Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Readiness is all (Part II)

So much of what we call good theatre these days is polished and slick. Performances that display impressive emotional virtuoso, sets that are tricky and conceptual, interpretations of the classics that leave you nodding sagely and going 'hmmm', because its all so clever. This is what we want to see, right?

Or is it? Sometimes, I go to an opening night of a new offering and I think its like the Emperor's New Clothes. Everyone's saying how marvelous it all is and everyone's all sweetie dahling and congrats but I can't shake a deep feeling that its just not quite enough. I want something more - dangerous. More raw, more naked. Not so pat and rehearsed. I'm talking about a particular kind of theatre - the kind that fills the mainstream theatres in this country. And don't get me wrong. Much of South African theatre is moving and transformative, very alive and very very innovative. But even so, why does it always feel so.... safe? Maybe I'm just hard to please.

But now something has come along that really rocks my boat, lights my candle and peels my onion.

My friend James told me about it first - he'd seen The Seagull in London, performed by The Factory theatre company, and put through the cauldron of their unique method. What they do is they take a classic text, and everyone in the company learns several parts, really really well. There are no sets, no costumes, no character as such, and certainly no clever conceptual interpretation (as in, "I'm setting my Macbeth in a despotic African country and its, like, its going to be a comment on dictatorship and ambition in a postcolonial context..." blah. None of that.) On the night, in front of the live audience, they flip a coin to see who will play who. You may have prepared Hamlet, Claudius and Messenger, but you won't know which part you'll play, or which Ophelia you'll be up against, until seconds before you do it.

Then James spoke to Lucy and Lucy had seen them too and she thought they were pretty cool too and the Next thing we knew, we had a group of talented gung-ho passionate big hearted actors in Jozi ready to give it a go. We're doing Hamlet. Lucy managed to persuade the goodly boys from the Factory in London to come and teach us how they do it. They spent a week with us, and we all swooned at how delicious and gung-ho and marvelous they are. (Come on boys, you know you did too). And then, armed with a set of exercises to apply to iambic verse and a whole new philosophical outlook on our craft, we gave up every Saturday morning this year to mess around with Shakespeare.

Oh my word, it has been fun.

So the thing is, in a way, to undo the training that taught you to create a character. ("I think Ophelia is anorexic. She's a Virgo...") To resist what the goodly Factory people call being "on the bus" - what actors do when they feel a particular emotional choice has worked and so they stay there for longer than they should. ("Oh, it worked to play that bit angry. Angry works, lets stay with angry...") To strip everything that is acting and just live the truth of each moment, of each offer you receive from your fellow actor. Be a vessel for the story, and let all your acting be about the other person, not about you. To be utterly and faithfully and generously and ego-lessly in the moment, every moment.

Oh my word, it is so much fun.

We'll be having our first public showing in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival. Not a performance as such, coz we're not ready. But a demonstration, sort of master class, directed, or facilitated by Tim Carroll in front of a live audience. I've prepared Gertrude, Ambassador and Francisco. It is going to be So Much Fun.

Terrifying? Well, why? Because so much can go wrong? But that is the point. That is the fun. That's what the audience gets out of it, too. Things do go wrong, will go wrong. And that's ok. And there will also be moments when you will look at this text with the newest eyes ever, coz you just never saw such sparks happen between a bunch of actors and these words before.

Its a dream come true. And the best part is, each show is totally unrepeatable. By definition.

Read more about The Factory's Hamlet here.
or check out their Facebook page.

The South African group is called the Framework.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Readiness is all (Part I)

Ever since I can remember I have had dreams about theatre. There's a recurring dream with variations:

I am prepared. I know all my words. I step onto the stage and open my mouth to say my line, only to realise that I am in the wrong play. This is not the one I prepared for. Everyone else is performing a different script.
The audience is gathered. They are waiting outside the venue. I go inside to where the actors are. We have no play. We have only minutes to put something together. I sort frantically through ideas surging through my head, and issue some hasty improvisation instructions to the cast and we are off. We somehow pull it off, usually with the help of some beautiful colourful cloths and cast members who really know how to move.

In these dreams my roles change. Sometimes I am director. Sometimes I am performer. Sometimes I am designer (fantastic sets, great big clam-shell sails and reticulated carriages that can traverse the stage and collapse in on themselves - but then the director doesn't want them).

In my patchy career I have toyed with these three alternating roles, and also experienced the lung-crushing anxiety of feeling hopelessy underprepared.

There was a turning point though. About a year ago I had one of those dreams - big festival venue, big cast, big audience gathered outside, including my mentor-gurus from varsity days. Play not ready. So I say to the cast - its ok, we'll each have a copy of the same text (from the Jungle Book, apparently. I hand out copies) We can work from this and do our thing. But the text is wonky and blurred and the lights too dim. So I do something I have never done. I go outside and I cancel the show. I tell the waiting audeince that sorry, we are not ready and there will be no performance tonight.

The show does not have to go on if it means that it may wreck your constitution, or may be really really bad.

I think that turning point dream was the day I grew up.

Now, I've had to do it for real. I applied for my show to be on the fringe of the National Arts Festival in January. This is the blurb that's the in the booking kit for Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth:
Goddess of many names: Inanna, Ishtar, Queen of Heaven and Earth. This rare production takes an ancient Sumerian myth and transforms it into a powerful healing journey for the 21st century. Part therapeutic workshop, this ritual theatre experience will transport you into a shadowland of image, poetic text, movement and story.

Dreamed up before falling pregnant (why do we say falling? Is it really a fall?), before the trauma of Seka Theatre's trip to Cape Town and all the funding disasters that accompanied that. Before many other other potholes that have loomed at me since January. I know its the best decision, to withdraw this show from the programme and wait til it has "come to term" and has been deeply worked by the goddess-hands that will collaborate with me. I know there's no time to do the proper job it requires, to realise the gorgeous visions that have arrived here everytime I apply my dreaming mind to this project. I know all that. But it still hurts to see Cancelled Show next its name on the website. Before, I would have stubbornly clenched my jaw and ploughed on anyway, despite not having the right team together yet, the right funding together yet, etc. Just because I said I would. I can't do that now. And that's fine. Even though part of me is panicking that "its my last chance!"

However, there is something else afoot. Something so frantically, furtively exciting, so in keeping with all the dreams I have about the stage and being ready, or not. Something dangerous and sexy: the kind of theatre where everything can go wrong, and that's ok, coz that is just the point. I'll tell you about it in the next post.