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Ola Johansson
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Beyond Vice
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On Beyond Vice    

Introduction

Beyond Vice was a project that engaged performing artists from Sweden and South Africa over the course of one month and which lead to a public theatre production at Uppsala stadsteater (Uppsala City Theatre) that opened on 1 November 2013. The organisational platform for the project was a bilateral partnership between Uppsala stadsteater and Magnet Theatre (Cape Town). The project was mainly funded by the Swedish Arts Council (284,000 Swedish Kronor, approximately £27,000) in addition to contributions from a local partner called Bananteatern which supported two actors.

In terms of a devising project Beyond Vice aspired for originality in so far as it departed from a very rare historical document, approached the document from two radically different geopolitical and theatre contexts, and engaged artists from performing as well as fine arts. Besides myself (Ola Johansson) as artistic director, the project included one art director (Amanda Newall, Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm), one theatre director (Brink Scholtz, Cape Town), one playwright (Sofia Fredén, Stockholm) and six actors of whom three were from Sweden and three were from South Africa.

Background to Devising

Devising has probably been a part of most performing arts traditions in the world, but in this particular case we paid special attention to South African and UK legacies, in addition to some consideration to East African community theatre. The latter kind of theatre (see Johansson 2011, Kerr 1995) is arguably the "most democratic" process I have witnessed in the performing arts, where a community group takes on a theme by sharing personal experiences as well as some research/expert advise into the theme, followed by an agreed dramaturgy, rehearsal of dramatic scenes, a public showing of such scenes, followed by post-performance discussions with the present audience as well as policy makers in the community. In brief, it is a bottom-up approach to communal affairs which includes as many people as possible, although with a focus on those who usually have a weak position and voice in the creation of public opinion in the communal context and thus the thematic realm of the performances. The East African kind of devised theatre was only applicable to a certain extent, as an inspirational model for creative group cohesion and character building, but neither as an aesthetic guidance nor a decisive dramaturgical or directorial model, let alone as an acting method.

The South African devising tradition has developed as community theatre in rural communities (Mda 1993) and more hybrid practices of South African and international performance styles in urban centres (Hutchison 2013; Morris 2010). The latter practices have famously been catalyzed through the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and other theatres, giving rise to a "total theatre aesthetics", sometimes called "township aesthetics", where dramatized performance merges with storytelling, dance and music. The latter has given rise to versatile and fluid performance styles that are adaptive to a lot of different art forms and theatre genres, and thus also devised theatre projects. At Market Theatre director Barney Simon could use scripts based on joint experiences/scenarios of playwrights and actors (e.g., Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona's The Island) and strike a unique balance between anecdotal experiences from the street and domestic settings and thoroughly conceptualized scenes in intense directorial work with particular actors. Simon and his collaborators at Market Theatre have had a profound influence on contemporary South African theatre and thus on numerous younger disciples, for instance, Mark Fleishman, director at Magnet Theatre (one of the partners of Beyond Vice) and Clare Stopford, a previous assistant to Simon who I offered to employ as director but who could not join the project due to other engagements. However, the director I worked with instead, Brink Scholtz, works in similar ways to Simon and Stopford as regards connections to devising (more about the directorial work process below).

In the UK devising is often associated with projects without a script or a director, i.e., creative collaborations that start from scratch and make something out of nothing. The best book on this process is arguably still Allison Oddey's Devising Theatre: A Practical and Theoretical Handbook (London: Routledge, 1994), where an introduction to devising in a British context of theatre groups and practices is accompanied by advice on how to practically plan, organise, conduct and follow up devising projects. Numerous other books have been published since Oddey's book was released, often overlapping with the expending field of applied theatre (see Prendergast and Saxton, 2009; Prentki & Preston, 2009; Thompson, 2003; Nicholson, 2005, 2011; Blatner, 2007; Jennings, 2009) which nowadays covers community theatre, educational theatre and political theatre with devising as a generic methodological base.

Background to Beyond Vice

Beyond Vice had its base in a practice-based research project from 2012 organized by Ola Johansson who at that time worked as Guest Professor in Artistic Research at the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts in Sweden. The partner of the project was Associate Professor Gay Morris at the University of Cape Town. The exchange project was funded by The Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) with 150,000 Swedish Kronor (approximately £14,000), permitting two week-long workshops to be conducted in Stockholm and Cape Town respectively. The research explored the transcript from a meeting in 1887 called "Mindre akademiska konsistoriet och sedlighetsdiskussionen i Upsala den 2 april 1887" ("The minor academic consistory and the morality discussion in Upsala the 2nd of April 1887"), which became known as "the morality debate" (sedlighetsdebatten) and which related to the social and sexual conduct of men towards women at the time. It was a time when Stockholm had the most sexually transmitted infections in Europe involving a widespread syphilis epidemic among men and women who met in extra-marital affairs of various sorts and in state-regulated brothels. Johansson and Morris found it reasonable to assume that the morality debate reflected a situation which not only resonated with the AIDS stricken contemporary South Africa but also contemporary Sweden.

The aim of the research project in 2012 was to channel the findings of the workshops in Stockholm and Cape Town towards a public performance. This type of research outcome pertains to the ethos and praxis of Johansson's (henceforth referred to in personal pronouns) current employer, ResCen research Centre at Middlesex University, where one director and six research associate artists have published/exhibited/performed their artistic research in the professional arts marketplace since 1999. The latter research environment provided a significant incentive and benchmark for the Beyond Vice project.

The devising process of Beyond Vice started in the summer of 2013 with a few lengthy emails about the thematic base and a preliminary dramaturgical framework of the pending work process. Other significant tasks had a more administrative character relating to the coordination and allocation of roles in the project. Agreeing on a start date with nine participants from two different continents took a while. When we finally came to an agreement, with a commencement date on the 1st of October (and with opening date at Uppsala stadsteater precisely one month later), the logistical challenges still required me, as artistic director, to organize an experimental separate work schedule for the participants in Sweden and South Africa. Issues such as visa procedures and passport formalities prevented the Capetownian actors and theatre director from coming to Uppsala until mid October. This meant that I initiated one week's work in Uppsala (1-7 October), followed by one week's work in Cape Town (9-14 October) and, finally, two weeks of work with all participants in Uppsala (16-31 October). In what follows I will describe these work phases in detail.

Beyond Vice: The Devising Phase

1-7 October (Uppsala)

The simultaneous processes began in early October. After suggesting a preliminary dramaturgy to the South African team, I received a response from Brink Scholtz about an expanded scenario which established a bilateral balance in the plot. The rationale behind the dramaturgy was to find contemporary scenarios for characters to get locked into – situations which they can leave but choose not to for various material, social and safety-related reasons. This dramaturgical inclination was assume in order to accomplish one of the most difficult tasks of the project, namely to find a diachronic resonance between, on the one hand, the old morality debaters in Uppsala and the absent (female) subjects of their discussions, and, on the other hand, contemporary corollary male and female roles in Sweden as well as South Africa. In last year's workshops we had established that there were indeed plenty of situations and personalities in our countries that corresponded with the roles of the old Uppsala debaters and the female subjects of their discussion. In Beyond Vice the delicate task was to pursue inherited privileged male positions from the Uppsala debate in ways that lent themselves to an exciting dramaturgy that, in turn, would be worth seeing in a dramatised form at Uppsala stadsteater. Hence, we decided to work with three dramaturgical components:

  a. scenes that make up a thematic framework, such as the historic document from the morality debate and scenes written by playwright Sofia Fredén about the right to one's own body
  b. storylines of two couples, namely (1) a Swedish aid worker and a South African township man, and (2) a South African researcher and her Swedish supervisor at Uppsala University
  c. solo acts by characters who can't find a given place in the overall dramaturgy

In Uppsala, where we rented rehearsal spaces at Gottsunda Dans & Teater and Sensus, I commenced the work with improvisation exercises in order to specifically identify the Swedish characters in the two couples, i.e., the university supervisor and the female aid worker. Both of these characters can be viewed as holding inherited privileged 'male' positions relative to their academic and postcolonial circumstances, i.e., even in the case of the woman.

The supervisor, Göran Rudin, is a relatively young junior professor who takes his career seriously and who engages in sociological research about drugs in marginalised parts of society. He also has a tendency to fall for the young women that he is supervising. One day the South African PhD candidate Mpoh consults Göran as supervisor for her planned doctoral project on prostitution in Uppsala and Cape Town. Here is the dialogue from their first meeting in Göran's office which eventually became a scene in the performance after some revisions:

  Mpho:   Hello.
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  Göran:   You sent me a proposal. (Stretches out his hand. She gets up and shakes his hand.) Göran.
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  Mpho:   Please to meet you, I'm Mpho.
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  Göran:   Rings a bell, I might have met someone else with that name somewhere down the line on one of my journeys.
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  Mpho:   Have you been to South Africa?
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  Göran:   Several times. (searches his memory) Well at least t … eh… wice. Amazing country, troubled no doubt, but great to be in with all its… (searches for a word without finding it) Anyway, you want me to help you write a PhD.
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  Mpho:   Professor Nordenhake recommended you as supervisor.
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  Göran:   All right, yeah, he's a good guy, Norre. (pause) Anyway, I took a look at your literature review and found it, how should I put it, slightly meagre. Are you aware of Barlokowsky's work on prostitution?
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  Mpho:   I am, but his investigations don't really pertain to my intended comparative analyses between Uppsala and Cape Town. I'm more of a Foucauldian scholar with interests in the binary identification effects of central institutions versus subaltern cohorts in various heterotopia.
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  Göran:   Yes of course, but that doesn't rule out the need for an entry point informed by grounded theory does it?
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  Mpho:   (looks at him kindly but nonresponsive) He was here, wasn't he? Foucault.
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  Göran:   He was indeed, as a cultural attaché, pissed and promiscuous as ever, he he he!
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  Mpho:   (not amused) And they flunked him, didn't they?
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  Göran:   They had to, it was just a bloody mess the whole thing. At least I think it was. Sten Lindroth, the man who turned down Foucault's PhD, is a very respected scholar, who was later elected into the Swedish Academy. (pause) Do you know about the Swedish Academy and the Nobel prizes and—
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  Mpho:   Do you think that you would have accepted Foucault's thesis?
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  Göran:   Of course! (moves closer to her) He was a damn genius and would have … By the way, have you had a chance to check out my research?
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  Mpho:   I have. (pause)
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  Göran:   Yeah, well (moves a bit closer), because I'm also investigating the underbelly of society, pretty filthy stuff really, more drugs related but still…
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  Mpho:   So as you may have picked up my research methodology will be somewhat experimental with some applied components in the field.
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  Göran:   What field? (pause) Oh, I see (moves back with his chair, annoyed by her disinterest in his own research), yes, we will have to run that through our ethical committee first of course, but … it sounds interesting although a bit risky in all sorts of ways. Look, I'm here to help you, don't get me wrong, I'm here to lend my expertise, for free (nervous laughter), not like your informants in "the field" (energetic laughter) … so I'm sure we will manage just fine. We have quite a history of prostitution in Uppsala and even academics and students used to frequent them quite a lot. Nowadays it's gone underground and you don't really see it, except the occasional escort at Radison Hotel and some bars. (pause) I'm married so… Are you married?
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  Mpho:   No.
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  Göran:   (enthusiastically) You're not married?! I thought every Xhosa (pronounced with a misplaced click sound) woman was married by the age of 12. (she just looks at him, with a reticent smile to alleviate his awkwardness) Boyfriend?
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  Mpho:   No. (keeps smiling)


In the other couple, we imagined the female aid worker as a solo career person within a large aid organisation, who possesses qualities both as a bureaucrat and a hippie – a person who both loves to travel to exotic places and help local communities as well as administer rigorous programmes in virtue of strict audit protocols. The first scene we worked with was thus a walk in a rough township with a male community worker, where the aid worker behaves quite flirtatiously but stiffens up considerably as it turns out that the local man has plans involving funding from her organisation. This was the start of a process which eventually lead to quite a cruel storyline where the aid worker makes clear to the South African man that she has no intentions to enter into a serious relationship. This puts him in a vulnerable position, somewhere in-between shame and hopelessness, not unlike the fate of certain classic female roles in theatre history, but unlike the latter he reacts through violence against the antagonist and comes close to a point of rape (as does the supervisor in the other couple's relations).

The solo acts had the working name 'crazy bitch scenes', which emanated from an initiative in South Africa to give space to more independent roles that did not quite fit into the dramaturgical structure (i.e., the Uppsala document, the couples, or Fredén's scenes). This also provided a possibility to involve a third actor from each country. In Sweden we worked with two such characters: a prostitute who oscillated between two different stage zones, one before the fall through the social safety nets, and one after the decline; and a liberal feminist who quite crassly views the body as a means for work, including prostitution (all lines for this character were taken verbatim from an existing feminist commentator in Sweden). The solo characters used a downstage microphone with a direct appeal to the audience and spoke in Swedish, a strategy which was kept all the way to the public performances.

In line with the principles of devising, the actors were encouraged to contribute by proposing scenes for the evolving dramaturgy based on their personal experiences and/or observations and reflections they were gathering so long as they related to our dramaturgical progression. They were also free to suggest alternative dramaturgical routes and patterns, even though this window would soon close due to time constraints. Hence, Helena Sandström wrote the scenes for the feminist. Björn Dahlman suggested a scene in a hotel room where a Swedish couple (the university supervisor and the feminist, who soon became his wife in the drama) met with a prostitute in Cape Town, which was thus improvised and transcribed out of the improvisatory dialogue. Lise Edman created the scene with the woman who showed a before-and-after life as a prostitute, which was a act of mime as much as monologue. Meanwhile I organised an overall dramaturgical structure, wrote the dialogue for the supervisor meeting (see above) and proposed scenes from the Uppsala debate.

At this time I also received the first contribution from Sofia Fredén, an absurd, quite freestanding scene with foreign guest workers who talk about their bodies as a user-friendly and multi-functional means for work, in this case for construction work and prostitution. It was also clear that Amanda Newall, who was responsible for the visual aspects of the staging, were arriving at more concrete ideas for costumes which would provide possibilities to cover the ethnicity and gender of the characters.

9-14 October (Cape Town)

On a more logistical level, the project sufferedfrom the delays related to problems with lengthy passport and visa procedures. It was clear that the three South African actors would not arrive in Uppsala until 18 October, while the theatre director would arrive as late as 24 October (just eight days before opening). This meant that I had to go down to South Africa together with Newall in an attempt to synchronize the dramaturgical work and rehearsal processes. And so we spent the 9-14 October in Cape Town where we rented New Africa Theatre in Rondebosch as rehearsal space.

At this point I had established close contact with Brink Scholtz, the South African devising facilitator and director. To my and Amanda's great relief the Cape Townians had worked in ways that allowed for collaborative developments. Thecreation of the two couples was approached from South African perspectives and in scenes that could either precede or follow the ones we had worked on in Uppsala. I addition the 'crazy bitch' scene was a quite impressive solo act by the young actress Chiminae Ball, who had created what would make it all the way to the opening scene in Uppsala stadsteater. In addition to this the South Africans had created a scene based on the Uppsala debate linguistically and behaviourally relayed through local characters in Cape Town. Moreover, there was a scene linking the township fellow (who befriends the Swedish aid worker) with a young prostitute called Janine. Within a matter of hours in Cape Town it was made clear that we indeed had a possibility of creating a public performance within a couple of weeks, even if nothing but hard work remained of the month.

In Cape Town I was also involved in meetings with Scholtz, Newall and Gay Morris, with whom I had conducted the previous year's artistic research project. We confirmed the working order, which had been laid down in the preparation of the project, namely that I would be responsible for the overall planning of the project, act as dramaturg, resume the devising/directing process with the Swedish but also South African actors in Uppsala until Scholtz arrived and that Newall would assume responsibility for the scenography, visual effects and costume design of the performance. All this required a tight communication between us on a continual basis and in a way that involved the actors' work on the floor. There would be no more significant changes to the dramaturgical structure from now on, but there was still a devising process in progress that would allow actors to suggest new scenes within the dramaturgical structure.

The last day in Cape Town I directed a scene between the supervisor and the PhD student and this made us aware of the differences in approach to the dramatic work on stage. While the South Africans often tend to pursue forms of dramatised storytelling where characters embody not only the interpersonal relations and dialogue but also the audio-visual and scenographic context of scenes, a Swedish directorial approach more often departs from the social and subjective ambience of situations and its bearing on the interpersonal communication, admittedly in a less embodied way but often more psychologically nuanced and open in time and space. There was no doubt that we would be able to work together as we had created scenarios which highlighted cultural and linguistic differences, but there would also be several moments when close encounters of characters would require cross-cultural stylistic negotiations and fine-tuning.

The scene with the supervisor and the PhD candidate was a case in point. In order to upset the predictable difference in power relations, the South African student would have to possess qualities that made her independent-minded but also stand up for herself in virtue of bodily attitudes to the Swedish professor. Hence I had the chance to work (in Brink Scholtz house in Cape Town) briefly with South African actress Asanda Rilityana and immediately got the feeling that she assumed a too soft attitude to the supervisor but that she had resources to reinforce the attitude in the way she would greet him, sit in relation to him, position a shoulder in his direction but also open her facial expressions to him. Chiminae Ball stepped in as the supervisor, but back home in Uppsala I had worked with a supervisor character who appeared slightly psychopathic, with smiles and other attitudinal expressions which isolated him from proper social conduct and divulged his attention to the PhD candidate herself rather than her academic interests. I have included three video clips which show the progressive work with these two roles, from the early Uppsala rehearsals (1st Supervisor meeting) where Björn Dahlman acted against Lise Edman, to the rehearsal session in the Cape Town house (2nd Supervisor meeting), to the joint Uppsala rehearsal where Dahlman and Rilityana co-acted (3rd Supervisor meeting), just as in the final performance. The three video clips can thus be compared with the scene in the public performance, where it appears about five minutes into the show. By then the African PhD candidate had armoured her character quite significantly while the supervisor let down his guard just as much, leading the way to the point in their relationship where he is being outmanoeuvred by her and makes attempts to seduce her in rather blatant ways (secretly recorded by the researcher in line with her fieldwork studies).

16-31 October (Uppsala)

Back in Uppsala I informed the Swedish actors what I and Amanda Newall had seen in Cape Town. Along with video clips I provided some contextual background and descriptions of the aesthetic features of the rehearsals in South Africa, such as bodily interpretations of themes, a storytelling dramaturgy with fluid interlinked scenes and characters, and motifs energised by music and dance. Meanwhile, the Swedish actors had worked with a few new scenes and with blocking exercises of the existing scenes.

Two days later the South African actors arrived in Uppsala and we began the work of collaborating and synergising scenes that had been created in separate locations. As surmised in Cape Town, it was indeed possible to bring together the actors and create dynamic scenes due to cognate motifs although different playing styles. At this point we had about 20 scenes, including two more scenes from Fredén, which meant that we moved between tentative run-throughs to in-depth work with pivotal scenes. The work was conveyed via social media and email to theatre director Brink Scholtz, who still waited for her visa to be administered in Cape Town. Only on Scholtz' arrival would we settle on a definite dramaturgy as her directorial decisions close to the opening would inevitably also draw in storylines.

On 24 October Scholtz arrived on a rather messy day when we had a less than satisfactory rehearsal space in central Uppsala and print-outs of the preliminary manuscript with the scenes in disorder. The actors probably also sensed an apprehension as on the turning point of this day we shifted our project towards a final dramaturgy, decisive directorial routes and a work schedule which intensified even more in terms of hours in the theatre and homework. The day after Scholtz presented her idea for the rest of the rehearsal period, which clearly assumed the form of a character-driven plot and a storytelling aesthetic. The oscillation between detailed work with key scenes and run-throughs continued although with an altered dramaturgy which made the piece look like a South African visiting performance in Sweden. Scholtz had asked for two days of work without any interference, which I found reasonable. After the two days, however, Scholtz and I had a meeting about the piece's dramaturgical profile and balance. It was a very open and forthright meeting where I raised a number of concerns regarding the aesthetic inclination and stylistic preferences of the last two days, which I viewed as risking a loss of the audience's attention. Consequently, we decided to revisit a couple of scenes with South African-Swedish relations, especially regarding the two couples in the plot, but also to include two new scenes with Swedish motifs in order to re-gain a balanced script. Furthermore, we decided that the directorial process would be open to a dialogue between us, not least in order to make Scholtz aware of Swedish connotations and associations in connection with directorial decisions. However, it was vital that Scholtz' work process continued to function relatively autonomously in order to work in quick and flexible steps towards a prepared performance.

Our greatest challenge was time. The last week (25-31 October) involved a series of comprehensive directorial decisions which compromised the original plans for a performance based on the Uppsala-debate. The latter debate was based on a historical document which was marginalised in the swift process; Sofia Fredén's scenes were excluded from the increasingly homogenized throughline of the script; and, perhaps most seriously, the power-laden positions of the privileged males in the Uppsala debate and their corresponding positions in contemporary Sweden and South Africa were substituted with scenes depicting direct actions of the characters. As Scholtz and I never quite reconciled our different views on the overall structure of the script, which basically came down to the existence or non-existence of a conceptual framework within the dramaturgy, I made sure to let the director know that I fully supported her work towards a ready performance format. However, what made the performance conceptually and visually asymmetric, rather than merely character-driven, was Amanda Newall's costumes and scenography which challenged habitual spectatorial decodings of race and gender identities.

The performance was greeted warmly by audiences from 1 November and received positive critique in both National Swedish Radio and in the newspaper Uppsala Nya Tidning. Moreover, we had an audience discussion after the show on 2 November, which was highly dynamic and lasted longer than the actual performance (which was approximately one hour and fifteen minutes long).

Conclusion

In conclusion, my job as artistic director of Beyond Vice was accomplished by

  • acquiring funding in virtue of the research project I lead the previous year
  • consolidating a cooperating platform between Uppsala stadsteater and Magnet Theatre, also with help from a local partner (Bananteatern)
  • allocating roles for and recruiting one art director, one theatre director, one playwright, three Swedish actors and three South African actors
  • introducing everyone involved to the theme of the project
  • planning and organising a rehearsal period during the month of October in Uppsala and Cape Town
  • suggesting a dramaturgy as a base for the commencement of rehearsals
  • conducting improvisatory tasks and directing actors (until 24 of October) towards a prepared public performance
  • coordinating the work between the art director, theatre director and playwright towards the public production
  • writing about half of the manuscript for Beyond Vice
  • writing the programme for the performance at Uppsala stadsteater
  • being interviewed by National Swedish Radio (broadcast 01/11/2013) and Uppsala Nya Tidning (01/11/2013) about the devising process leading up to the public performance
  • organising and participating in the public post-performance discussion (02/11/2013)
  • striking a balance in a modus operandi involving devised performance, cross-cultural acting, directing, fine arts, and playwriting, leading to an original public art work for the stage

Bibliography

Hutchison, Y., South African Performance and Archives of Memory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013)
Jennings, S. (ed.), Interactive and Improvisational Drama, ed. Adam Blatner, iUniverse, 2007; Dramatherapy and Social Theatre (London: Routledge, 2009)
Morris, G., Own-Made in the (Post-)New South Africa: A Study of Theatre Originating from Selected Townships in the Vicinity of Cape Town (University of Cape Town, 2010)
Nicholson, H., Theatre, Education and Performance (London: Routledge, 2011)
Nicholson, H., Applied Drama (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005)
Prendergast and Saxton (eds.), Applied Theatre: International Case Studies and Challenges for Practice (Intellect, 2009)
Prentki & Preston (eds.), The Applied Theatre Reader (London: Routledge, 2009)
Thompson, J., Applied Theatre: Bewilderment and Beyond (Bern: Peter Lange, 2004)

 

 

Directing Beyond Vice

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