During 2012 Jennifer Steyn came to some of my workshops and enquired into a mentoring relationship. We agreed to work together on a process that would conclude with a performance.
We began to meet at the Theatre Arts Admin Collection in Observatory in Cape Town. She brought her wish to work with South Africa as theme. Our discussions centred around the current issues of SA life, poverty, politics and her daily encounter with her conscience as much as her frustrations at trying to address these as a performer, mother and daughter of an ailing mother.
We began to work on the floor with her feelings, how they were lodged in her body and discovered soon that her preparation for her ability to embody the deeper feelings of what had sprung from being on the performance floor as a South African - embodying all the feelings she could directly connect with concepts regarding South Africa - was to take a number of routes.
The physical preparation was to begin in the gym. From there onwards she began to take classes in Kundalini Yoga. The weekly meetings of 2-3 hours in the studio was always preceded with the cleaning of the studio, washing the floor, mopping and making the space one that one could feel one brings in the sacred with the theatrical. She embodied in this way an early dream to create for herself a sacred “laboratory” space. But it was also a metaphor for the following: When dealing with South Africa, we would not take anything for granted. That lay in the nature of our work and in the honouring of this country’s impact on us as a pursuit to hone ourselves as human beings.
Let me just say here that Jennifer is a remarkable actress, hard worker and I was to discover, one who ferociously hunts after a challenge to extend her repertoire and above all her abilities to become even more truthful in her expressions.
Over a period of 10 months we kept chiseling away at the superfluous in voice and movement. SA has a particular visceral and affective vocabulary and as artist you could not allow yourself to portray the work with anything but the truth of its existence inside of you.
A further unfolding of the work implied that she had to bring personal material into the room. Relationships were an important facet of her understanding of the nature of the work. They had to be felt, understood, embodied and expressed for her to know where the work of SA began and personal relationships ended. Here a statement from Jennifer: “I feel that personal and political contents are rhizome like, connected with everything we are, accentuating my South Africaness present in every cell of my being.”
Our reading covered philosophy, politics, poetry, and a gradual increase in the vocabularies that formed a new ‘body’ of understanding what it was we were dealing with.
The performance began to crystallise into a presence with no preplanned script, choreography or voice productions. Had she had the need to verbalise anything, the only sentence available was simply this: “Don’t fuck with my life.” This was the only sentence allowed. It was used with extreme economy so that when it was used that it would be created as an integral part of the movement that went before and after. A few objects, which changed over time to bricks, a piece of bone, a frayed stick were included.
This work is being written and experimented with by artists such as Antonin Artaud and Peter Brook, the latter, of the book Conference of the Birds. It requires enormous psychological care and risk-taking to feel yourself on the bone of the ambience of what you would connect with as South African. “The temptation to “fabricate” is key.”, says Jennifer. These were some of the quotes she had brought to a rehearsal:
Four performances took place in May 2013 at TAAC. It was not theatre that would be predictable or to hold any code of a recognisable style. Most patrons were astonished at the visceral effect that the work had on them. The nature of this kind of theatrical exploration is endless. The total discipline was required to stay focused on your internal image of South Africa no matter what. It elicits a vocabulary that would be familiar on a subconscious level, recognizable but yet illusive of “signallling” the psyche of a country - followed and performed in the moment. This was the work of 10 months by this collaboration between two South African artists, each bringing their unique skills into the empty space.