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.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: