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It’s much harder for her to come up with a director’s note, says artist Sue Pam-Grant about her revival of the iconic Curl Up and Dye.
That’s the gloriously creative visionary talking about her work and a restaging that in anyone else’s mind, 25 years on, would be exactly that. But we’re talking Ms Pam-Grant. When she first wrote Curl Up and Dye, it was, among other things, creating work for herself. She was an artist of a different kind at the start of her career. Yet even then, one of the finest directors of the time, Lucille Gillwald, was the one who took the reins, which changed Sue’s artistic landscape in a way that she might never have imagined.
On her life’s journey, she has so stretched herself and re-imagined the work she does that it is difficult to find a job title. And why she had to rework, rather than restage, Curl Up and Dye, which runs at Sandton’s Theatre on the Square from tomorrow until April 20.
She describes it as working from a different palette. That’s also where she started, by creating what later became the poster for the show.
“It started off in the ’80s as kind of kitchen sink drama, sitcom,” she explains. But she had to gather the script and rework it from beginning to end. “I couldn’t find a digital copy anywhere, would you believe,” making the point even more poignantly about this being a different time and space.
It’s much more Brechtian now, she muses. In fact, if she has to pinpoint it, a Hopper painting.
“It’s dark comedy, rather than sitcom now.” Think about scholars studying the work and within time having this later version. “I don’t think it’s been done,” she says.
When it was first written, she was tapping into South Africa’s popular as well as political culture, providing a snapshot of a day in the life of five women in a struggling hair salon in Joburg’s inner city. It was a time when barriers were starting to tumble, so those tuning in could laugh at the absurdities of some of the lives.
Almost a lifetime removed from that voice, Sue knew that she was going to do some serious editing. Once she started working with the cast, the real work began and only in the last week of rehearsals did she promise her actors that she was done.
Because of her visual fixation, the writer/director started with the wardrobe. She scoured second-hand shops for each character’s daywear as well as nighties. “It’s been such a privilege to look at the work again,” she says. And as she finally pins down her director’s note, she also investigates and questions whether “in revisiting an ‘old work’ – is it the gaze of the ‘old’ that is seen as ‘new’ or is it our ‘new gaze’ on the ‘old work’ that opens our windows to views beyond our imagining?”.
She reverts to a collection of paintings she was working on while considering the remaking of an old work and how her colours suddenly shifted in tone and hue.
“It’s not about rehashing,” she says. Her work methods would never have allowed that. She’s hooked on revisiting with a new gaze. That’s what has been driving the show. And instead of reviving some of the old cast, her choice of actors has also added to the new spin on the work. Her character, Roeline, is played by Quanita Adams, joined by Robert Coleman, Hlengiwe Lushaba-Madlala, Lesedi Job-Smith and Cindy Swanepoel.
She divulges a few more secrets about gender switches and costume decisions, but they should be part of the surprise of experiencing the production.
What is clear is that Sue, who in the past few years has been working as “an interdisciplinary artist making innovative works in which the boundaries between visual and performance are contested and challenged”, has moved Curl Up and Dye into a very different space – and that’s intriguing. Many would have been delighted to ride on the laurels of the earlier success.
“I didn’t want to recall a single moment, a tone,” she says. That was the challenge and what excited her, not to recycle anything. “Coming home doesn’t have to be sentimental, it has to be authentic,” she says.
She has kept the play in its original time frame, but when we first saw it that’s exactly where we all were. Now it is gazing into a mirror, taking that leap, archiving history, she explains.
She’s excited about what she is attempting to do, delighted with the cast of five performers and challenged by the economics of theatre that forces her to be vigorous in her choices.
“I have put the text under a microscope,” she says.
Hers is a very different voice from 25 years ago. Then she was just stepping out. Now she has life experience that has had dramatic impact on her life and her work. “It’s leaner and funnier,” she believes.
But the essence is the same. “It still talks about the grey areas around us – as women,” she says.
Her casting points to a shift in where she’s willing to go. “As a people, how much have we moved?” she wonders.
After a gruelling process, she’s handed over the play to the actors. Some of the process was excruciating, but she feels her work is complete.
“Now they can add all the colours they wish for,” she says.