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The Heroís Journey

Janet van Eeden

In my scriptwriting classes I encourage students to cast their eye over one of the most used blueprints by US scriptwriters: Christopher Vogler’s The Hero’s Journey. I encourage them to use it as a tool when they are stuck with their scripts but not to let it hamper their creativity in any way. Vogler based his theory on the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, written by Joseph Campbell, the first person to identify that most good storytellers throughout time followed the path of a hero or heroine – someone who overcomes the odds.

The Hero’s Journey came to mind very strongly when I took my play A Matter of Time to Grahamstown this July. Taking a play to the festival is always an adventure along the lines of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. This one, though, laden with a cast of seven, a stage manager, a designer, an itinerant director, and a script that had been through more renovations than the White House, was an epic undertaking from the start.

The first stage in Act One of The Hero’s Journey is to establish the Ordinary World. In this journey it’s home, where it’s warm and cosy now winter has set in and where lots of television and dvd’s can be watched and lots of chocolate eaten. The second stage of the journey is the Call to Adventure. The call is the Grahamstown Festival. Now this is the moment that a hero/heroine has to make an active decision either to answer or to refuse the call. The decision to take yet another play to the festival is never made lightly. There is so much anguish putting one’s work on the line and trying to make one’s inner vision become a reality on stage that most sensible people would rush to a video store and book a month’s supply of their best movies. But then, a hero/heroine never chooses the sensible route. So application forms are sent to the festival and to the National Arts Council for funding yet again. The call is answered.

The next stage is the Meeting of the Mentor. A director whose vision seems to coincide with the writer’s own is chosen and a highly talented designer is booked to visualise the piece as a moving work of art. Two mentors should be more than enough.

Then it is time to Cross the First Threshold. This is the part when excitement sets in. The National Arts Council (blessed be they forever) provide a grant of R30 000. This should cover the cost of travel to and accommodation in Grahamstown (more or less). And more grants will be applied for as time passes to cover the costs of paying for a large cast and crew. The next step is to cast the play and start rehearsals.

All this is still the easy part.

The next stage is when all hell breaks loose. Tests, Allies and Enemies is the step which begins the Second Act. All seems to be going so well, and producer/writer/Poppie is lulled into a false sense of calm. Suddenly every application for more funding is turned down. Then the dimensions of the stage in which to perform in Grahamstown arrive. The designer and producer/writer/Poppie sit down and shake their heads sadly. All those wonderful, creative ideas to actualise this script have to be scuppered. It’s down to basics. Furniture and clothes only. But this was not going to hamper anyone! Not at all. The formidable director arrives in fits and starts and blows everyone away with his strong approach. Everyone licks their wounds after his work calls him away yet again and, in spite of it all, they all feel stronger as actors. He brings out aspects of them they never knew they had.

The next test is the trip to Grahamstown. Armed with hopes and great expectations the cast and crew fill three cars. The drive to Grahamstown takes twelve hours, but the motley crew is full of excitement to perform the first show. But first they go out for supper and play a game similar to that in the play – a version of Truth and Consequences – and drink lots of whiskey. On a high in more ways than one they troop out at 1 am, only to find a car that will not start. Suddenly every drunk in town surrounds them, offering their services as mechanics. Then they threaten to steal everything and even possibly hurt everyone. Fortunately the brave male actors rescue the females from a number of reprobates who could have come straight out of the play. In the play two women break down and are at the mercy of an unscrupulous mechanic. The cast and crew marvel at how life imitates art, and lurch home to sleep for a few hours before the first performance.

In the morning more trials await. The car is dead again, they still have to get all the furniture from a second-hand shop that doesn’t charge a year’s salary for the hire of a few sad bits of furniture, props have to be bought and empty alcohol bottles found. A technical rehearsal is scheduled before 2 when the first show starts. Suffice to say that many hours are spent in the garage. The valiant stage manager and the producer/writer/Poppie find all the props with just an hour to spare. They arrive at the venue to find that the sound system isn’t working. Much of the small grant has been spent on original music for the play. The producer/writer/Poppie is forced to resort to her inner demons to threaten to sue the Grahamstown Foundation if a sound system isn’t found in the few short minutes before the play starts. Ten minutes before “curtain up” – there were only a few flats to hide behind, never mind a curtain – a brand new sound system arrives, with price tag still attached. They give their first performance. A remarkable one considering all that could have gone wrong. Not much did. They feel more or less pleased with themselves.

Then an apparent ally arrives: someone wants to do a profile on producer/writer/Poppie for Cue newspaper. Many ticket sales would ensue from this, they think. A lovely man interviews producer/writer/Poppie and it seems as if this is a turn for the good. A positive review is also found in Cue, encouraging people to see the show. It all looks very good.

But not for long.

The day after the profile is published the positive review is changed to a most damning one – something that has never been done at the festival before. That is also about the time that the now completely broke producer/writer/Poppie finds out her last hope of a final grant has not come through. And it’s at the same time as she sees that the sales for the next performance have peaked at the mind-boggling total of nine. This is time for her to reach for her shadow self again. Producer/writer/Poppie’s inner warrior rages off to the Cue offices to confront said interviewer/critic who has done the profile, seen the play and changed the review. Much is said while many cigarettes (mostly his) and lots of frustrated tears (mostly hers) are shared. They form a deep bond in the way only an honest critic and a strong but humble criticisee can, and he agrees to modify the crit to a slightly less brutal one. She vows to live up to the phrase he has tagged to her in his profile – that she has a spine of steel.

And the next stage is reached: the Approach to the Innermost Cave.

Introspection was required. As was quite a lot of whiskey. But producer/writer/Poppie emerges from the cave fortified by the presence of the valiant cast and crew. And the whiskey, of course. Together they vow to show the world how strong they really are. Each performance grows stronger and stronger. Actors blow themselves away with the strength of their performances. Louise Buchler, James Aitchison and Nathan Mitchell give the performances of their lives. The old hand, professional Thomie Holtzhausen, is his pitch-perfect self throughout. And the two complete first-timers, Dante Kemp and Amandla Maphalala, develop a love for the stage which they won’t lose easily. All this is monitored by the sanguine stage manager, Johann Hyman. Producer/writer/Poppie accesses her latent love of acting and has a ball as a woman who knows how to sort out an inconvenient problem such as a dead body.

This approach allows them to enjoy the climax of the Second Act: the Reward. They enjoy their performances. And many audience members do too. Most of these are young and accepting of new faces playing leading roles and they also happen to love the schlock-horror genre.

The beginning of Act Three is called the Road Back. Of course this coincides with the trip back home. Just before the final performance the night before they leave, producer/writer/Poppie has a moment when she cries long and hard. None of her expectations have been met. She is in debt to the tune of around R30 000 and there is no hope of ever making up the money through the shows. There’s also been no real critical acclaim. And there was a realisation that perhaps her expectations had been the wrong ones.

And these trials allow them all to reach the next stage in the Hero’s Journey: the Return Home with the Elixir. The elixir in this case is the knowledge that for an artist the main achievement is the work itself. Acclaim and money should never be an artist’s primary desire. Granted, these would be very nice thank you very much. But the lesson for this journey is that the work itself is the very thing itself, as King Lear said.

They leave Grahamstown feeling very good about their performances and the play, full of tales of the mishaps, on stage and off, which are the only things which make a play worth talking about, really.

But as in all good scripts, there is always a final twist. The arrival back home is greeted not with welcome and approbation. There are more trials to face: more slings and arrows of outraged critics. Rejections from all corners fly as the play does not fulfil the desires of those who saw it. And once again producer/writer/Poppie is reduced to Retreating to the Innermost Cave. Luckily she catches the bottle with the elixir just as it falls towards the ground as she collapses. She squeezes a few drops from the mouth of the vessel and drinks them. The magical drops remind her that even failure can be noble. As William James, a philosopher in the mid-nineteenth century, said, “With no attempt there can be no failure and with no failure no humiliation. So our self esteem in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and to do.” Producer/writer/Poppie reminds herself that her duty as an artist is to produce her work. The success or failure of the work depends on the opinions of others, and this is the worst possible measure to have of self-worth.

She and the cast and crew all live to fight another day. And producer/writer/Poppie begins to plan her next journey.

LitNet: 26 July 2006

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