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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Mike van Graan in conversation with Janet van Eeden on becoming Artscape's Associate Playwright

Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-30

Press release: “Artscape, one of the most productive theatre centres in the country, has announced an innovative partnership with award-winning playwright Mike van Graan that will see the Artscape Theatre Centre staging at least one of the writer’s works in each of the next three years. According to the agreement, Artscape has first option to produce or co-produce new works by Van Graan and to stage his works that have not been staged in the city before. One such example is Brothers in Blood (produced by the Market Theatre), that scooped the Naledi Theatre Award for Best New South African Play produced. Over the next three years Van Graan will be known as Artscape's Associate Playwright. He will benefit by enjoying access to rehearsal space and other forms of infrastructure support for staged readings of plays like Green Man Flashing that is aimed at schools that have prescribed the play, the development of new works-in-progress and the touring of appropriate works.”

Mike, the news that Artscape has made you their Associate Playwright is a true affirmation of you as an artist. It must be gratifying when your work is given such a seal of approval. How did this venture come about? Did Artscape approach you about this, or did you approach them?

I approached Artscape. Until now I’ve operated as an independent playwright/producer, rigorously avoiding being attached to one particular theatre or even working with one or two directors in particular. This was both to preserve ownership of my work as much as possible and to work with a range of people and institutions across traditional divides and theatre cliques, and in so doing, seek out an alternative practice for other independent theatre-makers that would not be beholden to particular local and international gatekeepers.

This is not to say that I don’t have my favourite theatres to work with, such as the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, and I will seek to work more and more with a director like Jaco Bouwer. But it saddens me that in post-1994 South Africa our theatre industry (or at least some of the primary institutional pillars) has, in some ways, become more polarised along racial lines, and that access to international markets depends to a large extent on the thumbs-up, or thumbs-down, of a few individuals.

A lot of my time has been spent trying to build networks of artists, of practitioners who would take more responsibility for their own lives, and recently I’ve been privileged to do this increasingly across the African continent through Arterial Network. In doing so I’ve become so aware of just how difficult it is for African theatre-makers to survive in their own countries and simply never to get on to the radar of other countries on the continent, let alone the major theatre markets of the global North.

So, largely because I simply haven’t found a sustainable model for independent theatre-making for myself, and because I’m interested in constantly looking for such models to replicate both here and across the continent, the idea of some kind of institutional base for a medium-term period came to mind.

To be honest, I made overtures to a few theatres, and Artscape was the one that responded warmly and generously.

What exactly does this partnership mean to you? Does it allow you more freedom and time to work on your plays rather than focusing on earning money by other means? Or is this partnership simply an acknowledgement of your body of work?

At the moment I have two day jobs: serving as the secretary-general of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, cultural activists, creative enterprises, cultural NGOs etc, that seeks to develop the African creative sector in its own right, but also as a meaningful contributor to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. My second job is as executive director of the African Arts Institute, which houses the secretariat of Arterial Network, but also seeks to harness South African expertise, resources, markets, infrastructure, etc in the service of the broader African creative sector, eg introducing African artists and their creative work to South African markets.

These are pretty demanding, and I travel extensively, in recent years spending a total of 3-4 months out of the country each year, which means that I have very little time to devote to my own creative work in the course of facilitating the creative work of others. For me, writing a play is the easiest part of producing a play. It’s the schlep of raising the funds, overseeing the logistics, doing the marketing, drafting the contracts, etc which doesn’t appeal to me or for which I simply don’t have the time. What this partnership does is allow me to plan my creative output for the next three years at least: which plays will be done when, and which need to be written by when, in order for the proper infrastructure and resources to be put in place to ensure the delivery of those outcomes. This way I can draw on the incredible institutional experience, support, resources, networks, audiences and stature of an institution like Artscape rather than run around trying to make things work with the minimum of support that independent theatre-makers have in our country.

Is Artscape’s entering into this venture an acknowledgement of my work? I would like to think so. Certainly most of the acknowledgement for my work from the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, for example, have been for productions like Dinner Talk and Die Generaal, which were produced at Artscape. As a “receiving house” in terms of current government policy where our publicly funded theatres do not have a producing mandate I am, of course, flattered to have this association, and I’m committed to making it work, not just for me, but because of the similar possibilities that it opens for other playwrights both at Artscape and at theatres across the country, and maybe even the continent.

You have been a prominent playwright for a number of years. How many plays have you written in all, and which is your most successful, in terms of audience popularity, firstly, and then in terms of being the play you’re the most proud of?

My first play for the formal theatre stage was The dogs must be crazy created with the Community Arts Project and performed at the National Arts Festival in 1991. Since then I’ve written a further 18 plays. Since the success of Green Man Flashing in 2004, I decided to write at least one new play per year in order to have a profile and a legitimacy as an artist rather than primarily as a cultural activist, and most of my 19 plays have actually been written in the past eight years.

In terms of audience popularity, the Bafana Republic franchise with its three editions has undoubtedly been the runaway success, especially at the National Arts Festival, where they played to numerous sold-out shows. But if one is talking about a play as opposed to a one-person satirical show, then Green Man Flashing, which some regard as my “signature play”, was probably the most popular.

As for the play of which I’m most proud, I feel a little like a parent who’s proud of all his children, albeit for different reasons. Let’s put it this way: if I had to have a mini-festival of the works that I would best like my brand as a playwright to be associated with, then it would include Green Man Flashing, a reworked Hostile Takeover, Die Generaal, Iago’s Last Dance and Brothers in Blood.

It’s wonderful news that Green Man Flashing has been prescribed as a school set book. Is that only in the Cape, or is it prescribed nationally? Do you think this is one of the few ways playwrights can make money selling publications of their work?

At the moment, Green Man Flashing is prescribed nationally by the high schools that fall under the Independent Education Board (IEB), like St Mary’s and St Stithians, Cedar House, etc. I certainly won’t be able to retire off the sales of the work to these schools, but having one’s work prescribed for schools is certainly one revenue stream for playwrights. John Kani has done particularly well from Nothing But The Truth, where tens of thousands of copies were bought by the Department of Education for schools under its jurisdiction.

Could you tell the readers of LitNet about the play you’re taking to the Grahamstown Festival this year? Who is in the cast and what is it about?

The play is titled Is it because I’m Jack? and was actually commissioned by the Aardklop Arts Festival last year with funding from Laurie Dippenaar, who gave his wife, Estelle (a member of Aardklop’s board and a passionate theatre lover), the play as a present for a significant birthday. Since then it’s been reworked and we’ve integrated a new actor, Mark Elderkin, in place of Clyde Berning, who got longer-term work in a Pieter Toerien production. It’s directed by Yvette Hardie – recently elected president of ASSITEJ, the international network of children’s and youth theatre – and also features Anele Matoti, Andrew Laubscher and Morne Visser.

It’s a comedy drama with some black humour and it deals with pretty dark themes. One of this group of friends – all in their early thirties – is diagnosed with cancer and has only a few months to live. He has a dream, though, that out of the four of them, he will the last to die, which, of course, they all pooh-pooh. Then one of them is killed in a motorcycle accident, and suddenly the dream becomes a nightmare for the remaining friends. How do they avoid fate? Do they get rid of the guy who had the dream, which will then break the “curse”?

Is it because I’m Jack? starts out as a bit of guy-buddy play, but it deals with issues of friendship, of loyalty and of self-preservation in a way that will make people think about themes that they would rather avoid, but at least they will be entertained thoroughly while doing so (or at least that’s my intention!).

Would you still like to be writing plays five years from now? Do you ever feel you have a novel you’d like to write instead?

I hope I’ll still be writing plays in five years’ time! This year in particular, I have a number of opportunities to have my work presented – at least as staged readings – in a range of international contexts – New York, Buenos Aires, Milan, London and even Romania! So, I’m hoping that this will lead to a little more demand for the kind of work that I do – rather than the happy clappy rainbow or exotic Africa work that international promoters seem to have thrived on.

As for a novel, yes, I sometimes think of turning one of my plays – like Some Mothers’ Sons – into a novel, as one can give it so much more texture and finesse than a one-hour production can. I also think that in terms of literature, playwrights are placed at the bottom of the literary ladder, under novelists, short story writers, poets, essayists, non-fiction writers and columnists (certainly that’s my experience at literary festivals). So, if for no other reason, I sometimes think that having a novel will at least provide access to another kind of platform from which to speak truth to power.

I think the dream we all have as playwrights is to have an audience made up of a cross-section of the community, in the way theatregoers frequented plays in the times of Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks. What do you think of the state of theatre in our country at the moment? Is it still largely an elitist sport or are playwrights beginning to have wider audience appeal?

Unfortunately, given the class divides in our country, our government’s chosen macro-economic path, the increasing gap between rich and poor and the absence of subsidies for theatres to produce work, theatre – at least professional, mainstream theatre – will always be accessible primarily to those with disposable income, which would be less than five percent of our population. The rapid rise in festivals has made theatre a lot more accessible than CBD-based theatres, but there is a serious need for a rethink on how to move theatre beyond the primary centres where it has played, as it played during the apartheid era. It is not that playwrights or theatre do not have wide appeal; it is that structurally – institutionally, in terms of policy and funding – the current regime has simply not lived up to its 1996 White Paper promise to make the arts accessible to all.

Ironically, there is not too much theatre that manages to cross old racial divides; in fact, a lot of post-apartheid theatre reinforces some of these divides with “coloured” audiences going to work by “coloured” theatre-makers, black audiences doing the same, Afrikaans festivals catering for Afrikaans-speakers, a major market simply ignored by most of our theatres, etc. Rather than conform to this, and its box-office realities, I choose to continue to pursue the holy grail of theatre work that speaks to a cross-section of people who identify, or are grappling to identify, themselves as South Africans, rather than as some or other racial or ethnic construct.

How can playwrights ensure that their work reaches those who can’t afford to go to the Grahamstown festival, for example? Is it the government’s responsibility to see that this happens? Or is it the playwrights’ job to make sure the plays travel widely?

It is a fundamental human right (Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that “Everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts …” It is government’s responsibility to ensure that the infrastructure, the institutional framework and the resources are in place for this fundamental human right to be enjoyed. It is up to playwrights, producers and theatre-makers then to appropriate the infrastructure (eg theatres in every province, community arts centres for every 250 000 people) and bring theatre to where people are. Till that happens, theatre will remain irrelevant to the lives of 90 percent of our population! Are we really satisfied with that?