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Vermaak | Entertainment > Teater | Theatre > Artikels | Features

Greig Coetzee is feeling good

Janet van Eeden - 2006-10-03

Speaking to Greig Coetzee just after he’s returned from the Edinburgh Festival where he won yet another award – this time a Scotsman Fringe First Award (for innovation in theatre and outstanding new production at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) for Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny – is an uplifting experience. Ten years after making the break from teaching at Girls' High in Pietermaritzburg, Coetzee has weathered the ups and downs of being a freelance actor, and believes his potentially hazardous career choice was a good one.  

“When I gave up teaching, everyone thought it was just a phase I was going through,” Coetzee laughs ruefully. “But the most interesting thing for me was that my parents supported me even when others didn’t. My father was working at Telkom in management at that time and when I told him my decision he said, ‘You’re a pale male with a BA. I wouldn’t employ you.’ He encouraged me to make my own way, which was such a surprise. I’d expected the standard response from him – to say I was crazy to give up a safe job just a year before I turned thirty, and to risk my future in a field which was going through dramatic changes in 1995. The funny thing is that while a lot of people were being very negative about the theatre – NAPAC and PACT and so on were closing down, for example – I just jumped into the vacuum.”
Jumping into the vacuum paid off spectacularly for Coetzee. Even though he was close to dropping out of acting near the end of his first gruelling year, he was invited to the Lincoln Centre in New York in 1997 to perform White Men With Weapons to a rapt and appreciative American audience.
“It was an astounding experience,” he says when I ask how an American audience related to a play about white conscripts in the SADF. “Vietnam Veterans came backstage and said that I’d told them my story and now they were going to tell me theirs. In fact, White Men has been performed in fourteen countries, and everywhere I’ve been, men and women have come up to me with their own stories. I’ve even had an ex-Israeli woman soldier talk to me about how the army treated her. The fact that White Men touched a cord even in Britain was an accident, really. I didn’t realise that the military animal and male aggression was such a universal experience.”
White Men With Weapons was the first sign that Coetzee was going to become a playwright and actor of iconic stature in South Africa. It won him an Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award, and also a Stage (the acting fraternity’s newspaper in Britain) Best Actor Award. Coetzee laughs when he says that it’s a pity the British regard attaching money to an award as vulgar, as every trip to Edinburgh leaves him out of pocket.
“Even Johnny Boskak, which won an award and was playing in one of the top venues, carried a loss of R50 000,” he explains. “But you have to go to these festivals. It’s a trade fair like Cannes, for example. You go there to sell your product, to perhaps get someone to take on the play for development into a movie script, and sometimes there may be the chance of a West End transfer. But it’s a bun fight. There are over 1 800 productions on the fringe alone, with 500 performances of shows on any given day. It’s very hard work. It’s so different from a theatre run where you have regular performance times and a venue dedicated to your show. The only people who really make money at Edinburgh are the stand-up comics. But the whole experience is very affirming. I’ve come back exhausted, but I feel like it’s a mission accomplished.”
The Grahamstown Festival is a picnic by comparison, I suggest. He agrees.
I ask Coetzee about the genesis of Johnny Boskak, his latest creation which was inspired by a character from White Men.
“I had one character in White Men that for some reason generated a lot of discussion after performances,” he answers. “I’d created this drug-crazed medic who tells a distasteful joke about kicking a baby through a window. Everyone talked about this character the most and I thought he had more of a story to tell.”
Coetzee gives much credit to his director and partner, Genna Lewis, for shaping the play’s structure. “Jenna is a writer as well as a director,” he says, “and in the early part of the rehearsal process I showed her what I had in mind with this character. She said he was a complete psychopath and felt I had to humanise him in some way. She pointed me in the direction of making him feel something, making him fall in love. It was an important step to identify that it had to become a love story. So Eve was created as his love interest, and from then on his search for her became something of a quest. The play became a theatrical road movie of sorts. I thought of him as Cain, sent out in banishment and finally becoming King of the Road.”
Trusting someone’s judgement enough to let him or her shape your work is a new experience for Coetzee, who admits to having been "a bit of a control freak” about his writing until this project. He also had to trust that Syd Kitchen would take his words and produce music which is almost a soundtrack to the play. Kitchen plays on stage throughout the performance and Coetzee says his music has exceeded his wildest dreams.
“When I first heard the piece Syd had written for Eve, I was just blown away,” he says. “He hit the nail on the head completely.”
Coetzee is currently doing a head-writing stint at SABC 3’s Isidingo between winning international theatre awards and performing, and says that writing for a soap was “just the wake-up call I needed. I have to ensure that 240 pages of script are produced per week, and I want to make those pages turn into amazing television. But the television machine doesn’t wait for anyone, so I’ve disciplined myself to work from 5 am until 10 am, which is my best writing time. One still has to produce good work, even though it’s a soap. One still has to look at character development, plot, climaxes, and so on. If anything, writing for a soap helps my other writing. For one thing, it stops you being precious about your work very quickly.”
Coetzee performed the award-winning Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny at the Hilton festival earlier in September.


First published in The Witness, September 15, 2006