Steven Stead goes Red
Tell us a little bit about how you got into theatre and what attracted you to this art form?
I was fortunate enough to have been taken to pantomimes, musicals, ballets and plays from a very early age by my mother, who has always loved the arts, but particularly the performing arts. The theatre has thus always been a place of magical transformation and discovery for me. Not an escape from life, but an awakening of a heightened awareness of life. I love its immediacy and the intensity of the communication between actors and audience, the alchemy of these two temporarily fused worlds. It provides a tension and a dynamic interaction totally unlike any other art form I can think of.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process, how do you go from a concept or an idea in your mind to a complete production?
“The play’s the thing”…to quote a fairly well known author. I always start with the text. Once I have digested its layers and syntax, then images and associations begin to surface in my mind, and a production concept starts to surface. Then I will also research period and historical detail if necessary, or look at relevant art works. But I start as a blank canvas and let the words (or music) work on my imagination. Then follow lengthy and often meandering discussions with the designer, and gradually we come up with a staging which will hopefully have resonance with our audiences, engage our creative sensibilities and serve the piece.
Who would you say are some of the creatives that have had the strongest influence on you and how?
In South Africa I have always admired the productions of Martinus Basson. His work is always original, yet has a strong personal identity, and always embraces theatricality and the almost ritual mysticism of theatre. His is a dream like vocabulary, using image and intent to create a mesmerising, out of the ordinary experience, often deeply rooted in the dark recesses of the mind and soul. This for me is the essential language of theatre. Internationally, I have the greatest admiration for Robert Lepage, whose imagery and attention to detail in every element of production is staggering, humbling and inspiring.
Theatre in South Africa is very rooted in protest context and South Africa has a very strong tradition in that regard, I want to ask you then as a person who works in post-1994 South Africa what message do you think local theatre needs to articulate and what relevance does it have to the here and now?
There is no doubt that Protest Theatre has played a vital part in the transformation of the country and the conscientising of our people. However, theatre is too diverse and constantly evolving as an art form to be limited to a single political or ideological agenda. It is there to engage the psyche and reflect the myriad facets of what is to be human. It is there to provoke reflection, and to give us comfort. It is there to stimulate and challenge, and to delight. This range of effects is virtually infinite, and to be limited in any one single agenda is just tragic. When we had an overwhelming need to address the serious political and social evils in our country, the theatre served us. But now it must serve us in different ways: it needs to remind us that we are part of a greater world, with a shared humanity; a world of infinite variety and complexity that merits exploration.
We are seeing a lot of international plays being staged in South Africa, including Red, what does this mean for local theatre?
It is so very healthy to have this cultural cross-pollination. It means many things to local theatre: firstly, we are being exposed to other perspectives on issues that touch us as citizens of the world, not just of this country. Secondly, it allows us to contextualise our writing and production. It excites me enormously to feel that we are not isolated, and stagnating in our own home-brewed cultural juices, but exchanging ideas and ways of seeing the world with theatre makers from all over that world. We are exploring the very best drama and comedy that the world has to offer and exporting our own work abroad. This is a critical dynamic, and something to rejoice about. Thirdly, the staging of international plays does not ring a death knell for local writing; quite the opposite: it inspires and provokes local writing. It educates and inflames and stimulates.
One of the problems that have always been raised by other playwrights is that local theatre does not really have an audience, what do you think needs to be done to develop an audience locally?
Do more quality productions for young people for a start. That’s how I fell in love with the theatre. And that’s what KickstArt is trying to do in Durban, and I think succeeding in a small way to ensure theatre’s longevity. It can give something that film and computer games cannot give. I also believe that the State should subsidise theatre making more generously and with more understanding about what it can achieve, as this would reduce ticket prices and make theatre more accessible to people who cannot afford to go to the theatre. We all know how expensive it is to produce. If, as in Europe, the State, or private companies supported qualified practitioners and companies, it would be far more accessible to far more people.
Tell us a little bit about Red and what initially made you want to be involved in this project?
This play based on the life of expressionist American painter Mark Rothko, is actually all about the creative urge and the creative activity: it explores what motivates an artist, what keeps an artist engaged and functioning, and the relationship an artist has with his audience and his benefactors; it will touch anyone who has ever engaged in any form of professional creativity or indeed anyone who is interested in art at all. And not just visual or fine arts, but theatre, music, writing or dance. The writing is also dazzlingly eloquent and an intellectual delight. It is the ideal arts festival piece. It’s a play for grownups!
Tell us a bit about the casting, how did you go about finding the people to play the roles in this story?
The leading actor required for this play is required to have virtuosity and a command of classical theatre technique that is very rare nowadays. He is also required to be over 50 and possessed of an enormous mental and vocal stamina. To my mind there was only one actor in the country who could pull it off, and that was Michael Richard. Fortunately he liked the play and was up for the challenge. I auditioned actors to play the young apprentice, Ken, and discovered an unaffected, sincere and likeable young actor, who just happened to be Michael’s son, Jeremy. It was really just a lucky accident, but the alchemy of these two fine actors of very different generations, yet the same family has proved to be extremely exciting and served the play well.
The play ran recently at the Playhouse, what was that experience like?
It was just a short, week long season to preview the production, and it was very satisfying to see that audiences generally responded very positively to the play, some even coming back a second time to absorb its ideas more completely. It does offer an audience a terrific opportunity to flex intellectual muscles and be engaged in meaningful debate.
John Logan is a very accomplished writer, how difficult is it to take on one of his writings?
It was not more difficult than Mamet, or Shakespeare, or any other good writer that I have been lucky enough to engage with. The strength of the writing actually makes the job easy, not hard. Its bad writing that is difficult to act or to stage!
Mark Rothko is a very complex character and he is very much an American icon, how do you think local audiences will relate to him?
His status as an American icon is irrelevant in this country, and the success of the play is not dependent on an audience being familiar with the man or his work. Logan uses Rothko as a conduit to discuss and explore far more fundamental issues in the making of art generally. The character we are presented with is difficult and cantankerous and very self-absorbed, and potentially very alienating. But he is also funny, sardonic and perceptive, and touchingly vulnerable, even fragile beneath the bluster. He is a fantastic theatrical creation that will engage any thinking, feeling observer.
What can audiences expect from you this year in Grahamstown?
What they can always expect from me and from KickstArt: a highly detailed, considered, well-rehearsed, sincere, stimulating, entertaining production that will hopefully linger in audiences’ minds after the curtain has come down
What are some of your future plans and initiatives that you are working on?
We are currently in rehearsal for a revival of our production of Kander and Ebb’s classic musical, Cabaret which is being produced by Pieter Toerien at the Montecasino Theatre in Johannes burg and then touring to Cape Town to Theatre on the Bay for two months in August and September. Then we begin preparation for our Christmas production, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast that will play in Durban in November/December. We have some extremely exciting projects lined up for 2013, but I’m not at liberty to discuss them right now…