Theatre: Inspiring A Generation Or Oh, Happy Dane: Part The Third

April 22, 2014

Background Info: ASSITEJ South Africa is the national network of ASSITEJ (Association International du Theatre pour l’Enfance et la Jeunesse/ The International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People). It is a global alliance linking thousands of theatres, organisations and individuals in more than 85 countries, working in the field of theatre for children and young people. It was established in 1965, and currently has its office in Zagreb, Croatia. ASSITEJ aims to promote and foster high quality theatre for young people, to raise standards within the industry, to increase access and awareness, to be an advocate for the right of every child to arts education in schools, and to build relationships within the sector locally, nationally, across the continent and globally.Inspiring A Generation is an ASSITEJ SA and Theatre Arts Admin Collective initiative that aims to inspire theatre practitioners to make innovative, cutting edge theatre for children in South Africa. Building a new generation of artists working in theatre for children and young people will create a generation of children and young people who love and are inspired by theatre. The 2014/2015 programme (of which I am a part, along with fellow South Africans Jayne Batzofin, Jenine Collacott, Thando Baliso) is generously sponsored by the Distell Foundation and the Danish Arts Council.

Week 3 – Theatre Island Power Dating

On the outskirts of Copenhagen, across the canal from the statue of The Little Mermaid, a man named Peter is slowly buying up old harbour buildings and ex-military bunkers to develop a collective creative space. So far the ambitious project includes three rehearsal spaces, a theatre and a number of little rooms used for offices or guest bedrooms depending on project needs. Our little foursome was delivered to this higgledy-piggledy scattering of rooms, kitchens, bathrooms and workspaces at 11pm on a Sunday. On Monday, we discovered our relative proximity to Christiania – the hippie colony that rejects capitalism in favour of art, community and living on a lake, while remaining within the borders of (and being economically dependent upon) modern Copenhagen – and dodged the green light district in search of pastry.

On Tuesday, these premises became home to Power Dating – a workshop led by Mark, one of the creative directors of Zebu. Aside from us four South Africans, the workshop was attended by 12 Danes – set designers, actors, directors, musicians and choreographers connected to the children’s theatre industry. We were shuffled into groups, given a “starting point” in the form of a piece of text or an image, and given two hours or less to create a short piece of theatre. We presented our work before being re-shuffled into new groups to repeat the exercise with a different starting point. We did this about seven times over three days. After each presentation Mark would say “Thank you… next”. There was no criticism, no discussion of what worked and didn’t.

The workshop was purely there to give us a chance to use anything as a catalyst and to practice developing a process with a new group because that is what is necessary to devised work. When a play is based on a script, the hierarchy is usually quite standardised and the director decides the process. With devised work, the director may still be given the role of decision-making but the role of creating something from nothing is much more evenly divided between the participants.

Tapping into each person’s unique creativity while finding one path to follow towards a final product can be a difficult exercise in group dynamics. By removing criticism and high stakes from the “final product” in each of the workshop exercises, we were much more able to just say “yes” – the first rule of improvisation – and allow each process to emerge differently from the energies in the room. I don’t think I would recommend this method for an entire process from devising to rehearsal and performance, but I do think it is an incredibly useful way to start a process and to explore many directions without criticism before choosing the way forward.

On a personal level, the workshop went some way to liberating me from my fear of groups. This was largely thanks to the enormous generosity of the Danes. All of them were more experienced in their fields than I am and yet none of them treated me with anything but respect and receptiveness. I felt that I could contribute; more importantly, that I should.

And then it was over. Three days off stretched ahead of us. We explored Christiania further and visited the Round Tower, the State Art Museum and The Little Mermaid statue. We drank beer and visited a renowned purveyor of cakes. After such intensity for three weeks, time off left me feeling a little un-tethered. The Batida clan continued their wonderful hospitality, giving us little tours of the city and inviting us for tea but I was homesick and the nerves were starting to build.

I’m launching a children’s theatre company on 10 May and I need to apply all my learning from Denmark to that project as soon as possible. I’m performing in three shows at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, two of which I’m producing, and I haven’t booked accommodation yet! I have no paying jobs lined up and little time to remedy that in the next three months. Eek!

Only once I sat down in Dubai International, during our nine-hour layover, did it suddenly hit me. I went to Denmark! I saw babies left on pavements (another story…” and ate Danish pastry. I saw more than 40 shows and was hosted by three fabulous companies, all of whom are keen to hear about and contribute to my development in the next year. I have a project ready to receive input and a whole year to create new work. My mind is alive with ideas and I’m seeing my whole network in a new light; every person I know is a potential contributor to my next show. I am so hugely grateful. I am also hugely aware of the responsibility that comes with a gift like this.

I am grateful to Yvette Hardie, Caroline Calburn and Assitej South Africa and Denmark for selecting me, finding funding (thanks Distell and the Danish Arts Council) and for the input along the way so far. Jori Snell has been an important bridge between the South African and Danish contingents and an insightful guide to our group. Soren, Tina, Karen, Maria, Tobias and the rest of Batida; Dirk, Maria, Thomas and Julia of Patrasket and Mark and Joren from Zebu – these are some of the warmest and most hospitable people I have ever met, besides being endlessly inventive in their work.

I need to thank Thando Baliso, Jayne Batzofin and Jenine Collocott for being an amazing tour group. No-one was annoying! (ok, except maybe me). I have never spent three weeks with a group without some drama, a truckload of tension and a smattering of snappiness. These guys were so considerate. With all that we were seeing and learning, I appreciated having their thoughts and insights, being able to share fears and new ideas and knowing that despite our different experiences before now, we have embarked on a journey together in the last month, that ties us together in the quest to Inspire A Generation.