Stepping in the right direction

My directing workshop was attended by 18 directors, writers, and actors in the Delft  township. They ranged in age from what seemed to be 21 to 45. About half were men and half were women. We discussed my directorial approach to The Brothers Size and I used my research, rehearsal process, and design approach to uncover the elements that go into directing any play. We also discussed how to stage a play with actors, develop new plays, the collaboration between director/actor, director/playwright, and with designers. A two-hour workshop became two and a half . We also spent a bit of time discussing the politics of Black Theatre in South Africa, in America, and worldwide in contemporary times. We discussed activist theatre, and how to find the personal, familiar, and psychological aspects of these stories

My impression is that due to scarcity of resources (i.e., money, space, equipment, access to training, and the complexity of people’s lives) the township actors have not had much support to grow professionally. The passion, determination, talent, and creativity of these young actors, writers, and directors is contagious though. The stories they have to share are endless, and their natural abilities amazing. They are hungry for knowledge and learn very quickly. I tapped back into personal resources and knowledge I have taken for granted in a more privileged United States professional regional theatre system.

Our only preview at The Market Theatre was before a full house of mostly local, theatre professionals from in and around Johannesburg. I held a 45 minute discussion with the actors and audience immediately following this preview on stage. The questions and comments were quite similar to the discussions we held in Cape Town, but had a bit more edge. Clearly some of the black artists in Johannesburg were more suspicious of whether this American play was speaking down to them. I believe this had more to do with how disenfranchised they feel than the production. Most of the audience felt the play did quite the opposite and brought ritual and theatricality back to the stage, and deeply moved them. The themes, issues, physicality, and musicality of the play blew folks away. They thought it was great. We got a standing ovation at curtain and after the discussion.

Lessons from Soweto, By Timothy Bond, Director

The actors went out to the Soweto township in the second week of the run for a workshop at a community center there. They saw a performance out there at the center and it deeply changed how they are performing the show now in Jo-burg. They were inspired and learned how to slow everything down a bit to help the Zulu, Xhosa, Tanka, Twana, etc. –speaking audiences pick up better on the American vernacular, dialects, and Southern flavors they use in the show. They adjusted the show to feed them in a way that the marinade and spices we use to tell the story don’t obscure the deep flavors of theme and story that is universal. So — now they have our third version of The Brothers Size. The “Jozi” version.

Breaking the ice and refreshing the craft, written by Timothy Bond, Director

As the three actors and I drove out to Gugulethu township in the van, and passed the thousands of corrugated, tin, shanty houses, I had that anxious, butterfly-in-the-stomach feeling. How would our acting workshop go over with this group? How much would they understand in terms of language, approach, concept, cultural references, technique? Had they seen our play? Were they trained actors? What kind of training had they received before?

We entered the community center, which was a big room with a small raised platform at one end and about 100 plastic chairs. This was where community plays were performed. The actors went straight to work with the 40 participants who were all in their 20s, it appeared. They all had t-shirts, jeans, tennis shoes, and sweatshirts on, as it was a cool winter morning.

The name game we did in two 20-person circles broke the ice. Say your name and give a gesture or dance move that symbolizes “you.” Then everyone else repeats it. Instantly, the tension broke, and like in hundreds of other classes/workshops/rehearsals in my life, I knew I was “home.” I was in a room of actors/theatre people/artists who were eager to express their innermost selves with the world. The faces of the young actors lit up with delight, and giggles poured out of the group as each of them repeated the names and moves that accompanied them. Two other exercises the actors had the groups do, had them in close eye contact and focus with each other, as well as singing, percussing their voices and involving their physical selves fully in creating an “orchestra.” We became one big ensemble in about 45 minutes and felt like we could perform anything!

A long, group discussion occurred for the next 75 minutes about training, careers, the art of acting and the business of acting. Most of them had never had a chance to find out about how to get an agent, how to prepare or get to auditions, what to do to stay prepared for the stage, television, or film industry. The depth of sharing that occurred between our actors and the township actors was a beautiful, international exchange. The struggles that they face in their impoverished townships, and in a theatre community that still isn’t fully set up to embrace black African stories, is daunting. What was incredible though, is how passionate and determined the young men and women were despite their obstacles.

All of us agreed on our way back to our housing that afternoon that these young actors were very inspiring for us to meet and work with as American actors. We certainly had received as much or more out of these workshops from their passionate energy and determination as they got from us.

Going Back to Basics – By Sam Encarnacion, Elegba in “The Brothers Size”

When auditioning for the role of Elegba, I was excited and intrigued at the possibility of being able to share what I have learned about my process with fellow artists. On the morning of our first workshop I was terrified. “What can I teach them? What life transforming acting techniques do I have in my possession to give away?” The simple ones.

The Rainbow Arts Organization in Nyanga was the first stop on our “workshop tour” the many smiling faces, palpable excitement and mutual nervousness immediately put me at ease. Director Timothy Bond recently shared with me that he believes that “nervousness is energy without focus” and I completely agree. All I could do was tune into my heart and answer their questions as honestly and genuinely as I could. The workshop began with an introduction lead by Rodrick. Each participant would say his or her name along with a physical gesture that they felt represented them in that particular moment. After everyone had gone, a brave soul was called upon to repeat everyone’s name as well as all the gestures. This was an exercise in memorization, concentration, as well as utilizing the physical instrument.

The following activity was the “Rhythm Circle” led by myself. All were to stand in a circle and I would play the role of conductor. As I pointed to a person, they began to “Beat Box” a repetitive rhythm that was easy to sustain. Eventually everyone was playing an instrument in a collective song. The key to this game was to listen closely for all parts must fit together and not drown out the other. As conductor I would “press mute” and it was up to the group to silently keep the song going until they were “un-muted”. This was lots of fun and everyone was “jazzed” by the end. An exploration in rhythm and concentration.  Next we had the participants walk around at various speeds. At random moments they were instructed to move as though their natural center (in the abdomen), had moved to a new location e.g. the forehead, elbow, ear, pinky, etc.   Character and physicality were the focuses of this exercise.

Joshua then led the actors to break up into teams and assign a group leader.  A theme was chosen [Love] and the leader was then to direct his/her peers through three tableaux that told a story with a beginning, middle and an end. An exercise in the fundamentals of drama. It was great to see what the groups had created independently.

The workshop was then opened for any questions the students might have. We spoke of the business, ourselves and of course the play. I was struck by the perceptiveness of their comments on the show and humbled by their love of art as well as their need for self expression. The saying “each one teach one, each one reach one comes to mind”. I left exhilarated and anticipating our future workshops in the townships. I can only hope that in the two short hours we spent with the youth, seeds were planted that  will sprout and flourish as each participant nurtures their individual modes of creative expression.

Wrapping Up In Cape Town – By Stuart Plymesser, Production Stage Manager

The Cast & Crew of THE BROTHERS SIZE in Syracuse, NY. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

As I’m writing this, the cast is wrapping up the first leg of their South African journey in Cape Town. I was lucky enough to be with these guys and Tim from their first day of rehearsal way back in March, to see the Syracuse run through to the end, and to help bridge their run into South Africa just past the opening weekend. 

There are a lot of things that, if everyone is doing their jobs onstage and backstage, people in the audience are not aware of happening. Things like actors going out onstage when they are sick, or when they are limping around onstage (not “in-character” but in real life) because they’re in a lot of pain, or when they are getting stung by a bee onstage and keep going on with the show. (Didn’t see that last one personally, but I heard about it!) 

Since I left the show, I have been keeping up with the production vicariously through performance reports, emails with folks, and through Facebook. Things haven’t changed. The commitment that I saw in the first week to sharing this story and bringing something of themselves to the show and, when possible, to the community they are performing for has not wavered. In the lobby after shows (on both continents) the cast would hang out as the audience waited for them to take photos, shake hands, exchange feelings about the show, anything. On their day off, Sam and Rodrick spent time with a youth group participating in activities with them and sharing their life experiences. It’s even reflected in the things they put into this blog. They want to share the show and themselves. It’s one of those times that you “break the fourth wall” with the audience not just during the show, but in life outside the stage.

When we crossed the Atlantic, the guys were a bit travel-weary, but raring to get the show re-rehearsed for the new theatre and set for new audiences. Before we left Syracuse, the cast and Tim often talked about what it meant for them to take the show to South Africa. When we had our first meetings with the people at the Baxter Theatre Centre and when we had our first audiences, I saw them well-up at times as they tried to express what was in their hearts. 

To a certain extent, I don’t think that the South African community fully grasped the significance of what this meant to the cast and Tim. And to a certain extent, maybe it didn’t matter – it came out in the work and was there for people to see and hear.  I’m just glad I was there to see it. 

Sam, Kristina, Stuart, Rodrick and Joshua having dinner in Cape Town before Stuart and Kristina depart.

When I close a show, I will often look back afterwards and think about what made it special. Maybe it was great audiences that we had or a fantastic rehearsal process. My favorite ones are the shows where I can look back and the first thing that comes to mind is the people I met and the experiences and conversations we shared “off the clock.” My last night in South Africa was spent with these guys and my wife, Kristina, enjoying a great meal and then talking under the stars about the show, and about life. Just sharing a drink (several actually) through the late hours until we had to call it quits to get ready to catch a plane out of Cape Town. That is my lasting memory for this show and why I will remember it for a long, long time. 

Have a great Cape Town closing, guys.  And thank YOU.

Performing to a Packed Audience at the Zolani Centre – By Jeffrey Woodward

Outside the Zolani Centre in Cape Town.

Another extraordinary day in our visit. We performed to a packed audience in the Zolani Centre in a Cape Town township, a very poor but extremely lively area. The Centre is a place for the arts, athletics (we saw a nice basketball gym) and education for young and old. It is directly across the street from a busy bus terminal and open market.

The theater at the Centre is a small proscenium with 6 lighting instruments and a low ceiling – so no set,  minimal lighting, portable sound and Tim and the actors had to restage the entire play in 45 minutes.

The Zolani Centre entrance.

Well, it all worked and the show was terrific. Once again we had a strong response and the audience clearly understood and appreciated the play. One of the things I have been reminded on this trip is the universality of theatre. The audiences at the Zolani responded at the same moments in the play as in Syracuse. Tim led a great discussion after the play with many, many questions about the various themes in the play. One man thanked Tim, the cast, and the Baxter production staff for bringing the play to the township. He commented that when international events come to Cape Town they rarely go to the townships.

And we are not done. The actors are in the middle of 4 acting workshops at the Zolani and Tim returns next week for a directing workshop.

Zolani Centre.

Street view in the Township.