At the start of the 2020 academic year, UJ Arts & Culture (a division of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA) at the University of Johannesburg) teamed up with Madevu Entertainment and director Janice Honeyman to develop and produce the 2020/21 FADA Interdisciplinary Theatre Programme production – a retelling of the Zulu folktale Hlakanyana.
The FADA Interdisciplinary Theatre Programme is a collaborative effort that sees more than 300 second-year students from the departments of Visual Art, Interior Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design, Fashion Design, Jewellery, Architecture and Multimedia participate in the design of the production’s set, costumes and marketing collateral. Now in its fourth year, the programme has seen UJ Arts & Culture present three productions that were met with critical acclaim and most recently received nine Naledi Theatre awards for its production of Metamorphosis of which it won two; one for best set design and the second for lighting design and animation.
However, like so many other projects and performances planned for 2020, the interdisciplinary theatre programme has seen a hiatus since April with the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown. Despite the stringent restrictions, UJ Arts & Culture innovatively responded to the circumstances by directing its energy to the development of new work that audiences will no doubt be ready for when the world has gotten grips of the widespread pandemic.
Madevu Entertainment’s Zolani Shangase and Michael Willam Wallace and Janice Honeyman were invited to continue the creation and development of Hlakanyana using the popular online platforms available. The process included writers, actors, choreographers, dancers, composers, musicians, academics and production representatives from UJ Arts & Culture. As the workshopping, script development and musical score conception adapted to new digital mediums, the creative process took on a different form.
‘The combination of the participants in the creation of Hlakanyana was excellent, whether it was the academics we had or the practical people who talked to us about design and music, it was all wonderful and somehow the format made it easy for all of us to listen to each other, to contribute and to share ideas. It felt unthreatening and it built respect between the people we were working with. We got a very wide field for ideas, which I am sure in the final draft will be sifted through, but there seemed to be great, great potential in the piece,’ says Honeyman who has many years of experience workshopping and directing new work in the rehearsal room.
‘It will, of course, be fantastic to be in the same room, but for the step we were at and the phase we were at in Hlakanyana, I think Zoom worked very well,’ she added.
The creative team grew from the initial three (Shangase, Wallace and Honeyman) to include Dionne Song and Sne Dladla. New strategies had to be developed to get the results the team were looking for. Over this time, they discovered that while lockdown regulations may have kept them out of the rehearsal room, the online platforms brought them much closer together.
According to Wallace, the move to the digital space changed the nature of the initial workshopping process. Rather than getting into the dramatisation of the work almost immediately, the actors, along with the producers and director, delved much deeper into the development of the script and unexpected connections were made.
‘Normally when you are in a room together, there is a tendency to push through the workshop process quickly and get into the creating. Online, we were able to emphasise the discussion process more and worked on our ideas over a longer time period. This allowed us to view the piece through the different lenses of the cast, mull over the characters and stories we were working with and sleep on our ideas,’ he said.
For Honeyman, the process was both new and incredibly interesting. When comparing the experience to the rehearsal room, although it was different, it was not much less.
‘It was possibly a little more cerebral and less spontaneous. There was a kind of gentleness and thoughtfulness and respect for one another that came out in the Zoom meetings and I think that’s because you can’t really interrupt in Zoom, so thoughts are finished, thought about, weighed up, and then filed in some way or other,’ said Honeyman.
Shangase continued that the time spent together online exposed everyone’s worlds to each other on the other side of the screen.
‘We started to find that people had fewer inhibitions and the experience became more personal during the process. We were having the right type of conversations.’
‘On a more practical side, the online process eliminated issues of transport and punctuality, which can become a problem when working in the theatre,’ he added.
Hlakanyana is an Afrofuturistic moulding together of traditional folklore and contemporary issues and styling. Hlakanyana is an anti-hero, beset by isolation and figuring out a path in a rapidly changing world. Many of the issues South Africa is facing at the moment, such as gender-based violence, corruption, the lack of mentorship and moral guidance and uncertainty are explored through the medium of folklore. The voice of women is brought to the fore particularly through the character of Hlakanyana’s mother, whose own story and experiences of her strange, meat-craving son are side-lined. On a more personal level, isolation and the revising of people’s world-view and growing dissatisfaction with the status quo is also found in the fabric of the play’s script. Hlakanyana is scheduled to premiere in 2021 at the UJ Arts Centre.