The Magic of Theatre (Lessons from the National Arts Festival)
On the 8th of July this year, I hopped into a car, laden with luggage, with its sights set on the small town of Grahamstown - where we were to showcase our production 'Uneasy' at the National Arts Festival. A long drive though it was, the opportunity it afforded us was simply indescribable and well worth every km of tar. In lieu of giving you an autobiographical account of my experiences (which no-one would care for) my objective is to articulate for you how I re-discovered the magic of theatre and how it can liberate you - the reader - from your current state of 'meh'.
As a lover of musical theatre specifically, I always aim to attend the major musical shows that come to South Africa, mostly at the Teatro in Montecasino. I have been privileged enough to see 'The Lion King', 'Cats', 'Phantom', 'Jersey Boys', 'The Sound of Music' and 'Cabaret' among others. In addition, to add to my further self-projection of egotistical cultured-ness, I saw 'Chicago' and 'Oliver' on the West End in London, while on hockey tour. So I firmly believed, and bragged, that I was a theatre-lover. I was part of that elite group of people who could appreciate the suspension of disbelief necessary for these wonderful musicals to come to life.
And so I believed for a very long time.
What I was blissfully ignorant of, however, was that these popular musicals were barely scratching the surface of what is possible on stage. I had fallen victim to pop culture's heavily curated feed of what shows we all 'should' be watching - with clear moral undertones and a simplistic view of right and wrong, good and evil, heroes and villains. Shows that often shied away from the difficult, uncomfortable debates and issues.
As a contrast, Grahamstown treated me to a cacophony of wonderful theatre, created and sculpted not for the mass appeal that would invite publicity. But rather, painstakingly created to express oneself, to express an ideal or a feeling, to express raw emotion. The type of theatre that invites further thought and self-exploration.
This was theatre that pushed the boundaries of the things that we take for granted daily.
This was theatre that took internal mental battles that we all face (but never talk about) and display it on stage for us to look at, to comment on and to live through.
This was theatre that wasn't afraid to be consciously blunt about issues that stare us in the face day in and day out, yet remain taboo topics in the name of political correctness. Topics that are not debated for fear of one being called a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe, or a xenophobe, or an esoteric, or a sensationalist.
The whole experience blew me away. The quality and the diversity I witnessed in every show opened my eyes to the fact that I was kidding myself that I was a true theatre-enthusiast. Rather, I had simply watched the popular musicals of my generation. While the shows I had in seen in Johannesburg and on the West End were incredible, they were merely scratching the surface of what is possible on a stage.
One particular moment stood out for me. The one show we attended (called 'Bash') took place in a tiny room, transformed into a theatre, it's set containing all of two red armchairs. That was all. No complicated sets, costumes or special effects.
The show was one and a half hours and the only action that took place on stage were 3 unrelated monologues performed by different characters. Previously, I wouldn't have thought it possible for an actor to maintain the attention of an audience while giving a 30 minute monologue, sitting in an armchair. Especially with the multitude of other shows that were available, boasting all sorts of other eye-candy. It just seemed like an insurmountable task.
What I severely underestimated though, was the power that lies within the art of storytelling. Those actors carefully guided us, as the audience, through their stories - dragging us wholeheartedly into their world - so we could experience the emotion they did, so we could see what they saw.
It was a feat of storytelling I had never thought possible, in my narrow-minded view of what theatre 'has to be'.
There is so much power in all the various art forms - when used to express human emotion and to tackle ideas that are uncomfortable in our day to day vernacular.
So what I am trying to get at - is that when we look at art (be it theatre, music, visual art, dance, etc.) we need to be open to the power that the medium holds - in its attempts to convey meaning and to convey a message. By straying away from the popular, easy-to-digest art that gets all the media coverage, and venturing into smaller scenes, off the beaten track - we can learn so much about ourselves, about our society and we can re-evaluate how we think about difficult topics, while getting out of our heads for a bit and jumping head-first into a narrative.
Go out to your local theatre and support one of the smaller, less-recognisable shows. I'd bet you find some incredible value out of the experience - even if all it causes you to do, is think.
This post would be grossly incomplete without mentioning my thanks to the team of our show 'Uneasy' who took a nervous actor with zero experience (me) and through the hours and hours of work throughout the process helped me to re-discover the magic of theatre. Abby, Zoe, Saskia, Mark, Dan and Debz - I am so grateful for the opportunity to share the journey with you.