Uncategorized Intellectuals engage with theatre space

Intellectuals engage with theatre space

The discussion, part of Think!Fest’s Explorations & Conversations panel discussions, focused on how writers engage with space – whether it be personal or public – in their work.

Engaging with space in theatres may have been the title of the discussion, but what transpired was that there are many ideas of what space is, and many ways to define the dimensions of space.

Fatima Dike, author of The Return, is a playwright, director, activist and former exile. She said when she first heard the topic, “I immediately thought of inner spaces and sacred spaces,” which for her “go hand in hand”. Yet, she explained, there are boundaries within the sacred space which as a writer she cannot cross: “I need to be careful how I deal with them, they are sensitive issues”.

Mike van Graan referred to the political space in which we make theatre. He explained that after apartheid and the likes of Athol Fugard, people were asking, “Oh dear, what shall we write about now that apartheid is over?” This is a non-dilemma for Van Graan because “a society in transition is simply a gift to a writer”.

He referred also to a democratic space, which in our country is a democracy-inprogress. “We do not need myths of happy clappy rainbow nation”, said Van Graan. Rather, in a country struggling to reach true democracy, we should be discussing our government, alternatives for our country and how to eradicate censorship in the media. The theatre can be a platform for this, said Van Graan.

Theatre versus film
Margaret Edson, who is a kindergarten teacher as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner for her first piece of writing, Wit, sees theatre as a unique public space. “People who predict that theatre has become obsolete are correct. Something must occur in theatre that makes it unique, that separates it from television”.

She said the question of space arises as we ask the question “Why didn’t film shut us down?” For her, the answer is obvious: theatre as a public space filled with people is the only space where the deepest feelings of a character are revealed, and only to the people in the audience. “Without the audience, the main characters are lost.”

In a comical gesture she addressed the audience: “Thanks for showing up, we would be nothing without you.”

Edson’s theory was given substance by the audience’s questions, which created an open discussion and brought the space alive. One audience member referred to the space writers have in their own plays, and asked how easy it is for writers to give up their own work.

Before the questioner could finish, Edson blurted out: “No one can change my work. I expect it to be done to the word.”

Dike felt similarly, saying it was hard “to take your baby and give it away. I assert my property by putting in heavy stage directions”.

Van Graan said he understands that writing is only the beginning. He respects directors, and hopes they respect him too, and in turn do his work justice. “In other countries writers are seen as only a source,” he said. Van Graan reminisced about his play Some Mothers’ Sons, which he had sent to Holland. When he saw the production it was only in the tenth minute that he heard a word he had written. This, he added gratefully, is not the case in South Africa.

Theatre & xenophobia
Another question posed, with reference to the recent spate of xenophobic attacks, was what role theatre plays in stopping us from repeating the past.

Dike said it was not about putting on shows about xenophobia but rather looking back into its history. “The story needs to be told, that xenophobia started back in apartheid. We believed they had come to take our wives, our sister, and our jobs”. She said theatre needn’t always be about what is happening now, but sometimes it should give people an understanding of how social crises began.

Van Graan, however, believes that “theatre has a very modest role to play in social transformation”. He said South African theatre is market driven, and that means real lives are not reflected on the stage. The general audience of theatre in South Africa is middle class, and many poorer provinces do not have the space to host theatre events.

“The doors of culture will be open,” said Van Graan. “This is what our Freedom Charter allows. Only, after 1994 they added: ‘To those who can afford it’.”

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