelines and brush strokes for animating.

The big delay, and the reason I’m glad there’s still sometime before we put on the show, was filming the principals. Gary Simpson and Nkosazana Dimande only arrived in South Africa this month, and we could only get them into a studio 10 days ago. That’s a tight schedule for any kind of video work. The last couple of nights have been late ones with Sanjin and me staying up way past our bedtimes and drinking coke ‘til our kidneys complained.

But it looks rad. Sanjin has been cooking with the editing and has really started to master After Effects (and my Photoshop skills have come in handy once or twice too). A couple more all nighters and then Tuesday night is the final dress rehearsal. We have 1 absurdly short section that we’re still really wrestling with. Absurdly short. 10 seconds. We wanted this to be the best thing we’ve ever done.

And I think it will be.

Just say Yes. Or don’t. Part 1

Part 1: Beyond Yes and No

Two things compel an audience’s attention, Character and Story. I think of Story as being characters getting from point A to point B. Writers can exercise their godlike overview to balance the exploration of Character and the advancement of Story, but an improviser must perform the balancing act live. The central tenet of TheatreSports is “Say Yes” because it helps preserve that balance. Actors love Character, love slipping into that mask because being in Character is being in the moment. I remember Geoff Hyland saying that the aim of the actor is to preserve life on stage; the shaping is the director’s purpose. In performance improvisation (as opposed to rehearsal or therapeutic improv) the shaping is equally the actor’s, leaving no space for being in the moment as an abdication of responsibility. What do I mean by this? Bluntly, too often I’ve heard actors defend a choice or, worse, a block onstage by talking about what felt right for a character. The following are my thoughts on several issues that have been raised and briefly explored during the weekly TheatreSports classes.

First of all it must be clear that Improvised performance is not a chess game, what is less clear is that it does share similarities. The correct moves and responses are infinite but not wholly unpredictable. Like mathematical chaos it is non-repeating but self-similar. With 2 clear goals in mind the performer can reliably produce work that will engage the audience. These goals are interesting Characters and a satisfying Story. The Story is a collaborative creation, while Character is the individuals’ responsibility. Saying Yes is how we accept the past conditions of the characters and story (the relationships, where they came from, the characters’ histories, etc), the present conditions (what they want, where they are, what that sound is, etc) and the future (what we will do next, what will happen if we cut this wire, etc). The foundation of Improv is acceptance – it is the first skill that needs to be learnt to play successfully. And it is a skill. Our habit as actors (especially formally trained actors) is to put our characters first and create conflict with other characters. An aggressive philosophy of Yes breaks this habit and from there the performer can grasp the different nuances of accepting offers and collaboratively creating Story.

But Yes isn’t the totality of acceptance and No is not always a block. That binary is a learning tool and like any lesson, once mastered it reveals its limitations. Experienced Improvisers have mastered acceptance and know how to judge offers coming at them and shape their responses to create a satisfying story. It now becomes harder for me to categorise acceptance because Yes and No are too limiting, we need to have the words to express the qualities and conditions a performer colours his acceptance with. The lexicon must expand to Yes, No, Accepting, Blocking, Justifying, Ignoring, Tilting, Gagging, Delaying, Rushing, Resisting, Negating – all of which affect Character and Story in different ways. Let’s first have a look at this lexicon.

  • Yes – The basic touchstone of acceptance. It’s almost impossible to Block when you begin your sentence with Yes. It becomes a tricky subject when followed by modifiers like But and Just as we will see shortly.
  • No – the original block, whether it’s trying to establish past or present conditions or propose a future course of action. It’s beguiling because as a response it has the potential for 2 things that actors love: Reversal of Expectations and Conflict.
  • Accepting – when the Improvisers agree on the Past and Present conditions and proposals for the future. The opposite of Accepting is Blocking.
  • Blocking – undermining the shared reality of the scene (Performer 1: “What’s that sound?” Performer 2: “I don’t hear anything”) or ‘blocking’ the forward momentum of the scene such as by refusing to perform a proposed action (like refusing to hand over the cash).
  • Expanding – ‘Yes and…’ accepting the offer and building on it. It doesn’t have to be literally worded but the concept is the foundation of great collaboration (“Is that the letter from Dad?” “Yes, he writes about how sorry is about the holiday”).
  • Justifying – the very subtle art of keeping reality together. Mostly accepting offers is enough, but sometimes a contradiction emerges on stage. These are usually accidental like misnavigating the mimed environment or getting a character’s name wrong, but sometimes they’re created by performers insisting on their own agenda in a scene. Justifying is reconciling the contradictions, when done obviously it draws attention to the mistake, when done subtly it creates a satisfying and rich world on stage.
  • Ignoring – when an actor doesn’t respond to the offers of another actor, this can range from the gentleman’s block of changing the subject (Performer 1:“How was your holiday in Majorca?” Performer 2: “Do you hear that scratching sound?”) to outright ignoring the other performer. But by far the most common form of Ignoring is ignoring the set-up of space such as the door and table the first performer has lovingly established.
  • Tilting – is the accepting of an offer, but in the process modifies it in an unexpected way, hence ‘tilting’ our expectations (“Is the weather bad outside?” “Terrible. Sunny, not a cloud in the sky – horrible for Vampires like us”). It can be a very funny and very satisfying moment, often enough to be the punch line ending a scene, but it can also be frustrating if played too often, or it can create Pointless Originality, and then there is Tilting’s evil twin, Gagging.
  • Gagging – is making a joke (often a terrible pun) at the expense of the scene. It can be the deliberate misunderstanding of an offer (“Do you know John too?” “John 2? Yes, and John 3, 4 and 5… But I’ve never met John 1”) or playing the parody of a genre, rather than the genre itself (A cliché in Soap Opera scenes: “Dan! My long lost brother’s fiancé’s uncle’s bestfriend’s former roommate’s evil twin!”).
  • Delaying – holding back the action while accepting an offer. This is a Yes, But or Just – as in “Yes, but just let me shut off the alarm.” Delaying is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes you need to complete an action to Justify the reality of the scene when another actor gets ahead of himself. To know when Delaying or Rushing are right depends on the performer’s sense of the pace of the scene.
  • Rushing – accepting the offer, dealing with it and moving on to a new proposal (Performer 1: “I’ll give you the money, but first you must find and return my mother’s pearl necklace” Performer 2: “OK, great. Luckily I found it on my way in. Here you are”) again, it depends on the pace the scene needs. That exchange would be terrible if played in the opening minute, but necessary if an ending was needed.
  • Resisting – accepting but not committing to the acceptance. There are 2 sides to this: the resistance of the actor and the resistance of the character. The first is unacceptable, pointblank unacceptable. The performance is a group creation and 1 actor being ‘above it,’ ‘out of it’ or generally telegraphing to the audience a negative judgment of the ideas of the others is a saboteur. The resistance of character is a different animal, a character can be scared to go into the cave, unsure that robbing the bank is a good idea or furious that they’ve fallen into a trap – but they go into the cave, rob the bank and fall into the trap none the less.
  • Negating – making proposals that counter the offers of the other performers to keep the negater in control of the progression of the scene (Performer 1: “I anticipated your betrayal and removed the bullets from your gun!” Performer 2: “I anticipated your anticipation and put them back”).

Ok, that brings me to the end of part 1. In part 2 I’ll explore how these concepts relate to Character in a more detailed way and conclude in part 3 with Story.

I have been a performer of TheatreSports since 2005 with ImproGuise (formerly Improvision) and owe a lot of my ideas and understanding to the members of the company, past and present, especially Megan Furniss. And of course to Keith Johnstone and the ITI.

Looking back at Grahamstown

5.30 am in Grahamstown – I collect Mat Lewis from the house he was staying at for the fest and together we pack up the truck and hit the road. The morning is cold, but not nearly as cold as it has been these last 18 days I’ve been here. We take the N2 South and West, and Grahamstown is a bowl of sparks that disappears behind us.

Both Mat and I had been working at Princess Alice Hall for Cape Town Edge productions. I was stage-managing London Road and teching Yawazzi’s Man Turn Life Up and Down while Mat was stage-managing Rump Steak and lighting …miskien. We’d both been at the whole festival and were looking forward to being in the Mother City again. But we enjoyed that festival to the last. Oh, yes. From the manic scramble of the first days, juggling schedules against stubbornly erratic technologies to the late-night, Klippies fuelled discussions we’d had about the good, the bad and the beautiful plays we’d seen in our free time.  Festival is a time between 2 extremes of work and play, the high pressure gets under your fingernails and the sudden concentration of people who understand what you’re all about is a heady mix.

I love working with the London Road team, Robyn and Ntombi are wonderful actresses and best of all – consummate professionals with no time for bullshit or ego. They know what it takes to get a big crowd, to hold its attention and they respect it. Really the Edge itself was a great place to be, and I loved the chats and banter with the different teams all working together (mostly). Cheers to the late night, post-I, Claudia comedy sessions, which evolved out of people helping out with Tara’s strike and Mat’s prep for the next day’s morning show. I’ll never forget Lara almost falling out of her chair laughing at Mat and my preview for Rump Steak 2: the Rumpening: This time the steaks are higher. All rather silly really. And the question: “Are you an animal lover?” will ever be more disturbing.

Picking people’s brains was invaluable; I will definitely take away from the festival Tanya’s 3 statements: “Not in a day. Not without discipline. Not without failure.” A grim, tough and ambitious mantra that some people might mistake as a bodybuilder’s rather than face the fact that in theatre that is what it takes.

I saw only about 10 shows, kind of pathetic really and not my proudest moment. The one that stood out most for me was Blood Orange. Craig Morris is kickass. The precision and unity of his vocal and physical work was astounding and humbling. The craft and beauty of the piece drove me to my feet for my first standing ovation in a long time. Definitely head, shoulders and torso above the rest.

I’ve never been in that town for so long before, and the festival itself has never been so long. The “15 days of Amazing” is a thing of some controversy – some artists supporting it and some condemning it. I can totally understand the thinking behind it, but I have some criticisms, top of the list is way the information on the festival’s performance is spun out. It’s essentially the problem with all statistics, not enough context and not enough analysis. My problem is that I feel it’s pretty deliberate.

Go here for the 2009 post mortem and here for the 2010 one released last week.

Most telling for me is the reported growth of attendance at 8% over last year. Think about that for a moment and then consider that the festival lasted 50% longer. That’s not real growth.

Overall, why is 2009 more detailed? The 2010 report seem to deliberately fudge the line between Fringe and Main. Why? Because there were fewer successes to report over all and rather than spread them thin the report pointedly notes that “About 35 productions had sold-out performances” – which includes Main, Fringe and Music. Meaning about 1 out of every 15 or so shows had at least 1 sold-out show. Is that really so many? Is that more than last year? How were sales in monetary terms?

But past the numbers is just the sense that I’m being bullshitted. The organizers of the festival did a good job under tough circumstances – they were ambitious and dedicated, but they aren’t being straight about it. Instead we’re hearing sound bites of optimism and defensiveness, more political than I can take seriously.

“Organisers this year extended the Festival to 15 days from its usual 10 days, a move which Lankester says paid off. We wanted to send a clear message that our artists, directors, writers and performers could rise to the challenge of producing great work that makes South Africa proud.”

Seriously, what does that even mean? It doesn’t tell you what I felt at the festival, which was a fun and mostly professional environment, a wide variety of work for a wide variety of people, good shows and hospitality. Some excellent policy shifts toward a better festival that encourages and supports new artists. Frustratingly thin spread audiences that are still divided sharply by race. Bad tech support but great and dedicated technicians.

So that’s my take on the 2010 National Arts Festival.

Peace and Love,


The Blank Slate

In a tearful meeting with Alison I was told that the laundry is closing. Tabula Rasa the theatre is homeless. Tabula Rasa is now just an inventory of equipment and a lot of good memories.

I came back from a month overseas last year and found Sanjin jittery with excitement; through Godfrey Johnson he had made contact with Marcus Hoepler, a German businessman with a space and a desire to fill it with something special.

The first tour of the building was strange – trying to figure out how to transform it from an ironing hall into a theatre. The practical side was to be my baby – and over the weeks leading up to our first show I was climbing up and around rafters laying electrical cable and curtain hooks. It was a challenge to create a setup that could unfold each night and disappear in the morning, but I was pleased with the results.

From the outset we knew that the economics were against us, that even if we had a full capacity every night we’d only get a return of R15 for each hour of our labour. That’s the mathematical reality behind independent productions and the reason why they tend to fail. But we carried on even knowing the grim facts. Maybe we love being creative, maybe we love being independent, maybe we’re just damn stubborn and a little crazy. I’m sure opinions differ. But it wasn’t the lack of money that got us in the end, it was bad luck.

The first trouble began when the 2 owners began to butt heads and tensions escalated until Alison and Marcus parted ways just last month. Yawazzi stayed out of the dispute as best it could, but everyone standing round the pool gets hit with cold water when someone takes a dive. And hot on its heels came the news that the Laundry would be evicted from the building.

Since November of last year we’ve done seven shows at Tabula Rasa. We had a lot of help from Daniel Galloway, Tink and Jon Minster and especially from my parents who loaned us a piano. Tabula Rasa means ‘blank slate’ and this reminds me that theatre can happen anywhere. So keep an eye on this space for a show on a boat, in a factory, a field, a ruin or on the back of a truck. Cheers, JK

Twofold Folds

Today Yawazzi was in the Argus – the subject of a large, generous article on our upcoming project, Twofold. So it is very bitter to have to announce the cancellation of this project on the very same day.

Events overtook us and we came to a point where we could either go ahead with the show and have it be less than it should be, less than we are capable of, or we could cancel it. We feel passionately about the production, it’s a dream and a goal to do it. Which is precisely why we could not go forward with it as a substandard piece. We refuse to compromise on the grail.

Fortunately the cancellation of the project does not mean that we’ve wasted all our time. In fact the process so far has been invigorating for me. The flat is cluttered right now with salvaged electronics and pieces of machinery. I’ve been self-studying to bring myself up to speed on all the wonderful and crazy possibilities of the junk we throw out everyday.

It was a hard decision to make, especially for Sanjin whose passion and drive to get work out there is incredible. All the people in this production are involved in multiple other projects. For myself, I’m going to be using the time to work on Stories of Crime and Passion, which opens in 2 weeks.

We made a hard choice about this project, but I know that we made the right one.

The Fugard Theatre

From the outside the Fugard looks like a church that the city has grown up around. The other buildings are tightly packed around it and loom a little over it, giving its stone façade an out of place feeling that captures the magic of the whole place. It feels like a old and trusted place, rather than the new kid on the block in the little theatre world of Cape Town.

On these grey winter days that feeling is even more powerful as you walk into the foyer. The yellow wood warms up the interior and sets off the exposed old brick and concrete. The designer perfectly balanced hard and soft, cold and warm to create a welcoming and stylish space.

But what really make this place special is that this quality, this style and care is everywhere. From the dressing rooms to the operating booth, the rehearsal room to the bath rooms. This is a theatre as much for the people who make theatre as the patrons. Mark and Manny have built a home. Everyone of the staff who I’ve met there is amazing, welcoming and energised. They have a family feeling about them.

Bringing London Road into such a space is such a pleasure. The play itself is so centred on connection and bonding that it feels like it just wouldn’t work in one of the dinosaur theatres squatting around Cape Town.

Technically the theatre is also top notch with an extensive rig and an advanced lighting board. All the conveniences and technological essentials have been built into the auditorium. Although I must confess that as an operator I love being out in the auditorium and working analogue sliders. That’s my style, hearing and seeing from the audience’s perspective and adjusting levels and timing to the little changes in performance.

I’m sorry that I’m only going to be here for the week, Tara Notcutt will take over from next week. But on the upside Lara Bye has been very understanding about my commitments. Next week Yawazzi opens Twofold at Tabula Rasa. This is a very exciting project for the team and everyone is nervous – it’s a big project with a lot of elements. But we’re ready to pull it out of the hat. Magically speaking, of course.