Friday, September 9, 2016

Report from Grahamstown: July 2016

Thank you for your support!

To express part of our deep and sincere gratitude for your support of our cast traveling and presenting our work in South Africa, we thought we’d share some of our experiences with you through this (post-) travel blog.  While we were in Grahamstown, the wifi was rather unreliable and so creating a blog in real-time, as we had hoped to do, was nearly impossible. 

Welcome to Amazing!

As many of you know, our trip to South Africa was part of a larger study abroad program, a course called Arts and Culture in South Africa, developed by UMass Professor Megan Lewis, who is a South African theater scholar originally from Johannesburg.  Preparations for our trip began in May, just after the spring semester ended.  Professor Lewis assigned us a rigorous schedule of coursework over six weeks to prepare us for visiting South Africa.  This involved reading articles, watching films, and conducting independent research about: South African history, several key movements and figures during the apartheid era, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the performative nature of sports, performance art, satire, physical theater, Magnet Theater, Brett Bailey, monuments as performance sites of history, and much, much more.

We're Off!
After this cultural and academic immersion, we packed our bags and 22 students met in Boston’s Logan airport on the evening of June 25th.

Nick, Miguel, Jasmine, Alison, and Faniel anxiously awaiting the boarding of our flight to London

Seven hours later, we arrived at London’s Heathrow airport, where we managed a 12-hour layover.  We were not allowed to leave the airport, so we made the best of our time through sleeping, entertaining ourselves with new and novel British snacks, and trying to rehearse our lines for We Are Proud to Present

Janet, Nick, and Sarah prepare for a line-through rehearsal during our 12-hour layover in Heathrow Airport in London.  Tamara (and others) catch up on sleep. 

          Our full group of 30 students and professors finally meet in Johannesburg!

After our long layover we still had a stretch of 10.5 hours in the air until we finally landed in Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport.  Megan, Glenn, our tour director John, and visiting professors Ginny, Dan, and Paul met us with big smiles and South African flags.  Many of us barely slept more than 3 hours during our entire 28-hour journey. 

Three Days in Johannesburg

To help us deal with our horrific jetlag, Megan got us moving immediately.  We went directly from the airport to a tour of Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, an important site in South Africa’s political past and present.  Both a museum of a former prison and the country’s fully operational main judicial court, Constitution Hill presented us with both vestiges from the horrific legacy of apartheid and with the massive transformative efforts toward a more just and equal society that South Africa has faced in the last 50 years. 

Our tour guide speaks with the group in front of a row of solitary confinement cells.  Both Nelson Mandela and Mohatma Gandhi were detained here. 

Andy, Janet, Sabine, and Faniel, next to words of a hero.

One of the symbols of the Constitutional Court.

Janet and Sabine show off the hand-beaded South African flag hanging inside the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg. 

Carved into the doors of the court are the articles of the Constitution, presented in multiple languages.


After our long day, Megan hosted us for our first South African meal at Ocean Basket in Pretoria...

Where we also celebrated Miguel’s 21st birthday!

And ate more food than we could possibly manage.

In Pretoria, we also visited the imposing Voortrekkers’ monument, a historical site commemorating the journey of Afrikaaners from the coastal regions to the interior of the country in the 1800s.  The Voortrekker monument has politically complex implications in contemporary South Africa.  It honors a culture which was persecuted by the British and then later systematically oppressed Black South Africans for decades.  We had many mixed reactions to being in this space, but we did get to climb up the tower and get some great views of Pretoria.

Miguel and his ubiquitous ukulele at Voortrekker’s Monument.

A view looking down from the interior tower

We also visited Freedom Park, an impressive and humbling monument to thousands of people who fought for freedom in South Africa, from pre-colonial to anti-apartheid-era movements in the country's history.  The park is dedicated to liberation of all people and inclusivity of the many cultures within South Africa's borders.

In the evenings, we rehearsed wherever and whenever we could.  The cast had not worked together for four months on this show and we were pressed for time on our trip.  Rehearsals happened in hotel conference rooms, bus rides, lunch breaks, and on walks around town.

Second day here: some of us were still jetlagged.

While in Johannesburg, we also visited Lilliesleaf, the compound in Rivonia, Johannesburg, where Mandela and his associates were planning acts of resistance against apartheid. 

We toured several places in Soweto, the sprawling Southwest Township of Johannesburg.  Among our visits that day were the Hector Pieterson Museum, a space dedicated to the heartwrenchingly tragic murder of Hector Pieterson, a young boy who was murdered by South African police during the 1976 Soweto youth uprising.  The museum honors Pieterson and many of his schoolmates who died tragically during this uprising.


We spent most of an afternoon at the Thembelenkosini Care Givers center in Soweto.  We loved our time with the children here.  We played lots of games with them; some that we taught them, and some that they taught us.  We read books together and danced together.




Welcome to AMAZING!

After three jam-packed days in Johannesburg, we flew to Port Elizabeth airport and then took a bus to Grahamstown. 

Back-of-the-bus rehearsal

Our favorite Connecticut College professor, Ginny Anderson, at Nanaga Farm Stall, a wonderful oasis where we loaded up on tons of snacks to hold us over during our busy festival schedule.

Kyle during one of his poster-plastering sessions in Grahamstown

We had to market ourselves with a ferocity at the festival.  We had special festival posters printed, we handed out hundreds of postcards, we wore special t-shirts.  We all wore shirts with the show logo on the front and our actor "number" (if you saw the show this makes sense) on the back.  We included some "team names" and extra numbers for everyone else in the group, including our head Goddess, Professor Megan.


We were interviewed by a radio station (SABC, South African Broadcasting Corporation).  Our cast talked about the show with every person we met.


Once we were in Grahamstown, we settled into ten days of seeing amazing theatrical productions!  We managed to see some incredibly powerful theater works.  Some shows were unlike anything we'd seen before in the U.S.  South African theater-makers are often very political in their artistic choices, and they employ a great deal of visual and physical theatrical technique.  The shows we saw all occurred in various school sites and converted spaces around Grahamstown.

A few posters and one image from some of our favorite productions:

Our theater space at the festival was in a converted gymnasium/theater space.

Our posters!

Phelps House, our dorm at the festival

Rehearsing in Phelps House at Rhodes University.



In the middle of the week, we took a break from extensive theater-watching, and had the opportunity to visit the Kwantu Game Reserve and go on a safari!  We got very close to the animals (sometimes uncomfortably close, such as when Jen was nearly impaled by an elephant), and the entire trip was unforgettable.



Our performances

We learned so much from working in a festival environment.  We learned to adapt quickly.  We had very little time to rehearse our piece in the new space.   However, the cast by this point had done quite a few performances over the past year, so they were professional about adjusting to our new environment and new set. 

The audiences were generally very supportive and enthusiastic about the work.  Unlike at UMass, where we invited audiences for nightly talkbacks about the show, the festival experience necessitated that we leave the theater space immediately after we were done performing.  We weren't always immediately sure what audiences' thoughts were.  However, cast members were able to speak with various audience members that they met during social outings after the performances, or we would meet people at other shows who saw our piece, and people were supportive and appreciative of our work. 

We also managed to garner two positive reviews in the Festival newspaper, The Cue, which was extremely helpful and very appreciated!

Every single one of us found that participating in the festival was transformative and inspiring.  We all grew and learned from the experience. 

Miguel:  Our trip to South Africa to participate in the National Arts Festival is almost impossible to put into words. I had a once in a lifetime experience working in a professional theater festival. I made connections in the South African theater world that I am very excited to explore. This trip has changed the course of my post graduate career. I’m planning on going back to South Africa to study at University of Cape Town and I would have never have been on this path without your help.  Thank you! 

Nick:  Spending time in South Africa made me reflect on what it means to communicate and connect with others.  It made me recognize the importance of not only being open to others' perspectives, but to be willing to listen and absorb what others have to say.

Sabine:  This South Africa trip was absolutely the most life-changing trip of my entire life!  The land, the people, and the atmosphere was just absolutely amazing!  I felt so at home even though I was so far from home.  This trip was the trip that made me realize so much about myself and actually really helped put things into perspective for me. I am so grateful for the people that made it possible for me to experience the beauty that is South Africa!

Sarah:  Not only was South Africa a beautiful diverse place, but a wonderful place for my acting training.  For my role in We Are Proud, I had to understand the complicated racial and social issues occurring in the U.S.. Little did I know, traveling thousands of miles and across a body of water made me understand America's racial issues better.  Such a truly wonderful and informative adventure!

Isaiah:  Some key takeaways for me from the South Africa trip are how their past brought them to where they are today and how important theater is and its influence on the people of South Africa.

Kyle:  I cannot emphasize enough how remarkable this opportunity was for the We Are Proud team and what it can do for future groups! The ability to share art with an international community is life-changing. Even more so is the opportunity to discuss theatre and performance with fellow artists at the festival. As theatremakers we strive to excel and grow within this art form and there is no better way to do so than to see it in an entirely new perspective. I had a conversation with Chuma Sopotela, an actress involved in three separate performances at the NAF, and during our talk she told me how theatre is meant to transcend reality and carry us into a dream world we never knew existed. Theatre answers the questions we are either afraid to ask or never thought to ask in the first place. It becomes even more magical when we sit in the audience and watch a performance that connects us to a part of our subconscious.

Janet:  The trip to South Africa was an absolutely necessary and beautiful trip for me!  This was my first time ever seeing people of color control the theater stage.  As a black woman, I was really able to connect with the performers and the stories that they were telling on stage because I've dealt with many of the things that they are constantly dealing with. This trip was filled with laughter, tears, more laughter, and more tears! I loved every minute of it and I loved that I was able to experience the rich history and world of South Africa with people that I love.  Thank you so much to all those who helped make this happen!
Tamara:  We Are Proud to Present is an experience I will never forget. Taking Megan Lewis’ summer course and participating in the festival allowed me to see our show through a different lens. As an audience member, it was interesting taking our style and placing it in South Africa. The majority of our audience members were local which meant there were different reactions, and different questions were asked in response to our work. It was a flipped switch so to speak and allowed me to examine our work with a full perspective: looking at it as an outsider using African history, versus hearing the Africans and their responses for Jackie Sibblies-Drury to do so.

As a designer, I noticed how different the space felt—moving from a small, uncomfortably intimate space into a more open, larger gymnasium environment changed the actor-audience member relationships. The technical process was fast-paced, different, and I feel that it allowed me to better grasp the show because I was able to manipulate the lighting for the stage we were given. Taking this show to South Africa allowed me to grow as an artist, audience member, and scholar in ways that would have suffered had we been unable to participate.


Jen:  Working on We Are Proud at UMass was in and of itself an extremely rewarding and enlightening experience.  I never dreamed that I could take a show abroad in the way that we did via the National Arts Festival.  When we started this endeavor back in January, the thought of getting our entire team to South Africa was so daunting.  We feel extremely grateful to everyone who lent their support and encouragement, from Professors Megan Lewis, Judyie Al-Bilali, and Priscilla Page, to our entire Theater Department at UMass, (special shout-outs to Willow, Penny, and Anna-Maria!) to Dean Julie Hayes of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, the UMass Arts Council, and ESPECIALLY to all of our friends and family members. 

For me, the experience of producing a show while also partaking as an audience member at the festival was so intense and impactful that I have only barely begun to process all that happened.  I feel that this trip will have the effect of a slow-release medicine of hope and artistic inspiration as the years unfold.  I know that our entire group was transformed, down to the cellular level, from this trip.  Working with this group over the course of the year has been one of the most extraordinary theater communities I have been part of, and we grew and struggled and loved each other through all of the challenges and successes of this production over its three phases.  Thank you for supporting our efforts.

       Johannesburg and Heathrow airports, on our way back.
 We had such a difficult time coming back; we didn't want to leave.

Back in Logan Airport

And what happens to this group now that we are back in the US? 
So many ideas were percolating while we were abroad.
To be continued...