« White audiences don’t want to see politically committed theatre anymore »

Interview with Vanessa Cooke, by Sabine Cessou

Director of The Laboratory
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Actress Vanessa Cooke was one of the Market Theatre’s original founders. In 1989, she became director of The Laboratory. Both a school and a workshop, this structure is dependent on both the Market Theatre and on Swedish and Dutch sponsors. Every year, about twenty students win a place on the two-year course, which incorporates diction, directing, and even lighting. The aim is that they find work. Some former « Lab » students now appear in television soap operas, others in theatre or film.
Thanks to a handful of contract collaborators, The Laboratory also works with over 150 township community theatre groups. Every May, they get the opportunity to stage fifty or so plays at The Laboratory festival. Since 1995, The Laboratory also assures two performances a day of a piece on Aids, Broken Dreams, in the Gauteng province’s primary and secondary schools (Johannesburg and Pretoria). For six years now, projects have been organised with primary schools in Alexandra, Boipatong, and Thembisa. And theatre competitions are held in these townships each year…

How did theatre survive the apartheid dark years?
The repressive machine was slow. For a play to be banned, someone had to see it first, then file a complaint. Then, a special committee would decide whether or not to ban it or to cut certain passages. We always appealed, and the Censorship Committee then had to watch the incriminated play. They sometimes lifted the ban. Most of the time, the play had already finished by the time their decision fell. What really used to make them angry was the fact that we would perform plays abroad to inform people about what was happening. They always under-estimated the theatre, which they never controlled as much as they did the mass media.
Why is the Market Theatre in difficulty today?
We are going through a difficult period, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Market has always been at the centre of cultural life, it has always been greatly criticised. I think that it still has potential and a future. Theatre in general is in a rut.
Why doesn’t the public come anymore?
A lot of white people feel that we don’t cater to them anymore. Which is perhaps true… There is also the problem of security: the town centre is seen to be so dangerous that no one wants to risk going there, especially not at night. It’s a poor excuse though. When Peter Brook came, the theatre was full. I think that white people don’t like the politically committed theatre we do anymore. They consider what we do to still be so, and they’re not wrong.
Are audiences segregated in terms of blacks and whites who go to see different shows?
No, that’s not the case. It’s more a form of polarisation. Very few black people go to the Theatre On The Square, launched by Barney Simon to promote his idea of « white conscience », which was meant to be the counterpart of Steve Biko’s « black conscience » movement. He wanted to open white people’s eyes, so they couldn’t say they didn’t know anymore. Today it’s worse: white people don’t want to know a thing anymore. It’s hard to incorporate audiences with such attitudes…
Are works gradually moving towards themes that are more related to the individual, to personal questions?
Last year, our graduates chose to address black South Africans’ xenophobia towards African immigrants. Taking her inspiration from a news story, one female student wrote about incest and examined the father-mother-child relationship. Our social problems are still so great that we can hardly ignore them. Having said that, several works focus a lot on male-female relationships, which wasn’t the case before.
What makes South African theatre specific?
Community groups from the townships have always been involved in a theatre that deals with social issues. Telling stories has always been part of African tradition. Theatre is simply a continuation of that. The Laboratory enables them to show their plays, which would not have been possible at the Market Theatre, due to commercial pressures and the plays’ quick turnover. Otherwise, we have a strong tradition of actors’ workshops, but not classes or drama schools, as is the case in New York.
Have your students changed a lot since The Laboratory first started?
Enormously. Our students aren’t so damaged by apartheid today. When they go to Europe, to Sweden, they meet young people who seem to have lost all hope. Here, young people are keen to learn, they are ready to fight to do something with their lives.

///Article N° : 5530


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