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Looking beyond the script for inspiration

Published Jul 3, 2012

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I CATCH UP to the usually Joburg-based theatre directors at the Rhodes Theatre in Grahamstown where the production has just debuted.

This is the first time Pusetso Thibedi, winner of the Emerging Theatre Director Bursary (presented in partnership between the Theatre Arts Admin Collective, the Gordon Institute for Performing and creative Arts and the Baxter Theatre Centre) has worked with the much-awarded and experienced Janice Honeyman, but not the first time they have met.

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She was his first external examiner while he studied acting at Wits, where he got into directing and won a Percy Tucker Award in 2008 for helming David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

In high school he was more keen on the idea of a career in IT, but he does remember the impact Master Harold and the Boys had on him when it was prescribed as a set work.

“It was one of those books where I could relate to the story and where they came from,” explains Thibedi.

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“Have you read his notebooks?” asks Honeyman. “We must find it, you will just love it.”

Not only are pages from Fugard’s notebooks on The Blue Iris used in the set design, but Honeyman has been using the author’s notes to expand the cast’s knowledge of the characters.

And, as it turns out, she has several other notebooks about other plays Fugard has worked on over the years.

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“I’ll find them for you,” she says to Thibedi.

While Thibedi says he will find a way to make theatre no matter what, opportunities such as the Emerging Director Bursary or assisting in the directing of a new Fugard play don’t just happen.

“Platforms of connection are important,” expands Honeyman. “It’s funny how life works in circles,” she adds.

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Honeyman believes that the most important experience for Thibedi has been the rehearsal period, more than what comes next, now that the production has started: “It’s where Gipca (Gordon Institute for the Performing and Creative Arts) and Theatre Arts Admin Collective are doing a good job and mentorship is important for both parties.

“This is my 43rd year in theatre and to have a young energy asking me questions, or dealing with me, or contradicting me, is great because it’s good exercise for me. Most of what I try to do is to combine the younger energy with the more experienced and the best kind of weaving comes out of that, the best tapestry.”

“That’s how I like to cast,” interjects Thibedi. “Some actors are picking up weird story habits that make directing quite hard and very often you find out they’re not interested in the story. So if you get someone who understands the value of a story, working with someone trying to figure out what an actor does in this theatre industry, then it helps. And they themselves see: ‘Oh, you go into that much detail?’

“Sometimes people don’t understand it, you have two weeks to go and the story’s not clear. So, you say: ‘Okay guys, we’re going to sit for an entire week and we are going to chat,’” says Thibedi.

Honeyman: “That exercise last week, I always do it close to opening… we sat, the three characters together and Pusetso and I sat over there and they exchanged the play with each other.

“Claire, who plays Sally, is not in the play until the last bit in, but she’s a character, a presence there all the time. So, I made them sit there and they had to relate. It just suddenly became so much more real.

“Suddenly, it just emerged. But you can only do that later in the rehearsal, because of all the textures.”

Thibedi explains that the immediate role of the assistant director is to support: “How I see theatre, when working on a team, it’s how the unit puts something together. Whether one or multiple views, it’s how do we all work together to construct the vision.”

“Input as well. That’s the most beautiful thing about this play. Everyone’s input came to life,” adds Honeyman.

It has always been Honeyman’s preferred method of directing, to explore every aspect of a play, take all the various visions and mould them together. “So Pusetso is important because he is a different eye ,” she says. “You take any story. We all read it. What you take from it, there’s going to be different ways of looking at it. We are all fed by life experiences.”

Thibedi says: “The nature of this play is important to that process. When the memories are expressed, you find a commonality, a stirring of the deepest human feeling.”

The Blue Iris is essentially the reminiscing and regret of an old man (played by Graham Weir), reflecting on the disintegration of his marriage. Memories and missed opportunities are dissected in the small slice of humanity.

It is not a hugely political piece like Statement After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, but more indicative of Fugard’s reflective side now that he’s turned 80. “I think Athol Fugard is an intrinsically politically and deep-seeing humanitarian. That’s why his plays have substance and heart,” explains Honeyman.

• The Blue Iris opens on Saturday and runs until July 28 at The Fugard in Cape Town and moves to the Market theatre in Joburg in August.

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