by Olga Pozeli*
In History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that the Westerner has become a confessional animal: “Confession has become one of the most highly valued techniques of producing truth. . . . One confesses one’s crimes, sins, thoughts and desires, illnesses and problems. One goes about telling, with the utmost precision, whatever is most difficult to tell.” Just take a look at the thousands of memoirs on the shelves of bookstores or the shift from fictional series to reality programs on television.
This need to transform the private into public definitely has a political undertone. The process of confession is a way to uncover and reveal the invisible sides of life, to resist marginalization and objectification, to give people the opportunity to state their truth. And given the close ties between theatre and real life, the transfer of the personal/autobiographical material to live performance was inevitable. Important artists, like Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, Deb Margolin, Lisa Kron, Tim Miller, Peggy Shaw, Bobby Baker, Adrian Howells, Leslie Hill, among many others, started creating their monodramas, setting the roots of this subgenre that is evolving and moving forward by the day.
In our era of economic crisis, the fact that it can run on a small budget makes it even more tempting. Monodrama shows can travel quite easily: an actor with a colleague who runs the show and a suitcase full of props is usually what it takes to get those shows on the road.
And that has made Monodrama Festivals possible and eventually quite popular among artists and audiences. Valery Khazanov’s One Man Show in Moscow, Nina Mazu’s Vidlunnya in Ukraine, Jolanta Sutowich’s Thespis in Kiel (Germany), Wieslaw Geras in Poland, Aleksandras Rubinovas’ Monobaltija in Kaunas (Lithuania), Maria Tanana’s Atspindys in Visaginas (Lithuania), Steve Karier’s Fundamental in Luxembourg, just to name a few, are among the pioneers of the genre. And now: Kurt Egelhof’s SoloAfrica Festival of Monodrama; the new addition to the international Monodrama Festival circuit and the first of its kind in Africa.
Kurt Egelhof, the son of a working-class dad and a union secretary/teacher mum, has been active in the arts and culture sector for thirty-four years. He started his professional career in the industry as an actor in 1981 and rose to his career highlight as the Head of Creative Department for Endemol SA twenty years later. He has a BA in speech and drama from the University of Natal in his hometown Durban. Today, he resides in Muizenberg, Cape Town, with a wealth of experience as a Freelance Consultant/Producer/Director for Film, Television and Stage Productions. He is currently the National Coordinator of the Performing Arts Network of Southern Africa (PANSA) and the South African representative for the International Theatre Institute (ITI).
A man of color in post-apartheid South Africa. How does that really feel in 2017?
My basic gut feel is one of disappointment. Deep disappointment that the promise of hope for a new democracy has fallen terribly short of the opportunity it represented some twenty-three years ago. We all know what apartheid was and how it eroded the value of humanity in its execution. So, the expectation was, at the very least, that people of color, and also the beneficiaries of apartheid, would be afforded the public opportunity to regain their dignity. This has absolutely not happened. Instead, the objective of the new state became the self-enrichment of elected officials over the needs of social uplift. Therefore, once again, as was the case during the apartheid, the voice of the artist has been called to center stage to call the nation to a reckoning. I feel a reallocated responsibility to respond to this call for the second time in my life, but, this time, through the personalized medium of monodrama; artists speaking their story to the society about the society. It feels like a huge responsibility. With no frills and thrills.
You are a man who keeps his artistic adventure alive, through thick and thin. Any regrets? I mean, have you done things you should not have done and things you have not done and which, in retrospect, you think you should have done?
There are some movies I wish I had not done. Terrible slapstick junk that paid the bills but contributed nothing to the uplift so desperately needed in our society. Thank goodness that time has come and gone. I would definitely not do those films again. I am very happy with the opportunities I have turned down though—some of them huge in the eyes of the desperate.
I won’t list any names here, but saying “no” to overinflated artistic egos—some of them international icons—has given me a mettle that has pulled me through thirty-six years of creative adventure. I have been able to move beyond the color of my skin, to the integrity of my creative spirit. And, with or without financial reward, that place has brought me complete satisfaction with who I am and what I do as an artist.
When you first conceived this idea of having a Monodrama Festival in South Africa, was it something you thought the area needed, African drama needed or you personally needed, or a combination?
Absolutely! I had been performing my own monodrama pieces for about ten years without really having a grasp on what monodrama stood for and where it was at globally. I looked around me and realized I was alone. No one in South Africa was doing what I was doing. Sure, there were many one-man and one-woman plays around before me, and probably will be around forever, but no one was doing what I was doing; that is, telling personal biographical/autobiographical stories through a dramatic narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Initially, I reveled in the realization that I was doing something unique, something on the cutting edge, but soon felt the loneliness of the path I had chosen and realized why. It is bloody difficult. I was literally pouring my own blood, sweat and tears into the making of my piece. And no one gave a damn. So, I went to the informal circuit with it. Schools, prisons, festivals, homes for the elderly and the odd formal theatre here and there, but very rarely and for short runs. And I knew I had something!
You see, in an African context, we have been engineered for centuries to put the will of the tribe before the voice of the individual. It is a survival thing. Individual voices mess with the matrix of group survival. As Africans, we dance in large groups to say one thing. Or we sing in massive choirs to extol our truth. This mass consciousness is what colonialism came and found, and exploited to our detriment.
So, today, Africans are very wary of standing up and speaking their own truth alone in front of a big crowd. This explains why there is no monodrama, as we define it, anywhere in Africa. (I visited Zimbabwe and found my terrifying realization to be true for that country too.)
Thus, the idea of a festival jumped out at me. Except, I was alone. But I am not alone any more. The festival has been born, and I know at least four other Africans who want to do what I do, who do not think that I have lost my mind making “confessional” monodrama about our past, our present and our future, in a very personal way.
What was your policy of choosing plays?
International plays were invited on the grounds that they spoke to biographical narratives—anyone of their choice. African plays did not exist in the genre, so I invited interesting artists to pitch their personal narratives, and, if they accepted my mentorship for developing the work over a very intense workshop period, then, they were accepted into the program. We only had one week scheduled for the Festival at the performance venue, so the number of plays was always going to be limited.
Four local African artists made the cut; two fell off when they realized the demands of developing a new piece of work under the eye of a madman (me!); so, we ended up with local pieces and two international ones.
To summarize the “policy”: it was total honesty, total commitment and a desire to tell one’s truth. So, one could say that the pieces chose the festival and vice versa. By sheer coincidence the festival had a strong focus on paternity, even though the creative guideline was “this is me.” Issues that surfaced ranged from infidelity to suicide, bullying, obesity, generational issues, etc. In summary, I think it safe to say the policy was simple: “Motivate your passion to play.” Maybe, from here on, we will get more complex about it. I hope not.
If I ask you to isolate the most important aspects of the Festival, which would these be?
Healing. Opportunity for the Creative Personal Politics. Job Creation. Artistic Independence. Awakening of the Artist to the full potential of their Professional Capacities. And, most importantly, the voice of the reasonable individual heard above the noise of the chaotic, tumultuous crowd.
As a person, what have you gained out of this international event?
Firstly, I think, I have been able to remove any doubt from my mind that I am who I say I am; that all the attempts by apartheid and post-apartheid to keep me “in my lane” have come to naught. That nobody here, I mean the self-appointed custodians of culture—the gatekeepers, so to speak—are no more than ineffective obstructions trying to corner the market for international exposure. I learned that I am a fighter—and a damn good one too; that I am the only force that can paralyze me, by fear of the unknown. So, now, you can expect “Kurt the Brave” to emerge stronger, hungrier and more determined to grow this festival into a world renowned event. No fear. Just, more generosity. And vulnerability. We cannot lose.
Do you think that the Festival has managed to bridge a bit the gap of cultures and civilizations? And, if yes, in what respect? Where does it show?
That is a hard one. I would say we are getting there. Two scenarios apply here: “Playing Maggie” and “Adolf” really bridged that gap. South African audiences, black and white, loved the fact that these two icons of a northern hemisphere culture were laid bare in front of them. But, given the fact that the audience was almost one hundred percent South African, the local content was not new to them, although the way in which it was presented by the three local plays was very effective in breaking down the silos that exist within South African culture up until this very day.
We do not perceive ourselves as one culture, even after democracy was instituted. In fact, it is worse now. People casually use the phrase “my culture” when speaking to each other in public. It is hostile, confrontational and divisive—these lines of language, class, race and genealogy drawn in the sand daily. So, local audiences, I think, were given a chance to look into the lives of the sociopolitical “other”—their deepest, darkest enemy—and see themselves. Up close and personal. That is what I think the success of this festival will be.
Watching Western and African performances, do you notice any differences? Any similarities?
Yes. Western performers are afraid of emotion. They like to live and operate mostly in the cerebral chakras—lots and lots of logic. Too much, sometimes. I guess that works in the Global North, given the history of that hemisphere. But Africans—us—we are not afraid of emotion on stage. The rawer, the better. We bring it on! Sometimes too thickly for a northern audience! But that’s okay.
I guess the answer lies in a decent temperance of both these tools (logic and emotion). The common denominator is this: everyone wants to connect with their audience, and they do their best to transport that audience to the finish line. Western or African, when you take your curtain call, you want your audience to believe they came out for the right reasons, and went home stimulated.
What are your future plans in relation to the Festival?
I think it is my retirement policy . . .
Hard to believe . . . Politically and socially speaking, do you think theatre plays any significant role nowadays?
Not enough. The internet is killing the world. People glean instant opinions about the world from the Internet in thirty seconds and, then, consider themselves experts on this or that as they see fit. Morons, basically. Theatre can cure that. Wake up the techno-dead from their cyber slumber. Bring back the human voice of a storyteller who has the skill to put sociopolitical challenges back into perspective. It is the only medium with named humanity, sans the bells and whistles of the military industrial complex oozing out of Hollywood and its hood rats.
Kurt, my final question is somewhat controversial and I would like to hear your opinion. Many scholars argue that the Festival circuit is a channel for the global “supermarketing” of artistic commodities. As a member of this Festival community, do you feel that the mushrooming of Festivals “threatens” to turn theatre into a global product to be circulated by agents and technocrats?
While that debate might be applicable to the Western perception of where the creative arts are going, in Africa we have a very different approach to festivals, in that they give opportunity to previously unexposed work in a way that conventional theatre seasons will never do—because they won’t even consider investing in new work. So, the proliferation of festivals in Africa is a very necessary instrument to break the rotation of the convention of hosting “the usual suspects” in conventional Western theatre structures in Africa.
We need to create latitude for new local players to enter the market for the first time. Without access to “the market,” unseen art—in this case, African narrative through monodrama—will remain unseen and, therefore, nonexistent. We already have much difficulty separating art from culture in Africa; so, crystallizing the work in specially designed vehicles like a festival in the African context is essential in order to catalyze exposure, employment opportunities and the artist’s voice. I cannot speak for Europe—if there is a perception there that European markets are producing quantity rather than quality, I am happy to let the Europeans debate the issue until they come up with an answer to their problems.
We have the same issues with consumer goods made elsewhere in the world, flooding into the African markets for pure commercial profit extraction; but, still, they come. It is a colonial legacy. So, I have no problem supporting a quid pro quo arrangement where previously unknown African performing artists are given exposure to the art markets of Africa, Europe, or anywhere in the world for that matter. And I would not agree for one minute that this opportunity should be denied in the name of keeping art and access to art exclusive, on grounds that it might be getting “too commercialized.”
Where I come from, we are one hundred years away from that danger. I think the threat of nuclear war is a far more urgent matter for global scholars to address, rather than the possibility that we might have invested in too much opportunity for cultural exchange within the conveniently referenced “global village.”
Culture is a constantly evolving thing by its very nature. It is not a monolithic entity; it cannot be manipulated as one could manipulate “organized religion,” for example. In other industries, this phenomenon would be referred to as diversification, free competition, a counter measure to dangerous monopolies—and no one would bat an eyelid, considering these things to be healthy for the sector. Why should it be any different for art?
Art belongs to the people and can only be judged by history in the millennia to come. We should be careful not to attempt to manipulate art in such a way that borders on earlier efforts we have witnessed in the twentieth century, when nations went to great lengths to impose cultural standards on the kinetic creative forces of human endeavor, as we saw in all the wars of that century and even in the current.
Who Is Kurt Egelhof
*Olga Pozeli received her BA in English Literature at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece) while training as an actress at Roula Pateraki’s Drama School. She then moved to London where, on a British Council scholarship, she received her MA in Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London, with a major in Directing. On her return to Greece, she formed a theatre company, “Νoiti Grammi,” the productions of which she has been directing ever since. Olga has been nominated for two awards (one by the Theatre Critics Association and the other by a prominent magazine, Athinorama) for her works Do you love me? and Kvetch. In 2012, the International Festival of Monoperformances Vidlunnja awarded her the Festival Directors’ Award for the production When the Red Toyota Went off the Road and Sank in Black Water. Since 2008, Olga is the Secretary of the International Monodrama Forum of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), while, at the same time, she acts as an advisor for Fujairah International Monodrama Festival (UAE). From 2004 to 2011, she taught Theatre Direction in the Department of Theatre Studies at the University of Patras. She currently leads theEuropean Theatre Project PEEP at Moraitis School (Athens).