“Bursting the Bubble of Play: Making Space for Intercultural Dialogue”

Elliot Leffler

From Magnet Theatre, Megan Lewis and Anton Kreuger, eds

Introduction: A Story About a Cell Phone

In the early 1990s, when Magnet Theatre was still in its infancy, co-founder Mark Fleishman wrote an MA dissertation and a South African Theatre Journal article in which he interrogated the intercultural dynamics of workshop theatre. In this scholarship, he described this collaborative, improvisation-based approach to devising original performances as essentially dialogic and democratic, as it frees ensemble members from the authoritarianism of the traditional playwright, and nurtures an environment in which participants’ cultural differences can inform and challenge each other (Fleishman 1990: 103; 1991: 60-62). He articulated the value of recognizing and negotiating fundamental cultural differences, and suggested that theatrical ensembles were an important site for this negotiation. Fleishman [A1] profiled the Serpent Players and Workshop ’71 as prominent South African ensembles whose processes testified to this intercultural negotiation. In the time that has passed since he wrote these early essays, his own professional casts have become another prominent example of these dynamics. Yet the number of people that Magnet engages in intercultural dialogue within its professional ensembles is relatively small. Through its community-based programmes, Magnet (and others) may have the possibility to engage many more of South Africa’s citizens in the complex intercultural dialogue that Fleishman has argued is intrinsic to workshop theatre. This chapter examines one of Magnet’s community-based projects to analyse how Magnet’s theatre processes make space for intercultural dialogue among amateur artists.

Like the preceding chapter of this volume, this chapter focuses on work that Magnet Theatre has produced in Clanwilliam, a small community about 200km north of Cape Town. While Magnet Theatre’s work in Clanwilliam began with The Clanwilliam Arts Project, the company developed a momentum and a following there that has led to more sustained involvement in the town, spawning a number of other projects. One of these projects is a community theatre ensemble of teenagers and preteens, known as the Community Networking Creative Arts Group, or ComNet. ComNet has been devising and performing original plays since 2007, and for the first five years, these plays were largely under the direction of fieldworker Lavona de Bruyn. At De Bruyn’s invitation, I joined ComNet in 2010 as an assistant director for their workshop theatre production of Soek 'Os 'It Soe? [Is This What We Want?]. My personal friendship with De Bruyn dated back to 2007, when we were MA students together at the University of Cape Town, but I was particularly interested in this project because she told me that it was going to mark their first attempt to recruit an interracial cast. As a scholar of intercultural theatre, and an enthusiast for Fleishman’s own early scholarship on intercultural dialogue in workshop theatre, I was fascinated to observe how this ensemble (which had always been exclusively coloured) would attempt to welcome, and to function with, black and white participants. The opportunity to participate in – and to learn from – that process was irresistible.

As an ethnographic study of the process that produced Soek 'Os 'It Soe?, this chapter documents and interrogates this project in order to contribute to a growing body of theory on collaborative theatre-making as a site for intercultural dialogue. This chapter is therefore the analysis of a process – not of a text, nor a performance – and I have attempted to write it with a self-reflexive awareness of my own partiality and my influence on the events that I have documented and analysed. As such, I have employed a subjective, first-person style similar to the one Lavona de Bruyn has used in her own chapter in this collection. It relies on – and reminds the reader of – my own presence on site, despite the fact that doing so breaks from the style of some of the other chapters within this volume.

My first introduction to the challenges of intercultural dialogue in Clanwilliam came several days before rehearsals started. I was at a short meeting on the front stoep [verandah] of the house that Magnet co-founders Mark Fleishman and Jennie Reznek had almost finished building in Clanwilliam. To my right sat Jesmory, a 20 year old coloured woman who had been participating in ComNet shows for the past three years, and who was now both an actor in the productions and the administrative leader of the group. To my left sat Lavona de Bruyn, a coloured woman in her early fifties, who in addition to directing ComNet’s shows, was also mentoring Jesmory as a leader. And then there was me: a 30-year old white American, having traveled across the world to observe and assist with this production.

Jesmory gave us some bad news. She had been recruiting teenagers within the black and white communities, and while she hadn’t been entirely sure that the black participants would show up, she had been more confident that the white participants would. She had recruited them through her friend Werner, a 17-year old white, Afrikaans-speaking boy whose mother employed Jesmory’s own mother as a domestic worker. But now, Jesmory explained that Werner and his friends might not show up for the first few days, because they were surfing in a nearby beach town. When I heard this, I immediately began to worry about the ensemble’s dynamics. I explained that I thought the first few days of this process were crucial, and that if the white participants were absent, it would present a lot of problems.

Jesmory responded, ‘Well, I will tell him [Werner] to come. If I tell him to come, he will come.’

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