At the tenth session of Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2), we invited all participants in the room to reflect on what the three main areas of exploration for Unrehearsed Futures – Possibility, Plurality, Planetarity – meant to them and how they felt about the moment they are in now, in comparison to where they were an year ago.
When Unrehearsed Futures began last year, there was a sense that everyone was in the same boat with questions of how we could ever imagine going back to what was termed as “normal” in the wake of a destructive pandemic. But now, as vaccination drives begin rolling out across parts of the world, the disparities have started to re-emerge with even more fragmentations. There is a rush to go back to “normalcy”. At some point, the entire world will be vaccinated against the mutating coronavirus but issues like environmental change, intersectional global justice and social justice movements will remain. We can’t get vaccinated against them.
As theatre-makers and pedagogues, the past year offered us an opportunity to do things differently. Have we done enough? Or have we lost the moment? These were some questions the room grappled with as others in the room came forward and shared their experiences.
Some shared that in the past year, they embraced the idea of slowing down, and saw what benefits it threw up personally and professionally. For those who didn’t venture into the digital space had to really sit and examine their shame around not hustling or responding to the moment and reaffirm their practices and accept that the new medium is not best suited for them, and that it wasn’t a reflection of who they were as artistes. Instead, it was a time to be spacious, reflective, indulge in looking and seeing, listening and becoming ready for what is to come ahead.
Some others in the room recalled how a community of care and kindness emerged in the first few months of the pandemic, especially within academic settings. It felt holistic, expansive and non-hierarchical, shared one of the participants. But this lasted for a short while, before things went back to how they were before the pandemic. It was like forcing the “normal” framework on a situation that was not.
An enriching conversation followed around striving towards embracing a radical intimacy, radical empathy and radical kindness, about changing the way theatre is taught and the future it is taught for, and questioning what we do with our art in relation to the world.
STAY TUNED! We will be publishing a long-form article about the talk and the ideas/themes that emerged during the session on our blog in the coming weeks.
The ninth session of Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2) witnessed a rich conversation about the women who contributed significantly to European legacies of “masters” Jacques Lecoq, Jacques Copeau etc. During the session, Cass Fleming, founder of The Chekhov Collective, and Paola Coletto, the pedagogical director of Padova Arts Academy discussed that though the nomenclature of physical theatre methods are predominantly the names of male “founders” (with notable exceptions!), instances of influential women practitioners abound through history.
While both Fleming and Coletto trained in Lecoq-based and under Lecoq’s pedagogy respectively, they’ve sought to move away from the idea of following in the ‘master’s’ footsteps. “I love the idea of master-less,” Coletto shared during the conversation. “Often, I have been pointed out as a ‘master’, or even worse a ‘guru’. I’m horrified by that. The reality is, I don’t want that responsibility because I have always felt that when one gives you that title, they make you responsible for their journey. You are looked at as someone so powerful and so potent, that you can do anything. You should, you must make something happen for them. And then if it doesn’t happen, it’s your fault.”
As women in professional spaces, there are barely any conversations around pregnancy, childbirth, kids, menopause, looking after elderly family members. “As professional pedagogues and theatre directors, it’s almost as if it’s sort of squashed in the cupboard,” commented Fleming in the conversation.
She then went on to describe her research into women practitioners, such as Suzanne Bing, Margaret Naumburg, Marie-Hélène Dasté and Jessmin Howarth, who played an instrumental, unappreciated role in developing training pedagogies of Copeau, Lecoq and Michel Saint-Denis. The European legacies we attribute our learning to today had women at the genesis of it, who existed outside the dominant male frameworks of power at that time.
A deeply enriching conversation followed with those in the room, where women and men shared their experiences of working with theatrical lineages of Lecoq and others.
STAY TUNED! We will be publishing a long-form article about the talk and the ideas/themes that emerged during the session on our blog in the coming weeks.
In the eighth session of Unrehearsed Futures(Season 2), renowned Indian director and founder of Theatre Roots and Wings, Sankar Venkateswaran called for a world that moved slower, closer and is more tolerant in a post-pandemic scenario. Quoting a Japanese economist, he added that this can be achieved through theatre and performance.
To explain this further, Venkateswaran gave the example of Japanese performance artist Kubikukuri Takuzo who used to hang himself daily in the backyard of his dilapidated home in a posh locality of Tokyo. “Every month, for a week or so, he would open his garden theatre to the public. Ten people could squeeze in and watch him come out of the house, approach the noose. He would step on an anvil. The anvil was very significant for him. And then, he would hold the noose, and put it around his neck. It was supported by the jaw, so it wouldn’t really strangle him, but was holding all his weight on his jaw. And he would hang. He would just, you know, hang himself and oscillate like a pendulum for say, five minutes. And then the body would come to a standstill,” described Venkateswaran.
He added that it might sound horrible but it was actually very peaceful and quiet watching Takuzo. Going back to the ideals of being slower, closer and more tolerant, Venkateswaran said that it helps him find a way ahead in these tumultuous times.
The conversation had rich offerings from the room where people shared their thoughts on what it meant to create a slower, closer and a more tolerant world through theatre and performance.
When the Black Lives Matter protests took place across the world year, their impact could be felt in academic institutions around the world, who took up the task to decolonize their pedagogy further. But what does this decolonization of a pedagogy entail for theatre academicians? One of the things it includes is re-evaluating which texts form the “classical” canon, inherited from a European theatrical legacy. For this session of Unrehearsed Futures, South African theatre-makers and academicians Mandla Mbothwe and Mark Fleishman discussed what can be termed as emerging “classical” forms of South African postcolonial drama and decolonial performance aesthetics and futures.
Speaking of the work he does, Mbothwe, a lecturer at University of Cape Town’s Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance (CTDPS) and co-artistic director of Magnet Theatre in Cape Town, says his theatre has always been in search of healing. “But healing that is based on what has been buried by colonialism and apartheid, when it comes to theatre and performance,” he clarifies. “I think my interest has always been around what I call the excavation of period stories and looking at what intergenerational trauma has done to us, while working with the premise that we are a wounded society.”
What is classical?
Addressing the idea of “classicism” or the “classics” in the theatrical canon, Fleishman, who is also a professor of theatre in the CTDPS and co-artistic director of Magnet Theatre, says that he imagines it in three ways.
“The first,” Fleishman says, “is classicism or the classics as pertaining to the particular Greco-Roman literary dramatic tradition that has been inherited into our context, through colonialism. It is the circumscribed way of understanding the classics. It is taught in our university and in most other South African universities, that the classics are from Greek and Roman traditions.”
The second way is to understand classicism, as something that defines excellence or distinctiveness, that has a timeless significance, a kind of enduring value that becomes foundational over time. “And the third is classicism as that which is pre-modern, that which the modern emerges from or sets itself against,” describes Fleishman.
In the first instance, he is interested in which Greek tragedies of the 5th century BC were mobilized under colonialism, both by the settler communities and the colonizer communities, and the reaction of the colonized or indigenous communities to them. In the second, he attempts to understand what place this body of works holds in a post colonial, post-Apartheid South Africa. These are just some of the questions that he is exploring through his ReTAGS (Reimagining Tragedy from Africa and the Global South) project.
In Africa, the situation is much more complex because there is no obvious written or literary classical tradition of aesthetics to draw on, like there is in India, for example. However, it has a long history of oral storytelling, song and dance. The question here arises of whether there is a distinction between a traditional form and a classical form. “In that sense, is ‘the traditional’ something owned by a particular cultural group whereas ‘the classical’ is something that is produced by individuals within that group? So, it might be based on a tradition, but it has its own individual manifestation in some way?” Fleishman asks.
Fleishman says that traditional forms in South Africa – which have a classical value of being timeless and distinctive – need to be valued. “And we need to find a way to value these forms relative to the impositions of Western forms that came in through colonialism,” he asserts. “In terms of the definition of classicism as anything that is pre-modern, there is a kind of reduction of these forms to what we might call the ‘folkloric’ or something other than ‘culture’, something other than ‘art’, something that is not quite up to the mark, so to speak. Everything that existed before —in our case, the modern theatre that was introduced into southern Africa— doesn’t quite have the same status,” Fleishman explains.
He further adds that it shouldn’t be about choosing one or the other, but rather focusing on re-historizing, de-linking and creating pluralities to bring forth that which has been silenced under colonial impositions, thus paving a way for a plural-versity where multiple, different kinds of classicisms abound.
Theatre and trauma
In his work, Mbothwe has always gone back to his roots of using the rich, traditional cultural practices present in South Africa for centuries. “That has evolved, of course, through my work, and by realizing the fact that as a nation, as a society and as black people, we are really wounded. Something has been stolen from us, and we have been stripped of our identity,” he articulates, and further adds that colonialism and apartheid were designed to attack the confidence of black people in language, performing art forms and traditional practices that held the society together.
Talking about what constitutes a ‘classic’, Mbothwe remarks that every time he thinks of the word, he is reminded of the legacy that comes from Europe which is perceived to be “bigger and better”. It agitates him that oral traditions and dance forms that originated centuries before colonialism came to Africa are not treated as ‘classical’ forms. “I’ve just discarded the terminology itself,” he says, “I was creating work, not in reference to what it was, but in reference to us searching for that identity, and feeding into that confidence.”
With a search for a theatre of healing, Mbothwe’s work seeks to do so through plurality. His theatre responds to illnesses in the society and at this moment, he is addressing the wound of coloniality through his work. “Not colonialism, but the result or what has survived colonialism. It’s in our system, our academic system, our language. How do we begin to engage with that through theatre in our city?” he wonders.
While dealing with the wounds of colonialism and its products, he is very aware of fighting a losing battle. “There is no way that you can discard or get rid of what we have learned. Something is embedded in us. It will never be innocent from global influences (such as colonialism), no matter how negatively those global influences came to us. It is a part of our identity now,” Mbothwe believes.
“In a way, we cannot seek purity, because we will never have one. It’s quite a waste of time, I think. We will always be interdisciplinary, holding multiplicity as an individual, as a society and as a nation. And we will grow inter-continentally, interculturally and inter-traditionally.”
For healing to occur, it is important to acknowledge that a very important of the nation’s identity has been ignored in existence. “That’s what causes and feeds into the sickness and the violence of our society. It is problematic that a particular dominant language (isiZulu) in our country is not seen as an academic language. We are perpetuating violence on the black body and the black memory. Until we realize that other sources of knowledge have existed and continue to exist, and yet we don’t make them a part of our academia, we are still digging graves for those identities,” Mbothwe says passionately.
Fleishman emphasizes that the wounds of colonialism are woven firmly within the South African fabric and cannot be discarded. “For me, the catastrophe of colonialism, of apartheid, produces a landscape which can be defined in various ways, but I like to think of it as a pile of ruins,” he describes, “And in that ruined space, there are a whole lot of remainders. And those remainders cannot be simply removed, got rid of or wished away. In fact, that produces the tragic sense of the postcolonial moment because you might not want to be there or you might not want to be with the people that you were with, but you don’t have an option. You have to find a way to be together.”
The written versus the oral
One of the reasons European classics hold a privileged position in South African society is that they are written texts passed down through centuries. However, most storytelling traditions in the country have been passed down orally.
“There’s this notion that anything is written down, is more important,” complains Mbothwe. “We place a lot of power in the written word, in ways that delete the orality or existence of something before it was written in a particular part of the country. That’s problematic.”
Due to this emphasis on the sanctity of the written word, Fleishman believes it has hindered pedagogy in South Africa to move beyond it. “Despite the discussions we have, we still conceptually think of actor training in South Africa as beginning with or being determined by a script or scripting process of some kind,” he says. “And the skills that an actor learns are the skills that start from the text. So, it doesn’t matter how much we develop alternative ways of making through workshop theatre or devising. We still, subconsciously, have the idea that what we are doing is making a text, a script, and the ability to free ourselves from the dominance of that script.”
As the conversation comes to a close, Mbothwe emphasizes the wounds of colonialization will take time to heal, and that they must allow themselves the time to reach back into their traditions, their languages and celebrate it. “As South Africans, we know that we are throwing bandages on before even the wound is treated,” he says. “Maybe that’s the tragedy: We will never find healing. But it is in the search of that healing, that we will become better people, that we will get a little bit into the pain that we suffer.”
Being locked up in one’s homes for the past year, the pandemic has triggered an identity and perpetual existential crisis (apart from the devastating health and economic crises) for everybody, in some shape or form. Last year, theatre pedagogues and practitioners were faced with working with a new medium – what did that mean for “theatre”? Was “theatre” dead? On a deeper and more philosophical level, the pandemic provided a much-needed pause to evaluate what was working in theatre pedagogy so far, and what wasn’t. It provided an opportunity to reform certain areas and re-think one’s approach to theatre teaching.
One of the things that was widely discussed among pedagogues was finding ways to diversify what is taught, and this happened a lot more when the Black Lives Matter protests took place across the world. Picking up on this thread further, this week’s Unrehearsed Futures conversation centred around how to facilitate decolonial pedagogy in theatre and performance generally, and specifically within physical and movement theatre legacies, such as that of French actor and movement coach, Jacques Lecoq’s.
During the conversation, Johannesburg-based theatre-maker Kyla Davis and post-doctoral researcher in theatre and performance at Wits University, Dr. Manola-Gayatri Kumarswamy engaged with questions linked to decolonization and identifying a pedagogy’s “flavour” when establishing a new physical theatre school.
Decolonization and epistemic freedoms
One of the first things that comes to Kumarswamy’s mind when talking about a decolonial pedagogy is acknowledging the dehumanization of the body and the mind that occurred during colonization. In his book Epistemic Freedom in Africa, renowned historian and decolonial theorist Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni argued that colonialism and imperialism denied African people the right to think and write from where they are located, unhindered by Eurocentrism, which led to a loss of knowledges, experiences and their epistemic virtues. Kumarswamy believes that claiming this epistemic freedom involves embracing new forms of knowledge and new ways of approaching knowledge.
“A lot of us believe that these knowledge forms already sit in the bodies of performers, and performance traditions, especially in the South,” she says. “In the Global South, there are also philosophies tied in with those knowledges. And somehow, this epistemic freedom that is sought as part of the decolonial question is deeply linked with the relationship to practice in the body and finding a way to open that cellular wisdom that belongs within tradition but is also present in memory. It is about finding practices that unlock that.” Referencing Yang and Tuck, she also says that decolonization is not a metaphor, or something to be discussed within academic circles. It is a question of land and the bodies that inhabited those lands.
Kumarswamy, who has researched and worked alongside Indian practitioners such as Veenapani Chawla in Pondicherry and Heisnam Kanhailal at Kalakshetra Manipur, attempts to looks at a decolonial pedagogy as a mix of different teachings. “Veenapani said in her theater research laboratory that we can’t go back to a past imagining it is pristine. We can’t only look to the west, which is another move that happens,” she says. Influenced by Kanhailal’s practice, she shares that she deeply connected with his practice of coming back to the Manipuri body and the Manipuri tradition in terms of finding a practice which also linked him back to the theatre of the Earth.
As a somatics-informed performance practitioner, she also believes that creating a decolonial pedagogy is about addressing trauma and loss as well. “And this, for me, again, has resonances for us in the pandemic, and what happens with that loss of control. It is on such an epic, huge scale. Its epistemology is lost, its connections to lineages is lost. And that’s in terms of colonization,” she comments, and adds that performance practices today need to hold how we work through trauma and loss. “And that’s part of what my work does, which moves into embodied knowledges, and believes that creativity and pleasure open up the knowledge and allow for this new subjectivity to emerge.”
It was during the lockdown last year when Davis, a theatre-maker and home-maker, along with a few colleagues felt the need to develop an ongoing physical theatre practice in South Africa. Thus, she co-founded The Johannesburg School for Mask and Movement (TJSMM) along with Daniel Buckland, Mlindeli Zondi and Roberto Pombo. She describes the ways that she and her colleagues had been frustrated with the way physical theatre was taught in some university theatre programs. In her experience of teaching, physical theatre has been used as an “add-on” in the curriculum. Often when she was approached to teach a physical theatre workshop, she says she was expected to flex her “physical theatre muscles” because she is a physical theatre practitioner. And as a result, she feels that physical theatre pedagogy in South Africa has largely existed on a surface level for over a decade now.
“Coming from this training, we know that this work is not sporadic or surface – it really is a physical and emotional, spiritual, possibly even a therapeutic journey towards yourself and towards your ensemble as well,” Davis shares, who has trained in Lecoq-based pedagogy. For her, The Johannesburg School of Mask and Movement Theatre was born out of a dissatisfaction with skimming the surface of physical theatre work. “I think the School has been born out of a desire and a need to go deeper, to commit to real time and real space, and real thinking towards what a long-term physical theatre pedagogy looks like, in the South African context, in terms of movement and mask theatre,” she explains.
Davis, who is also the director of Well Worn Theatre Company, shared some of the questions and concerns that arose amongst the founders of TJSMM in the initial stages of the process. She says she and her co-founders are in the process of acknowledging who they are, where they are and the lineage of where the work is coming from. “If we can just name it and say that this work – as much as I love it and value it, and it has formed me as both a human being and a theatre-maker – it is a predominantly white male, European-led practice, with these almost guru-like teachers, historically,” says Davis, “Or at least that’s what it looks like from the outside to anyone who is approaching this work.”
For her, the biggest task is about finding the flavour of TJSMM, similar to how other international theatre schools in New York, Paris, London or Berlin have their unique identity. “Maybe one day we’ll become world-famous, and everyone will want to come to TJSMM rather than Lecoq or LISPA, but they’ll want to come to us and specifically for our flavour. So, I guess we are asking ourselves, what is that flavour? How do we plait these pedagogies together, along with our context, along with who we are and what our bodies as South Africans bring?” Davis asks.
Mixing tradition into the contemporary
So, to tackle a decolonial pedagogy, what needs to happen and what needs to be done? Kumarswamy says the job is not to answer that question and create a homage of lineages but it is to sit with, sometimes, what will stay as a discomfort, because one cannot solve the problems of caste in a day (in the Indian context). “But it is impossible to not think about, what’s happening to the dehumanised body in practice. How do we hold it even if we cannot solve everything? How do we keep the space open?” she asks.
Davis emphasizes while it is important for those in the Global South to find their own flavours, the reason she mentions Lecoq when she talks of her pedagogy is because the framework has been useful for her and the co-founders of TJSMM. “It is not to worship at the shrine of Lecoq or his lineage but to say, this is a useful framework. It is also a useful code for us as practitioners in that we can gather around this pedagogy,” she says, “And we, as practitioners and teachers, have seen the universality of it, how we can teach it in various contexts, and also how powerful it is as a teaching tool. But at the same time, we cannot treat it as the Bible. It has to move with us and work with us, and we have to pull it apart.” The hope is to take what one needs and build a new scaffold out of it.
For those in the Global South, Kumarswamy feels, the issue is to grapple with the complexity of one’s lineage and how to make it visible. “And the visibilizing of a lineage that we were not quite sure of how much of it we actually inherit, or really know to speak of,” she says.
The danger of accepting a Euro-centric pedagogy as it is, is denying the pedagogy that’s already in the bodies of the Global South. Kumarswamy asserts that each of us already has a rich lineage of pedagogy in our bodies even before we are “trained”. She questions what happens to that pedagogy and how it can find a language through the exercises done. She asks how practitioners and pedagogues can welcome the epistemic weight of such lineage and legacy and create inside people a permission to do that. “And that is I think the epistemic freedom that Ndlovu-Gatsheni talks about – where do you give yourself permission to visibilize and own your lineages and your legacies in the creative way that doesn’t tie you to them, but allows you to be present to the becoming future.”
As the conversation winds down to a close, Kumarswamy says the Global North-Global South binary in a conversation about decolonial pedagogy is not a dialectical trap because decolonization is not a metaphor: it connects back to land, resources and how global economics work. “There is something specific about the Global North. There is something specific about the Global South: what’s available, what’s not available, what’s available in terms of legacy to a white South African, what’s available in legacy to a Xhosa South African. So, for me, the universal cannot come with the dismissal of the context,” she says.
One of the things that the past year has compelled theatre-makers to think about the nature of participation in theatre in physical and virtual spaces. It has compelled makers to introspect the role of theatre in a society.
At the fifth Unrehearsed Futures session, Australian theatre-maker James Brennan and Dr Asher Warren, Head of Theatre and Performance and lecturer at the University of Tasmania engaged in a thought-provoking conversation about using theatre for social practice and how audiences relate to theatre.
Theatre, justice and The Chat
Brennan, actor, director and composer, confesses that he is an artiste who has an obsession with justice. He trained as an actor and did “uninspired” theatre for many years. He felt that the theatrical tradition in Australia was limited whereas he wanted to create experimental physical works. He began creating his own works early in his career. This went on for 10-12 years when he admittedly got a jolt in the culture around him when he realised there weren’t enough contemporaries around who did what he wanted to do.
“I had a break. I went to Berlin and made music for quite a while. And when I came back, I actually just didn’t want to make theatre. So, I became a parole officer,” Brennan shares.
He admits that it sort of “happened” to him but considers it a life-changing experience. “I guess one thing that was missing for me in the theatre,” he explains, “was a sense of danger or rawness in the work. And I didn’t know this at the time, but when I went into the prison, those two things immediately changed for me. Of course, I made some pretty strict rules. I wasn’t going in there to harvest stories for my own theatre. I was having a break. But I loved it.”
A parole officer’s main task is to interview people to assess them for release etc. You get to know people’s backgrounds and issues and the job is to understand everything that feeds into offending behaviour, says Brennan.
As an outsider, Brennan felt incredibly privileged to get such detailed information about people. “If anyone had handed me those files that I was reading, years ago, I would have just been gobsmacked. There’s so much information about people’s lives and their personal stories. It’s compelling stuff. Of course, it’s attached to a real person. So, it’s obviously very difficult material with real risks involved in their lives,” he shares.
Eventually, he worked at a prison as the parole officer for three years. His task was to assess prisoners for release. “I really had to get my head around where they were at,” describes Brennan, “And that really meant getting to know them quite well. You know, you’ve got different sorts of parole officers. Some of them probably thought I was a bit of a pushover because I was so interested in their reasons, and where they’d got to.”
Everything the theatre-maker and the then-parole officer has been doing for the last eight years is heavily influenced by the time he spent there. He vividly recalls an interview with a person who had been involved in a series of serious crimes. And as Brennan had reached a point of trust with this person, he broke down and confided further crimes he’d committed. Brennan knew he had to report the alleged crimes. “And I was able to tell him that later but what struck me was that the interpersonal relationship between us had got to this point where something transformative was potentially unfolding,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, it was not in my remit to go down that path, to get stuck into whatever was unfolding for this guy. It was a breakthrough, in my opinion.”
As he left that interview, Brennan knew that the offender would not get the right kind of support to harness that potentially transformative moment. As it played out, once he reported it to the police, the psychologists got involved and nothing much came of it for that individual. “I found that terribly disappointing,” Brennan expresses. “The one moment that should be capitalized, where everyone gathers around and pays attention to this moment, wasn’t able to be handled in the system that I was working in.”
This led to the creation of The Chat, directed by Brennan, which was about inventing a utopian parole system. The work was meant to be ludicrous, Brennan admits. The play dealt with what would constitute a utopian parole office. “Dancing, playing, games, sensuality – all the things that you just couldn’t dream of when you’re working in a parole office. It just doesn’t match,” Brennan says. But what came out of it was very surprising. The Chat had three experienced performers, including Brennan, and four ex-offenders on stage. “I worked with training these ex-offenders to be ready for performance with my colleagues. They were on stage every night with us in the semi-structured performance, going into territory which was very difficult for them at moments, but also very uplifting at other moments,” recalls Brennan.
Ten years ago, Brennan would never have imagined himself creating socially engaged art. He believed in ‘art for art’s sake’ and had never felt the need to question it. But his purpose changed when he began working with ex-offenders, he says. “I just could not work out how to ethically start making work with people who’ve been in prison,” he says, “There’s so much. It’s so messy. I knew how messy it was going to be, and believe me, it’s been even messier than I anticipated – the risk to myself and others involved is just a daily reality. And the rewards too, unlike working in theatre that I had done before.”
Theatre and cruel optimism
For several years, some of Warren’s research interests have been about interactive and intermedial theater making, participatory theatre and examining what the present theatre culture tells us about ourselves, and our cultural values. Over the years, the head of theatre and performance at the University of Tasmania has become more interested in the collaborative nature of performance practice between the audience and performers. “What draws people to the theatre?”, he asks, wondering, “What do they do in the theatre; not necessarily just the artists but audiences?” .
Moving from Melbourne to Launceston, Tasmania in 2018, was a culture shock for him. Launceston is a more regional city with a very different set of attachments to theatre making, expectations of theatre, and ways of valuing one’s work, he says. “And it has been really interesting to engage with this regional theatre culture, because it is remarkably self-sufficient. It’s so powerfully self-contained. It doesn’t need external validation. But what that has meant, for me as a scholar and a critic, is that I’m not necessarily always welcome. And it has been very difficult for me to become a part of this community and to engage with the community,” Warren shares.
Warren first began thinking about people’s attachment to theatre when he had been ruminating on a series of uncomfortable moments. He recalls watching a show in Melbourne where an elderly audience member walked out in the middle of the show. “And I was torn,” he says, “because I felt, you shouldn’t walk out. But you know, just go on. You’ve taken us out of the moment of the show for a pretty self-serving goal, right? Like you’re, you’re doing this for you. This is meant to be about us.” He experienced a “sneaky feeling” which he captured in a paper he wrote titled Can’t or won’t: sneaky feelings in the theatre.
He realized it related a lot to the kind of attachment and expectation “we have, and the willingness that we bring to the theatre to get something from it”. He draws on US scholar Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism to understand this. “I think the cruel optimism sums it up nicely, because we have such high hopes for theater to deliver us moments of beauty, insights, pathos, and even bathos. And so often, at least in my experience, they don’t happen. I sit through a lot of ‘bad’ theatre. And this is, perhaps, because I sit through a lot of student theatre. But I continually return and sit with this kind of optimism that it will happen,” he explains.
Responding to Warren, Brennan feels such moments in the theatre are compelling, with potential for tension and drama. Going further into it, Brennan says he doesn’t have an answer for what is art for. “But I do become obsessed with what art can do,” he asserts. “And at the moment, I have a social purpose in my work. I know there’s some things you can do. I’ve learned about a few. It can make someone who’s marginalized feel part of something. It can make money for someone who doesn’t make money.”
Adding to Brennan, Warren believes that theatre is good at creating communities, performance events but it also means that people end up in silos, making theatre exclusionary rather than inclusive. “The act of making theatre is an amazing moment of bringing people together with a shared purpose. Because it takes so much energy. How can you not be invested?” he says.
“But for me, the interesting thing about that is that the cohesiveness of that group that comes together, in the groups that I’m seeing around me, are exclusive, and exclusionary. We are separating ourselves in order to define ourselves more clearly as something.”
Good theatre, bad theatre
The conversation also veered towards the idea of finding utopia in performance, even though the performance event may not leave anything specifically tangible afterwards, there is a utopian impulse that allows the audience to generate something hopeful and meaningful just in the act of gathering together. Warren shares an anecdote where his friend couldn’t explain why he was disappointed in the show. “He was puzzled and spent the time interrogating himself and interrogating what he saw, to process his thinking. And I was at that show, too,” says Warren, “And it was an under-done work. It wasn’t fully fleshed out. It really needed more time and development. But he felt bad in that moment for not having a good response to it. I was struck by him feeling bad. That’s the manifestation of the utopian, theatrical impulse where you’ve internalized this desire for a show to be good, so much so that you are kind of pained by it.”
Brennan, however, feels that the social contract changes between the audience and the performer changes when there is a social purpose in the piece of work, which has to do with the ambitions of the work itself. “When I talk about utopia, I’m really talking about the attempt to jump past a problem. Because I can do that. You can launch yourself beyond the usual obstacles to a possible answer. And you don’t have to get involved in all of the obstacles. That’s what I’ve been doing with some of the former prisoners is that we don’t have to focus on their offending, we can just leave that completely out and get them to focus on their positive traits. Now, you can’t do that in prison. But that’s utopian,” he says.
Instead of calling something “bad theatre”, Warren says he should use the term “unthinking theatre”, as the issue he wants to describe is more specifically about theatre that does not engage thoughtfully with its audience, participants, or subject matter.
As the conversation comes to a close, Brennan envisions a future where theatre exercises become a tool to reach ex-offenders. “The life of an artistic work, as we all know, has limits. It comes and goes,” he says. “And it doesn’t really necessarily mean much socially. But if you can crystallize something into something that’s applicable, then you can gauge what you’re not able to gauge inside the art making process.”
As the world continues to battle coronavirus and theatre practitioners engage with the idea of what theatre is and can be, creators Amitesh Grover and Benjamin Samuels have been pushing the boundaries of the form and creating interdisciplinary work for a long time. At a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation, they shared their foray into using technology as a crucial element of the work they create, art as a social practice and more.
A few years ago, Samuels, the artistic director of a UK-based touring company Limbik, saw a call out for theatre companies interested in experimenting with motion-capture technology. As someone who trained in physical theatre and Lecoq-based approaches at the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA), working with motion-capture seemed like an extension of that training as it involved using the body to animate digital characters or avatars.
Recalling his training, he reflected how everything around us arose from movement and how we observe that and embody it. This leads to discovering certain movements dynamics and out of those dynamics might even arise poetry; the sense that everything contains its own metaphor. “So, when I started thinking about how to approach working with motion capture and technology, I began asking this question: What’s the intrinsic metaphor that sits within the technology?” Samuels says. Following such explorations, Samuels produced Fatherland in 2019 which is based on his experiences with his father who has Pakinson’s-induced dementia. It is a real-time motion capture performance merging with audience participation, live video-projection and virtual reality.
Similar to Samuels, Grover’s work also stems from personal triggers. He confesses that he tends to work conceptually and poetically with no regard for disciplinary boundaries or integrity. “I have, from very early on in my career, moved very freely between theatre, performance, poetry, writing, technology, visual art and photography and back. And so, it’s a sort of a blend of work that I end up creating.”
Grover, who is also a professor at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, says that he is deeply interested in investigating non-theatrical subjects in his work. “In 2015, I created an entire festival of sleeping, in which I invited audiences to come and immerse themselves in different sleeping conditions, and in different relationships of sleep with other bodies and with our environment, in public as well as private ways,” he shares. In 2016, Grover also created On Mourning, in collaboration with a professional mourner from South India, and tried to investigate the deeper, unsayable knowledge that one finds in traditions of mourning, grieving, and what they can mean to one today in the modern world, where he feels one has forgotten to mourn.
“When I work with technology,” explains Grover, “I work with it in terms of its political force. Technology can be extremely fascinating, and can also help us create a spectacle. But for me, what’s important is to sort of uncover the layers behind the screen and behind the materiality of these devices, and to see what are the different kinds of inter-relational experiences these technologies are unleashing for us. They’re proposing to us.”
Using technology to create physical spaces in virtual worlds
Speaking of his experience in using motion-capture technology and Virtual Reality (VR) on Fatherland, Samuels shares it is about existing in a virtual and physical space simultaneously. The project began when he was in California and his father napping on a sofa behind him. From an observer’s perspective, Samuels had watched his father, who has Parkinson’s-induced dementia, be physically present but mentally somewhere else. Thinking about this, motion-capture, embodiment and disembodiment, presence and absence, he decided to use this technology to tell a story that circled around a character with dementia, and the experience of dementia. “And that ultimately became an interrogation of reality and where different notions of reality sit,” says Samuels.
“The mechanics of Fatherland was that there was a performer (which was me) who was in a motion capture, would invite audience volunteers on stage, and I’d get them to wear a Virtual Reality headset. And then I would perform multiple characters for this audience volunteer who would then experience the world of the story, as well as those different characters from within – they would see it through the headset. So, they were seeing a virtual world with all of these characters that were unfolding inside of it. We would project what they were seeing to the rest of the audience. Essentially, the audience was seeing a kind of live animated film being constructed for them,” he further explained.
Working with VR means working with space. It was a very theatrical experience of trying to imagine space, then add things that would happen in a virtual space, in a physical space, Samuel says. “The constant work is essentially to map physical space onto virtual space. And a lot of what we do in enacting and performing is essentially trying to imagine ourselves in other spaces,” he says. “You’re making the invisible visible. It’s just the visible is manifesting itself in a virtual space.”
The Last Poet
Grover likes to work with narrative in a non-linear way to create immersive experiences. He began working on his latest work The Last Poet during the lockdown in March 2020. “We started to see many, many authoritarian governments in South and Southeast Asia, taking advantage of the pandemic and rounding up artists and activists who produce work that demonstrates dissent. So, in India, China and elsewhere, I kept reading about a lot of poets, artists and activists who were being incarcerated. And one of my friend’s parents was also amongst these names in India,” he shares.
Thus, Grover began working on the idea of losing somebody and toying with the idea of a biological virus serving as a metaphor for the political virus that is part of the South Asian politics. Collaborating with coders to create a virtual world according to certain rules. “On each browser, this world could be slightly different from the others. But these rules kind of guide this world,” he says.
The virtual world has close to 200 rooms. He also went and photographed the centre of Delhi at its most polluted which resulted in the amber haze generated in the virtual world. When one enters this world, the rooms are whirling around with no gravity in place. There are objects strewn across this space – lamp posts, automobiles, benches etc. and each of these objects is interactive. When one clicks on an object or a room, they meet a character.
“And then that’s how the piece progresses. As all performers are live, you go from one room to another. They’re all talking about one person. You know at the start that there’s one poet in this world who has gone missing. And everybody you meet has had some kind of relationship with the poet. You meet people who are very close to him, you meet his neighbors, you meet other people who’ve heard about him, who’ve been inspired by him. And you slowly begin to understand that not everybody can be trusted in this world. There are some characters who seem to be speaking the truth, but they really aren’t. There are others who can be believed, and yet others who are very clearly spreading rumours.”
The 90-minute long show also includes audience interaction, sonic art, films in the other rooms. One thing Grover needed to do while rehearsing and building the piece was to think about how to adapt theatrical exercises performed in a physical space, to an online space. Since performers were performing live from their homes due to the lockdown, a lot of effort went into finding nooks and crannies that can be dramatic and discover the poetics of the home. Grover also created a backstage dashboard, similar to a backstage mechanism in a physical theatre. Except, here he could see how many actors were streaming live, how many were watching them in separate rooms. There was a ‘Start Show’ and ‘End Show’ option. Since the code was running live, he could also track bugs and the myriads of things the code was doing in performance.
In their work, both Grover and Samuels have investigated the idea of space and how what they learned in a physical space can be transferred and transposed to another space, such as the virtual. In their investigation they found that audiences can have a live, embodied experience even in the virtual world.
Samuels looks at what he learnt for the stage and which parts of it cannot be let go. He then explores how this knowledge can be taken into other spaces. He emphasizes that makers must look at space, whether physical or digital, as a partner. “In this space, what if I knew where I was. And then, I could try and upskill and learn all of these new bits of technology and software and all this stuff that you needed to do in order to manage that. But that intuitive knowledge that I’m crafting something for a sense of space, kind of got me through it,” he says, referring to his experience of working with technology in the beginning.
Grover believes technological intervention has been a part of creating a live, embodied experience in our daily lives for a long time. He gives the example of the crowd watching a cricket match at the stadium. If one is sitting in the topmost row, it won’t be possible to see the actual ball. To combat this, there are huge screens put up in the stadium and more often than not, most people in the stadium end up following the game through the screen.
“And so even a game like cricket, which is live and is being played physically, is a post-technological game now in the way in which you know, how it is experienced, watched, played, and results are declared. It’s also this idea of liveness that affects the way we watch things on screen. So, liveness is just not liveness is an ontological category,” he comments.
Grover also feels that post-technological theatre has made it more difficult for physical performances to take place. In this post-technological era, physical and live performances are necessarily interactional. “They are interactive. The mechanisms, the tools, the parameters and the ways in which performance unfolds in the physical space needs to have some kind of unpredictability to it. And I think that is something that, liveness for me has become more dangerous in a sense. It’s more radical, not just of the effect that it has on my skin, but also of the unpredictable nature that’s inherent to the life,” Grover emphasizes.
He also believes that, in his experience, the physical and virtual spaces amplify each other. “Physical gatherings in India, for example, have become larger and larger precisely because of the digital mobilization that is compelling people to gather physically at spaces such as political rallies. And there is a significant effort to mobilize people through digital means, which then we see the results of in physical spaces. It works the other way around too,” he says.
The two creators encourage theatre pedagogues and makers to embrace all that technology has to offer and that diving into it doesn’t take away from our previous understanding of “theatre”, “embodiment” and “liveness”.
As someone who trained in physical theatre to using those principles in a digital space, Samuels says it has been a process of iterations and reiterations. He picked this up while working with technologists where they worked on something over and over again until they got it right. The process itself happens in stages, he says. “And so, you have to keep going through this process of iteration and reiteration until you finally try and arrive at the result that you’re looking for. And recognizing that that is very similar to any process, to any process of creation is crucial.”
Grover challenges artists and practitioners to let their practice traverse multiple paths, including the virtual. “Our relationship with digitality is a political one. It’s not just a social one. And we have to understand what this new freedom, and also chaos that it unleashes, means for us in our cultures. And I think, if we can understand this, our artistic practice here can take a different turn so that resistance can reproduce both in digital ways and in physical ways,” he asserts.
One year on from when the COVID-19 pandemic took over our lives, uncertainty has gripped our hands again and is unlikely to let go any time soon. As India battles a devastating second wave of the disease, theatre-makers and pedagogues are back in their houses again discussing and reflecting on what theatre is and can be.
When young theatre-makers burst into the industry, there is very little guidance on how to go about producing theatre on their own. Most of them seek out established groups, hoping to join their ranks as actors, stage managers etc or attach themselves to institutions producing work. But is the journey like to be producing one’s own work on one’s own?
Picking up on a moment of introspection, South Africa-based Tony Miyambo and Phala O Phala shared their journey and experience of producing the award-winning one-hander play Kafka’s Ape, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to An Academy, at a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation.
Kafka’s Ape, adapted and directed by Phala and performed by Miyambo, was developed as part of Phala’s master’s project at the University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. For the first few shows, it was showcased at the university and South Africa National Arts Festival (Grahamstown), where it received a guaranteed audience. But once Phala and Miyambo took up the show in a personal capacity, they found barely any takers for the first two years of the show’s life. Af A few years ealier there had been another version of Kafka’s work being shown at a local theatre with prominent actor, which didn’t work well either.
“I felt like people, at that point, felt like if this prominent actor can’t do this text justice, then who is this little thin, scrawny boy that’s attempting to do this text,” recalls Miyambo. “It was very difficult to get audiences in. There were a lot of cancelled shows, a lot of disappointment.”
At that crucial juncture, in 2014, the two friends and theatre-makers had a hard conversation around a difficult question: Was this a project they felt needs to carry on? They decided to give it one more year and made a few changes to the show itself, including the name. The initial name of the play was long-winded and gave the audience no idea that it was Kafka-related play. They had to reimagine everything about the play in order to recapture audiences, says Phala. When they performed again at Grahamstown in 2015, the show won the Silver Ovation Award, which resulted in travelling with the show to Amsterdam.
“I think that’s when the swing for the life of the play took another turn because opportunities we never imagined turned up. It’s also at that point, that Phala and I realized that part of the problem was our limited ways in which we thought about staging the work and where it was possible to stage the work,” reveals Miyambo. The economics of it all came into play when they realized that the amount of money they spent trying to stage their work at Grahamstown or Johannesburg was nearly the same as other opportunities they could pursue outside in the world.
Post their new found success, Miyambo and Phala put together a ‘Hit-List of Festivals’ they wished to perform at and found themselves developing relationships in Johannesburg which led them to perform at places like Chicago, New York and Prague, to name a few. For example, if they were invited to perform at Prague, and their flight went through Dubai, they wrote to 40 performance venues in Dubai and ended up performing in one on the way.
It’s a mixed model, says Miyambo, with resilience built into it. The initial lack of success of the show positioned both of them to become independent producers reaching a global audience. “The way that we’ve packaged the show has allowed it to be an easy show to pack up and move around. The show quite literally fits into two bags, and can go anywhere in the world,” explains Miyambo, “And I’ve also had to learn the skill set of a director and a technician. So, everywhere I go in the world, I travel alone. I move the show in, I plot it, I perform it.” He also adds that the more people saw it, the more opportunities it received. Most importantly, he says, it freed them from having to rely on mainstream models of working, funding and chase conventional touring circuits.
Phala calls this way of thinking as a “collapse of the mainstream fallacy” where students are made to believe the only way to create work in theatre is to wait for someone to commission it. For him and Miyambo, the shift began happening when they realized that the industry didn’t exist outside of them but within themselves and the call to create and finding ways to sustain work was upon them.
“So, we were producers here. We weren’t just the director and actor. We needed to think like producers. So, what do producers do? They look for opportunities. They look for money, they look for budget,” says Phala, “We believed in the product, and those who have watched it also believed in it. That’s why we began focusing on how do we sell this product?”
A properly funded show requires a director and stage manager to travel with the show. But once Kafka’s Ape began travelling, Phala, who is also an Animateur at The Centre For The Less Good Idea, had to take on the roles of a lighting designer, stage manager, set designer director to cut down on costs. There was a lot of learning involved as well in terms of enhancing his software skills and understanding lighting design.
What also began happening when the show started travelling abroad, is a transference of responsibility. Phala says, “Tony had to be an actor and a lighting plotter of the show at the same time. He had to be his own stage manager, when required. Why? Because we were saving on travel costs, accommodation, food in order for us to make the performance happen.”
Since Miyambo began travelling alone with the show, he also became the financial manager for the show, tweaking the budget as was needed. “He is the one traveling with the show, I don’t. He doesn’t need to call me and say this is the monies he needs. He needs to make decisions on the spot about the kind of costs that are related to the show,” Phala believes and emphasizes that this is a system that worked well for them. It killed the need for hierarchy and established the actor and director as equal partners, taking equal ownership. “At the core of this model is trust. It is trusting that the other person is equally invested as you are; equal partners and that’s how it is then moved. And that’s how we had adapted,” he further elaborates. He also explains that maintaining a kind of untethered budget was a positive experience because it implied there was trust among the two collaborators to use the money best suited for the production.
Speaking further on adaptation, Phala also shares that there were times when they budgeted for Miyambo’s health. “When he’s not feeling well – and it’s during the show’s run – the production must be able to pay for Tony, because Tony is not on medical aid. That’s the situation artists find themselves in. We need to find funds within this, not as part of taking away from his payment but to say, here we are, this is the problem that we are facing, this is how we need to solve it.”
What this hybrid model also entailed was working out the economics and aesthetic economy of production. “We had to take all the clutter away. We strip it down. We make it simpler. Ensure it is travelable. And then from there, on the economic side of things, only what is needed goes, not what is wanted. I may want to travel, but I cannot travel because of so and so reason,” says Phala. This way of thinking and working was a paradigm collapse of how he thought things should be. It was a positive collapse, he reassures.
“The way in which [the production] happened has shaped the director that I am today. It also involved understanding that your performer is not somebody who you have cast in a play; they are more than just a performer. They are a custodian of the performance itself. And that they they’ve got a say in how the performance develops,” he explains and adds that there was a certain give-and-take that he and Miyambo understood.
For Miyambo, the rehearsal process for Kafka’s Ape has ebbed and flowed through a period of 10 years – a luxury most actors cannot boast of. Through that entire time, he experienced what felt like perpetual losses within the play when they began stripping down the production. It forced him to rely less on material outside of him and believe that all that he needed to essay the part of Red Peter (the ape in the play) was within him. “Phala began nourishing the emotional aspect of it, which was to say that everything that you do, the capacity that you’ve been building up as a performer is enough. This thing that you crave and are constantly reaching for, is not what you need to sustain the performance,” Miyambo shares.
The independent actor also found through this process that performance didn’t begin only when the lights were about to turn on onstage. “For me, the performance starts from the moment I pack up that 45 kilogram bag, and I strap it across my shoulder, with set pieces that could get me arrested at the airport because people think I’m trying to smuggle some sort of gun or bomb into the country. For me, the performance is throughout,” he expresses. Miyambo recalls the surreal feeling of going to New York and performing on Broadway and shares how people think that if you’ve performed there, ‘you’ve made it’.
“My experience of New York, was arriving in a very cold and harsh city, lugging across a 40 kilogram set piece, and my own 20 kilogram bag through the New York subway, getting lost for two hours, before quickly heading to the Broadway venue that wanted to charge me $300 in order to have me build my set inside – the set which I need for the performance on stage. And so, I had to build my set on the sidewalk of a New York theatre. I was reprimanded by police because they didn’t understand what I was doing. So, by the time you get on stage, you’re carrying all of that with you.”
When youngsters come up to him for advice on what how they should stage their work, Miyambo says, “I said I really can’t help you think about how you want to make the show, because my experience of the show has been a rehearsal that’s taken nearly 10 years. In terms of rehearsal time, in a show, you can’t beat that. But you need to chart your own way and your own understanding to make it work for you because what Phala and I have done is we’ve just simply found a way to make it work for us. It wasn’t always easy or ideal, but it was necessary.”
Throughout the journey of Kafka’s Ape, both Phala and Miyambo have cultivated values and relationships which have helped them reach the next place. Earlier, The Center For The Less Good Idea received an invitation to perform Kafka’s Ape at the University of Toronto, Canada. Once the lockdown set in, the organisers said that since they had already budgeted for them, they asked if Phala and Miyambo would be open to exploring the show in an online format. “This performance, now at The Center for the Less Good Idea, is one expensive experiment for the University of Toronto,” says Miyambo, “Nobody knew how it’d turn out. Nobody knew if it would work. But we’ve built the kind of relationships where people believe in us and they they’re willing to put in the money to say ‘we’re willing to find out and see where it goes’.”
Reflecting on creating work for the online/digital medium, Phala believes theatre as a form allows enough space to adapt to different mediums. He doesn’t consider online theatre as a separate genre in itself. “Theatre adapts itself into different spaces; be it a museum or a planetarium,” he says, “If it fails to adapt in spaces, then it is meant for only one thing. And things that are meant for themselves die quite quickly. I don’t think the digital form collapses theatre.”
Phala feels you can still form a relatable connection, albeit not a physical one through this medium. Much like Kafka’s works, this experience made him realize that knowledge is ever-changing. For Miyambo, adapting Kafka’s Ape for the digital medium made him realize the curiosity gap in using technology in his own theatre-making. Theatre has embraced technology before the pandemic too – light, sound, use of projectors etc. “I do think that there is a space where we need to sit down and think about how can we find simple and manageable ways to create access to resources that can allow people to explore fully,” he says.
As the conversation comes to an end, both artistes hope that institutions create an environment for experimental inquiry where there isn’t pressure to create the ‘perfect work’ and there is openness about the fact that it is a journey on the spectrum of exploration.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth crucial questions for theatre pedagogues and practitioners: Is knowing how to do theatre enough? Is theatre to be taught as something you only do on stage? How do we take the skills of theatre-maker and apply it to something beyond this form?
For Ndoni Khanyile, a broadcast journalist, process designer, facilitator and theatre-maker based in South Africa, it was a series of happy accidents, “or disappointments”, which opened up new doors of opportunity and compelled her to find new ways of applying what she learned as a drama student at University of Cape Town (UCT), she shared at a recent Unrehearsed Futures webinar.
Using drama training beyond theatre
Khanyile understood early on in her career that not all creative companies embrace creativity and allow space for people to be creative. She then began working as a freelance actor in the television and film industry in South Africa where she found brief success but more importantly, encountered powerful men who acted as gatekeepers to who got opportunities and who didn’t, based on who was willing to play the “game”. As a young, vulnerable 23-year-old woman, she decided to take herself out of that toxic atmosphere and decided to pursue her MA in documentary filmmaking at Columbia University, New York. After the completion of her course, she returned to South Africa in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, unable to find jobs in media.
During this time, she began working with a performance collective she had started at UCT as a student, tapping into a parallel life and language she had and began creating work again. She soon realised it was difficult to support a family as a freelance actor/creator alone. That is when she transcended and turned to process design and facilitation where she applied her skills and learnings as a theatre-maker.
“It gave me the opportunity to think deeply about how do we bring people together in meaningful engagements?” Khanyile shares. “What is it that creates the magic in a room between people which allows for impactful and meaningful conversations to take place? I think that the skills that I’ve learned in drama school definitely feed into that thinking. And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around what do I know how to do? Where’s the need? And how can I bring the things I know how to do, to bear in speaking to a need that exists.”
Resonating with Khanyile on how theatre-makers and actors in the industry have very little control over their own journey, Clara Vaughan, one of the speakers at the conversation and head of The Market Theatre Laboratory in Johannesburg, adds that a complication drama schools in South Africa and around the world face today is how to relate to the industry as a training institution. “I think we all suffer from a certain degree of being very immersed in our own worlds. The determination to lift your head and look outwards is really important,” she states.
The Market Theatre Laboratory (MTL) is the educational arm of Market Theatre in South Africa. According to Vaughan, it exists for the benefit and development of emerging theatre-makers, mainly between the ages of 18-35 years, who are from poor and marginalised backgrounds. Informed by the word ‘Lab’, “it is driven by ideas of learning by doing. It’s a highly practical space where students spend most of their time on the floor,” Vaughan says. The emphasis is on learning by doing, learning through experimentation, failure, through repetition, reflection and exchange.
Within that space, Vaughan sees her role as creating an environment that enables participants to find their poetic, artistic and socially engaged voice and purpose. “What I work towards is creating an environment that is both safe and challenging. I often think a huge part of my job is to put people in proximity for processes, projects and allowing all that they have to offer, to feed in, in an organic way to the development of each person and the space of creativity and storytelling. The idea is to create a sense of shared purpose,” she asserts.
Owning one’s ability
Elaborating on how her theatre learning feeds into her process facilitation work, Khanyile adds she is currently undergoing coaching training where she’s hoping to create her own model of an embodied approach, using body work, breathwork and voice work to be able to work with people, especially black women. “It’s in my heart to work with black women, because I feel black women are the latent force in South Africa, you know. When black women thrive in this country, we can all thrive,” she believes.
Khanyile describes South Africa as a deeply traumatized and divided country where mental health issues abound. She feels people do not know how to have conversations across lines of difference. “We do not know how to hold complexity, how to have difficult conversations rooted in love. And I think for those of us who’ve spent time and years building these (drama-related) skills and tools, we need to be thinking about how we can speak to the need. There are great needs. How can we bring the things we know how to do, to speak to those needs?” she asks.
She also shares her experience of facilitating at a conference project for the United Nations. She found it incredibly challenging since it was a formal, traditional rules-based environment where things worked a certain way and people related to one another a certain way. Khanyile shares despite the challenges the UN officials knew they needed to work through, they needed an engagement that would bring people on board and one that needed certain things to encourage such participation among them.
“So, I had to give myself permission to come to that space and bring ideas that were not normal in that setting. I didn’t know how people would respond to saying, ‘Let us begin every workshop session with a meditation.’ How do you do that with high level dignitaries at the UN? It’s a difficult proposition to make, because you feel like people are going to look at you like you’re crazy,” she says.
“And at the same time, I’m being expected to think deeply about certain things: how do we create space for that kind of thinking to happen, if we don’t allow ourselves that chance? I really had to give myself permission to bring myself freely, and all of my creative tools to an environment that felt very alien to that way of thinking, and the response was so positive and so encouraging, which is yet another signpost that says there are opportunities here.”
Creating an empowered theatre-maker
Discussing the challenges of doing this work in the digital space, Khanyile says some of the crucial questions she faced were how to create a sacred space virtually within an invisible architecture while ensuring the engagement remained deeply co-creative and not extractive.
Speaking of the challenges she faced, the past year for Vaughan has been about redefining her understanding of how to create an empowered theatre-maker and letting go of her idea of an ideal pedagogy. “I have been sitting with what we teach and why,” she says. “At the moment, the industry we are preparing our students to go into, is decimated. It’s not that COVID has created a new industry or a new scenario; it’s just revealed the brokenness of what was already there and accelerated our need to really respond to that and our need to acknowledge that reality. And so, the question is how do we prepare young people to take on their future with a sense of control?” Vaughan also urges the community to change the vocabulary of an actor’s journey, where greater emphasis is placed on ‘the right place at the right time’, ‘good luck’, ‘meeting the right people’ etc.
She says it also includes changing one’s attitudes towards what a theatre-maker is and isn’t. Vaughan feels there is a need for expansion of the possibilities that theatre has for relevance and integration. She insists on finding a better language for the skills, knowledge and practices that those with theatre training have and to recognise how fundamental they are to being human, in a society and community. It is also essential to understand such skills are not just for a very specific medium and a very specific industry.
“So rather than saying, ‘I’m a theatre maker’, and expecting the rest of the world to assume a bunch of implicit practices and skills that you have, it is imperative to be able to put that into words, and as Ndoni mentioned, to really be able to own what that is,” she asserts, adding that people with drama training must be able to do so with confidence, without being apologetic about the value of what they bring to the table. “It means being in a virtual room of UN dignitaries and saying – this is how you are going to participate better, because I know how to make space that enables that – and to really be able to know that that’s what you can do. And that, that is extraordinary and unusual and specific.”
As the conversation veers to an end, Khanyile and Vaughan encourage institutions to look outward and work with each other, instead of working exclusively.
It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. What was initially perceived as a ‘temporary disruption’ has now turned into the ‘new normal’ over the past year. Countries like India are in the midst of a vociferous second wave of infections.
Around this time last year, the thought of teaching drama online or performing pieces of theatre online were unthinkable. Zoom, the video conferencing platform, set new challenges for theatre pedagogues, students and practitioners in terms of how to teach in the absence of presence, the benefits and challenges of alternative technologies, mediums and formats for live performance, the shapes, forms and directions that theatre can take.
With lots of questions and a curiosity for answers, curators and hosts Jehan Manekshaw (Head, Drama School Mumbai) and Amy Russell (Founder and Pedagogic Director, Embodied Poetics) began Unrehearsed Futures as a series of public conversations about the realities of teaching and practicing drama in these changing times and exploring both our ability to respond, and our response-ability.
Kickstarting another edition of Unrehearsed Futures, Season 2 welcomes on board co-curators Mbongeni N. Mtshali and Mwenya B Kabwe (lecturers, Centre for Theatre, Dance & Performance Studies, University of Cape Town) who, along with Manekshaw and Russell, will continue to look at questions of performance, pedagogy, practice and critique, broadly framed by their chosen themes on ‘voicing’ and ‘transcendence’.
At the first session of Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2) held recently, Mtshali and Kabwe shared how they respond to questions of plurality and planetarity from their fields of interest. They also share how their own practices and understanding will shape the sessions they will curate for Unrehearsed Futures in the coming months.
Kabwe, a Zambian-born theatre maker and scholar, studied and worked across England and the US for many years before settling in South Africa. “As a result, my theatre-making practice really centres very much around migration, migrancy and movement and I have a particular interest in African women’s migration narratives,” she says, adding she has become really interested in African futurism, particularly, where migration, the relationship between migration and African futurism meets as dramaturgical strategy.
During the course of her research for a production in Eastern Cape, South Africa a few years ago, she came across ‘a rather colourful character’ in Zambian history called Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, a school teacher in the 1960s. A grade-school science teacher and the director of Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, he sought to beat the US and the Soviet Union at the height of Space Race and put a 17-year-old girl and two cats on the moon. To train his astronauts, he set up a makeshift facility outside Lusaka and used tire swings attached to trees and rolled the astronauts in empty oil barrels down bumpy hillsides to simulate weightlessness. When asked to identify his spaceship, Nkoloso, who also wore a cape, pointed to two oil drums stacked on top of each other. He even referred to the participants of the space programme as Afronauts.
“So needless to say, he continues to fascinate me to this day. And what happened as a result of doing this research, coming across him, was I made a piece of work called Astronautus Afrikanus. It was this mad immersive piece set in and out of all of the nooks and crevices of the Rhodes University main theatre complex,” Kabwe explains, elaborating on her practice.
Similar to how Kabwe’s work relates to her personal life and roots, Mtshali’s theatre-making practice is driven by his own experience of being black and queer in South Africa, growing up in a very “traditional” home in the mid-1980s between several states of emergency, when South Africa was debating the state of the nation as it were. Being the last of five children, and the first to go to a private school which were generally not available to Black students at that time, Mtshali didn’t know much English. He went through what he likes to call his ‘Pygmalion’ years, where he was acculturated into the appropriate language and comportment for a student at a private school.
“So, from a young age, I was hyper aware of being embraced within specific cultural communities, but also being aware of my difference to those,” he explains, “That informs a lot of my thinking: questions on identity, questions on blackness, and more broadly conceived as questions on nationalisms in the plural. My work takes off from the personal. I’m really interested in this question of black queer and black femme performance specifically. And the kinds of tactics that queers of color use to push back against, destabilize and perhaps re-imagine what it is to belong to the nation and to belong to a black community, where a lot of these questions are really fraught.” His last major work, in (s)kin, was inspired by the period he spent in the private school and what followed after.
Mtshali’s interests have also begun expanding into the Caribbean, Latin America, South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Increasingly troubled by the overdetermination of all stories about Africa and about black people in the transatlantic slave trade, he began asking how else Africans have entered into global presence, other than as objects or commodities. “And the work has taken me in various ways. For example, how dance practices transmitted ideas of African and African-ness within colonial spaces, without necessarily having to have arrived in those places via slavery,” says the multidisciplinary theatre practitioner.
“I’m really interested in syncretic modernities that emerged in Latin America, partly as a result of slavery, and also the other stories that emerged. I’m also interested in how Africa has moved elsewhere into the globe across the Indian Ocean – this is somewhat less explored in post-colonial black modernity,” Mtshali shares.
Finding one’s voice
Speaking of the theme of voicing he has chosen for his curated talks for Unrehearsed Futures, Mtshali explains his fascination for language and how he views voice, both as a material and the conceptual idea of voices as plural. “Vocality might be a more accurate term and more specifically, poly-vocality,” he says, “I come from a multilingual community. So, this idea of language and the voice and what the voice sounds like, has always fascinated me in some ways.”
He believes voice can be quite deliberately attached to questions of identity. It isn’t only about the ‘sound’ of the voice, but its textures and how it locates one within a particular cultural space, economic categories among other things. Mtshali’s interest lies in observing what happens when multiple voices occupy, whether by choice or force, the same space.
“What happens when you speak with one another, or speak across one another? What other kinds of sonic possibilities become available when we play with all of us speaking at once and not necessarily with an interest in hearing one another? But just what it is to sit with multiple voices at once?
Voicing is a somewhat messy way of grasping at these ideas around identity, around intelligibility, around poly-vocality, our capacity to think and speak in multiple voices. But it is also about just the ethics of sitting with other people and laying claim to a voice, or the multiple voices in which we speak,” he elucidates.
Transcending theatre and performance
Since the pandemic began, what’s come into sharp focus for Kabwe is how one’s particular skills, tools and languages of theatre-making can be applied and repurposed in different settings – outside of academia and making creative goods per se. Apart from teaching at the University of Cape Town, she has also done a lot of process design facilitation work with Ingenious Peoples Knowledge (IPK), a company based in Cape Town and Geneva.
Connecting it to her chosen theme of transcendence for curating the Unrehearsed Futures sessions this season, Kabwe says, “In my mind, the languages of process design facilitation and the languages of theatre-making really go hand-in-hand. I’ve really had to become much more articulate about what it is that I bring to the table as a person who is trained in theatre and performance, and what my skill set is outside of the context of making theatre. Some of the principles of the work I do with IPK are, to serve the human spirit, to leverage diversity and to handle complexity. These are things that resonate so much with some of my core principles as a theatre-maker.”
She is keen to speak with people who have some sort of theatre and performance training but don’t necessarily make “theatre” out of it or teach. Instead, they have transcended “theatre”, drawing on those skills directly, having figured out ways to be clear about what those specific skill sets, languages and tools are and use them in interesting ways.
One of the focal points of this season’s Unrehearsed Futures is to explore what it means to be planetary at this point in time.
Responding to this, Mtshali believes it is the tension between the impulse to step outside of globalist frameworks to something that is not anthropocentric. “And yet performance, ironically, is one of those things that relies, if anything, on the recognition or the capacity to recognize other humans. We’re stepping out into this scale that exceeds the global, that is its excess, maybe. But we’re moving simultaneously into this deeply intimate space that relies on the recognition of our fundamental human-ness. So, it’s both a de-centering of an anthropocentric worldview, yet at the same time, it has to emerge from a grounding perhaps more explicitly in the body than anything else in the moment,” he says.
While Kabwe finds it liberating to think about planetarity but it also reminds her of particular inequalities within society. One of the concerns of teaching online has been of access. “We’re back in a space of asking ourselves as we have for a long time, as we teach in this part of the world: how do we bridge the access gaps? This feels like a huge one. And if we are going to be teaching and learning and working in this way, for the foreseeable future, then there’s real work for us to do and to figure out how to make it work,” she comments.
As the conversation comes to a close, Kabwe and Mtshali contemplate on what it means to be a pedagogue in this space and time. If one is to look at voicing as a way to find identity and transcendence to find one’s interdisciplinarity, these seem to be investigations rather than a teacher delivering information to a silent student. Responding to this, both Kabwe and Mtshali feel that as a pedagogue, their role isn’t to offer expertise to deliver answers. Rather, it is to frame and model ways of engaging in a conversation. While there may be things that aren’t necessarily useful for one, it is the act of conversing and listening to and with each other, which is the starting point for recognizing that we all have the capacity to make knowledge in a particular way.