The best way of learning is by doing. The deep and rich understanding of the craft is through one’s active involvement with it. It’s a long and ambitious process in which theatre artists actively grapple with the forms and content of their medium and its challenges on the studio floor and in the theatre spaces. It’s repetitive too; there is a reason why ‘rehearse’ translates as ‘repeat’ in so many languages. Not just repetition of the same, but discovery too one hopes. It’s cerebral as much as physical, where the body and its surrounding bodies must function as a total organism that sensitively heeds and reacts within a conceptual framework, historical imprint and contextualised space. And so we must do, more and again.
UCT Drama Department prides itself on producing numerous productions throughout the year. From intimate offerings and excerpts to fully-fledged and lengthy shows of varying styles, these dynamic experiences and processes provide the opportunity to apply what has been learnt in the lecture hall to the real theatre environment. Thus far in 2016 UCT Drama Department has produced the devised musical “Railroad Angels”, directed by international theatre practitioner Tober Riley, and Shakespeare’s “All’s well that ends well”, directed by head of department Geoffrey Hyland. Recently the theatre-makers showcased their works based on adaptations of a variety of short stories. Having just premiered is “Langalibalele – the scorching sun”, written by Neil McCarthy and directed by Clare Stopford, and “Portret”, by Philip Rademeyer and directed by Amy Jephta – both involving the third and fourth year acting and theatre-making students.
After the success of 2015’s Barney Simon Season, the UCT Drama Department once again curates a season of plays from South Africa. The initiative responds to an ongoing need for new plays that reflect the current state of South Africa and use indigenous lenses to interpret and represent our world, providing opportunities for young actors to take on the challenge of interpreting new writing for contemporary audiences.
Director and lecturer Clare Stopford describes “Langalibalele” as a historical story of loss and retrieval, part fiction and part fact as myth and history intertwine. It is a multi-lingual performance that tells the story of the intriguing AmaHlubi King who commanded large and widespread AmaHlubi groups of clans and avoided domination by the colonial powers as well as the Zulu Nation, but was finally imprisoned on Robben Island for defying British authorities in Natal. The play sketches the life of Langalibalele and tracks the series of events that led to his arrest, trial and the resulting tragedy and displacement of the AmaHlubi.
A large play, “Langalibalele – the scorching sun”, offers the students an exciting and relevant challenge in the amount of characterisation, ensemble dynamic and deep, and often uncomfortable, research that is required. Uncomfortable and difficult research in that South African history has largely been written by the colonialists who neglected notions of black pain and erased notions of black ownership. For such reasons regarding the representation of black pain as authored and staged by white South Africans, Stopford explains that it has been a very difficult process, both artistically and pedagogically. “In the present climate where black pain is being made visible, and where ‘being woke’ and ‘lit’ take precedence in most analyses, where everyone is ‘being checked’ or must ‘check themselves’, there has been a lot of resistance to the story”. Stopford continues to explain that the students needed more context for the historical events that take place in the play and that they wanted some key points of the plot changed in which the mode of black representation did not please them – and with some negotiation and collaboration they managed to achieve this. Perhaps the crux lays in the positioning and prioritisation of cultural considerations and sensitivities within the mesh of drama, spectacle, plot and story that encompass theatre, specifically when the work is framed within a pedagogy. “As I have learnt so often before, it is when you hear the cultural implications of choices you then begin to get the texture and verisimilitude that the students yearn for”, asserts Stopford.
In keeping with themes of identity politics, personal histories and connective humanness, Philip Rademeyer’s “Portret” examines a group of friends whose lives become increasingly disconnected and manipulated by outside forces.
Rademeyer was commissioned by UCT Drama Department, his alma mater, to write a script specifically for the senior acting students under the directorship of lecturer Amy Jephta. “Portret” is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novella “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, stemming from an initial idea between Jephta and Rademeyer of adapting an older work in a way that could be somewhat tailored to the individual students and localised to their immediate environments. Written in a manner in which most of the characters are gay and where queerness is the norm, as a means to queer history and the canon, “Portret” contemplates and reframes notions of the nature of art, life, immortality, beauty and humanity as well as the implication of a digitalised society. Just as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” spans many years, so too does “Portret”; Act One is set in 1996 before the advent of the internet in South Africa, and Act Two in our current highly mediatised and technological state. Rademeyer explains these temporal shifts between a pre- and post- internet South Africa exposes and comments on how technology has become a staple cultural code and how it has altered, and continues to change, the way in which we communicate, conduct ourselves, interact and love.
Story by Gavin Krastin
Contact usCentre for Theatre, Dance & Performance Studies University of Cape Town Private Bag X3 7701 Rondeboschctdps@uct.ac.za