Monday, July 13, 2009

On the Road Again - In-Gene-Uity

“What was I thinking?” says Jean, the character In-Gene-Uity, when she realises she has invited the Ladies Who Lunch from the local PTA to come to her house after a rather drunken AGM at the local school.

Her partner, Lucy, answers: “The question is rather, ‘What was I drinking?’”

Somehow these words resonate as the countdown begins for the great trek into the barren landscape of the Eastern Cape. This is the sixth play I’m taking to the Grahamstown Arts Festival and it’s always a gruelling experience.

When artists take a play to the Festival Fringe, it is very like gladiators going to compete in the arena of the Coliseum. Hundreds of performers bring their offerings to compete on the free-for-all Fringe, usually at their own expense. Often these creations are produced for the first time at the festival. Sometimes the first proper run-through takes place on opening night. Usually the productions lose, rather than make, money. It takes nerves of steel to keep going back, overcoming enormous obstacles en route, as well as facing critics and audiences whose swords are sharpened daily to cut you down to size.

The initial inspiration for In-Gene-Uity came from a ridiculous dream I had about a highly testosterone charged toddler (he was about two years old but had thick black hair growing under his armpits and a five o’clock shadow) rampaging through the garden with a helpless mother at her wits’ end trying to control him. It started me thinking about scenarios where people might have children who are very different from themselves. This happens in most normal families, obviously, but I decided to explore the idea with a cross-racial adoption, and for added complications, placed the adoption in a gay family. As I love British sitcoms the play became a frothy comedy, a sort of Absolutely Fabulous meets My Family. So it’s turned into a positive look at cross-cultural adoption, with the intervention of an ancestor or two, to guide the adopted boy back to his roots.

Creating a world in one’s mind and putting it down on paper is the easy part. Getting funding to launch a production of the written work is another story. Fortunately the National Arts Council (NAC) has funded every one of my plays to date. But they keep you waiting until the end of May to notify you about whether you’ve received a grant or not. Taking into account that one has to book one’s play into the festival in February and that actors should ideally be decided on well before the end of May, a lot of the pre-production process has to take place in blind faith.

One of the most important aspects of producing the play is to cast the right actors for the roles. I’d asked a well-known actress to consider playing the part of Jean, one of the two leads. In the middle of May she told me that she had another commitment so I decided to take another leap of faith and play the role myself. Fortunately I’d always had my eye on Arifani Moyo as the ideal person to play the adopted James, and Kiara Worth as the perfect actress to play Lucy. I’d seen them perform many times and knew they would get the job done well. Ian Roberts came to direct as he’s done for three of my previous plays.

The rehearsal process started with an informal read-through. As a cast we formed an instant bond which was enhanced by the fact that we were playing a close, if slightly dysfunctional, family. Almost immediately we found the right tone for each of our characters, and the director emphasised our contrasting mannerisms and personalities. A very gratifying aspect of this particular production was the sense of respect between each of us. This is invaluable. Without respect, no actor can trust himself to give of his best.

Our only stumbling block was the rapidity of the lines. As I’d written the play in a sitcom format, there were many snappy one-liners, especially between Lucy and Jean. These weren’t words you could learn easily on your own. We found it best to run the acts as often as possible in rehearsal so that we could learn the words on our feet, as it were.

Both actors lived up to my hopes for the embodiment of the characters. Kiara was lovably neurotic as Lucy and Arifani was wonderful sane as the young boy, James, who has supposedly gone off the rails. The director assured me that I’d interpreted the part of Jean properly. Our confidence began to grow.

As the lines became more fluent the drawing room comedy began to live up to its name. We found ourselves laughing at the lines even though we know them well. A small awareness grew in each of us that this play could turn into something good.

Meanwhile posters are ordered and made, flyers and programmes printed. Accommodation is booked and paid for. This is still relatively painless even though it takes a few drafts before the posters are right.

Then there are the variables which are completely out of our control. We can’t transport a three piece lounge suite to Grahamstown on our budget, so we have to book unseen furniture to be delivered from the Funky Junk antique shop in Grahamstown to our performance venue. As I write now, I’m crossing fingers that the furniture will be delivered at 5.30 pm on the day we travel down, just half an hour before our technical rehearsal begins at 6 pm. We leave at 5 in the morning and it takes about twelve hours to drive to Grahamstown. This is what you call cutting it fine. Yet more leaps of faith are required.

A few days before we start the long drive towards the cold Eastern Cape, a flicker of excitement begins to blossom. Maybe this time we’ll have fun. Maybe this time we might do better than just break even. And maybe “what I was thinking?” was a good idea after all.

First published in Sunday Independent 5 July 2009.