Friday, May 17, 2019

the death of an Elephant

The possibility arose for Barbara and I to perform our clown show 'A Day in the Desert' in 2014 in Florence... and we jumped at it. I was in Europe anyway on a cultural exchange in Denmark. We had last performed the show in South Africa in 2013, so this gave us the opportunity to work on it again. And we did just that - but this time with Vika (who Barbara and I studied with in Italy) as our outside eye. Lucky us! We changed many things of course... adding little details and clarifications here and there. But for me the most important change was when the dead elephant 'arrived on the stage.' Previously, in our South African run, I had only described the dead elephant as a tent... and in this rework we physically mimed pulling back 'the tent,' and we went inside. There we were, two clowns, standing inside a dead Elephant. My dad was dying of cancer at the time. And I was far far away from him talking about death from inside death. I have a feeling that only clowns can do this, like this. In the end the we didn't get to perform in Florence - I got a call that my dad had only a few days, possibly hours, left and I had to rush home. A car trip to Rome and two flights later - I got there in time to tell him that I love him. We spoke about Botswana (where I grew up) and thanked him for the amazing life he gave us. How very lucky we have been. We were all with him when he went. Suddenly his heart rate soared and went to zero... He took his last breath and was gone. I held his hand while he died... the elephant, walking towards the end of life, to where only he can go. Art and life coming together through clown and creative process. It was quite something. 

After all of that work and all that emotion we only performed the reworked show about a year and a half later in California... And it was wonderful!  

Barbara and I running our lines in Santa Cruz
We changed the beginning to allow the audience to really see us and experience us as 'simple' clowns before the narrative story began. The play started with us walking on stage and warming up... we sang a song, we did a little tap dance... all of which was outrageously performed and a whole load of fun for us and the audience. Only then was the audience more ready to go on the journey with us. 

When we first performed it in South Africa it was my feeling that we moved into the story too quickly. That they needed more time to see us and understand this wonderful world of clown before being able to come with us into the story. 

I have since read quite a bit about clown and in John Wright's book 'Why is that so funny' and he talks of the simple clown, the melodramatic clown and the tragic clown. In 'A Day in the Desert' we are definitely in world of tragic clown... and as he says first the audience must experience the simple clown before entering the tragedy. Our new beginning allowed for... as evidenced by how the American audiences really did come with us. It was wonderful. 


Each time we got to the part of the death... I grieved for my dad. My dad who loved theatre so very much. He was my biggest fan... hopefully he still is... somewhere out there in the cosmos or the elephant graveyard. Who knows.

Getting ready in Arcata.

Warming up.

My most favourite house in Sant Cruz

Another absolute stunner.
San Francisco. 

We see you big tree.

Avenue of Giants.

Till we meet again America! Thank you.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Acting Out

That time I had a little role opposite the very funny Sonia Esgueira. After a super fun (and rather terrifying) audition process of improvising crazy scenes... this is the promo.  Performing is really the most fun one can ever have.  I think.  Zoe and Gilly (and of course the whole crew) did a really fab job.

ACTING OUT from Urucu Media on Vimeo.

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.