Theatre Interview: Alby Michaels – 1 And Done, Or Completely Coupled

October 1, 2023




What happens when two people love one another so much that they attach physically? What does “forever, together” look like, and … can two people really be one? These are just some of the life and love questions that come into play in the delightfully absurd tragicomedy, 1, set to debut on the Aardklop Arts Festival stage from 4 to 7 October 2023. Written by Henriëtta Gryffenberg and with dramaturgy and direction by Alby Michaels, with Craig Morris choreographing the couple’s body language, the highly anticipated show is expected to be one of the most original pieces to be seen at Aardklop. Cindy Swanepoel and Zak Hendrikz co-star in the project.

Michaels reflects on the play’s development.


This is such a beautifully bizarre concept, How did you become involved?

Hedwig & The Angry Inch is a favourite musical of mine, and the story includes the myth of the origins of love. That comes from a Platonic concept that included people who were connected at the back of their heads, moving around by cartwheeling. Zeus then became jealous of them and split them up up, leaving them incomplete. They then spent the rest of their lives seeking each other, with that quest becoming known as “love”. Building on that, I researched Siamese twins, and I had the beginnings of a story about them.

At the time, I was sharing a house with Cindy, so she knew about the idea, but I didn’t have the hook I needed. Then Cindy came to me and said that she wanted to do it with Zak. She then approached Henriëtta – I didn’t have the time to work on it and I was too close to it. That led to a workshop process with Henriëtta, and the play was developed specifically for Cindy and Zak, and to suit my style as a director.


Direction is generally at least partly about managing actors’ movement around each other, their use of the stage and so on. How is it different when the goal is for two actors to be in one space?

I first thought about connecting them in an obvious way – there was going to be a huge headpiece. But that didn’t work. It came down to a physicality thing, in which every movement needed to be plotted. I tried it, then brought in Craig to help. There’s a symbolic nature to all of it. If Cindy and Zak didn’t work together so well, it might not have succeeded, and we also needed to allow them space to play. It’s beautiful but challenging, and we knew we needed to keep it simple and not override the narrative.


Cindy and Zak are old friends who already have a close relationship. What was the impact of that on the interaction of the characters, and how did the styles of each actor affect that?

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with Cindy and Zak separately a lot, and they’ve done another play together already, so we all know how to work together. Cindy’s approach is very intellectual – she needs to understand exactly what is needed. Zak feels it first in his body, so I can manage that differently, and look for the best in each of them. They have fantastic chemistry and trust each other and me, so there is a language between us.


The story offers a strong metaphor for a complex but relatable topic – all of us have either fallen in love or longed for the ideal of falling in love. How is 1 universal, and conversely, how does it seek to be unique?

What always bothers me in conventional storytelling is the ‘1+1=1’, ‘You complete me’ idea in which people lose their individuality. Universally, people will connect with that idea of feeling like they’re completed while also giving power away and not having agency. The unique aspect here is exploring what could happen if people grow together so much that they are one but then want to separate and find that they can’t. So we’re looking at whether love can last forever via magical realism.


You have Craig Morris choreographing body language and are using other techniques including shadow work and innovative costumes to emphasise your protagonists’ one-ness. How did you come up with creative ways to make the core concept convincing?

That happened first during script development. I then asked [set designer] Nadine Minaar to create a four-poster bed within this box that they’re theoretically in. We were using a metaphor of an apple in a box, breaking down inside there, with the detritus eventually becoming an apple again. The shadow work, subtle music and so on support the movement, helping the characters to explore how each can manipulate what makes them one. The whole thing is driven by interconnectedness – the story versus the device, the creative team versus the narrative and more.


You’re starting at a festival and maybe moving to theatres? What is the expected or hoped-for journey of the show?

A lot of people believe in this show, including Aardklop and KKNK. We’ll see how it lands at Aardklop and then maybe develop it a bit. We want to run it in Johannesburg, Pretoria and maybe overseas. The show has been in the works for ten years, and its a story everyone should see. The themes are simple, but they’re important.