by Savas Patsalidis*
Mike van Graan is one of the leading contemporary playwrights in South Africa. He is Associate Professor of Drama at the University of Cape Town, a Technical Expert for UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions and serves on the Boards of the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival and PEN South Africa. Currently, he is a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, and is based in Berlin until the second quarter of 2017. He has been involved in numerous artistic projects and in the management of arts centres, conferences, festivals and institutions. He is also an artist engaged in the monitoring and promotion of freedom of expression, research and the distribution of information within and on behalf of African creative players. He received his undergraduate education at the University of Cape Town majoring in English and Drama. In 1986, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Honors degree at the same university with a thesis on international models of political theatre and how they relate to the development of political theatre in South Africa. He wrote his first play in 1991 (The Dogs Must Be Crazy). Since then, he has written and has had staged a large number of plays (a total of 27), all characterized by his deep concern for social justice. Racism, discrimination, humanism, migration, environment, exploitation, freedom, apartheid, xenophobia, corruption, are among the topics he constantly explores. He is currently involved in a multinational project which triggered our conversation.
Mike, let me start with the project you are currently involved in. It looks very interesting and also challenging. How did it all start?
Ibsen International, a Norwegian theatre company led by Inger Buresund has been working in China for a number of years. They had a project, “New Text – New Stage,” to promote the creation of new dramatic texts, and the production of these. Last year (2015), they decided to concentrate on the theme of migration, given its current international importance. They invited eight playwrights from different continents (Europe, Asia, North America and Africa) to an initial meeting in Beijing, followed by further meetings in Shanghai and Guangzhou over a period of nine months, in which we playwrights developed our respective texts. Scenes were translated into Chinese and international directors (from Hong Kong, Norway and Germany) were invited to work with Chinese actors to present these excerpts to a Chinese audience.
So, the project itself is an international one, with eight different playwrights interpreting the theme of migration according to her/his experience and insights. The idea is that these texts will now be produced by different theatres over the next year or so, and then all these productions will be featured at the Shanghai International Theatre Festival in October 2017. The Market Theatre—South Africa’s premiere producing house of new South African work—will be staging my production, When Swallows Cry, in January 2017, and we hope to tour it extensively after that.
Reading the three playlets that comprise When Swallows Cry, I see that you look at the problem of migration/racism/discrimination as a global, rather than a European one. What do you think are the causes that brought us to this point?
The three playlets pick up on different themes related to migration, and they are inter-spliced with each other. The core “through-line” playlet is one that seeks to place the other two into context and that provides some kind of answer to your question. In this core piece, a privileged westerner—who has actually come to an African country to “do good” and to “give something back” as a teacher—is captured by bandits who hold him for ransom as a way of generating income to support the development of their village. A second playlet is about a Somalian who tries to enter the USA—with a valid visa—but is given a tough time at the border by two homeland security officials, one of whom is an African American.
The first piece makes the point about mobility and who is able to travel freely nowadays—essentially, they are people from the “white” countries of the western world, while people from countries in Africa, Asia, the Arab world, etc. are much more restricted in their ability to move around the world. Ironically though, a few hundred years back, white countries engaged in slavery, forcibly removing people from Africa and selling them to work on the plantations, farms, mines and kitchens in countries that are now wealthy, partly because of the historical exploitation of black labour, but which now make it extremely difficult for people from the African continent for example, to enter. So, in another ironic twist, the African American in the second story, a descendant of slaves who were forced from Africa, now is at the coalface of protecting America from “undesirables,” including people from Africa who may now wish to migrate simply in search of a decent quality of life.
Today, it is common for Europeans and people in the west to regard those who hold westerners for ransom as “barbarians” and “uncivilized,” conveniently forgetting that their very civilization is premised on exactly this kind of barbarism. It still persists, though in less overt ways through the way that global capital works, with slaves no longer having to be brought to western countries, but where they are now exploited, providing cheap labour for multinationals in their own countries, who then sell the products they produce globally, at great profit. In the same way that we have increasing inequality within countries, we have growing material and income inequality between regions and continents, and it is a matter of colonial history and contemporary forms of economic globalization— rather than coincidence—that have brought us largely to where we are today.
All through the Cold War, geo-politics and economic interests had western countries not only turn blind eyes to, but actively support dictatorships and the abuse of human rights in countries that were not “white,” as the racism of colonial times continued to be manifest in our contemporary world. Now, citizens of these countries, no longer content to be victims for the sake of privilege to be enjoyed elsewhere, are resisting and seeking greater mobility globally. So, in some ways, our historic chickens—economic exploitation rooted in racism and discrimination—are coming home to roost.
Do you think that embracing the platform of those who believe in “No borders” will solve the problem or make it worse? In other words, would the unconditional acceptance of otherness increase or decrease the problems we now face?
I do not think that there is a simplistic answer to the challenges we face. One of my key areas of interest is the dialectic relationship between “culture”—in its broader anthropological sense, that is, values, ideas, belief systems, etc. that inform identity and social, political and economic structures and behavior—and the economy, human rights, development, etc. Quite simply, the world is divided not only by economic disparities, and in terms of political and military power, but also by “culture,” one of the main fault lines that both manifests and contributes to such disparities and is the sphere in which these disparities find expression.
We simply do not know each other as human beings, and there is an assumption that “our” culture—beliefs, ideas, ways of doing things—are the correct ways, and we appear to be unable to accept those who have different views, belief systems and ways of doing things. There is SO much education that needs to happen in “western” societies—and indeed in all societies—about the “other”; simply opening borders fuels national chauvinism, xenophobic anxieties and racist behavior that are largely rooted in a fear or ignorance, on the one hand, and feelings of superiority, on the other. Whatever “solutions” we come up with, it is clear that the way things have been going in the last while—increasing inequality and increasing militarization to protect the “haves”—is unsustainable. All of our futures are threatened, unless fundamental inequities in the distribution of economic and political power are addressed.
Regarding theatre practice. The issue of migration (illegal or otherwise) is not new, at least in western drama. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge comes immediately to mind. Also, Oscar Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Yet, works of this kind have increased significantly in the twenty-first century. A big number of theatre and performance artists are producing new works and new modes of expression in order to dramatize the more current and urgent sociopolitical developments. Which is good. At the same time, however, I wonder to what degree this kind of art is susceptible to commodification, circulation and exchange? Take your home country of South Africa, for example. Do you think local political theatre has any impact on what is going on in society? I mean, is there still room for theatre to be political? Does it relate to any kind of profound and effective radicalism or is it all just another item in the structures of the capitalist economy?
There is no doubt that theatre—particularly within the “Creative Industries” policy discourse, so beloved by governments and multilateral agencies in recent times—is regarded as but one more commodity in a global economic system in which goods and services are to be sold essentially for profit. Within this system, one in which it is largely those with disposable income who have access—and not the masses of people and workers who may be exploited and on the underside of history—theatre has a very limited role to play as a means of effecting political or social transformation.
At best, it could play a conscientising role for middle class audiences or make international audiences aware of issues and their impact on human beings, but theatre as a commodity is otherwise anaemic. Theatre that consciously plays other roles as part of social movements, with theatre makers understanding their roles as social activists (without necessarily compromising the aesthetics of their work), has greater potential for political change. The challenge, of course, is the sustainability of such work, so that a few radical theatre makers may play in the “theatre as commodity” space in order to subsidize their work in the social movement space where there are “audiences” rather than “markets.”
What makes me a bit apprehensive about the impact of contemporary theatre/performance practice on society is the fact that recent experimentalists have not fully calculated capitalism’s enthusiasm for the new, and its capacity to absorb the anti-art projects into its own systems of economic exchange by expanding its frames further. In the face of the voracious appetite and capacity for absorption of potential transgression by late capitalism, I wonder if there is any future for projects that deal with the world’s “hot spots”?
Theatre on its own cannot change the world. It—the practice and practitioners (or those with the vision and commitment)—needs to forge alliances with others committed to bringing about fundamental social change at a global, regional and national level. Unfortunately, there are no global theatre structures that promote this kind of thinking in theory and practice. A body like the International Theatre Institute (ITI) has some global reach, but it is largely captured by and subservient to authorities and systems that sustain it financially. There is a desperate need, in my view, for alternative theatre structures to emerge that recognize the inter-relatedness of privilege and exploitation, inclusion and exclusion, haves and have-nots, and that seek to address these as theatre-makers, as active global citizens and as human beings.
If we accept the idea that the more recent theatre experiments with form and content aim at uncovering the real, the first thing that comes to my mind is the question: what’s “real”? I still wonder whether there is an accessible “real,” existing beyond and independent of the integrated spectacle? As a playwright who is deeply involved in things happening in this world, as a human being who really cares, do you think theatre can lead to reality, to truth, whatever these two terms mean?
I would like to think of my own work as an interface between the macro and the micro; theatre—in the bourgeois sense—is largely about “characters.” I seek to show the interplay between “characters”—human beings—and the larger economic, political and social forces that shape them, that influence their behaviour, but, at the same time, grant these characters agency to make decisions that change their own circumstances—or not—and that, in turn, may impact on the macro. Some of my plays are studied at schools and I often get invited to speak to learners studying the plays. It gives me great pleasure to engage with these young minds in uncovering/discovering “truth”—at least as I understand it—as a way of challenging them to develop and come to their own truths.
My most recent work—a one-person satirical revue reflecting and commenting on contemporary South African society (its corruption, racism, gender abuse, etc.)—is about helping audiences to “see” this reality, on the one hand, and, on the other, to experience a form of catharsis in terms of their relationship with/to this reality. I would like—but do not expect—audiences to take some form of action afterwards, and, in future seasons, I will provide a list of areas in which those who would like to contribute to some kind of change, may do so.
Reading your more recent work, I see that you have not lost hope. You are an optimist in many ways. What makes you think things can change?
I’ve adopted the Gramscian (introduced to me by Bertolt Brect at university) mantra: to dwell within the paradox of “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.” As intellectuals, we are able to analyze, synthesize and conclude that ours is a pretty messed-up world, and that structural change is both necessary and highly unlikely. Hence, a degree of pessimism. On the other hand, we are human, alive and that very fact is an expression of optimism, seeking to overcome and resist the structures that seek to oblige us to conform to the “Way of the World” as defined by others. My generation has lived through immense changes, changes that we never thought would happen—the collapse of the Soviet Union, the demise of apartheid, the growth of the internet—so that we have “lived experience” of change and of its possibilities. We may not always be able to see it. We may not always know how to contribute best to it. But there is always the possibility of it happening. Our role is both to anticipate it, and to contribute to it.
Are you writing anything right now? If yes, please tell us more about it.
I will be spending three months in Berlin on a fellowship till the end of November, initially, and, then, a further three months in the first half of 2017. I want to use the time to write more theoretically on the kinds of themes I’ve expressed here (particularly the relationship between culture and other aspects of our lives), but also to extend my creative writing beyond theatre to include a volume of poetry, perhaps a novel and short stories. I am always working on plays too, with a piece of physical theatre and poetry showing the cyclical nature of oppression, resistance and oppression, and another drama dealing with the theme of mercy-killing being at the top of this agenda.
We talked about your work, about world theatre and I guess it is time to close this wonderful chat with you with a question that relates to the theatre currently produced in South Africa, a country which in its own way experiences what many European countries experience: an economic, moral and geopolitical crisis. How is theatre responding to that? Does it take a stand? Do you have an increase in the number of productions? Before you answer, let me just mention a strange thing happening in my home country, Greece, in the last two-three years. While everybody expected a drastic decline due to the harsh economic conditions we are experiencing, we have been having a tremendous increase in the number of theatre productions. From an average of 500 productions a year, productions jumped to 1300 a year in Athens alone! An unprecedented number. We are still trying to figure out what’s happening, whether this increase reflects despair or a deep need for change. Do you see something similar happening in South Africa?
After the demise of apartheid, there was some consternation among many in the theatre community regarding the question “what will we make theatre about now that apartheid has gone?” It was not a question for me, as I believe that a society in transition like ours offers so much for a playwright in terms of complexity, irony and contradiction than a society—like during the apartheid era—that was pretty much about goodies and baddies, white and black, us and them. For others, there was the relief that apartheid had ended and now they could do theatre about “normal” themes, so there was an explosion of theatre dealing with personal issues, gender themes, relationships, etc/. and a shying away from political themes. Still others were reluctant to do anything political while Mandela was in power as they did not want to be seen to be critical of a new government that for the first time had moral and political legitimacy.
For a long while, there was a decline in theatre—certainly in mainstream, professional theatre—that dealt with contemporary political themes. A play that I did in 2004, ten years after the arrival of “democracy,” called Green Man Flashing and dealing with political corruption, was regarded by many as the first “post- apartheid piece of protest theatre.” The fact that it made such an impact reflects our society at the time and the levels of self-censorship that prevailed. Our country, as you say, has largely declined to a state of endemic corruption, political opportunism, abuse of political power and continued and worsening inequality, unemployment and poverty.
Community theatre, that is not mainstream theatre, has tended to pick up on these and social issues (domestic violence, alcoholism, absent fathers, etc.), but mainstream theatre-makers have generally stayed away from political and social issues. Until the last two or three years. At our National Arts Festival—particularly this last one (2016)—we have seen an increase in satire and political commentary, particularly by a younger generation of theatre makers, who do not have the burden of apartheid and anti-apartheid struggle history. Despite the lack of support (financially) for theatre, there has always been an enormous amount of theatre produced on an annual basis. While much of it is still tentative and not related to SA’s myriad social ills, I’m pleased that there is a shift taking place so that theatre will again play a more prophetic role within our society.
*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre and performance history and theory in the School of English (Aristotle University), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama Academy of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is the author of thirteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In addition to his academic activities, he works as a theatre reviewer for the ejournals onlytheatre, athensvoice, parallaxi, and the greekplay project. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes Critiques, the web journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.
Copyright © 2016 Mike van Graan
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