Brent Meersman[1]

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I

The title of this symposium appears problematic – “Theatre beyond theatre.” Is this paradoxical expression ‘theatre beyond theatre’ actually a non sequitur? Does it not by implication define theatre rather too narrowly? Is it not in danger of creating a hierarchy?

Perhaps one should be looking at the issue the other way around. I suggest that it is because of the extraordinary work that is happening today outside “the theatre” that our eyes have been reopened to the possibilities of theatre.

Let us rather say, ‘theatre’ is something – this artistic field that sometimes happens in a building called a theatre. This is just one genre, a strong genre with historical roots and traditions certainly – but a genre nonetheless, and a Western one. In many parts of the world, from Africa to Korea, there was theatre long before there were theatre buildings.

This is important because our suppositions have implications for us as critics. As long as somewhere in the back of our minds we are defining theatre by that which used to happen in theatre buildings, and then we speak of moving beyond that building, we may be imposing a preconception on what theatre is.

In the same way that I go to the theatre with a set of certain cultural expectations, I might complain after a performance—”that was not theatre.” But it might be my preconception that isn’t up to the job, and not the work. This is nothing new; think of Jerzy Grotowsky or Samuel Beckett; and many others who have had such a battle for acceptance on their hands. But now we are pushing that artistic boundary; not just doing away with the fourth wall, but all four walls of the theatre building.

As critics we must move forward and develop the critical tools, to figure out what criteria do we use to evaluate work outside the building; what makes such work a critical success or a failure.

This is vitally important. For example, sometimes African story-telling is presented within a proscenium arch, where it is prejudiced by the place in which it is performed, by the cultural expectations the building imposes upon the work. This form of theatre is not experienced properly. In fact, in South Africa the work may be prejudiced by the very theatre building itself, the parking lot, the foyer, its physical location.

II

It is Cape Town, South Africa, 1973. An elegantly attired white man with his smartly dressed parents, his best friends and a page boy, appears at the south side of Greenmarket Square, the historic centre of the city. Simultaneously, a bride in her shimmering white wedding dress enters the square from the north. She is chaperoned by her father and followed by bridesmaids. The two parties wave to the people as they slowly make their way to the middle of the square. They join hands. They kiss for a photograph. There are gasps from the crowd; fascination, laughter, and fear. The bride you see is black. The couple are breaking several of the country’s laws. It is not long before the security police appear. A woman, a member of the public, the unsuspecting audience, is left crying.

This then is an early example of guerrilla street theatre in South Africa. We should be mindful of the fact that at the time black-skinned people and white-skinned people were not permitted to sit in a theatre together never mind marry each other. The law that forbade marriage between state-defined races was only repealed in 1985. The government however kept the Group Areas Act; so one could get married, but you could not live together.

The same theatre collective (of the Space theatre) staged Donwald Howarth’s production of Othello Slegs Blankes (Othello Whites Only) in which Othello is absent from the play because he is black. A black person was not even allowed to play a black person on a stage together with white actors.

In March 1978, after decades of segregation, South African theatres were declared open to all races. Cinemas, however, remained segregated. This is something of an insult to the importance of theatre; theatre deemed so irrelevant by the apartheid authorities it wasn’t worth segregating. In practice of course, the state theatres and the official culture in them remained a white space. People of colour were certainly not made to feel welcome, except in a few fringe theatres, which quickly developed international reputations while being frowned upon by the local authorities.

It is against this painful history that I wish to argue for theatre beyond theatre. Decades later, the legacy of segregation lives on, and has meant that much of our theatre remains a whites’ only pastime, often dangerously close to becoming a museum art. For the majority there remain insurmountable economic barriers. But audiences are notably absent even when theatre is presented free of charge. This may be partly due to an absence of familiarity created by cultural and spatial barriers. Even if people wished to go to the theatre, they often cannot. Apartheid has left deep geographic scars in our urban landscape and there is a lack of public transport, especially in the evenings.

More than 20 years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the biggest black township in South Africa, Soweto, only got a theatre in June 2012. However, it seems that the vast majority have no desire to go to the theatre. Sitting silently in uniform rows in the dark is culturally peculiar. We know from historical records, Shakespeare’s audiences in Elizabethan England were much rowdier than they are today. Black African audiences are excitable, voluble and like to interact. African audiences are great fun and particularly responsive. For this reason, the more dependent the work is upon the fourth wall of Western theatre convention, say a play by Edward Albee or Harold Pinter, the less likely it is to succeed if there are disruptions from the auditorium.

It was therefore fascinating when the British production which started at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End, with a cast that included Sir Ian McKellen, took to the makeshift stage of the O.R. Tambo Sports Centre in Khayelitsha, located next to a large informal settlement (or squatter camp to use less politically correct language) where the residents in real life are undergoing the endless agony of waiting for a better life.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela speaking from the State Theatre stage in Pretoria after the opening night of the opera Winnie in 2011.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela speaking from the State Theatre stage in Pretoria after the opening night of the opera Winnie in 2011.

It might be a revelation for those who intellectualize Beckett, how the audience of 600 local citizens of Cape Town’s black township Khayelitsha, many with limited exposure to formal theatre, enjoyed and understood the performance. After all, Athol Fugard directed a production of Godot in 1962 at the Rehearsal Room in Johannesburg with an all-black cast. One of the earliest productions was in San Quentin prison, where Beckett’s “absurdity” was all too real. The entire evening performance was punctuated with applause and laughter. There were gasps when Lucky entered with a rope around his neck, weighted down with props. When Pozzo demanded of the homeless men: ‘Waiting? . . . Here? On my land?’; the political dimension of the play was piercing. There were protests when Lucky was insulted and called “pig” and “hog,” while he obediently held Pozzo’s whip in his mouth – the subjugated complicit in their oppression. There were loud chuckles and pointing as McKellen gnawed Pozzo’s discarded chicken bones from the floor. Near the conclusion of Act 1, a follow-spotlight falling on the two tramps had someone in the audience shout, “Ooh! Police!” The performance ended to whistles, cheers, and synchronised clapping.

Responses such as these often lead ignorant, especially foreign critics, to infantilize the audience – “oh how sweet, how lively, they respond like children” etc. I would rather argue that it is we, in the Western theatre, who choose to act like well-behaved children at story time, to enter the world of make-believe around what is patently false.

During apartheid, white theatre practitioners and critics were often perplexed by the reactions of black audiences. Here would be a white playwright, constructing a work to enrage the apartheid regime and conscientize protest against the violence of the state. For example, on stage, a white Afrikaans policeman with a baton might beat an old defenceless black man. And yet the black patrons would howl with laughter. I have observed this countless times in South African audiences. The reason is that perhaps the violence on stage is comic, unreal. For people who actually experience such beatings and state violence, its representation is risible. It has either failed to convince or it has succeeded merely as a comic recognition of the reality; in the way the old comic black and white movies of Oliver and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin are replete with the physical abuse of the tramp and the ordinary man by police with truncheons. And yet a racial insult on stage, say a white man wiping his hand after shaking hands with a Xhosa man, will draw boos and hisses from the audience.

The key issue however is simply societal; the majority of South Africans have not taken ownership of the country’s theatre spaces. Much work has been done by theatre managements, so-called “outreach” programmes and audience development initiatives – but the fact remains, the uptake has been frustratingly slow. Is it that the buildings are often perceived as aloof, intimidating, or alienating; still somehow tainted by the past? Theatre audiences remain largely white.

When Winnie the Opera was presented last year at the State Theatre in Pretoria, Mrs Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (the former wife of Nelson Mandela and still a Member of Parliament) was in attendance on opening night, and she spoke after the performance from the stage. She had been Deputy Minister for Arts and Culture in South Africa’s first democratic Cabinet. Yet, she told the audience, she had never been inside the State Theatre in the nation’s capital until that night. During the struggle against apartheid, she recalled, the building was one of those difficult to bomb. This then was her relationship with the theatre. Now her life was being dramatized on that stage and performed by a black cast.

And yet, for many, there is something tired about the formality of these spaces. The formal theatre commodifies performance and its consumption. Many of our theatre buildings seem to come with too much baggage, too many preconceptions, too much neo-colonial imposition.

The demographics of South African theatre are changing and will inevitably continue to transform. But the need remains for theatre-makers to take their work to the people. It can only be to the benefit of the art. It should not be surprising then that much of the most exciting and cutting edge performance work is occurring in other spaces, outside of theatre buildings.

Some caution is however required. The “public” is of course itself a social construct; one must be aware as to what one is imposing on work when framing it as ‘public’ art or ‘public’ performance. It need not for example be spectacle. Public work can also be extremely intimate and performed for only a few people.

III

What should theatre beyond theatre be about in a democratic South Africa?

There have been attempts to find a new aesthetic for South African theatre. Interestingly enough, in the vanguard of this was white theatre director Brett Bailey, who worked almost exclusively with black actors, incorporating ritual and African performance traditions including music, improvisation, and movement. Unsurprisingly, most of these productions did not happen inside traditional theatre buildings. The process of making the works which involved sleeping in sacred caves with the cast and long and arduous physical processes for the actors is recounted in the text The Plays of Miracle and Wonder by Brett Bailey (Double Storey; 2003).

Another notable theatre director, Mandla Mbothwe, has taken this meme further. He works with the poetic and idiomatic Xhosa language of the deep rural areas of the Eastern Cape. These plays often illicit vocal responses from African audiences, which even when performed in a conventional theatre are not destructive to the work.

The annual Infecting the City (ITC) festival in Cape Town is dedicated to public art with a performative aspect. Jay Pather, who directed the festival in 2012, describes his curatorial brief as presenting work that speaks to the “physical and psychic separation still waiting to be healed” in our society. Lesley Perkes, CEO of AAW Art Project Management, thinks public art can foster civic pride, that it “reminds people that they are the public, that they are deserving, that the streets and the skies and the sidewalks are really poems that belong to them.”

Ilulwane by Athi-Patra Ruga staged in the public baths in Cape Town at the Infecting the City Festival in 2012.
Ilulwane by Athi-Patra Ruga staged in the public baths in Cape Town at the Infecting the City Festival in 2012.

Brett Bailey, who largely conceived the Infecting the City Festival and curated it for several years, believes there is “a moral imperative to tackle the pressing issues of our day, and to ask artists to apply themselves to these [….] where the arts are engaging meaningfully with society, in a way that people can understand.” Most importantly, performances are all free and open to everyone, and are performed in the daytime. Themes Bailey selected for ITC were ‘Home Affairs,’ attempting to help South Africans face up to the traumatic aftermath of the extreme violence characterised by xenophobia that spread like wildfire through the country, and ‘Human Rite,’ punning as it does both on human rights and rites as ritual as a prelude to the euphoria of the FIFA World Cup. When ITC leaked information that local sangomas (a faith healer or shaman) were proposing to slaughter an ox in Cape Town’s Thibault Square to open the festival, there was parish outrage (from mostly white skinned carnivores), followed by a defensive backlash.

Perhaps the most well-known South African artist internationally to capture the potential of public performance is Steven Cohen. His film installation Chandelier records Cohen in a tutu, his almost naked, delicately white body transformed into an ornate chandelier, walking among the traumatised residents of a shanty town as their shacks, their homes, are being demolished around him by municipal workers. Cohen describes it as “a digital painting of a social reality, half beautifully imagined, half horribly real—where Hollywood glamour meets concentration camp horror. I am trying to shed light on what is seldom seen, by creating amid destruction.”

Artists should continue making theatre beyond the theatre building to truly afford themselves and their public the opportunity to build not only a more democratic society, but a more participatory one too.


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[1] Brent Meersman has since 2003 been theatre critic for the Mail & Guardian. He is the author of two novels, Reports Before Daybreak (2011) and Primary Coloured (2007) and a collection of poetry, Ophila and the Poet (2010). His short stories have appeared in What Love Is and The Invisible Ghetto and his poems have been published by New Contrast, New Contact, Botsotso, and Green Dragon.

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Theatre Beyond the Theatre: The South African Case