Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reya's Interview: the miniseries

I knew Reya's questions would be weighty. If this were live on TV I'd drive the interviewer to distraction. I'd be that person who never stops talking about herself. So I'm cheating. I'm going to answer all of Reya's amazing questions, but, well, slowly. I'm answering the first one in full – a post of its own. The rest will come tomorrow, ok?

1. I would love for you to write about your involvement with theater - what
drew you to that form of expression, who are your favorite playwrights,
favorite plays. You're so talented, you could do anything you want. Why
theater? (This could be a whole interview, I realize. Just write what you
feel like writing.)

The heritage - er, none. My parents are visual artists. My grandparents - writers. So, while creativity was definitely encouraged in my household, theatre was the furthest thing from anyone's minds, I guess. I often wonder what they'd have done if I announced I was going to be an accountant or something. Anyway. I always knew my currency was stories. More importantly - voices. When I was a child I 'channelled' voices - played out long, complex dialogues, that just kind of coursed through me as I wandered around the mielie fields. My gran would say:
'There goes Tammy, reading, without her book.'
The funny thing is, when my mom gave me one of my early writing assignments as part of our home schooling curriculum, I point blank refused to write it myself. I would do the story, sure. But only if I dictated and my mom wrote it down.
I often refer to this tiny memory as significant - why?
Because it became a blueprint for so much of my creative expression later. It seemed I always needed a medium.

I think the reason I was drawn to theatre is because of how all one's utterances can be mediated through the ensemble. If you are the playwright, then the director is interpreting, the actors are interpreting - everyone has distilled your words through their own system by the time it reaches the end consumer. Putting my words directly out there has always been scary for me. I feel exposed. (Do you understand why blogging can be kind of terrifying for me?)

The Education
So I studied at Rhodes University in a mad little village-sized city (it has a cathedral - its a city). I intended to do a BA in literature. I was going to be a writer, see? But the drama department, that ship of dear, merry fools drew me in, sucked me in. I was in heaven - by day and night I mind-painted the black walls of the Box Theatre (still my favourite space ever). Worlds of play, of real delving into the psyche. The only place where you can walk into a closed room and someone is holding a gun to someone else's head and you say, "oh sorry," and shut the door. I could go on. I loved it. It became home. Grahamstown is home to an annual arts festival, and I took full advantage of this.

I studied acting, theatre design and scriptwriting. On entering the “real world” I realised I hadn't the temperament to be a real actress so closed that chapter (though I still love to perform, but only in self created wonderworlds, on my terms.)

Playwrights I love - I don't refer here to the 'masters' but those who have pinned down my reality, and hoisted it at the same time, the way knocking a tent peg into the ground enables both shelter and a sense of kite flying.
So - Beckett, Beckett, Beckett and Beckett.
Shepard - great craftsman, with distinct eras, that dovetail with eras in my life. I loved him, particularly in my late teens and early 20s. At 17, I could recite the whole of that monologue from Paris Texas. At 24 I was teaching A Lie of the Mind, a play I still think is extraordinary. And Buried Child, of course. Albee. The drunken cadences of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf found a familiar landing strip in my psyche.
Tenessee Williams - definitely formative, though a little too verging on the late harvest rather than the sauvignon blanc, if you know what I mean.
I'm a sucker for Chekhov. I think I was one of those pale long haired girls, mourning my life before its even begun and staring at the window at birds headed towards Moscow. I was one of those Ninas or Varyas, in a not-too-distant past life.
Caryl Churchill, David Hare, so clever, so important.
If Sarah Kane had made it through her Saturn Returns she would have written even more extraordinary plays than she did in the short time she was here.
The Shakespeares that are closest to me are The Tempest and King Lear.
So much for scripted stuff.

Pictures, words, energy, the body
You see, in Africa, things run a little differently, and if I have found a theatrical home anywhere, its in the ceremony and ritual of Zambian performance, and the raw physical, image theatre that South African artists have really made their own. The “poor theatre” that Jerzy Grotowski envisaged? That was taken, digested and transmuted by South African artists who had little but an 'empty' space and a burning need to show the world what was going on here. My aunt took me to a performance of Woza Albert in 1985 at the Market Theatre. I will never forget that visceral, blunt feeling, and can't remember what impressed me more - the Market Theatre, with its old 'no spitting' signs, or the performance itself. That may well have been the start of it.

South African theatre has done well with the physical theatre language. One man shows and two-handers proliferate in these parts. We do it out of necessity, because funding is scarce, and so we make what we can with our bodies. But for me, always a child of my head first and my body later, I floundered in this world. I'm not a dancer. I'm an ideas, concepts, images, stories person. But, theatre practice has also helped to ground me, and learn to work with energy and bodylines. It helped me, literally, to find my feet.

Now what?
So although I started as a writer, when I turned to theatre I learned almost all aspects of the craft, from hanging lights to chest resonance, costume stitching to blocking. When you run a tiny theatre company on no budget, you learn to do everything. I write, direct, act, design. I loathe admin and marketing but I can do it.

So – if images and stories are my building blocks – why not film? The answer lies in the power of theatre itself. Presence. Energy. Maybe you've never seen a piece of theatre that can heal, create community, and thrash out the real stuff that touches your life. I'm not talking about spectacular sets and big, miked up voices. There is something about the chemistry of a rehearsal process, working with the pliable, electric stuff that makes us hurt, recoil, lash out and be kind. Human emotions. Memories, tastes, reactions. That mysterious other thing – spirit, whatever you want to call it. Theatre process as shamanism. That's what I'm good at. Conducting the lithe, flailing serpent energy that comes from a cast of gifted performers. Drawing their stories out of them, taking their pictures, traumas and joys, and sculpting these frail things into sequenced image drama. Something that then belongs to the whole group. To the world. Wow. Why does no-one pay me for this?

Oh, we try to make a living from it. I've done problem solving tool in communities, I've created customised theatre for big conferences, safety shows for BP, feel-good stuff for Coca-Cola. Sometimes we call it Theatre for Development, Community Engagement, Theatre for the Environment. Sometimes we just call it play. Its phenomenally hard to make a living from this in this country, as I will never be a big musicals kind of gal. Image theatre, ritual theatre, theatre for healing mind and body – thats where I belong. Maybe its because I've got thin boundaries.

Stay tuned for Question Two tomorrow....

2. Everyone experiences defining moments in life, forks in the road of
destiny at which we have to make changes, give up something, start doing
something we haven't been, whatever. Will you choose one defining moment
from your life and write about it? I'm especially interested in how you
realized you were at a defining moment.


Angela said...

Wow Tammy. No Tam. Surely grown-up. So much going on inside you. Remember Virginia Woolf`s If Shakespeare had a Sister? You can be her. Spread your art and perform out of Africa. Maybe this blog will help you become invited.

Thanks, Reya,for those questions!

family affairs said...

Good grief. Thank goodness for 24 hour delays. I couldn't cope with answers to question 2 yet. Lx

Chimera said...

Great questions i agree. Fascinating and so very insightful. I like that you write with such extra ordinary self awareness, candid and passionare without being bombastic (which given all you've done you might be forgiven for!) I Loved the Market theatre too, fell in love with John Kani.
Looking forward to question 2!
T xx

Lori ann said...

Ah Tam,you must be the most eloquent blogger I've read. You should be paid for your words.Wow is right. And as far as being afraid(terrified!) of this format(blogging)I think your probably in very good company!

Anonymous said...

Hey, now that's an interview! Blimey, such a question and it got an answer and then some. So nice to get to know more about you. Very brave to share so much, but much appreciated and enjoyed.

I'll be here bright and early tomorrow for question two. Don't be late.

Oh, and well done on the award from Tessa.

Reya Mellicker said...

This is totally delicious. I have a lot to say but want to re-read it before I say anything else.

Thank you!! YUM.

Janelle said...

whew...! intricate revealing stuff. xx j