Sarah Roberts* and Kieran Reid**

 

A visit to the significant places and spaces that mark the shaping of a society is always a moving experience. You leave with a better experience of understanding the turmoil involved in establishing a community that extols democratic ideals and the various communities that came before and embodied extremely contrary beliefs. . . . Johannesburg is particularly rich in such locations. But none take the form of sky-scraper monuments, imposing cathedrals or politically designed edifices that are designed to intimidate. Instead they celebrate South Africa’s remarkable history—moving from pariah state and Apartheid enforcer to a free and democratic state. . . .

Garner,G., Spaces and Places Johannesburg (2010: 227)

Staging “Unrepeatable Activities”[1]

The cosmopolitan hub of Johannesburg, known variously as Jozi, Jo’burg, Egoli and even Joeys, is branded as “a world class African city.” Its population—an estimated 4.4 million (of the 8 – 10.5 million inhabiting the greater Metropolitan area)—can only be described as socially and culturally diverse, as the various names given to this, the largest city in the smallest (but wealthiest) province of South Africa, suggest. To those of us united by the project of re-imagining and staging Jean Paul Sartre’s play The Flies for a Jozi audience, Jo’burg is our home, temporary or otherwise. This 2015 production provided scope for applying, extending and interrogating concepts of theatre and performance, even as the outcomes of the rehearsal studio led us to re-evaluate those concepts as a form of practice-based research. Ten final year “drama” students of the Wits School of Arts registered for a semester-long research project course.[2]

This brief article accounts for selected aspects of the project and the production (after) The Flies, which developed through collaborative means towards a style of presentation congruent with a young, urban South-African world view. We map ways in which the dynamics of protest at another South African university and in the city streets abutting our own campus in Braamfontein permeated the rehearsal room. Both the diversity of the individuals comprising the “class” and the contextual factors in which the work was made were catalysts for experiments in theatrical presentation as a sophisticated yet “street savvy” game of chance.

The company constituted a demographic sample of the city in terms of its socio-cultural pluralities. As in the urban population, multiple differences abounded. English was the unchallenged lingua franca: diverse accents and inflections pronounced the varying communities from which each individual originated. No attempt was made towards uniform pronunciation; rather, we embraced differences as an affirmation of the enviable polyglot facility of second-language English speakers whose proficiency was as smooth as speaking in their mother tongue. As members of the “born free” generation, the ten individuals shared the urban twenty-first-century sensibility of envisioning the future. Albeit variously, as privileged young South Africans, keen to develop their own creative voices, all were committed to expressing their experiences of the complex social matrix in which they shape their lives.

Our aim was to synthesize engaged critical thinking with creative practice, and contextualize this activity within the South African politico-cultural arena. The embedded sensitivity to the politics of dialogic exchange between participants of relatively equal status underpinned our work in reading, thinking and writing. Out of the range of ideas expressed in theoretical texts, two concepts emerged to guide our priorities and shape the production: “ensemble” and “collaboration.” Valorizing ensemble skills achieves something in excess of serving personal ambitions. It also offers the potential for performers to function collectively in what Bert O. States has termed the “collaborative mode” (Zarilli 2002: 29-33). Like performances of ntsomi and izibongi, the collaborative mode assumes not only the presence but the active engagement of the audience as co-participants of the event. Since each evening a theatre generates a new audience, aiming towards the collaborative mode suggests the appropriateness of improvised renderings of “the same” being presented each night as a real response to each audience as in robust popular performance traditions.

Keith Johnstone

Developing competencies in improvised staging drew variously on physical and vocal games fused with aspects of Keith Johnstone’s exercises in spontaneity. Semi-structured play occupied our time at least as much as familiarizing ourselves with the text and interpretive alternatives. Animation and physicalization were thus privileged over more staid practices of sedentary reading, analysis and discussion: everyone became both player and spectator during this process. This quality was retained in subsequent public presentations.

The dynamics of the group formation was an outcome of the way in which we elected to “play” with the text: prioritizing collective story-telling (effectively an expression of joint ownership of the project) established an ethos in which no cast member or role was of greater significance than another. Continuous joint discovery of the text committed all cast members to learning the entire script prior to role allocations, which ultimately remained largely provisional.[3] Learning the script together in this way is a time-consuming process, but its rewards are immediate: dialogue is liberated from the printed page and inserted directly into space and encounters between embodied voices. Differences in interpretation and delivery are understood through performative impact rather than abstractly. The capacity, confidence and competency of each participant was fostered through collective encouragement and affirmation in a form of transformation pedagogy, even as the complexity of the play was mastered.

This account of our method partly relays the centrality of two keywords: “collective” and “action.” Both are highly nuanced terms imbued with equal purchase in the contemporary socio-political and theatrical senses. Social mobilization in the form of mass action has been a highly effective instrument of the resistance struggle with its goal of liberation. That strategy persists as a new generation discovers its force and instrumentality as a collective body. In theatre terms, the notion of the collective readily equates with the “ensemble,” with that ensemble and audience creating a larger social collective. This understanding defines theatre as a dynamic interactive phenomenon, rather than reifying the production as a fixed and self-contained entity.

The term “action” is over-burdened (on the one hand) with associations derived from Aristotelian, thus Western, formulations and (on the other hand) with its contemporary application to the popular film genre dedicated to gratifying the desire for vicarious adventure and thrills.[4] Stripped of its range of meanings in the dramatic, theatrical or filmic sense, “action” conveys the sense of participatory involvement in either remedial or oppositional encounters in both legal or military uses:

Soldiers are described as “killed in action.” The use of a noun in this phrase obscures the idea that the action has been done by human agents. “Action” here amounts to a set of activities which are more than the sum of their parts. . . . (Shepherd and Wallace 2004: 171)

In Jozi parlance, “protest action” is commonplace.[5] From our perspective, the terms “collective” and “action” are intertwined and entrenched in our theatrical sensibilities as in our lives.

The concept of “action” (with its embeddedness within the Western paradigm of drama) has been resisted by advancing the notion of “activity.” This notion of activity offers a way of implementing all that the non-literary mode of improvised performance enables. Improvised performance demands intense focus on the immediate present moment precisely because the outcome of that moment cannot be foreknown. The potential for imbuing performances with a similar intensity depends on reproducing the uncertainties that trigger spontaneous or impulsive behavior as a performance. As such, improvised presentations demand finely honed skills in receptivity and confidence in “reading the game,” or the field of interaction, in order to make informed choices at every turn. If, as in Johnstone’s model, the focus of the players is outwardly directed or inter-personal (rather than intra-personal), then the encounters between individuals are reciprocally sustained, and what occurs between players makes compelling theatre. This outward focus binds players in a series of activities during which participants are anchored in the present moment of performance, rather than reproducing a drilled exchange in which all parties know precisely what to expect from each other in terms of how stage space and real time is occupied. Our aim was to insert the contingent within the structured arc of the known.[6]

Shepherd and Wallis,[7] citing Timothy Wiles (1980), observe:

In the new practices of drama, and specifically “performance,” the category of action has evaporated: “Rejecting the formal and aesthetically completable concept of dramatic action, recent theoreticians have called for the centrality of activity; not as Aristotle had it, ‘what might happen,’ a probable and universally applicable action, but ‘what happens,’ the fragmentary, contingent, time-bound, and unrepeatable activities which have the advantage of being real, not ideal” (2004: 170).

The appeal of the discontinuous, the chance intervention, the provisional and the transient seems to underlie the objectives of this intervention and change of emphasis. The pleasures of improvised performance depend on exactly these qualities. Rather than quibbling over the respective “truth claims” of either action of activity, perhaps a more productive approach to what it is that bodies sharing stage space might do together emerges through emphasizing “reciprocal inter-action,” which binds participants in a shared rhythm, not unlike the call-and-response motif that structures a range of African performance forms. But this dependence on reciprocal action is not unique to Africa. Samuel Weber in his analysis of a scene in Autumn River (in the repertoire of the Peking Opera) suggests that the way the scene is played is “an allegory of theatricality as a medium—not as a medium of representation, but as a medium that redefines activity as reactivity” (2004: 29, our emphasis). His analysis emphasizes the “interplay of different rhythms . . . and the separate movements that constitute (a) common rhythm—and situation”; consequently, the performers are “in their separation linked through the reciprocity of their movements” (2004, 29). As in Johnstone’s spontaneity games at their most successful, activity prompts response and the scene develops consensually without any one individual guiding its development. Under such conditions, the agency of the actor, or actors as a collective, may be presented to an audience as a primary source of meaning.

Like Arabians Without Need of Camels. . . .

The choice of text urges being accounted for, since the place of Western classics in today’s South African theatre-making initiatives and pedagogy is contested. We do not discount the process of collaborative devising and authoring a play structured around local narrative content, but submit that the a priori availability of a script offers multiple advantages within the performance pedagogy paradigm. The repertoire of world texts to select from is extensive, but few are structured around a body of citizens as representatives of a relatively anonymous group which provides scope for creative expression on the part of an ever-present ensemble. Sartre’s play is one of the exceptions: it offers opportunities for working on group identities as much as individual character parts. If its mythic aspects seemingly distanced us from the narrative, the register and tone of the dialogue (along with its treatment of the liberation motif) made the text distinctly pertinent.

Semiotician Keir Elam distinguishes between dramatic and performance texts. Adopting what is implied by this manoeuvre, our work focused on the performance text. Departing, as Weber proposes, from the proposition that theatre may be something other than a transparent medium serving the drama marks a shift away from quasi-archival revivalist stagings which perpetuate the authority of the playwright and the literary status of the drama.  Accordingly, we view the script as a point of departure, rather than an immutably fixed authoritative “masterpiece.”[8] Suggesting something of theatre’s affective capacity and potency as a medium dependent entirely on its unique materiality and circumstances of presentation, director Richard Eyre cites Robert Frost: “poetry is the bit that can’t be translated” (1997: 237).

The ideas of Jorge Luis Borges explain our attitude to the place of Western texts and issues arising from their contextual transposition.[9] Borges, arguably a distinctive spokesperson for the political and cultural imperatives of creative practices in the postcolonial Global South, offers ways of thinking about our positions, choices and practices in South Africa today. His literary output “performs” the kinds of manoeuvres to which we might refer regarding questions of relevance, repertoire and “re-writing.”

Jorge Luis Borges

In “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” Borges is unequivocal in positing that “we cannot limit ourselves to Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine” (1972: 219). He makes the bold claim that “our tradition is all of Western culture” (1972: 218). His rationale for this assertion is subtly attractive and politically astute. He claims: “we can handle all European themes, handle them without superstition, with an irreverence which can have, and already does have fortunate consequences” (1972: 218, our emphasis).

This stance introduces an interesting dimension to local debates regarding cultural expression and agency: Borges punctures the presumed authority of the Western canon through displacing what these texts represent and assert. The right to their appropriation and transgressive re-articulation, rather than passive consumption, is presumed. “Irreverence” is key to shaping a liberated sensibility towards the legacy of past orders, just as “without superstition” asserts the postcolonial consciousness as a detached cynicism towards discourses of domination.

Borges disputes the imperatives of including “local colour” as proof of national identity and cultural heritage. He suggests that self-definition through the overt display of “national traits” was an emergent trend of the time. He disputes the rationale for compliance on the grounds that this very sensibility was a part of European, rather than Argentinean, discourse. As he puts it: “The Argentine cult of local colour is a recent European cult which the nationalists ought to reject as foreign” (1972: 215). His most compelling point regarding the danger of conflating “authentic identity” with signs that are presumed guarantors of “authenticity” of position and perspective draws on a close-reading of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

Gibbons observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arabian; for him they were part of reality; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, on every page; but Mohammed as an Arabian was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arabian without camels (1972: 215).

We rejected the overt display of what Borges terms “local colour” as a function of the mise-en-scene, and relied on the presence and voices of the participants as indisputable assertions of an emergent urban South African youth culture. Sartre’s play is lengthy and verbally dense, seemingly antithetical to the model of emergent South African theatre in either the township model of Gibson Kente or in urban variants of the “protest genre.” Kani, Ntshona, Ngema and Mtwa are all living templates of a performance style characterized by robust, high energy physical performances which positions kinetic image at the heart of the mise-en-scène. In the urban and peri-urban contexts, the influences of Grotowski and Peter Brook have been variously assimilated. Concepts such as “poor theatre” and “the empty space” have lent themselves to what might be termed “productive mis-readings.”[10] The phrase implies a wilful disregard for the authority of the writer, even as it makes a token acknowledgement of the intricacies of the European hermeneutic and theatrical tradition. Anitra Nettleton is less ambivalent in describing the generative processes by which African artists transform “imported materials and commodities,” such as cultural artefacts and craft objects. She writes:

The creation of new hybrid forms, forms which draw on globally available ideas and materials but which are transformed in relation to people’s immediate experience are thus construed as modern and authentic (2003: 15).

Re-locating Poor Theatre

For Grotowski, since theatre is primarily an encounter between actors and audience, it is axiomatic that an actor-centric approach to theatre-making is its primary operation. Transposing the politico-economic experience of everyday life to theatre demands acknowledging that the local context is one in which poverty and dispossession are markers of both rural and urban life. People, rather than material things, are necessarily prioritized. The term “poor theatre” takes on literal application: budgets for set and costumes concede to the priority claims of the human agent. But, as in the proliferation of resistance and township art, hard times (for the “designer”) make for “the surprising redeployment of materials” (Nettleton 2003: 15) and found objects.[11] Through referring to images of the production, we can demonstrate the actor-centred and actor-generated mise-en-scène together with showing how local references were embedded in the visual aspects of the performance. If production photographs tend to isolate and fix the flow of performance, the ones that we incorporate are additionally misleading in suggesting the reproduction of the same action each night. The images nonetheless enable us to account for what we have called contemporary “Jozi style.”

Jovan Muthray as performer occupies the plinth. Melody House as “the Idiot” crouches below.
All production photographs by Ruphin Coudyzer

The Wits Amphitheatre, with its sociopetal configuration (Elam 1991: 64) and the audience surrounding the action on three sides, suggests the appropriateness of referring to the altar placed at the centre of the classical Greek orchestra. Its equivalent was rectangular box or plinth which could be used in various ways. The audience would encounter a single actor occupying this plinth (as actor rather than character), whose silent action demonstrated the proposition that theatre need not depend on spoken text or even character.[12] Further conventional relations between stage and auditorium were variously subverted: on stage, two performers were patently awaiting the arrival of their (real) audience, while the company was seated in the auditorium watching their fellow performers in silent anticipation.

Seven members of the ensemble as Argive citizens and as members of the audience

As observers of the scene (with Aegistheus presiding over them), the cast “performed” the dual roles of women of Argos—complicit in the action to follow—and of audience members collaborating in the interactive theatrical encounter. On their entrance to the stage, the plinth took on the identity of the pedestal of a statue at the centre of the city square, invoking the long tradition of commemorating figures of authority and power in public places. This reference point was crucial to establishing the identity of the all-knowing, all-powerful Zeus, represented by two women performing in tandem. The public monument was transformed into an altar by the ritual offerings of the Argive women as bricoleurs.

“We are the scatterlings of Africa…” (Johnny Clegg 1982)

As a fractious group, the women were unified in oppression but squabbled over the relative merits of their offerings to the deity. These offerings included objects “stolen” from members of the audience, as the supplicants oscillated between venerating the (inanimate) being and ignoring “his” presence. Electra, as scripted, entered with a very different set of offerings: “ashes from the hearth, peelings, scraps of offal crawling with maggots, a chunk of bread too filthy even for our pigs” (1989: 62).

Early in our rehearsal period, statues that proclaim the heritage of Imperialism and/or colonialism were defaced, debated and removed. Pikitup workers went on strike[13]: the disruption of municipal garbage collection was visible in inner-city streets and the residential zones as refuse accumulated.

Rhodes Statue: University of Cape Town campus (http://imageathena.com)
Pikitup Strike Action (www.enca.com)
Pikitup Strike Action (buzzsouthafrica.com)

These events triggered our use of plinth, garbage bins and loose trash which, differently positioned, created the various locations required for the action. We committed to “recycling” our limited repertoire of objects after introducing a single refuse bin into the rehearsal room. The unanticipated upending of this bin produced a real shock for those of us watching despite foreknowledge of its pertinence. Hans-Thies Lehmann proposes “the irruption of the real” (2006: 99-104) as the challenge to the spectator to negotiate the unsettling aesthetics produced through intertwining representational elements with those that are unequivocally real. By chance, we had discovered the impact of this proposition and pursued it as the scattering of the bin’s contents became a vivid and organic catalyst for imagining the stage as an urban waste dump with no-one being able to predict what the playing field might be. Electra was played by two actresses (on alternate nights to convey the “lack of individual ownership” of any role), inserting constant differences within performances as neither “fixed” their use of the bin or its contents. The actors discovered the variable use of objects as they shaped their own environment and its signifying potential. Chance recognition of what the object “offered” was entirely congruent with our commitment to improvised staging: the unpredictability of the bin’s contents (and even how the bins themselves might move) created an unfolding landscape of risk in a demonstration of the lack of fixity in the staging itself.

  

Nyakallo Motaung (above) and Campbell Meas (below) as Electra make spontaneous choices amid the garbage

The pyramid of bins upstage represented the “rock” concealing the cave opening. Zeus could bring the edifice tumbling down by jerking a single bin out of alignment. Sartre directs that he removes the rock by magical trickery. We elected to expose the prestidigitator’s illusion by making explicit both the tawdry simplicity of the device and the incongruity of its persuasive capacity.  The mumbo-jumbo incantation: “Poseidon, caribou, caribou, roola. . .” (1989: 89) seemed to allow such license.

As Nettleton observes: “modernity is not monolithic, nor is it a soliloquy by the West” (2003: 14). She observes that visual artists “used elements from the world of mass-production and western technology to renegotiate their own spaces as modern and not just contemporary” (2003: 14). The creative strategies adopted by visual artists correspond with the kind of resourcefulness open to theatre-makers. She writes:

One sense of modernity is inevitably created through the insistence on the novel found in the marketing strategies of the contemporary world of global capitalism. . . . Mass-marketing campaigns ensure that consumer culture is present everywhere in the form of factory-produced goods and in advertising, packaging and the detritus of others’ consumption. (2003: 14, our emphasis).

In front of the cave opening Aegistheus (Kieran Reid) incites agitated expectation from the citizens (left).
Zeus’ dismantles the pyramid of bins (right)

On the streets, we still see people filter carefully through waste to find what might be re-used, just as in charity shops old clothing is carefully reappraised. So, too, we drew exclusively on that which others have discarded as in the second-hand garments on the performer’s bodies or real waste relegated to a bin. Untransformed and arbitrary,[14] this material took on a uniquely provocative and concentrated, if literal, form when revealed and displayed as such on stage, particularly since it allowed scope for “performing” different values to what such material represents. The mise-en-scène suggested a civic space that had literally been transformed into a “dump.”

The decaying urban landscape was presented as a direct consequence of the moral and ethical corruption of the undisputed authority figures within the diegetic world: Aegistheus and Zeus. Their culpability in instigating and sustaining a regime that prohibited individual agency emerged through the action of the play. Both were integral, if privileged, inhabitants of the domain they created and enforced. This idea was expressed through visual signifiers.  Aegistheus’ throne and Apollo’s shrine were assemblages constructed from the same objects that belong to the civic landscape. The careful ordered arrangement of the throne room depended on the bins in rectilinear configuration. As the site from which Agamemnon ruled, it is the appropriate setting for Orestes’ murder of his uncle to avenge his own father’s death.  Contrasting the private chamber of power with the disorderly and dirty world of public affairs, we redefined the palace guards as “servants” tasked with ensuring this space was clean.

The seat of power occupied by Agamemnon’s (invisible) ghost (left) and by Aegistheus flanked by Zeus (right)

Jovan Muthray, as Orestes, was mandated to lash out at the precariously balanced bins making up the throne to produce the transition to another location. In the sanctuary of Apollo’s shrine, the flies congregate. The representation of mythical monsters or insects of filth and disease could not, in the terms proposed by the production, be resolved by any person other than the performers themselves: the transformation into Zeus’ instruments of retribution was effected kinetically. Having developed considerable physical fitness and confidence in the unexpected, the cast was capable of “inventing” a “dehumanized” inversion of their own bodies. Bent over, with faces upside down between their knees moving from side to side, the unsettling and disturbing abnormality, their distorted identity invited comic playfulness rather than sustained melodramatic intensity. Having liberated Argos, Orestes’ exit (into exile) is accompanied by the flies and self-reflexively (and in a Borgesian manoeuvre) directly recites the figure of the Pied Piper. In the staging, the direction of Orestes’ departure signalled his path returning to the place from which the cast had emerged among the citizens of Jozi, in the auditorium.

“Electra: There they are! Where have they come from? They’re hanging from the ceiling like
clusters of black
grapes; the walls are alive with them.”
The shrine (left) and Orestes’ exit into exile/the real world (right)“. . . a spot of Greek tragedy in central Johannesburg . . .” (Sassen 2016)

Our collective action was to create production that was self-referential in its integration and recycling of narratives as part of cultural exchanges between present and past. It is the appropriation, adaptation and transformation of materials, narrative and dramatic as much as physical, that proclaims this contemporary Jozi style. So, too, Robert Lepage has described his theatre-making process: “you’re building a new world on the ruins of the old one, and that’s creative. . .” (Huxley 1992: 224).

Johannesburg was founded in 1886. In comparative terms, it is a young city, but its hundred and thirty-year history is a complex socio-political intertwining of Western and African peoples. The city epitomizes extremes of wealth, poverty and the separatism enforced by the divisive legacy of Apartheid politics. For us, Sartre’s treatment of the Oresteian myth (re-imagined in terms of Western modernism in Vichy-governed Paris) is more about collective liberation than existential philosophy. For us, stressing the collective politics of the play is part of our continuing to imagine a future twenty-two years into a democracy. Returning to the importance of the key concept of “collective action,” situated as we are in contemporary Jo’burg, we continue to draw on the multi-cultural traces of the past that constitute the city and its inhabitants today. It is entirely appropriate to focus on the socio-political formulations governing relations between individuals as much as groupings as the pivotal foundation of cultural expression. In “Ubuntu culture and participatory management” Erasmus Prinsloo writes:

. . . In Ubuntu societies there is a strong emphasis on duties and virtues, though rights are always implied.[15] . . . Ubuntu society emphasizes that every member should visibly participate in society and not disappear into the whole” (Coetzee et al 1998: 43).

We contend that through committed participation within a collective, individual personalities, dispositions and identities are, paradoxically, more discernible in a visible and performative expression of self.

Four participants of this project went on to become founder members of “The Movement RSA,” a new company premised on collective principles. Prior to graduation, they showcased their first production Just Antigone. Arts critic, Robyn Sassen, noting that several cast members were making a professional debut, provides a perspective of what that production achieved.

Jovan Muthray and Nyakallo Motaung as Creon and Antigone in rehearsal (left).
The ensemble in performance, POPArt: Theatre, Johannesburg (right)

Sassen wrote,

The full ensemble feels dangerously beautiful in its concatenation of text, gesture and sinister nuance. Individually and collectively, they rise and soar with one another, dancing on the edge of the scripted text and expressing horror and catastrophe as they intermingle and dovetail.

Such is the impact of re-imagining and generating performances on the part of a young urban ensemble.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics (in) Classical Literary Criticism. Trans. T.S. Dorsch. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1986.

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double. London: John Calder. 1989.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1972.

Coetzee, P.H. and Roux, A.P.J., eds. Philosophy from Africa: A Text with Readings. Halfway House: International Thompson Publishing. 1998.

Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London: Routledge. 1991.

Garner, Gerald. Spaces and Places Johannesburg. Johannesburg: Double G Media. 2010.

Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. London: Eyre Methuen. 1976.

Huxley, Michael, et al. The Twentieth Century Performance Reader 1997. New York: Routledge. 1997.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. London: Eyre Methuen. 1997.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. London: Routledge. 1996.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Flies” in No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage. 1989.

Shepherd, Simon, and Mick Wallis. Drama/Theatre/Performance. London: Routledge, 2004.

States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theatre. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1987.

Zarilli, Phillip B., et al. Acting (Re)Considered. London: Routledge. 2002.

Aristotle. Poetics (in) Classical Literary Criticism. Trans. T.S. Dorsch. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1986.

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double. London: John Calder. 1989.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1972.

Coetzee, P.H. and Roux, A.P.J., eds. Philosophy from Africa: A Text with Readings. Halfway House: International Thompson Publishing. 1998.

Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London: Routledge. 1991.

Garner, Gerald. Spaces and Places Johannesburg. Johannesburg: Double G Media. 2010.

Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. London: Eyre Methuen. 1976.

Huxley, Michael, et al. The Twentieth Century Performance Reader 1997. New York: Routledge. 1997.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. London: Eyre Methuen. 1997.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. London: Routledge. 1996.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Flies” in No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage. 1989.

Shepherd, Simon, and Mick Wallis. Drama/Theatre/Performance. London: Routledge, 2004.

States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theatre. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1987.

Zarilli, Phillip B., et al. Acting (Re)Considered. London: Routledge. 2002.


[1] Shepherd and Wallis (2004: 170)

[2] The Division of Theatre and Performance is part of WSOA at the University of the Witwatersrand.

[3] With the exception of the role of Orestes (which would obviously be assigned to the only male member of the student body), individual character parts were only assigned after some six weeks of rehearsal and play. The process was largely collaborative with all individuals nominating who they deemed most appropriate for the character in addition to identify roles that they deemed themselves suitable for or wished to play.

[4] The concept of action merits an entry in the keywords section of Drama/Theatre/Performance. See, Shepherd and Wallis 2004: 167-71.

[5] Garner asks: “Is this not the city of massive highways, stifling jams and intimidating corporate towers? . . . [B]y 1995 the City of Gold was shedding some of its glitter, only to be replaced by a rapidly declining inner-city viewed as the crime capital of South Africa” (2010: 9-11).

[6] One of the most gratifying aspects of the project was that the cast resisted any final distribution of lines amongst citizens and furies. Since they all knew the text and had acquired an extraordinarily finely attuned sense of rhythm and “sharing,” it seemed entirely consistent with the process that the cast should go out in front of an audience without conventional securities of knowing exactly which lines they might speak.

[7] They track the impact of embracing “activity” rather than “action,” suggesting that it is a move synchronous with the rise of performance art and performance studies in the 1960s.

[8] Selections made from Artaud’s writing comprised part of the theoretical framework of the course. We were interested in pursuing his rejection of the dramatic text as a literary artefact along with his dismissal of the need to explain the psychological identity of the character as a primary objective of Western “naturalism” at the expense of developing a medium-specific (theatre) language.

[9] Borges (1899-1986) “has often been criticized as non-Argentine” on the grounds that of expecting “their writers to be uncomplicated reporters of the national scene” (1972: 23).

[10] The term was coined by Malcolm Purkey to acknowledge interpretations of Bertolt Brecht’s writing.

[11] “. . . the processes through which people find new uses for materials, objects and images, involve more than ecologically- and economically-driven re-uses of old materials” (Nettleton 2003: 14).

[12] The rule of occupation as statue on the up-ended plinth was that the actors concerned could change attitudes provided no fellow cast member witnessed the moment of adjusting position: the strategy drew on the rules of the familiar game “K-I-N-G spells . . . King.”

[13] The company contracted by the City of Johannesburg to manage waste collection and disposal.

[14] The bravado with which both actresses would scrabble through the real detritus of the day was entirely without inhibitions. Chancing upon an unlikely “treasure,” they would either place it in the hands of Zeus, deface “his” person, or toss in the air in anarchic abandonment. We soon learnt that some judicious filtering was required to prevent seriously messy or unwholesome garbage being brought into play unexpectedly. Was this a flagrant disregard for health and safety regulations? Perhaps. In the theatre, the garbage remained selectively “real” with the exception of a single small carton of Liquifruit (with its sealed drinking straw) which offered the actresses, should they find it, and/or Zeus, something to consume.

[15] Erasmus Prinsloo writes: “Ubuntu takes seriously the view that man is basically a social being. . . . Most Ubuntu thinkers therefore formulate their views in terms of ‘a person is a person through other persons’” (Coetzee et al 1998: 43) 


*Sarah Roberts is Associate Professor in the Division of Theatre and Performance in the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her PhD and current research interests lie in developing improvisation skills and the agency of actors as an ensemble. Publication output pursing the application of these ideas includes articles in the Journal of the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa and the Journal of Contemporary Drama in English. In conjunction with her academic career, she has developed a considerable reputation as a multi-award winning professional production designer whose portfolio includes significant productions emerging from South Africa since 1985. These include Born in the RSA, You Strike the Woman – You Strike the Rock! Sarafina!, Sophiatown, D.E.T Boys High, and Nothing But the Truth, among other productions that have been feted nationally and internationally and are considered as comprising the core of emergent local tradition. Her design career also includes mass public events, the highlight of which has been the inauguration of President Mandela (1994) and the stage for the three tenors in Africa on the same site at the Union Buildings Pretoria. 

**Kieran Reid is a lecturer and game scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he teaches game design and directing for stage. He has written and staged two full length plays: Bang Bang (based on the Bang Bang Club), which had two runs at Wits and also travelled to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, and The Fellowship of the Farce (a spoof/parody/homage to The Lord of the Rings), which was also staged at Wits and had a run at The Joburg Theatre. He has also produced and directed numerous plays such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and A.A. Milne’s The Man in the Bowler Hat. Kieran completed his BADA at the University of the Witwatersrand, in 2010, and his MA in Digital Arts (Game Studies), in 2014.

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South Africa—Towards Collective Action: Improvised Performance Jozi Style