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Warning: If you read this as an aspirant writer, you do so at your own risk!

Mike van Graan*

It is with some trepidation that I write about my writing for theatre, particularly if it is for the benefit of aspirant writers, as I am still in the process of learning the craft myself. I have no formal training as a writer. I studied drama at university and read lots of plays, but that was for the purpose of passing exams. I’m only beginning to read “writing for theatre for dummies”-type literature. And yet I’m being asked to participate in this “school for writers”, probably because I’ve achieved a measure of – relative – success. Like the ad says, ”South Africa, alive with possibilities” … where even the relatively unskilled and inexperienced, not to mention the talentless, can succeed.

It is one of the reflections on the theatre industry that many of the works that we see on our stages are “first drafts”. In more developed theatre industries, there are jobs for script editors, script readers, facilitators of numerous courses for writers, writers’ agents, etc, so that most scripts that get to have their first professional outing have undergone a rigorous development process. Not here. More often than not, someone churns out “the great South African script”, applies to the NAC for funding, and then trundles it off to a festival, often – to save money – directing the work themselves. And it shows.

So why do I write for theatre, as opposed to film or television, where (they tell me) much more money is to be made?

That’s the first thing. I don’t write for money. Or, money is not the primary motivation for why I write. I write because, generally, I want to say something. And, more often than not – let me admit it to the horror of the purists – what I want to say is “political”.

I got into writing for the professional stage post-1994, and more so in the last three years, because too often I’d been asked “What do you have to write about now that apartheid has gone?” Or too often I read or heard writers bemoan the fact that they were like, shoo, wow, struggling to find their voice in the new SA. Or I was depressed by the boy-band tributes and bored with the happy-clappy rainbow nation musicals, the apartheid-era revivals, the shallow stand-up comedy and the theatre pieces that made one think one was living in another country, or in another era, rather than in one dealing with the contradictions, challenges and ruptures – and the effect of these on the lives of ordinary people – that come with a country undergoing a fundamental political and social transformation.

I felt that writers were doing our public a disservice by avoiding contemporary reality, that we were compromising our democracy by biting our critical tongues for whatever reason, that we were negating the cathartic role that theatre could and should play in a country that, in the course of making progress, is plagued with trauma.

So, my motivations for writing are about how to make sense of some of what is going on right now, to say on the stage the kinds of things that people may be too intimidated to say in other public forums, to explore and expose the contradictions and ironies within the current exercise of power and its relationship to notions of morality, and to ask challenging questions without providing trite or pat answers.

Another one then, for the purists. I don’t write out of a desire to be “universal”. I write out of a desire to be deeply relevant to my primary audiences: those who live in, and are trying to make sense of their lived experience in, South Africa. That experience of the human condition will probably not have very much resonance with the comfortable, safe and politically correct experience of the human condition in London, New York and Sydney. But it might have relevance to people living in other societies in transition. In Croatia. In Brazil. In Russia. And Namibia.

I don’t necessarily want to be known as a “political writer”. Neither do I want to beat myself into a corner so that all my work has to have an overt “political” dimension. But I do want to make the point that so much of our lives as individuals – where we live, what kinds of jobs we have, who we have relationships and friendships with, whether we can go on holiday, whether our pensions will come through at the end of the month or not – are directly and indirectly affected by decisions taken by people who have political power. To change what is bad about our experience as human beings, we need to understand the structural conditions that underpin that experience.

So, I write – largely – because I have something to say. Which some would say is a bad starting point, as it imposes some kind of authorial vision on the characters that one creates. For me, though, it is about the dialectic between what one wants to say – or explore – as a writer, and the characters that one creates. It is not one or the other. It is about finding the most effective way – and that has integrity – to say what one wants to through the characters in the play. In Green Man Flashing, I wanted to explore the relationship between political power and morality and I wanted to say that notions of “good” and “bad” are not absolutes, but are given meaning by those who occupy power at the time, and these notions of good and bad essentially serve their interests. Hostile Takeover was about exploring a similar theme; this time the relationship between morality and economic power, with those who wield such power being able to influence the legal system and the structure of government so that, for example, exploitation could be legal, even though it was fundamentally immoral. If these themes are my starting points, then the next challenge is to find a plausible storyline to sustain the exploration of the theme, and then develop the characters to give effect to this.

To come back to an earlier point: Why write for theatre as opposed to film or television? It is possible that in writing for theatre, one could actually be marketing one’s work to people who work in other mediums who are always in search of good stories. One of my works has been optioned for a movie, and two of them are to be adapted for radio. And, despite the challenges of working in this sector, it is probably still more possible – in terms of costs and time frameworks – to have one’s play produced than to make a movie or television series.

My recent works have all been written towards a deadline. I don’t have the luxury of waking up in the morning with a trust fund or a lottery grant behind me to ask “What shall I write about today?” The PANSA Festivals of Reading of New Writing of the past three years have been my “muse”. Almost all the works have been written in embarrassingly short periods of time, if only to have a script by the deadline for submissions so that, even if it is not selected as a finalist, at least I’ll have the basis for a script to realise my 2003 resolution of “at least one script per year”. And anyway, the PANSA process is intended to encourage new work, but it is also part of the process of developing that work. And I have benefited greatly from seeing the works selected as staged readings, then to have feedback from the judges and the audiences and from theatre makers with much experience. Through the staged reading I can see for myself where some of the deficiencies are, which are far more difficult to pick up simply from rereading the script hundreds of times.

Out of the five works that I’ve submitted for these festivals, at least three have been significantly rewritten after the staged reading. To be frank, I think that much of the work that we see on our stages would benefit from such a process: submitting a draft, having a reading, inviting feedback, doing new drafts and going through similar, rigorous processes before putting them on the stage. It might not only be a good learning experience for the writer and potentially give the work a longer life; it will also show a greater respect for the audiences who consume our work.

I’ve also had the good fortune of working with excellent directors and actors. I don’t direct my own work. First, because I’m not a director (although I did an honours in directing at UCT), not having practised as one; and second, I think that directing and writing are completely different crafts. As a writer, one articulates a particular vision, but on pages. The director has to translate that vision and make it work on a stage. That craft and that challenge need to be respected by the writer. Too many writers are so possessive over their works, or so insecure about them, that they demand direction to the letter of the work. My works have benefited greatly from rigorous dialogue with those directing my work, and in other cases, I wish the directors wouldn’t have paid so much respect to my text, but rather, to have engaged me more about the challenges and deficiencies within the text.

Even though this is incredibly tedious and boring, since the excitement and the adrenalin rush are in the initial creation, the work will benefit from a rigorous process of rewriting before the rehearsal process. But even in rehearsal, writers should be open to rewriting parts of the work if these are not working on the floor. I know that we do not have the luxury of long rehearsal periods in this country, but the principle is a good one for writers to adopt: better to try to rework the play – even in rehearsal – than to end up with something less than theatrically excellent on the stage, which would not be great for one’s “brand”. And then, even once the work has been staged, this is not necessarily the end of it. For me, the work has never “arrived”. Only in our conditions, where funding is available on a project by project basis so that once a writer “finishes” one project (read: has a work staged at a festival or a theatre for one season), he/she moves on to the next one with a “been there, done that” attitude towards the last one. As writers, we need to view our works differently, not just as art, but as products that, for as long as they have a life, build our “brands” and we have potential income from them. This can only be helped by our continuing to rework them, and make them better, more conducive to the new audiences (read: markets) that we seek to sell them to, whether locally or internationally.

Which brings me to my current experiment. I’m reworking a piece that did rather well in a recent PANSA Festival of Reading of New Writing, having been selected as the Jury Runner Up. The market that I have identified for that piece is essentially married, middle-class couples between the ages of 30 and 55. (Note to writers: this is not an irrelevant point when writing – who are you writing for?) In reworking the piece, I’ve decided to experiment with “writing for what the market wants”, another eina for the purists. Traditionally, artists – including writers – create out of the (alleged) pursuit of noble ideals such as truth, beauty and artistic integrity. Once they create a piece, off they go in search of an audience, or market, and then wonder why no one wants to see their beautiful work.

If I’m writing for a particular market, one from which I hope to generate a decent income through this play, then it makes sense that I need to make sure that this market thinks that my product is something that they will pay decent money to see. So we’ve started rehearsals and I’m starting my rewrites, but in the rewriting process we’ve earmarked a few dates when we’ll invite “members of the target market” to see the play, either as a staged reading or in whatever form it is at the time. I’ll give them a questionnaire to complete to indicate their responses, and we’ll have a discussion about what they responded to, what they thought were deficiencies, what they think needs to be added; and on the basis of this collective “market research”, the play will be further developed. Will it work? Will it be the money-spinner that I hope it will be in order to subsidise other works of mine that I know will have less popular appeal, but which need to have a life in the context of the broader issues I wrote about earlier? I don’t know. It’s an experiment.

But I also know that the act of writing and the production of a good script – however “good” is defined – constitute only a third of the challenge. Once a script is available, one has to produce it, or get some theatre to put its non-existent production budget behind it. And once this is achieved – no small feat – the really hard part has to happen: to get an audience to see it.

Writing a script has its own challenges. And – with the help of excellent and generous directors and other theatre makers – I am learning and developing my craft. But I am also coming to learn that in the current conditions it is not sufficient to be a writer. One has to be a producer (even a reluctant one) to get the work staged. And once it is staged, you have to take responsibility for ensuring that the work tours nationally and abroad. Theatres and festivals simply do not have the resources or capacity to do this. It is your work as the writer, your intellectual property, your vehicle for building your brand, your means to earn a living, and you have to take more ownership of it rather than leave it in the hands of others who are looking out for a range of theatre makers, not just you.

And I have also learned that I need to take more proactive responsibility for building and attracting audiences. I need to be out there, selling my work, building databases, incentivising people to buy tickets to my show, generating the word-of-mouth buzz that is the essence of marketing within our industry.

My 2006 resolution is a dumb one. It is to try to make a living primarily from my work as a writer for theatre. But I know that this is impossible through a 10% royalty from the staging of one or two works per year, even in some of the country’s leading theatre venues.

Writing, producing and marketing. These are the challenges to contemporary South African writers who would like to make their living in the theatre.

And if this doesn’t work, next year I’ll resolve to be a plumber.

* Mike van Graan graduated from UCT with a BA Honours degree in Drama and a Higher Diploma in Education. In 1998, Van Graan won the Fleur du Cap award for Best New Script for his trilogy, Dinner Talk. His play Green Man Flashing has been nominated in the same category for this year's Fleur du Cap awards as well as in the Johannesburg Naledi Awards. Van Graan has three new scripts that will premiere in the first quarter of 2006, including Some Mothers' Sons at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, Two to Tango at the Liberty Theatre on the Square at the end of April, and Mixed Metaphors (directed by Jaco Bouwer) - a play about being young in contemporary South Africa and featuring performance poetry, video and music - that runs from 16 February to 25 March at the State Theatre.

LitNet: 31 January 2006

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