When I first read the press release on the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival’s (KKNK) plans to present a theatre director’s course digitally with the support of the National Afrikaans Theatre Initiative (NATi) with acclaimed director/mentor/lecturer/designer Marthinus Basson presenting, I knew this was one where I wanted to be a fly on the wall. And this is how it played out …
DIANE DE BEER
With no aspirations as a director, I was keen to witness and write about this unique, almost year-long process which aimed to challenge and stretch theatre makers, those already in the profession and those who wish to learn. It was all about offering opportunities in the theatre world so hard hit by the pandemic yet looking at a future with hope and expectation as well as huge encouragement.
There was no doubt that for anyone attending, this was the chance of a lifetime. Just the reach of this director, one of the best in the business, and to add to his many directing accolades, a true love of teaching, which isn’t always a given. He has knowledge in abundance and a generous desire to pass it on.
And as I expected, that was exactly what I experienced class after class. As a theatre writer and someone who has spent many years watching theatre productions, this was a chance to dig deep and experience the process from start to finish. I was also keen to see how this would work digitally, as Basson was very clear from the start that all this was new to him as well. He wasn’t sure whether the participants could benefit without working on stage (or in a room) – where he still hopes to fit in some real time with these students, when the future allows.
But even Basson has conceded that in many instances everyone gained in this novel process and there are certain instances that surprised everyone. Because live theatre wasn’t an option, once a few texts had been read and discussed by the group under the guidance of the mentor, the participants were given the task to take small sections from different plays, which they then had to stage – digitally.
This is where the fun and the creativity began. Not only were they now expected to use their directing instincts, but they also had to apply it in a way that was a learning curve for everyone. A few with film experience in the group had prior knowledge to help them navigate, but in most instances their imagination was expected to kick in.
I was reminded of a theatre practitioner who had experience of working here and internationally, who noted that because we have never had money for the arts, imagination plays a much bigger role – and often to the advantage of the production. It’s also not as if these artists were suddenly in a position of not having money to work with.
That has always been the case. In this instance, Covid was just another stumbling block. Watching them apply their instincts to tell stories digitally was quite something. From the start they used every trick in the book, some more successfully than others, but failure wasn’t an option. There’s also the credo in theatre that if you don’t fail sometimes, you’re not pushing the boundaries.
A selection of the most recent Basson productions
Following the screening of each session, everyone was given a chance to comment with Basson having the last word. His educational spirit is something to witness. He’s easy with both good and bad because either way, the participant can learn and grow and that’s the point of the exercise. This was a safe space to take chances and to discover what works, how to change things and how to work with space, players and words.
Listening to Basson speak about the way he approaches any new play was insightful. He advised the burgeoning directors to read the play as if they were performers. “How do I understand the text?” That was the first question. And then he gave guidelines and pointers to explain how they should break it down and start making notes for the planned production. You have to map the process from beginning to end which, as the conductor, helps you to know exactly what is going to happen every step of the way.
He would make statements like: “The accent isn’t important, the meaning is what counts.” Always the text, always the story, and for those of us watching, if the director cannot get you engaged with the story, there’s no point at all. Once you have unlocked the text for the audience, they will be on board. It’s the big question about communicating to your audience, that’s why the text is what leads all the time.
“Never under-estimate your audience. But don’t confuse them, stimulate them.” That’s why they’re there – to experience, not to struggle.
And with every point he makes, he also expands the mind as he skips off into a story about a memorable book, film, opera, theatre production, to illustrate a point. Knowledge is what informs everything he does.
If these fledgling students got only the grasp of this great man’s mind and how he never stops learning and searching for new productions that inspire – even starting with a couture clothes line for dolls to teach himself some rudimentary sewing techniques which could be applied to costumes in the future.
That’s what you do when money is an issue. You add as many skill sets as possible and you do this whenever you find the time. Artists will know, that theirs is a calling, not a career. If passion isn’t involved, chances are you won’t stay the course.
Something that has always impressed me about Basson’s productions is the casting. And he explains: “I want people who will feed one another. Casting can make or break a production. Clever direction helps the audience,” he explains. And that includes casting.
He points out that directors have a toy box in their hands to play with and how they apply that is where the work starts. Every decision has to make sense, be logical.
And even in these times with money even more absent than usual, keep dreaming. Never stop. The fact that you can’t get there does not mean that you have to stop trying. If you think of some of the productions you have seen at festivals and with how little they have achieved so much, that alone should inspire.
In another insight, he underlines that if you don’t put in the work, you won’t get the results. If aspiring directors only hold on to that, they have already grasped the essence of the things that matter in life.
I could go on and on … and the fortunate and willing participants who were present all the time would have mined this opportunity for all its worth. They will also have the future support of this genius director, who will never give up on artists who need his help.
This was such a clever concept and will reap benefits. Here’s hoping that it can have a future in some kind of form … thanks to KKNK and NATi.