By Daina Valiulis
Theatrefront, an exciting and unique Canadian theatre company whose aim it is to collaborate cross culturally to create projects that challenge and inspire, are bringing their new work, Ubuntu: (The Capetown Project) to the Tarragon Theatre on January 28. The creators of Return: The Sarajevo Project traveled to Capetown, South Africa in April of 2005 to work with artists from the Baxter Theatre Centre, forming what eventually became Ubuntu. Inspired the strong political, social voice of South African theatre and its unique, physical performance style, Daryl Cloran directs a collective creation four years in the making-with a cast built from both South African and Canadian performers including Holly Lewis, Patricia Fagan, Christopher Morris, Adam Pettle and David Jensen.
I sat down with Daryl Cloran and Holly Lewis (and their charming seven-month-old son, Liam) to chat about how a collective work happens, and the elements that make Ubuntu unique.
MONDO: What does the term “Ubuntu” mean? How did it come to be the name of the piece?
DARYL CLORAN: It’s a South African phrase that loosely means “a person is a person through other persons” or, “I am because we are.” It’s about community and connection with your ancestors and your responsibility as a member of the community. It came up as a phrase at some point during one rehearsal, and, as the play developed, it became a lot about how we deal with our parents and how we deal with our loved ones who have died — more and more appropriate for the show. Throughout the workshops, we just called it The Capetown Project. We decided we’d give it a title when it opened, to sort of mark its birth. Ubuntu just seemed like the right term.
MONDO: What was your starting point? What inspired you?
DC: At the beginning we did a lot of sharing, so I had set up opportunities for actors to bring in or generate material, whether it was improv, writing exercises, storytelling, or physical exercises — things that just started to inspire.
Once it got going, we started to zero-in on the story that interested us. It became more about working through that scene. But certainly the actors had to come ready for anything and had to be open and willing to try. There’s so much stuff that we created that won’t make it to the final show — we could make three or four plays with all the material we collected!
The collective creation process asks a lot of actors. It’s not every actor’s cup of tea: you’re not only acting, you’re actually writing and creating at the same time; it uses different muscles. Some actors love that, and some just want to play a really good part. I looked for people who seemed to respond to the challenge. And we also looked for artists that would bring something unique. The two guys we are working with now are very physical: they bring a very visceral vibe with them, whereas the Canadian actors have a more intellectual, script-based approach to things. It’s interesting to see how together they can create something.
When working in a collective, it can be difficult to find consensus as a group but it also has great power when it works. Especially the more people you have: you get more ideas on the table, but it can be harder to navigate. And then you’ve really got to just give a directive cue…
HOLLY LEWIS: He’s really good at that. He’s really good at keeping us focused and selecting the stuff that’s the strongest and convincing us that he’s right! It’s our job as actors to just throw everything into the middle and do it with abandon and not be embarrassed and not be afraid to embarrass ourselves. I wanted use this as a chance to explore questions I had about myself, about theatre and our exchange. The initial work I was doing was one of the storylines that wasn’t kept in the story, but my character stayed and she sort of morphed. At first I was interested in exploring the idea of creation through writing but then during the second workshop, I was pregnant and that seemed so much more personal — a much better thing to explore because it was less academic. My character is no longer pregnant in the story, but the importance of the mother-child relationship has stayed. I like to give Daryl a lot of impossible ideas to stage, stuff like “Wouldn’t it be great if we did one scene that was like an overhead shot, so the perspective is completely switched?” and Daryl’s like “Okay, well how are we going to do that?” So we explore solving these impossibilities and for me that was the most fun stuff to bring to the table.
MONDO: Was there anything you incorporated in the show that came as a result of a mistake? What about something you tried that you didn’t think was a very good idea at first?
HL: Yeah! Most of it! And it’s also interesting when you’re doing intercultural stuff that at first sometimes you feel like certain things would not work aesthetically on stage. For example, there’s a cow slaughtering scene in the show. Daryl and the South African actors were trying to describe what would happen at this funeral when they would slaughter a cow and pour its blood and Daryl was like “Instead of talking about this, let’s do it!” One of the South African actors got down on all fours and did the most believable cow I have ever seen — I was blown away! It was one of the pieces that we created very early on that stayed because it’s so interesting. Now David Jenson, one of the Canadian actors, is playing it. It’s great because David is a Shaw Festival actor, so his approach is very much about finding the argument — to see him playing the cow is exactly the kind of work that we’re trying to get to. I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but when they first mentioned it, I thought “Well. That’ll never make it to the stage.” And now it’s a really powerful, exciting scene.
MONDO: Did a script arise out of all this work ultimately?
DC: It’s still arising! Part of our goal ultimately was to have a script that somebody someday could pick up and try to stage. We did that with The Sarajevo Project and ultimately got it published, which is exciting for me even if it’s just my mom who buys a copy. I think it’s a nice record of what we’ve done.
HL: A theatre company like ours that doesn’t have a space and relies on the generosity and interest of companies like the Tarragon and their interest in co-producing. But there’s something nice about building a library instead of building a theatre. It leaves behind kind of a legacy or a footprint.