Sunday, November 8, 2015

Making Mandela - The Masks

The Making Mandela masks in images...

It begins with the clay... I tried something new with the eyes for all the black characters.

High on paper mache...

There was so much to do that our first rehearsals began with sanding, first layer painting... and bonding.

Painting complete.  With a foot in the mouth.

Then came hair.

A cast awaiting an actor.

First trials.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Kids comments rock.

Recently I received feedback for our run of Making Mandela at the Gauteng Schools Festival earlier this year.  We had four shows in totally and the wonderful thing about performing for kids is the quality of their real time feedback.  If they love you, you know.  If they hate you, you know.

Our first show was wonderful but I second show bombed.  Frankly.  The kids hardly responded.  When this happens you absolutely know that it is your fault.  Entirely.  We were not 'on it' and we lost them.  Our timing was out.  Our responses predictable.  Essentially kids responses are honest and there is very little politics involved (even if it challenges them).  One could say this about all theatre audiences, but with a play like this, that tells the story of Nelson Mandela's childhood, it can be a bit more tricky.  There isn't really a more-neutral adult audience.

Us... regrouping.
So after our second show we regrouped.  Reminded ourselves of the fundamentals.  Rhythm.  Pace.  Contact.  Character.  Play... this being the main one of course 'Have Fun.'  The actor's number one job is to have fun and share this with the audience.  We bounced back.  Our second two shows totally rocked.  So much so that in the simple scene of the young Nelson giving his girl friend Mathona a flower, the kids response was so huge that the two actors eventually started laughing with the them while maintaining the integrity of their characters.  Moments like is why live theatre is so vital.  So incredibly special.  So with that here are comments from randomly selected kids after all four shows.

·         Was racist but very funny
·         Very nice concept and great acting
·         A very different take on Mandela’s life. Exquisite
·         Beautifully crafted and executed
·         Professional , slick and theatrical
·         Thrilling and inspiring
·         Wow, performance that was truly breathtaking
·         Good
·         Amaze balls-Wow- a bit long though
·         Good use of space
·         One of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen
·         Lots of Zulu which I didn’t understand 
·         Very hilarious and enjoyable
·         Nothing cliché or expected
·         Was awesome, just needed more English
·         Beautiful
·         Very informative and educational. Perfect if anything
·         Riveting! Amazing use of the stage
·         The ending was not well acted out
·         Physical energy and lighting brought it all to life
·         Thought provoking and enjoyable
·         It was really awesome and funny
·         I am always amazed by the talent in our country. Wow!
·         It was informative and very interesting
·         The characters were portrayed extremely good
·         Most of the play was good but was a bit too long in duration
·         I loved the interpretation by the cast
·         I found it beautiful and enlightening 
·         Very professional and well rehearsed
·         My most favourite production from the entire festival
·         Thought provoking
·         Well acted and entertaining
·          Comical. Bit to racial
·         It was good acting some parts of it was confusing
·         Good! I didn’t understand the Zulu though
·         The story sort of drags but other than that a fantastic show
·         Racist(mildly) but interesting and new insights about Mandela’s life
·         Voice projection could be a bit higher
·         Needed more English, was slightly bored
·         I felt it was a little bit too long, however, I also felt like I was in another world
·         I loved the use of the masks
·         I was proud to be African but ashamed to be white

This last comment is my favourite.  Because I really feel that too.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Making Mandela Trailer

Making Mandela Trailer from Hello Elephant on Vimeo.

Here it is!  Our trailer for Making Mandela.  Exciting.  The footage is from our run at the SA State Theatre in Feb this year.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


This may well be the post that this whole blog, detailing mostly my time in Italy, leads up to.  A manifesto of sorts.  Based very much on my training with Giovanni Fusetti, my experience thus far and on how I think about theatre.

Recently I have worked with a few new people... and in doing so I have had to think about how I work so that these new performers understand where I am coming from in the rehearsal room.

Here it it...

I work in a way that places process at the forefront of discovery.  How I do this is through physical engagement with the material (the character and the space).  I do not do this through an intellectual analysis of why we should or should not do something.

The reason I work this way is because... The brain has logic.  The body has instinct.  There is a time and place for critical analysis but it is not on the rehearsal room floor.  The rehearsal room is the place where instinct is let loose.  I work in a way that induces creative flow in the room.

Playing with chorus in Making Mandela.
Pic by Sanmari Marais

This is why we warm up - the body and the voice.  This is why we do a large amount of character work - exploring how does the character sit, stand, walk, where the character's centre of gravity, when this character walks are they pushing of pulling space etc.

When I ask these questions I am not looking for an intellectual response or even an answer, but rather an instinctual physical reaction.  I am offering a provocation for the actor to react to physically while they are in the stage - being the character.  Then together we will slowly begin to answer these provocations in physical and instinctual ways.

James and Taryn as Frank and Mr Cartwright in The Snow Goose...
now when we warm up their state is so present we could make entirely new shows with these characters.
Pic by Philip Kuhn

When an actor commits to this process what is termed 'state' arrives - where the actor is really inhabiting the character.  To the point that when I talk to the actor while they are 'playing', the character is able to hear me, and the actor doesn't stop the creative flow to discuss my provocation.  It is at this point that the actor really starts to have fun.  And really, for me, that is why the audience will want to watch you.  We don't want to watch your pain your angst you feelings... how hard it is to be an artist.  We want you to transport us and move us.

For this process to work I cannot allow flow to be stopped for intellectual discussion.  If there is something that doesn't make sense then the actor is required to let it go until after the rehearsal or during a break when intellectual discussion is appropriate.

I work in a way that the theatrical space comes first.  Meaning the creation of the imagined world through how we invoke an image in them mind of the audience is paramount.  This is done with set pieces, mime, an actors physical reactions, physical proposals etc - and we discover the space and images through the fearless and generous use of instinct during rehearsals.

Taryn and James on a boat in The Snow Goose.
Pic by Philip Kuhn

If there are space or image issues that seem confusing, and even impossible to the actor - I ask that they have the grace and humility to follow the process until it is either clear in the rehearsal, or we are at an appropriate time to ask outside of the rehearsal space if needs be.  Or if the issue is something that an actor can effect within the rehearsal then the actor is asked to just do it in the flow without stopping or diverting the process to 'discuss' it.  Or to prove themselves in some way.  It's exhausting. Take a risk.

I work in a way that discoveries are made physically through trial and error.  I cannot have actors solving problems for other actors.  These are issues to be solved by the actor making their proposals and me as the director.  This 'private conversation' is an important part of the process and it is not open to comments or input from other actors watching while the working actor is in the state doing his or her own work.  These discoveries belong to the working actor and another actor's issues with or alternative ideas are completely irrelevant and even harmful to the process.  Each actor is responsible for themselves.  For the space they create.  For the voice they project.  For the physical body they inhabit.  And my role is to identify what works and help make these more visible.

The day Barileng first found the character of Mandela's mother leaving Mveso and singing...
when she removed her mask she was crying... she had given the space everything she had.
Pic by Sanmari Marais

I work in a way that embraces the unknown - and therefore, the fear of the unknown.  It is okay that an actor doesn't know where I am going with an exercise in a given moment.  It's okay for an actor not to know why it is important whether they push or pull wile they walk.  It's okay if an actor doesn't know if a mime works or doesn't work.  What matters is that the actor commits instinctively and makes a proposal, goes for it.  That they really risk failing, often so we can make discoveries that are much deeper and more imaginative and less expected than intellectual solutions that are more obvious and not born from the work of the group.  It is critical that an actor gets gets viscerally involved with what we are doing as a group.  This is the only way we have the opportunity to discover something we didn't already know.  Otherwise an actor might as well learn their lines, we block it and off we go.  I am not that kind of director.

I know that this process can be strange and intimidating at first and that many actors are unwilling or afraid of committing to this way of working.  I have seen this many times where an actor becomes defensive of their intellectualising, reluctant to get onto the floor to make physical proposals, and would rather discuss the details than do the work and take the necessary risk of being 'wrong' or at least not getting it 'right' first time.  I ask that an actor take that risk in order to fully benefit from and contribute to this process.  No one is going to solve the problems for the actor.  Only the actor can do that...  For example, how to catch a great big mimed fish in a way that the audience see the line - see the water - feel the struggle - feel the fish leap!  Or how to create the hustle and bustle of a busy school yard interrupted by a teacher with only three actors.

A school scene from Making Mandela with Jaques, Barileng and Mli.
Pic by Sanmari Marais

And for my part, in answer to the commitment I ask of the actors I work with, I am committed to being there to react to their proposals - to help clarify their proposals, to mould the best of the proposals into a cohesive production that could only have been created by these actors committing to their own creative instincts to this particular play at this particular time.  Issues of image, and space and technicalities and lighting and sound etc - these are my responsibilities, this is my role, they are not the job of the actors.  Whether a mask works... What props will be real... What the set pieces look like... What music will be used... What puppetry is used to augment a moment.  This is my work and I will take my own risks, and make my own proposals, and make my own mistakes and make my own commitment to the piece until I get it right.  That can often even be after its third run in front of an audience.

So in conclusion, I work in a way that I go 100% with my instinct first and think later.

I ask that actors:

1.  Commit to the warm up
2.  Do the character exploration exercises
3.  Let the other actors make their discoveries
4.  Allow yourself to be swept into the unknown
5.  Take risks
6.  Try and forget where they've come from and be here with me.

And sometimes it doesn't work out.  And then we have to go our separate ways...  Hopefully we are in some small way richer for having worked together.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Getting ready for Theatre on the Square

Here is an interview from just before the chaos of the National Arts Festival... In September we will be at Theatre on the Square with Making Mandela... and returning in December with The Snow Goose.  Exciting.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Camera Action.

Live TV is quite a thing. Here is an interview I did on Morning Live for 'Making Mandela.' Next time I will better prepared for what is the hectic-ness of this medium.

'Making Mandela' is confirmed for a three week run at Auto & General Theatre on the Square from 15 September - 2 October. And before that we will be a the National Arts Festival thanks to the help of The South African State Theatre. And before that... this weekend in fact... we will be at the Obs Family Festival in Cape Town. Rocking.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Making Mandela - The Story

Five and a half years later... Making Mandela opened at the State Theatre. Back in 2009 I applied for funding from the National Arts Council and was successful for a script writing grant. First I freaked out. Then I then spent a full year researching the life of Nelson Mandela. I realised pretty soon that I was mostly - if not solely - interested in his childhood. The idea of what makes us, moulds us, shapes us... into the adults we become. What makes a boy... A president.

Our poster... fantastic design by Sanmari of the State Theatre marketing department

During this research phase I visited the Apartheid museum and discovered the most amazing clash of history... Nelson Mandela was born in the same year that the Afrikaaner Broederbond formed and had their first meeting. Every state President and Prime Minister during the some 46 years of Apartheid was a member of the Afrikaaner Broederbond. Mandela and Apartheid were born in the same year. Can you believe it. I couldn't. So it is this that forms the narrative basis of how we tell our story. Drawing similarities between these two forces who would one day grow up to face each other in the ultimate battle for the freedom of South Africa.

Us on a billboard. The State Theatre's designer Sanmari Marais is fantastic!

After about two years of research, then scriptwriting, Nick Warren (my co-writer) and I ended up with 95 page script totalling approximately four hours of stage time. Nice. Lights up and welcome to our epic history lesson. After a public reading of this mammoth script at an NAC script writing initiative at the Grahamstown festival in 2010... I freaked out once again. Then I went to Italy to study theatre. Properly. Under the guidance of brilliant pedagogues Giovanni Fusetti and Matteo Destro. Meanwhile in the background Nick and I worked and reworked the script... tearing ourselves free from the hold of history. Which is hard. Nick was much better at it than me - I had done the research so to me everything was important.

Nick came to visit me in Florence (where I was studying), by this time we had been away from the work for like a year or so, and we decided to write down all the scenes we remembered. This was how we started the major edit that took us from 95 to 40 pages when we started rehearsals late last year.

Mli and Barileng at the Brixton Rec mid-rehearsals
So here's our storyline. The overarching structure. The lines of commonality between Nelson Mandela and The Broederbond. ...I'm not giving anything away. This is history after all.  And between these five points of vertical structure is of course the horizontal story.

Mandela's parents Fanny (Barileng Malebye) and Henry Gladla Madiba Mandela (Mlindeli Zondi)

They are both enter the world... Mandela is 'baptised' by what is called a passage through smoke... The Broederbond has their inaugural meeting and sanction their purpose.

They both grow up... Mandela is initiated into manhood...  The Broederbond begin to reorganise themselves on a Nazi system.

The both enter education... Mandela crosses the Bashee river for the first time to attend Senior Primary School...  The Broederbond is accused of taking dangerous hold on education.

They both enter financial world... Mandela is given his first pound note...  The Broederbond launch a number of major financial institutes.

They start to become who they are destined to be... Mandela joins the bus strike making his first public political action. The Broederbond release a number of statements which are the building block to the Apartheid laws.

In the end our story ends when then story we all know begins.

As mentioned in 2009, I received funding from the National Arts Council to write this script.  I then employed Nick Warren and we researched and wrote the script together.  I was invited to the NAC writing initiative ‘So you think you can write’ where the script was read publically in 2010. In 2013 (after furthering my studies) I applied and was successful for a percentage of the total production budget.  In 2014 I joined forces with KBT Productions to fully produce this piece. In 2015 the State Theatre accepted our application to be part of their Indie Spotlight Programme and come on board as part of the Original Production team.

I received a letter from the Nelson Mandela Foundation confirming their support of the production where they stated that any artist is within their right to do an interpretation of Mr. Mandela’s life, and to ensure that I give a research bibliography. 

·      The Nelson Mandela Story – Anna-Marie DuPreez
·      Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela
·      Christian-Nationalism and the rise of The Afrikaner Broederbond – Charles Bloomberg
·      The Official Comic Book – Nelson Mandela Foundation
·      The Authorised Biography – Anthony Sampson
·      Nelson Mandela – Mary Benson
·      The Early Life of Rolihlahla Madiba – Jean Guiloineau
·      A History of South Africa – Frank Welsh

·      Wikipedia and the internet

With all the writing and rewriting and rewriting... we went through so very many versions of the work with varying numbers of cast members. In the end, and budget dictating, we ended up with a cast of three performers. Jaques de Silva, who I have worked with previously and who is a very capable physical performer. Mlindeli Zondi, who I taught briefly at the Market Lab and who has a charm and charisma that is beautiful to watch. Barileng Malebye, who I found via Thami Mbongo and then auditioned and who is totally brilliant. All three are wonderful, hardworking, super talented performers.  And the show is tough on them.  But more on that in another post. 

Mlindeli Zondi, Barileng Malebye and Jaques de Silva

We were most fortunate to have the first two weeks of our three week run at the State Theatre sold out to Tshwane University... thanks to the Theatre's fantastic production team. Each show was followed by a Q&A and we were able to receive feedback, answer questions, clarify moments and then rework the show. The first show ran at 90 minutes... by week two we were running at 70 minutes. Diane De Beer came to watch it and gave me such brilliant feedback. She sat with me for an hour asking me what I intended and then telling me what she got out of it. This critical meeting allowed me to make a few brutal cuts which previously I was only thinking about. I am very grateful to her for affording me that time.

In 2014 I applied to be part of a programme 'Inspiring a Generation' through Assitej South Africa and Assitej Denmark that facilitated an exchange programme taking four South African theatre makers to Denmark to experience their 'All Ages' theatre.  This production is part of that programme... as what I saw and experienced there has influenced me greatly.  Both tangibly in the work but also intangibly in how I think about theatre.  One thing, for example, is allowing the audience onto the stage at the end of the show - while the actors are still all sweaty and in their costume - for the audience to interact with them and the work. It is such a fantastic, if unusual, thing.

Barileng in dialogue with the audience after our last show.
Gosh. This play has taken a long time. The next post will talk to the style.

Overall the response has been good.  Sometimes people (often older) get a little confused with all the character changes. But luckily they are very few and far between. We can't cast more people. Doh.

"Innovative physical comedy... an unmitigated delight to watch." Christina Kennedy, Business Day
"A playfulness that pulls into the heart of the production." Diane De Beer, The Star
"Soars with clean narrative lines... humour and pathos." Robyn Sassen, Arts at Large

We had an amazing experience towards the end of our run when the Minister of Telecommunications Dr Cwele came along to see the show and afterwards met with us and told that they were expecting to see another political piece '...and then this happened.'  He said we showed him a side of Mandela he didn't know.  That was cool.  He ended by saying 'all young people should see this.' We agree.

All of us with Aubrey from the State Theatre and the Minister and his wife.