PANSA Festival of Contemporary Theatre Readings
Renos Nicos Spanoudes
Recently I overheard a drama lecturer offer an explanation of why the word playwright is ends on ight and not ite. Such a person, he maintained, must necessarily wrangle and wrestle with the words on a page (like the medieval wheelwright, or stonewright) in order to ensure that the desired image is created in the sacred space called the theatre. How apt such an explanation appeared to be at the NLDTF/PANSA Festival of Contemporary Theatre Readings held nation-wide during November.
This is the fourth year of the festival, which is sponsored by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund and the Royal Netherlands Embassy, and it has grown by leaps and bounds. This year a record 40 scripts were received in the Contemporary South African Drama Category alone. Besides drama, submission categories now also include comedy and one- and two-handers. The prize money has also increased considerably and the Jury winner, for example, received R30 000 and stands the chance of being on the main programme of festival(s) throughout the country.
Having been a finalist in a previous year, I chose to be on the other side of the fence this year. I was one of the actors who "stage-read" during the proceedings at the Gauteng leg of the festival held at the Actors' Centre in the Civic Theatre complex.
So how does it all work?
All aspiring and inspired creators who have wrangled and wrenched their craft and expression are called upon to submit such to PANSA. Each category has three judges who then read all submissions and decide on the finalists.
This year the Comedy Category was held in Cape Town and the Jury winner was a play about two sisters, one frumpish (Leigh Bremridge), one sultry (Eve Szapira), a shit-hot sexy boyfriend who is misjudged as only wanting sex and more sex (Rory Acton-Burnell), and a tired, grey husband (Matthew Roberts), whose secret mistakenly comes bursting out of the closet (if you'll excuse the pun) one fine night, during the announcement of a pregnancy. Crazy indeed, I hear you agree. Written by Karen Jeynes, and finely directed by Lara Bye, this winner was entitled Everybody Else (is fucking perfect). Much of its success, I maintain, was due to the immense enthusiasm with which the performers approached their play, and their laughter was infectious.
The One/Two Hander Category (held in KwaZulu-Natal) accolade went to the ironically titled Conscientious Objection, a play superbly directed by Andre Stoltz. Written by Hans Pienaar, this hilarious double bill, guaranteed a full staging (if there's a theatre practitioner with the insight and courage anywhere around), is not to be missed. The first half tells of a young white man (Neels Claasen) who must deal with the inflated ego of his anthropomorphic conscience (Jacques Blignaut). Part of the challenge is that this conscience knows everything there is to know about the soul of the human and doesn't hesitate to comment and advise in the most suave of Cape Coloured accents.
After the first part of the double bill there is a short break during which the simple but ingenious set transforms into the corner of a road named Madiba Street. Or is it Nelson Avenue? No wait, it's Madiba Boulevard. The man on his way to his illicit date (Neels Claasen) is hijacked by a "scientific heist professional" (Jacques Blignaut) after he loses his way. He seeks Nelson Mandela Close, or is it Central Madiba Lane?
The Gauteng Festival was the culmination of the three-week event and the six finalists enjoyed a staged presentation and a discussion with feedback and comment from the three Contemporary South African Drama Category judges. The judges were City Press arts journalist Luvuyo Phillip Kakaza, acting veteran/academic Woutrine Theron, and theatre professional/writer Bruce Koch.
What a wonderful, productive and inspiring experience this process was. In the audience for each reading were the likes of the Market Theatre's Professor Malcolm Purkey and Karen Meiring of KKNK, not forgetting the Baxter Theatre's Mannie Manim, The Star Tonite's Adrienne Sichel and the particularly insightful visiting Dutch playwright, Rob de Graaf.
Previous PANSA Festivals have brought us Ashraf Johaardien's Salaam Stories, Mike Van Graan's Green Man Flashing and Kobus Moolman's Full Circle (to be staged early next year at the Market Theatre). This year's Jury selected Peter Krummeck's harrowing piece, iVirgin Boy, based on a newspaper article he wrestled with earlier this year.
An inebriated Grade 12 student, Alan (Charlie Keegan), bearer of only a learner's licence, is on his way home from his matric dance. It is the early hours of the morning and the car is his mother's, used without her knowledge or permission. He is stopped by the police, arrested and placed in a holding cell. In the cell are two other prisoners, one a petty thief named Zippy (Aldridge Olivier), the other an HIV positive, hard-core violent character by the name of Tjokkie (Marty Kintu). By the time it is morning, Tjokkie has raped Alan because of the sangoma's advice regarding the cure for AIDS as the rape of a white virgin, male or female.
The play opens with Alan undergoing counselling by Maria (Denise Newman), a social worker assigned to the case by the state. Through their discussions in her rooms centre stage we are taken on a journey along the periphery of the stage: into Alan's difficult childhood, his clashes with his mother, his grappling with his sexual identity, his innocent search for peer acceptance at school, and finally, the horror of the rape in the cell. The consequences of the rape are superbly dealt with in a courageous final monologue. One keeps reminding oneself that this is a true story. It happened. It is happening. Is it out of control? Like Tsephang, it will haunt for many moons to come. An important piece that must tread as many boards as possible.
Mike van Graan is such a dynamic and prolific writer that he was a finalist in all three provinces. His Some Mothers' Sons was graced with the Audience Choice Award in Gauteng and that is not difficult to understand. While the plausibility of some of the narrative was questioned, it still makes for riveting theatre.
During apartheid a white, Afrikaans lawyer, Braam (Robert Hobbs), defends Vusi (Seputla Sebogodi), a Black activist and freedom fighter. That was then, some twenty years ago. Today, the tables have turned. Vusi, now a Black Freedom and Democracy Icon, a Hero of a Vanquished People who is to defend Braam, is recognised as one of the most courageous Human Rights Brothers of the Struggle. Braam is in the very same cell that had held Vusi. He is being held for murder. He cold-bloodedly shot the hijackers responsible for the death of his wife and their unborn baby. I have no plausibility qualms. It's a discerning theatre-goer's piece. The performances were flawless and the staging, in its economy and refreshing use of multimedia, deservedly earned Jerry Mofokeng the Best Director Award in Gauteng.
It may be argued that the playwrights are indeed wrangling the issues of South Africa as you read this article. Religious persuasion, personal violence, teenage suicide, ever-escalating crime, identity challenges, political power - these were the prominent themes of the festival. Still, commercial viability remains a key consideration as to how many of these pieces will one day be professionally staged.
Other finalists included Tamantha Hammerslag's beautifully written (and self-directed) Swimming Upstream, about twin sisters; Robin Malan's drama The Boy Who Walked Into The World, documenting the Happy Sindane story (also a true story, also happening on our South African doorsteps) directed by Neville Engelbrecht; Lovebirds, Alexandra Smith's disturbing prison saga (which, in my opinion, should have been a one-man play; and last but by no means least, the urban morality story of unlikely lovers Tshepo and Nthabiseng in Themba Mkhoma's The Blue Dress, Red Roses and the Scarlet Tie, directed by Monageng "Vice" Motshabi.
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