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Michelle McGrane in conversation with playwright Janet van Eeden

Michelle McGrane

Janet van EedenJanet van Eeden is a freelance journalist, playwright and scriptwriter. She was an English and Drama teacher until the birth of her daughter eleven years ago, when she realised she had to start writing or at the end of her life regret not having been a writer. She has since become a freelance contributor to many publications.

In 1999, Van Eeden's radio play A Matter of Time was shortlisted in the BBC World Write Around the World playwriting competition. She has written nine screenplays, one of which is in development with a producer in the United Kingdom, as well as writing, producing and directing The Savage Trilogy, three stage plays dealing with famous artists who have struggled to produce their work. The three productions have premiered at the Grahamstown Festival, and the final play in the trilogy, The Savage Sisters, has recently been performed at The Witness Hilton Arts Festival. Van Eeden has just been commissioned to write the script of a lion feature documentary.

Janet lectures in Script and Play Writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, and teaches Public Reading and Speaking at St Joseph's Seminary in Cedara. She lives in Pietermaritzburg with her husband and three children.

Janet, tell me about the course you completed in Drama in Education under Dorothy Heathcote at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

I fell into studying Drama in Education almost by default. I completed my degree in English and Drama at Rhodes University and had set my heart on acting. Unfortunately, the death of my older brother on the border that same year shook my very foundations. So when I went to UCT to take up the final year of my bursary studying Acting Honours, I couldn't perform on stage at all. I literally couldn't say a word during my initial audition, as I was so deeply disturbed by my brother's death. So the lecturers decided I should take Drama in Education Honours instead. It was a good idea. The foundations of Drama in Education at that time were to meet the students where they were at, emotionally and intellectually. Through learning to get in touch with the children we were teaching during practicals, I began to get in touch with my own pain.

Dorothy Heathcote was the leading guru in the field at that time and she came to Jo'burg to give a workshop in the 1980s. I asked her if I could spend time with her at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and she invited me, graciously. I went overseas for six weeks and spent time with her teaching her Honours and Masters' students. I learnt so much from her. She is a woman of the greatest wisdom and integrity and I wished I could have spent more time with her. She enhanced my gut feeling that people should be taught with infinite respect, and should always be encouraged to find their strengths and be led towards living authentic lives. She just happened to use drama to try to make people whole. I used and still use her principles in all the teaching I do.

Working as a Drama Specialist at a school in Cardiff for three years must have given you many wonderful opportunities to watch British theatre productions. Were there any productions that really stood out for you?

One of the highlights of teaching drama at the wonderful Howell's Public School for Girls in Cardiff was to take the girls to see plays once a month in either London or Stratford upon Avon. This was part of my job! How lucky can you get? I saw the top actors of that time perform in all sorts of productions.

I found the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions among my favourites, especially their production of King Lear at that time. But I wasn't always impressed by what I saw, to my infinite surprise. I went to see my heroine at that time, Glenda Jackson, starring opposite Nigel Hawthorne in a production in London. I was so disappointed in the play. I could admire their performances, which were technically superb, but the play was soulless and meaningless. It was then that I thought (arrogantly I am sure!) that I could write better plays than that!

Is going to the theatre in the United Kingdom any different from watching performances in South African theatres?

Going to the theatre is part of the national lifestyle in a much greater way than it is in South Africa. Although the younger generations are not quite as supportive of theatre as the British were in the years before the technological revolution of the late twentieth century, almost every Briton will go to the theatre at some time in a year, even if it is to see the annual pantomime. What I really loved about this culture was that the playwrights are revered as much as the actors and directors. This is something which isn't quite entrenched in our culture yet. Writers are really respected for their work in Britain. May we soon catch up with them!

Can you briefly describe your scriptwriting process to me?

This is a very difficult description, Michelle. Each script is so different. But I usually write from the perspective of telling a good story, rather than the more formulaic approach which is now becoming imperative in the UK and the States. The scriptwriting gurus, such as Robert McKee and Christopher Vogler, have given producers the tools to beat writers with. I have made myself familiar with the work of these writers and usually apply their advice after I have found my story. But to me, the story is everything. Having said that, though, through all my many scripts I have written - some of which are good only as examples of how not to write a script! - I have learnt the value of structuring a play for the most dramatic effect. My last play, The Savage Sisters, had very dense subject matter. And until I discovered the structure and the format I would use, the way to put all the information I had read in my research into it, I could not begin writing. This was a first for me. I knew the ending of my play before I wrote the first line. It was quite a relief, really, to know my end point. I am not sure whether that will happen so definitely again. Each script or play has a life of its own.

Tell me about your first trilogy play, A Savage from the Colonies. What propelled you to write it and why did you choose to base it on Katherine Mansfield's life?

It was quite late in my life that I realised I had to become a writer or lie on my deathbed one day saying, "Do you know? I should have been a writer?" The death of my father and second brother compounded my initial sense of loss after my first brother's death and I was very much thrown off course. I took refuge in teaching, and this was a good healing time. When my daughter was born in 1994 while I was still in Cardiff, I was overwhelmed with the realisation that I must start writing if I was to fulfil my life's purpose. At that stage I had three children and was teaching. We decided to come back to South Africa in 1996. And my husband was deeply concerned about my earning money rather than "messing about" writing. We couldn't make ends meet without my income. I felt compelled to write, but this was very much against the odds. But I had to do it in spite of all opposition, but the stress ensured I ended up with TB. I read one of Katherine Mansfield's journals at that time. She too had, and eventually died of, TB. She also found it difficult to be taken seriously as a writer. And her husband thought his work was more important that hers. She died before she fulfilled her true potential. I was compelled to tell her story in a play. I wrote it while teaching part-time to pay my actors, and then asked Peter Mitchell to rehearse it - I'd already booked it into the Grahamstown festival, as I wasn't going to allow any room for failure. My health suffered again as I was doing a job I really wasn't enjoying. When the National Arts Council gave me the funding to take my play to Grahamstown I resigned from my job and left that same day. I felt the Universe was backing me, and I was being given the chance to fulfil my dream. The play was about Katherine trying to express her voice against the odds. It moved me inexpressibly. I was in tears at the end of every performance. It was my story as much as Katherine's.

How did it feel, watching your first play being performed to an audience?

It was the most wonderful feeling to see the play come to life. It had a little bit of a ropey start and then Ian Roberts came in to help and eventually took over the direction from Peter Mitchell. That wasn't ideal. But the performances were deeply moving. We had some very small houses in Grahamstown as I wasn't known at all, but my dear actors performed their hearts out nonetheless. The true reward was when Stephen Gray did his wrap of the Grahamstown Festival in the Mail & Guardian and started with my play. He said it was an "ingenious three hander and deeply engrossing". That was all the reward I needed at that time. The other interesting thing was that my husband saw the play and finally realised that what I was writing was good. It was the first time that he realised that my work was important.

What was the impetus behind your second production, Oviri, The Savage Civilian?

Well, I'd read the novel The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham when I was in standard nine. It is loosely based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. I was so impressed at that time by the story of a man who was a conventional Paris stockbroker but who became compelled to follow what he believed was his true calling when he was nearly forty. When I read it as a young girl I had no idea my life would mirror his! My friend Ian Roberts said he would like to play the lead role. So I started to work on the play. It wasn't meant to be the second Savage play, but when I was doing my research I learnt that Gauguin was called Oviri by the Tahitian people he lived with at the end of his life. I had one of those cold shiver moments when I read that Oviri meant "the Savage who lived in the forest". That had to be another Savage play! The name on his tombstone in Tahiti - such as it is - is Oviri. As it turned out, Ian was offered a TV series which paid more money than I could, so he couldn't play the lead role. But the wonderful Deon Stewardson, son of the legendary Joe Stewardson, stepped in at the eleventh hour and saved the project. He made the play come alive like no one else could. With all the crisis about casting I couldn't believe this play would happen. But when Deon read the first words in our rehearsal nine days before we opened in Grahamstown, I felt complete certainty that this play would live.

How did you find working with Ian Roberts?

Ian is a very good touchstone for me. He is able to see through to the essence and integrity of the story. While we were rehearsing my first play, he made changes almost every day and I would do rewrites in the evening before the next day's rehearsal. It was a fairly brutal process, but because I'd been ill, the play wasn't perfect when we started rehearsals. And I would never have made any changes if I didn't agree with them. With my second play, Oviri, Ian read my first draft and said he was disappointed with it and I needed to rework it. I was devastated at first, to be honest, as I always have to do playwriting in the midst of a million other things. But I listened, after I'd put my pride in my pocket, and rewrote the whole thing. The second version was so much better than the first. Ian never tones down or sweetens his advice and I've become stronger by learning to cope with it. He says now he admires my resilience in taking anything he threw at me and coming back for the next round without ever giving up. I have grown a lot since those days, though, and have learnt to apply those same rigorous standards to my work for myself. Ian taught me never to compromise on integrity.

In your third trilogy play, The Savage Sisters, how did you decide which three women authors you were going to create the script around? What particularly drew you to Jane Austen, Fanny Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft?

I'd had a dream - I have these, you see, and my initial impetus to write screenplays was also compelled by a dream - that I had to do a Masters on Jane Austen and of her writing herself into life through her novels. The University of KZN accepted me for Masters, but all my reading made me feel compelled to write another play. At that stage people were asking me if I was writing a trilogy of Savage plays. I then committed myself three years ago to write the third one on Jane Austen. One of the lecturers at KZN, Dr Liz Gunner, suggested that I look at Fanny Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft as well. I didn't let on that I hadn't ever heard of them before! When I started reading about these women, I was blown away by their lives. Mary Wollstonecraft ended up stealing the play. Her life story was unbelievable. And she became the main protagonist of the play.

In The Savage Sisters you've used the dramatic device of a play within a play within a play. What was the greatest difficulty you faced in writing the script?

My biggest difficulty in writing The Savage Sisters was how to fit in all the information that I had read into such a short space of time. The average length of a fringe play at the Grahamstown festival is only one hour. I had to consider how I would construct a play based on so many facts into a format which would be easily digestible for the average theatre audience.

There was also a real danger to be avoided: I did not want to fall into the trap of having each author read long screeds of prose from her work. Static reading for long periods would be sure to send the audience to sleep, and was to be avoided at all costs. The reading of extracts alone could never be considered to be a dramatic play.

So I decided to look at the actual problems I was having constructing the play and finding a way to dramatise them as the very vehicle to drive the action of the play. If I made the creation of the play the major difficulty in the play, this would create a conflict - the one necessary ingredient for drama. I could, by doing this, create an unseen antagonist and this would create someone or something for the actors to push or fight against. So I decided on the idea of having the "director" of the play abandoning three "actors", who are to portray the three authors, during the first rehearsal of the play. The "director" had to be a woman who was having problems with her child - a typical reality of my life. This reality has affected women throughout the ages and therefore is also an important theme in the play itself.

The first definite decision about the writing was the decision to make the apparent "workshopping of the play" the vehicle to drive the action. So this was my starting point: the director has a sick child and can't make the first rehearsal. One of the three young actors can't quite see how a woman's domestic life should interfere with her ability to perform her job. This slightly heartless attitude is also something I have come across in my own life from a few young childless women, and more expectedly, from a number of men.

The context would be established in the first act of the three actors finding themselves left alone on the first day of rehearsals. They have been instructed by the absent director to assign roles to themselves and to begin rehearsing. Their discussions around who will play which roles would also serve to give the audience a brief description of each author and to contextualise her. To facilitate this, I created a character who hadn't read the play - Vicky. She hasn't been able to read the play and Genevieve is annoyed beyond belief to realise that she will have to educate a "useless" actor as well as see to the rehearsal. As the only self-proclaimed professional in the group she lords it over them in her role, filling them in on the background of the authors and also telling them how to rehearse the play.

I also decided on a metaphor for myself in the construction of the play, using the idea of painting the portrait of each of the authors. In Act 1 the tools are gathered for the project, the paints and brushes and the means of executing the painting - that is, the actors and their contexts and their relationships to the authors. In Act 2 the outlines of the portraits are done - that is, the extracts of each of the authors are read to give us more insight into their work and contexts. In Act 3 the portraits are filled in, and full colour is added to give light and shade and, hopefully, depth to the authors when the authors inhabit the actors completely in a seamless metamorphosis.

Hopefully, at the end of the play, when the actors come back to themselves, with Genevieve revealing an up to date twist in her story which should punch you in the stomach, three detailed portraits have been painted of Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen. With any luck, the audience would have been entertained a little too!

How much research did you have to do into the lives of women living in the 1700s?

I read for about a year and half around the three women and there are still hundreds of books I haven't even looked at. There is so much that has been written about these women. It was very rewarding, though, and my respect for what they went through grew daily. And I become misty-eyed just thinking of Mary Wollstonecraft's bravery and courage in breaking the boundaries of those days.

How did you go about selecting episodes from the three writers' lives and extracts from their novels to fit into the script?

Reading their works and books written about their lives was the easy part. It fell to me to select various episodes from their lives and extracts from their novels to put them into some sort of order which would create a new perspective. Hopefully this perspective would create new insights into the way we view the world of women, especially those with the vocation to write. My head was so full of stuff and I wasn't having any uninterrupted time to focus on the playwriting in its entirety, so I decided to go to the Buddhist Retreat in Ixopo for five days. I had been walking around with the story structure rattling around in my head for so long that all I needed was a good sleep. I slept for 14 hours on the second day I was there, and after that the play just wrote itself. A friend of mine asked me if I'd just tipped my head upside down and let the words fall out. I said, yes, that was more or less the way it worked!

Which writer do you identify most strongly with - Austen, Burney or Wollstonecraft?

There are many aspects of each writer that I identify with. Austen's wry humour is something I love and I try to apply that same satirical aspect to my own work. Burney comes across as someone who was the spoilt little darling of her father and husband, but she was a remarkable woman too. She spent ten years in France during the Reign of Terror, fleeing from those who sought to kill her family because they were nobility. She endured great hardships. And she also had a cancerous breast removed without anaesthetic and was strong enough to help the surgeon with his work! And of course she wrote her first novel secretly in her head when she was involved with domestic chores. I identify with that very much.
But Mary Wollstonecraft touched me more than the others. Her unequivocal stand on the rights of women is something I identify with. She refused to accept that women should have lesser lives, should sacrifice their own careers for the good of the men or the family. I feel as strongly as she does that women need to fulfil their life purposes - not at the expense of their families, but as well as meeting the needs of their families.

While they try to portray aspects of the authors' lives, your characters are also exploring aspects of their own lives and what it means to be a woman in 2005. What does living as a woman in 2005 mean to you?

There are restrictions which face women daily purely because of their physiological make-up. No man knows what it's like to keep trying to function normally in spite of severe PMS, for example! And I have a line in the play which Mary says but which is my thought: "I always believed in the equality of the sexes until I had a child." My love of my children and need to care for them is as strong as my desire to fulfil myself through my writing. Sometimes this creates a conflict. Always it creates a larger load to carry than most, but one which I carry very willingly.

It is still hard to be taken seriously as a woman writer too. Somehow, with my starting at this stage of my life, with a family in the background, people don't quite know how to pigeonhole me. How can I be a relevant and cutting-edge playwright and also be a mom? I hope I will succeed in showing how it can be done.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Savage Sisters?

"Both of you ignored your responsibilities as authors and as women. As authors, we hold our readers in our thrall. We lead them whichever way we choose. Our thoughts dictate their experiences. And yet you chose to squander this rare opportunity to show women - and men - a new way. You kept readers happy, comfortable in their assumptions about the way the world should be lived. And that is what I find unforgivable!" Mary Wollstonecraft speaking words written by me.

What feeling did you want people to walk away with after watching a performance?

I want people to walk away from the play stimulated by the lively debate about very real issues, moved by the real crisis faced by the character Genevieve which mirrors the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, and also entertained by the very real humour of the piece. If they have learned something about the authors that will be an added bonus.

I thought your three actresses - Cate Hornby, Louise Buchler and Avi Maistry - were very well cast. Did you enjoy working with them? What did you learn from them?

My three actors were wonderful! I loved working with all three of them and each brought something new to the piece. We had a lot of fun during the rehearsals and still would love to do the "Out Takes" from the show which we did to amuse ourselves when we were getting tired. I learnt that no actress is too young or inexperienced to reach emotional depths. They reached into themselves to put themselves into the roles of the authors in such a convincing way that one member of the audience said she could not get over their amazing metamorphosis. I couldn't have asked for any better actresses to play the roles.

It can't always be easy working with actors and actresses. Have you had any particularly challenging experiences with cast members in the past?

There have been moments when people behaved like prima donnas in the past but I think the less said about them, the better! Actually, these moments have been very rare in comparison with the extremely happy casts I have had through most of the work.

Have you given any consideration to publishing The Savage Trilogy?

I have been asked by many people to do this, including the most esteemed theatre critic, Robert Greig. I would really like to do it. I feel like my Savage babies need to be put to bed in a book now. I am going to try and follow this up, though plays are notoriously difficult to publish - even more so than poetry!

Janet, how do you balance the demands of a busy writing career with your role as mother to three children?

It's not easy, Michelle. There are some days I get so tired that I can't imagine how I will continue. And my health has suffered badly in the past. I am trying to pace myself more this year as I don't need any repeat performances of the three major illnesses which knocked me down for months in the past. I have learned to ask my parents to help more - they live on our property - and I have learnt to take time out for myself more often. I have been to the Buddhist Retreat twice this year, which is remarkable for me. I rely on weekly meditation to save my life each week and keep trying to practise this more often. But I wouldn't miss out on my children for anything. They are such a great source of grounding me when the vagaries of the scriptwriting world play havoc with my faith in humanity.

In her book Gift from the Sea, writer Anne Morrow Lindberg wrote, "It is a difficult lesson to learn today - to leave one's friends and family and deliberately practise the art of solitude for an hour or a day or a week … For me, the break is the most difficult … And yet, once it is done, I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before." Do you spend as much time on your own as you would like?

I would still like to spend more time on my own. I think it is essential for a writer to have time to think. It isn't easy at all within a busy family. But I totally agree with Lindberg. I used to find going for a walk alone quite a life saver too. I can't wait until my leg, which I fractured the day before I started rehearsing The Savage Sisters, has healed properly so I can walk more again.

Is the number of women writing for stage and screen, and producing, in South Africa on the increase?

Slowly but surely. I was delighted to see a much greater number of women putting on their own work at the festival this year. This was the first time ever, and I went to see as many of those plays as I could. The days of a woman having to wait for someone to "spot" her and cast her in a play are nearing an end. Like my authors who put the pen into their own hands, young women actors are putting the plays into their own hands too.

How was the Grahamstown Festival this year?

It was not my best festival, as I was hobbling on a crutch and my leg was in a brace! But we had good houses and the play was received very well by almost all who saw it.

Did you see anything that really blew you away?

Strangely enough, the piece I loved the most was a dance/physical theatre piece called Attachments, which dealt with the life of a relationship. It was so moving and so close to the truth that it left an indelible impression on me. I also thought Kobus Moolman's play Full Circle was a wonderful production which reached the heights of theatre in its exquisite staging, excellent acting, and perfectly honed script.

Tell me about your lecturing position at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Finally, someone has asked me to talk about the one thing I know better than anything else! I was invited to lecture there this year and am as happy as anything teaching third-years, Honours and Masters students. We have a kind of Master class where we work on their scripts through reading and discussions and I love every moment of it.

You've written nine screenplays. Who are the film directors you admire?

I love David Mamet's work, as well as Pedro Almodovar's. I saw The Life and Death of Peter Sellers recently and was blown away by every frame of it. The director, Stephen Hopkins, created a masterpiece. But I am still sad that the screenwriters are forgotten in the main in the film world.

Do you watch favourite films again and again? If so, what films?

I am a bit of a Withnail and I fan because of the clever script of Bruce Robinson. I also love the work of writer Richard Curtis. Not much can replace the British humour. He has written the romantic comedies such as Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually, which he directed. And there are many other more serious films which I love. Shine is one of them, but it still hurts to watch it.

Tell me about your screenplay No Going Back.

It is a project I have been working on for over two and a half years - nothing happens quickly in the film world! And I have a British producer and director and they promise we will film it … one day! It's been a gruelling process, but the worst time was last year, when a somewhat insane director made me change the story from black to white to blue to green whenever his whims changed. I eventually resigned from the project and said I wouldn't work with such an idiot anymore. After a few edgy days my producer realised I was the only constant in the project and she found a new director. We are just starting work on the script again and I am hoping to get into the Scrawl workshop in November so I can work with professional script editors to do this.

And A Shot at the Big Time …

Whew! This is the film about my brother's death on the border and very close to my heart. I have formed my own Section 21 company and have applied for lottery funds to make this film myself. I am not going through what I went through with the insane director in the UK with this project. I have to drive this project myself, as it is about my life, after all. I have a deep, unshakeable feeling that this film will be made when the time is right. I have written the script but it still needs work. And I'm hoping that the funds will come when the time is right.

The South African film industry … where do you think it's going?

We have glimmers of hope with Yesterday and UCarmen eKhayelitsha. And then the National Film and Video Foundation lets us know that they have run out of funds for this year and the next. This is the chief funder of films in this country! I think they should stop swanning around to the various Cannes, Mipcom, and Toronto film festivals with their entourages of hundreds and perhaps then we might have some money for making films! Oh well, that's kind of blown my chances of getting funds from them!

What do you think are the most challenging aspects of working in the film industry in South Africa?

Getting funding, getting funding, getting funding and getting funding.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring scriptwriters, producers, and directors?

Just do it, as Nike says. The only people who succeed are those who don't give up. Just don't give up, though you might want to, again and again and again. Don't give up. And just do it.

LitNet: 27 September 2005

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