On the frontline
PLAYWRIGHT CHASES DOWN HARD TRUTHS IN NEW PLAY BRUCE DENNILL AL 1 KESS, playwright and director Gina Shmukler (left) recently completed a Master’s dissertation in “trauma and theatremaking”. Er, don’t most people go to the theatre to relax, or at least be entertained? “Some do,” concedes Shmukler, “but the answer depends on how you define ‘entertained’. Theatre can also engage and stimulate. “I became interested in this angle out of curiosity. I wanted to know why I was so moved by certain pieces of theatre and not by others with similar narratives.” Shmukler has written a new play called The Line, which begins a run at the Market Theatre, beginning this Wednesday. “What engages with this piece is that all the language is verbatim,” Shmukler says. “What’s been put on stage are voices generally not heard in their own language — it’s documentary theatre. “That language gives the actors [Khutjo Green and Gabi Harris] and ‘in’ to the emotional space, and the characters’ idiosyncrasies make it all very real.” For such a heartfelt, trueto-life piece, how important were the embellishments added for the theatre run — the production design, music and so on? “This play wasn’t created for a commercial space,” says Shmulder. “It came through a process of study and research, as part of my Master’s. I was asked who the audience would be, but in that context, I didn’t need to think about that, which was very liberating. “I spent time in townships doing interviews as part of the research. I felt incredibly loyal to the verbatim structure and to the people who had talked to me. The real work was in the editing — it’s how the material is juxtaposed that makes the play:’ The response to The Line so far has been great, if not exactly what Shmukler expected. “I launched it at the Wits Arts & Literature Festival, and there was not one show that wasn’t sold out,” she says. “There was no hype, but there is a connectivity to what happens onstage — this is a story about us, in our words, on our streets. “There was quite a lot of laughter, too, which was a shock to me, but that just adds to the reality — and to the irony. One guy I interviewed couldn’t do what he was supposed to be doing — hijacking cars — because he was talking to me.” Researching a play about xenophobia as a white, middle-class woman in a township: how was that experience? “There’s so much optimism,” smiles Shmulder. “I hadn’t actually thought about the problem of coping with what I found out. “I connected with a community leader who found the right people for me to talk to. Some interviews were in his house, others were in the interviewees’ houses — I learned more about community and ownership of streets and suburbs than I ever have outside of the townships. That may be a reason to not move to the suburbs, actually.” Shmukler’s experiences as she conducted her research changed the tone of the developing play. “I have a fascination with how people are able to go from being my neighbour to being my enemy,” she says. “The first incarnation of the play was victim-oriented, but I became more and more interested in the perpetrators of violence. “I read some of the work of [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder expert] Dr Jonathan Shay, who says we can’t prevent war, but that we need to keep the enemy human. That shook my ideas of how things happen in South Africa.” There were more unexpected discoveries, too. “These things don’t get talked about,” explains Shmulder, “but I also became aware of the cruelty of women in many of these situations. “It was difficult to find female perpetrators, but when I did, I left those interviews feeling really conflicted. It’s not always men who are responsible for these things, and that has to be said.” Shmukler’s research has left an indelible mark on her. “The ‘line’ that I talk about has already been crossed,” she says, sadly. “These people are not living in humane conditions. So their thinking is: make someone else the problem and make getting rid of them the solution. They think that will make everything better. It won’t.” The Line, starring Khutjo Green and Gabi Harris and directed by Gina Shmukler, runs at the Market Theatre from July 18 to August 12.