In South Africa in the 1980s – which was the last decade of apartheid – there was strong censorship of press and news. But there was a gap in the world of theatre and performance. Many things could be said and shown on stage that could not be said or shown in the media. In South Africa at the time, theatre became a vital part of daily life – not least for the shared energy of a small audience close together in a theatre. In South Africa in those days theatre was also one of the first places of breaking the boundaries that apartheid enclosed. There were conversations between performers and audiences that, in their limited sphere, were a utopian vision of how communication could happen in a damaged society.
Improvisation and workshop creation were the key elements of this period and remain key for me in the theatre work I do now. Even if the work ends up in an opera house in Europe or America, the preliminary improvisatory work done in the studio in Johannesburg is key, both in finding a language and in generating the energy that feeds invention through the mental and physical proximities of the performers.
Four years ago I founded an arts centre in Johannesburg called the Centre for the Less Good Idea (the title comes from the Tswana proverb, “If the good doctor can’t heal you, find the less good doctor”). This is a centre in which actors, musicians, dancers, writers, artists come together, and twice a year make a season of different offerings for public viewing. The principle of it is that one starts with an idea, but it is in the physical activity of making – rehearsing, improvising, repeating the same gesture with variations, that ideas emerge (the less good idea) and often shift the work and take centre stage. This is not a theoretical position. It is about thinking in the movement of the body and voice, allowing us to recognise things which our body knew, but we did not know we knew.
This becomes very clear to participants in the workshops at the centre. The completion of the making of this meaning relies on the presence of an audience, in our case small (our spaces are not large), maybe 150 people at a time, to share this discovery. To understand, in their recognition of what they see in front of them, their participation in making meaning. This complicity confirms the agency of all in the theatre, both performers and audience, in making sense of the world.