Countdown to iQonga

I’m living on avocados and toast. Also coca-cola. My flat is a spectacular mess, covered in rogue glue sticks, peelings of latex and foam chips. My kitchen counter is an electronics chop shop. My neighbours think I’m building an android. One caught me dancing around dressed as a demonic crow. It’s these awkward balconies that face each other – honestly, who designs buildings like this?

This morning I was elbow deep in the guillotine, trying to get its winch working. These projects have forced me to learn more than I’m comfortable with – latex molding, carpentry, compromise. I sat down and thought about all the skills I’ve learned and how generally I never get to use them again. That’ll change in the coming year. Although I’m borderline broke right now I have work lined up into January with London Road and a little something at the Baxter – between this and the piles of funding applications I’m filling out I’ll be able to do some juicy projects of my own.

Because if there’s one thing about iQonga I hate it’s that it’s once off. It’s an interesting and much needed platform for independent artists in Cape Town and hopefully the work will live again after Saturday, but we work in an uncertain industry in an uncertain time. Often our work gets one shot. It probably doesn’t help that I’m easily distracted by new styles and ideas and that I love so many different media. But I’m OK with that, it’s one of the elements that set theatre apart, it’s ephemeral: for it to live – for it to spread – it has to be reinterpreted constantly.

I’m going a little off track here but –

Theatre is paradoxically accessible and exclusive. Exclusivity as a concept is generally anathema to theatremakers so we tend to down play it, but exclusivity is also the foundation social and cultural groups and we acknowledge this when we talk about target markets. It is accessible because it can be made anywhere for anyone by anyone, it’s limited by imagination. But it will always be exclusive because there is a limit to how many people can see it. Damn you Time and Space!

In marketing terms we have something that could be framed as a negative or a positive: it’s difficult to see or it’s a rare experience. People want to feel special. Too often people trying to sell their show frame the exclusivity as something to overcome, “It’s worth the effort” – instead of emulating the slick marketing of a music event, “One night only – don’t miss out”. Same idea, different frames.

What was I saying before?

Right, messy flat, mad skillz, own projects, etc.

Right. Exactly. Tonight I’m rethinking the multimedia. Although a more honest statement would be that I’m stopping thinking about it, I’m doing it, realising my bad assumptions and doing something else that works.

Sanjin and Amy just walked in. They have declared me mad. But they seem happy.

So… iQonga, Saturday 10th September, The Little Theatre.

1 night.

6 short pieces by some of the hottest theatre talent in Cape Town.

Book via Computicket because seats are limited and you don’t want to be hearing about how great it was over Twitter.

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

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,

JK

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.

At least I can rest on Sundays

It’s a busy time for me as the Yawazzi team embark on several projects  overlapping in a cascade of theatre, effectively keeping me busy every Thursday through Saturday from the launch of Tabula Rasa’s Jam Sessions on the 15th of April. Tape Hiss and Sparkle will kick off on Thursday night, Friday night is Jazz lead by young talent Mr Jephta, Saturday night is opened by solo songster Gabriel Marchand playing a mix of compositions.

Busy, busy, busy.

The following week Godfrey Johnson returns for a 3 night run with his very popular show, Shadow of Brel, on a warm-up for his tour to Durban’s Rhumbelow Theatre.

Which brings us to an experiment of quite epic proportions – Two Fold. A collaboration between myself, Sanjin Muftic and Jason Potgieter, Two Fold is a visual theatre feast flirting with the theories of Antonin Artaud. Late at night a single employee is at work in the laundry, unpacking a very strange load. I’ll be cooking up many special effects and making improvised projectors, I’m looking forward to the hands on work. It’ll be running for 2 weeks, Thursday to Saturday.

And then Godfrey Johnson: Stories of Crime and Passion. This project has been a dream of mine for quite some time, Godfrey will be performing songs from diverse musicians, rearranging them to his signature piano style and passionate voice. The line up feature tales of love, murder, starcrossed criminals, passion and revenge from artists like Johnny Cash, Cole Porter, Aerosmith, Kenny Rogers, the Decemberists, Nick Cave, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and many others. This will also be my first time directing a performance in almost 2 years. Scary.

That’ll bring us to the end of Tabula Rasa’s season, it’ll be focusing on laundry related matters until after the World Cup.  We’ve got some very cool projects being lined up for the second half of the year. more on these later.

Dates:

Tape Hiss and Sparkle at Tabula Rasa… 15th April

Mr Jephta at Tabula Rasa… 16th April

Gabriel Marchand at Tabula Rasa… 17th April

Shadow of Brel at Tabula Rasa… 22nd, 23rd, 24th April, 8.30 pm

Two Fold at Tablua Rasa… 29th, 30th April, 1st, 6th, 7th, 8th May 8.30pm

Stories of Crime and Passion at Tabula Rasa… 13th, 14th, 15th and 20th, 21st, 22nd May, 7.30pm