The last time I met Athol Fugard, he was following a technical rehearsal of The Bird Watchers – his thirty-fourth play. Sitting in the auditorium of the Cape Town theatre that carries his name, Fugard leaned over and told me in an almost-conspiratorial whisper: “I’m working on something new.” The playwright’s eyes sparkled as he showed me a typescript of The Blue Iris. That script is now a performed reality (the US Premiere just concluded its run at the Fountain Theatre on September 16th).
Athol Fugard, who is based in San Diego, has returned to South Africa to take up a three-month residency in Stellenbosch and – you guessed it – he’s working on something new.
This time, we’re talking on the phone, but that same excitement is discernible in Fugard’s voice as he describes his “first attempt at Afrikaans theatre”. This may be surprising to many; after all, the work of this self-designated “half-English, half-Afrikaans bastard” (he grew up in a bilingual household) is peppered with Afrikaans phrases, characters and settings. His play texts have also been translated into Afrikaans, most recently The Captain’s Tiger/Die Kaptein se Tierby Antjie Krog. But Fugard himself has never penned an exclusively Afrikaans play, and he’s clearly eager to take up the challenge.
What is it, I wonder, that drives this restless creativity? What is the imperative that keeps an 80-year-old writing “compulsively”? In the past, Fugard has emphasised the feeling of both obligation and delight that accompanies his discovery or invention of characters and their stories: “Everything I have written is an attempt to share their secrets.” But watching The Blue Iris, I thought I discerned a darker (perhaps even desperate) impulse behind the author’s prolificacy.
Fugard outside the Fountain Theatre, Sept 2012.
The play is a different kind of “first”. Fugard’s work bears evidence of a range of influences, from Beckett to Camus – but, he tells me, “Before Blue Iris I had never written a play directly in response to a particular piece of writing.” The writer in question is Thomas Hardy, who is best known as a novelist but who turned away from fiction towards the end of his career and produced a series of poems that Fugard considers “among the finest in the English language”. Hardy wrote them after the death of his wife, Emma, from whom he had become estranged (he subsequently married his secretary): they express grief, regret and longing for an irrecoverable past, ultimately paying tribute to the relationship.
The Blue Iris is, in turn, a tribute to Hardy’s poems – an encomium in which that curious love triangle takes on a South African incarnation, in the Karoo landscape so closely associated with Fugard. We find Robert Hannay and his sometime housekeeper, Rieta Plaasman, camping outside the ruins of a farmhouse that Robert had built for his young English bride, Sally. It stood for decades until, one night, it was consumed by fire after a lightning strike. Sally died shortly afterwards, but her spirit haunts the place; Rieta has stayed with Robert during his unsuccessful attempt to recover items lost in the fire, hoping to exorcise Sally’s ghost.
Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris” (Fountain, 2012)
In the opening dialogue, Robert admits to Rieta that his recuperative efforts remind him of an old story about “some arme ou skepsel who, as punishment for something bad, is made to push a big rock all the way up to the top of a koppie. But just when he gets there, he slips, the rock rolls back down the hill, and he has to start all over again. And so it goes, on and on…” This is, of course, the tale of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to an eternity of futile labor – a likely comparison, particularly given the prevalence of ancient Greek myth in Fugard’s oeuvre.
Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris” (Fountain Theatre, 2012)
Yet the allusion is given a different resonance as, during the course of the play, we learn that Sally was a talented artist. She spent years painting the flowers of the Karoo, partly out of a wish to locate herself within a landscape to which she felt foreign and partly to reconcile with Robert, from whom she had grown distant as the strain of farming under conditions of drought took its toll. The blue iris – the ‘bloutulp’, Moraea polystachya – was her first subject: a beautiful but poisonous plant, surviving the harshest conditions but deadly to animals. The painting was the centrepiece of her collection, but we hear Sally’s ghost shriek, at the climax of the action, “I didn’t get it right!”
I put it to Fugard: does this aspect of The Blue Iris reflect his own frustration as an artist? Is the relentless desire to create new plays, to write new stories, a Sisyphean curse? “That’s a fair interpretation,” he replies. “When I look back on my earlier stuff, there is always a sense of ‘If only I’d known then what I know now…’ And yes, I think I am more critical of my own work than anyone else.”
He notes that, along with The Captain’s Tiger (1997) and The Bird Watchers (2011), Master Harold … and the Boys (1982) makes up a trio of “portraits of the writer – from arrogant little schoolboy to adolescent ambition and finally a playwright wrestling with the material of his own life. They all have the same concern: what does it mean to be a writer?”
Fugard at the Fountain Theatre
I ask Fugard what he makes of the other ways in which his plays have been grouped together. Some critics have noted, for instance, that The Blue Iris continues a pattern established in Valley Song(1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001) and Victory (2007), in which much of the dramatic tension stems from the age and race of the main protagonists: an older white man and a younger coloured woman.
“Any writer,” Fugard concurs, “has only a handful of themes. You don’t invent a theme every time you write a play.” We talk about the conscious echoes in Blue Iris of earlier plays, such as Boesman and Lena (1969) – the trope of homelessness is underscored when Rieta complains, “We are living out here like people in one of those plakker kampe outside PE” – and A Lesson From Aloes (1978), in which a character affirms that studying Karoo flora “makes me feel that little bit more at home in my world”.
Indeed, Fugard takes the idea of “categorising” his plays even further. “Look at Blood Knot (1961), Boesman and Lena and Hello and Goodbye(1965), which together examine the primary relationships in a family: between siblings, between spouses, between children and parents. I didn’t set out consciously to do that, but it happened.” And, of course, there is Fugard’s “sustained romance with the opposite sex – in my work, I mean. Blood Knot is the only one of my plays in which the dominant, most powerful presence is not a central female character.”
This is certainly true of Boesman and Lena, which has been ‘updated’ by director James Ngcobo for a current staging at the Baxter Theatre. Fugard says he’d like to go and watch the show “with a disguise on”, just to see how it has been revised. “My plays are like my children – they must make their own way in the world.”
Chris Thurman is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg (South Africa); a freelance arts journalist, academic and editor.
Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”
by Steven Leigh Morris
A series of poems by Thomas Hardy, grieving after the death of his first, estranged wife, inspired Athol Fugard‘s latest play, The Blue Iris, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, directed by Stephen Sachs.
Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned Causasian South African dramatist who writes in English, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his early writing career dedicated to battling his nation’s apartheid policies (in plays such as Blood Knot, 1961; and Master Harold and the Boys, 1982). Fugard was as brave as a playwright could be, joining the ranks of Chile‘s Ariel Dorfman and Czechoslovakia‘s Václav Havel by risking prison for writing works that looked askance at the policies of their authoritarian governments. It was a baton they passed along to the likes of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.
But when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in South African prisons, and in the nation’s first multiracial elections became the nation’s first black president, the purpose of aging white liberals such as Fugard became ever more nuanced and difficult to define. After all, South Africa’s brave new future also contained a raging AIDS epidemic, and the continuation of unspeakable poverty, revenge and violence.
That transition is what Fugard has been writing about since 1994, in a series of plays set in his beloved Karoo, among them Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001),Victory (2007) and his latest, The Blue Iris.
Invariably, they concern an aging white man and young “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) woman. In Valley Song, presented here at the Mark Taper Forum, the young woman, Veronica, needed to come of age, to escape the confines of the Karoo for a faster life in the city. She was an innocent, and a symbol of the future.
Sorrows and Rejoicings (also premiered here at the Taper) concerned a white, male poet from South Africa who went into exile inLondon. When he returned to the Karoo, he was dying. There he met the young colored woman he left behind, Rebecca. She answered his abandonment of her by burning his early poems. The essence of Fugard’s anxiety was spoken in a single line from that play:
“For your soul’s sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man’s love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don’t reject it. … Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don’t need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”
In Victory, which received its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, also directed by Sachs, the aging white man (Morlan Higgins) found himself being robbed and held hostage by the young colored woman (born on the day Mandela was released from prison, and consequently named Vickie in honor of this victory) and her boyfriend. The old man was Vickie’s educator and mentor. Her petty criminal alliance was a representation of how the innocence of Veronica and the hope for the future in Valley Song had corroded in Fugard’s eyes.
Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill
Fugard’s plays have been getting ever more despondent, and The Blue Iris contains his most austere view to date. Morlan Higgins returns as Robert Hannay, eking out an existence in the Karoo near the charred remains of a house where the colored woman, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), once grew up and worked as a housekeeper. Robert still grieves for his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz, appearing as a phantom), who died of a heart attack shortly after a lightning strike that burned their home. (Jeff McLaughlin‘s set depicts blackened beams and detached doors amidst piles of detritus.)
Sally begged Robert not to leave the night of that storm, but he was determined to buy a new breeding ram, and so now he lives with the agony of his decision on that night of decimation. Rieta stands by him, for reasons unveiled in the play. She endures his conjurings of Sally.
Some verses of one poem by Hardy, “The Voice,” embody Robert’s state of mind:
“Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Traveling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?”
Sally, a painter by avocation, floats through the play on the day Rieta discovers Sally’s only painting that was untouched by the fire. It’s a botanical portrait of a blue iris, which for Robert brings back the memory of when Sally found the flower on the floor of the drought-blasted veldt — a single symbol of hope in a withered landscape otherwise punctuated by the death of plants and sheep.
That particular flower, however, has poison within its beauty, enough poison to “bring down an ox,” which is why the local farmers so loath it. That’s what Sally was trying to capture. What looks pretty contains toxins. And there you have the parable for the contamination of a hope-filled future.
Sachs’ meticulously rendered production features a trio of impeccable performances. These include Schultz as Sally’s ghost, who arrives as though via tornado, chattering and desperate, before she’s sucked away by that same wind tunnel, to explain the meaning of her painting, and of how in painting it she failed to convey that meaning.
Then there’s Higgins as Robert, and his fastidious, lumbering search for his own meaning amidst the remains, his world-weary eyes, the sonorous, aching tone in his voice. Hill’s Rieta offers a spritely foil — she’s as impatient as she is pained. Their joint decision, the only decision in the play, is whether she and Robert, both tramps and Platonic lovers, should stay or go, together or apart. And there’s an allegory in that, too, about circumstantial bonds and inexorable isolation. The play is saturated in allegories.
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
To fully appreciate The Blue Iris, however, one might look beyond Thomas Hardy’s poems to W.B. Yeats‘ poetical drama Purgatory, also set by the remains of a charred house. Purgatory also studies a man grieving for his late wife, trying to release her from purgatory. She, too, paces between life and death, listless in her travels beyond existence. The other character in Purgatoryis the man’s son, representing a hope for the future that stands on the brink of corrosion.
Both plays wrestle with how past and future can possibly travel any road together. And yet they do, as they must, as they always have. The ensuing, combustible emotions are what provide the fire of our most timeless poems and stories, where writers such as Yeats and Fugard ache to fathom the unfathomable.
Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”
Back in the year 2000, legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard was residing in Del Mar, teaching playwriting, acting and directing at UC San Diego — while continuing to turn out the prolific body of work that had earned him worldwide acclaim.
He heard from friends of his, whose opinions he respected, that the Fountain Theatre in LA had mounted a very good production of his 1984 play, The Road to Mecca. With trepidation, Fugard traveled to the Fountain to see what this director named Stephen Sachs had done to his work.
Six Fugard/Fountain Theatre collaborations later, the Fountain is now presenting the US premiere of Fugard’s latest work. The Blue Iris, helmed by Sachs, opens Friday, in celebration of the master playwright’s 80th birthday and his ongoing collaboration with the Fountain.
In a telephone interview from New York, Fugard admits, “I’ve always been wary of seeing plays of mine that I myself hadn’t directed. Eventually I went to the Fountain and saw this marvelous production, staged by Stephen. I met Stephen and I met the cast of that production and found myself saying to Stephen, ‘I want my next play to be done in your theater.’ I loved the feel of it. Everything about it felt right — the theater, the size of the space, the atmosphere. It was perfect for my sorts of plays. So, when my next play was ready, I brought it to Stephen.”
Sachs has his own memory of his first encounter with Fugard in 2000. “I was told he never goes to see productions of his plays that other people do. Well, I learned he was coming. Of course, I was excited and terrified. I didn’t tell the actors that Athol was there. After the performance, during the applause, I want backstage quickly and told the actors, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’ The actors came out and I said, ‘I would like you all to meet Athol Fugard.’ And they all screamed. Of course, we were all so happy when he told us he loved our production. We all went out afterwards. And we just kept corresponding after that. When Fugard was directing Sorrows and Rejoicings at the Mark Taper [in 2002], I kept saying to him, ‘If you’re ever looking for a small, intimate, artistic home to develop a new work, away from a larger theatrical institution, where you can just work quietly in a nurturing environment, the Fountain is yours’.”
One day in 2004, Fugard sent Sachs an e-mail with a file attached to it. The e-mail message read, “Attached to this file is my new play and I want you to direct it.” The play was Exits and Entrances, which went on to garner three Ovation Awards and a slew of LADCC, LA Weekly and Backstage honors.
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
Fugard’s newest work, The Blue Iris, recently premiered in Cape Town and has since moved to Johannesburg. It is a three-character play in one act, which Fugard takes time to carefully explain.
“The inspiration for this play came from two directions. It is set in the Karoo, a semi-desert area in the heart of South Africa, where several of my plays have been set. One of the features of this rather small area is a very beautiful mountain. I’ve climbed that mountain several times, often with a friend. It is quite a stiff climb but a good one, not dangerous really. We always used to park our car at the foot of the mountain at a lovely old farmhouse, which was owned by a very cordial farmer. He became a friend of ours. When we would come down from our climb, he was always there waiting for us with something to drink or to eat. It was a great relationship. But on this one occasion when I went with my friend to climb the mountain, we arrived at this farmhouse to find it had been totally destroyed by a fire, which was started by a lightning strike. This wonderful man and his wife were living in a little tent outside the house, just trying to salvage what they could.
Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill
“The second image which inspired this play came from a farmer’s wife, totally unrelated to the first farmer I mentioned. She was a wonderful painter of wild flowers, of botanically accurate wild flowers. These weren’t only pretty paintings, these were botanical drawings that helped you identify the flower — the seed capsule, the root structure, everything. It was a fusion of those two images that finally brought me to writing The Blue Iris. There were a lot of complex personal issues that came into the play as well. I had a sense of how we men can get so absorbed in our own egos, our own personalities, never fully realizing what damage we do to others on the way.”
Fugard pauses in his discourse and chuckles. “I don’t think I properly understand the play yet, myself. I mean that. We writers quite often don’t know what we’ve written about. There have been many times that I haven’t known what the full resonances are of the story that I’ve told. It has often been only when I have been in the rehearsal room directing actors, helping them to understand the characters that they in turn helped me to understand what I had written.”
Stephen Sachs and Morlan Higgins.
“I received The Blue Iris a few months ago,” Sachs continues. “I knew about the play for a few years. I know that Athol was working on it, developing it. I knew that he was going to present the world premiere in South Africa, which is pretty much his way of working now. They’ve named a theater after him, the Fugard Theatre. I am honored to be doing it here at the Fountain. My cast includes two Fugard regulars here at the Fountain, Morlan Higgins and Jacqueline Schultz. Julanne Chidi Hill is new to the Fountain. She’s a discovery.
“This work has some classic Fugard themes in it – the search for hope, the struggle with loss and the fight for dignity. It is a love story and very much about finding the courage and strength to move forward in what sometimes can seem like bleak and painful circumstances. It is a profoundly human story about these three individuals who live together in this house: this man Robert, who was a farmer, his wife Sally, who is deceased, and their housekeeper Rita.
“The play begins after the house has been burned to the ground by a fire and Robert and Rita are sifting through the debris. She wants to move on and take Robert with her. While going through the debris, they discover a painting of a blue iris that his wife Sally had done. Finding that painting triggers memory and forces Robert to look at the truth of the reality of his marriage to Sally.”
Fugard will not be at the Fountain for its debut. “I’ve been here in New York for a whole year directing plays, currently The Train Driver. This is also a play that Stephen Sachs has done. This is its New York premiere. I will be coming to see Blue Iris. I am leaving New York this coming Sunday and flying down to San Diego. I’m going to give myself a bit of a rest first and then come up to Los Angeles to see Stephen’s production. I am not going to tell him the date because I don’t want any fuss or bother when I come to see it. I am just going to quietly slip into the theater.”
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
As for the future, Fugard wants to keep it simple. “I do not multi-track. I work on one play at a time, like a good alcoholic goes one day at a time. My home now is in Del Mar. My plans for the immediate future are to go back to South Africa in September to direct a new play that I haven’t got a title for yet, because I am still putting the finishing touches to it. I’ll decide on a title a little bit later on. I will always premiere my work in South Africa. And I’ll probably always think of the Fountain as the next possibility.”
South African playwright, actor and director Athol Fugard describes the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 as “a period of euphoria that was the most extraordinary experience of my life.”
He says he was also convinced he would be the country’s “first literary redundancy.”
“My life had been defined by the apartheid years,” he says. “Now we were going into an era of democracy … and I believed that I didn’t really have a function as a useful artist in that anymore.”
But as President Mandela gave way to Thabo Mbeki and later Jacob Zuma, Fugard’s disappointment set in, and it did not take him long to realize his voice was still needed. He says he isn’t sure his comments will be welcomed though, “because amongst armchair liberals, the notion that South Africa is now a happy democracy and that Nelson Mandela did it all, is very widespread.”
On his plays:
Continuing its 12-year relationship with Athol Fugard, The Fountain Theatre celebrates the master playwright’s 80th birthday with the U.S. premiere of his newest play. Directed by Stephen Sachs and starring Morlan Higgins, Julanne Chidi Hill and Jacqueline Schultz, The Blue Iris opens at the Fountain on August 24.
“The Blue Iris” (US Premiere, 2012, Fountain Theatre)
The Blue Irisis set in Fugard’s beloved and desolate South African desert, the Karoo. In a burnt-out farmhouse, a widowed farmer, Robert Hannay (Higgins) and his housekeeper, Rieta (Hill) sort through the fire-ravaged debris of their lives. The discovery of a miraculously undamaged painting of a flower – a blue iris – created by Hannay’s deceased wife (Schultz) unlocks long-forgotten memories and hidden secrets. Fugard digs deep into the human heart, and the result is a love story full of tender, soul-touching and surprising revelations.
Fugard started writing plays in his mid-20s, and this year, five decades later, at least six are being performed in the U.S. and U.K. He says he’s surprised to see there’s still so much interest in his work.
Described by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” Athol Fugard celebrated his 80th birthday on June 11, but the prolific writer shows no signs of slowing down.
“The Train Driver” (US Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2010)
This year, the Signature Theatre in New York is hosting Fugard as its first international residency playwright and showing three plays from various periods of his career. He says it’s given him a chance to look back over the 50 years that span the writing of the first play he directed, Blood Knot, and the last play he says he will direct, The Train Driver, which had its US Premiere at the Fountain in 2010 and just opened in NY Aug. 14.
Fugard describes the two plays as “the bookends of an arc that essentially defines myself as a playwright,” though he assures his fans this does not mean he’s stopped writing.
On the people who shaped him:
As a child, Fugard says that “society was trying to make me conform to a set of very rigid, racist ideas,” and he credits his mother for making him challenge them. He says she was “endowed with a natural sense of justice and decency” and was “a simple Afrikaans woman (who) gave me my soul.” He thanks her for prompting him to “break the conditioning that was taking place on school playgrounds, in classrooms, everywhere.”
He describes his father as “a gentle man and a very beautiful man,” and also, like himself for a period of time, an alcoholic. This family dynamic shaped his plays.
“You’ll see that the strong, the affirmative, the positive voice in any of the plays I’ve written is that of a woman,” he says. “My men are, well not quite worthless, but they are certainly weak, and that reflects the reality I grew up with and what I think has in a sense shaped me.”
Athol Fugard (center) with actors John Kani (left) and Winston Ntshona at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1973.
On working with a multiracial theater group:
In the 1950s, when so much of South African life was regulated to keep the races separate, Fugard worked with a multiracial group of actors.
“It was foolhardy and we paid prices, but it was a gesture of defiance,” he says.
He learned enough about the laws to work out situations that would allow him to work with his black colleagues.
“It raised a very, very serious issue of conscience,” he explains as he acknowledges that his punishments were relatively minor compared to what those colleagues would eventually endure at Robben Island with Mandela.
On racial prejudice:
As an observer from outside looking at the American scene, Fugard says he believes that racial prejudice and profiling is flourishing, and that underlying all the opposition that President Obama is encountering is actually “the problem is that there’s a black man in the White House.”
He says South Africa has also not overcome its apartheid legacy, and explains that the real intention of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up after the end of the apartheid regime, was not achieved.
“You can’t legislate into existence an act of forgiveness and a true confession, those are mysteries of the human heart and they occur between one individual and another individual, not a panel of judges sitting asking questions, trying to test your truth,” he says.
On wisdom at 80:
When asked what wisdom he would like to impart to listeners, Fugard directed his comments to fellow 80-year-olds. He says “it’s supposed to be the age when you stop, but that is such nonsense. … I have a greater sense of adventure at this moment in my life than I ever had in the past.
“There are most probably five or six more years left in my case, but I’m going to live them up to the hilt.”
And does that mean he’ll keep writing? Of course.
“The act of witnessing is important to me, somebody’s got to tell the truth, you know what I mean?” he says.
Continuing its 12-year relationship with Athol Fugard, The Fountain Theatre celebrates the master playwright’s 80th birthday with theU.S. premiere of his newest play. Directed by Stephen Sachs and starring Morlan Higgins, Julanne Chidi Hill and Jacqueline Schultz, The Blue Iris opens at the Fountain on August 24, with low-priced previews beginning August 18.
Described by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” Athol Fugard celebrated his 80th birthday on June 11, but the prolific writer shows no signs of slowing down. On June 28, The Blue Iris premiered at The National Arts Festival in his native South Africa to rave reviews. “Vintage Fugard… riveting theatre that will evoke whispering echoes in the heart long after the show has ended,” wrote Cue magazine.
The Blue Iris is set in Fugard’s beloved and desolate South African desert, the Karoo. In a burnt-out farmhouse, a widowed farmer, Robert Hannay (Higgins) and his housekeeper, Rieta (Hill) sort through the fire-ravaged debris of their lives. The discovery of a miraculously undamaged painting of a flower – a blue iris – created by Hannay’s deceased wife (Schultz) unlocks long-forgotten memories and hidden secrets. Fugard digs deep into the human heart, and the result is a love story full of tender, soul-touching and surprising revelations.
“We should be going into people`s lives, their souls, their ways of life. Everything I have written is an attempt to share secrets with you,” says the playwright.
“The Blue Iris is achingly beautiful, a heartfelt play that brings to life the tender honesty and deep complexity of human relationships,” avers Sachs. “We cherish Athol’s 12-year friendship and artistic association at the Fountain, and we’re thrilled to celebrate his 80th birthday with this remarkable work.”
The author of over 30 plays and recipient of countless accolades including the Academy Award, Obie Award, and Tony Award, Athol Fugard is best known for his plays about the frustrations of life in contemporary South Africa and the psychological barriers created by apartheid. Widely acclaimed around the world, his plays include Boesman and Lena (Obie Award, Best Foreign Play), Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (Tony Award, Best Play), A Lesson from Aloes (New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Play), the semiautobiographical Master Harold…and the Boys (Writers Guild Award, Outstanding Achievement) and The Road to Mecca (New York Drama Critics Circle Citation, Best Foreign Play, London Evening Standard Award, Best Play). The first white South African playwright to collaborate with black actors and workers, some of his works, such as Blood Knot, were initially banned in South Africa. In his first two post-apartheid plays, Valley Song (1995) and The Captain’s Tiger (1998), Fugard addressed more personal concerns, but in Sorrows and Rejoicings(2001) he focused on the complex racial dynamics of South Africa’s new era. In 2005 his novel, Tsotsi (1980), was adapted for the screen, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2011, Mr. Fugard was honored with a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Even though this prolific playwright, novelist, actor, director and teacher now lives and works in San Diego, he continues to be inspired by the dynamics in his land of birth.
Athol Fugard’s ‘The Road to Mecca’ (LA Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2000) starring Priscilla Pointer and Jacqueline Schultz
The Fountain Theatre’s special relationship with Fugard began when co-founder/co-artistic director Stephen Sachs directed the L.A. premiere of Fugard’s The Road to Mecca in 2000. Fugard was so impressed that he offered the company world premiere rights to an as-yet-unwritten new work. When Sachs directed the world premiere of Exits and Entrances in 2004, it received recognition for Best Production and Best Director from both the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (garnering a total of five awards) and the Ovations (receiving a total of three awards). Mr. Sachs went on to direct acclaimed regional productions of Exits and Entrances around the country, an Off-Broadway production at Primary Stages, and the UK premiere at the 2007 International Edinburgh Festival. Since then, he has directed premieres of Fugard’s plays at the Fountain including the American premiere of Victory (two LADCC awards and four LA Weeklynominations, and named “Best of 2008” by the Los Angeles Times); the West Coast premiere of Coming Home (three LA Weeklyawards including “Ensemble” and “Direction,” LADCC award for “Lead Performance”); and the U.S. premiere of The Train Driver (three LA Weekly awards). Athol Fugard has stated that he “considers The Fountain Theatre his artistic home on the West Coast.”
Set design for The Blue Iris is by Jeff McLaughlin; sound design is by Peter Bayne; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; the dialect coach is JB Blanc; the production stage manager is Terri Roberts; and Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor produce.
Morlan Higgins starred in Fountain Theatre productions of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances, Victory and The Train Driver, as well as inShining City by Conor McPherson (LA Weekly Award), After the Fall (Ovation award for Best Production) and The Boys in the Band. Other credits: Forgiveness (Black Dahlia Theatre), King Lear (Antaeus), Dealing with Clair, Water Children, Mad Forest, The Birthday Party (The Matrix Theatre Company); Dylan (Skylight Theatre); Equus (Pasadena Playhouse), A Skull in Connemara (Theatre Tribe),Hughie (Eugene O’Neill Foundation at Tao House); and numerous other plays on local stages. Morlan has received multiple Ovation, LADCC, LA Weekly,Back Stage Garland, Drama-Logue, and Ticketholders Awards. He was nominated for the Lucille Lortell Off-Broadway Actor of the Year Award for his performance in Exits and Entrances at Primary Stages in NYC, He was nominated for a Carbonell Award for E and E at Florida Stage and received a New Jersey Tony for E and E at New Jersey Rep. He is also the recipient of Santa Barbara Indie Awards for Hughie and Victory at SBT. Morlan also plays Celtic music in the local band Staggering Jack.
Julanne Chidi Hill
Julanne Chidi Hill is a graduate of the prestigious SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film and was classically trained at Oxford University where she studied extensively with John Barton (Royal Shakespeare Company) and Katie Mitchell (Royal National Theatre). She has worked at the McCarter Theatre, Seattle Rep, Mark Taper Forum, Stages 52, McCadden Stages Theatre, Ebony Rep and Kirk Douglas Theatre, and she most recently appeared at the Celebration Theatre in the Ovation award-winning Women of Brewster Place. Television credits include guest-starring on the Jerry Bruckheimer drama The Whole Truth (ABC) and FX series The Shield, and recurring roles on NBC’s My Name is Earl and Showtime’s Weeds. Feature films: Crank: High Voltage (as “Dark Chocolate”), Barbershop 2, and alongside Tom Everett Scott and Lee Tergesen in 2nd Take, directed by John Suits.
Jacqueline Schultz was last seen in the critically acclaimed production of Park Your Car in Harvard Yard at International City Theatre. She costarred in the West Coast premiere of String of Pearls at both North Hollywood’s Road Theatre Company and the Santa Barbara Theatre, appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse in the world premiere of Open Window, and starred in the critically acclaimed L.A. premiere of Lee Blessing’s Going to St. Ives at the Fountain (Best Actress nomination, NAACP Theatre Award), later reprising her role for the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Other leading roles at the Fountain: After the Fall (Ovation Award for Best Production),The Road to Mecca; The Night of the Iguana;The Darker Face of the Earth; Fighting Over Beverley (LA Weekly Award); Duet for One(Ovation Award nomination, Best Actress); Ashes (Drama-Logue Award); The Golden Gate (Drama-Logue Award); and Orpheus Descending. Other theater credits include To Kill a Mockingbird and Awake and Sing! (International City Theatre) and Sorrows and Rejoicings (Mark Taper Forum). She has appeared at the Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theatre (NY) and the Mark Taper Forum’s New Works Festival. TV credits include The Practice, ER, My Wife and Kids,7th Heaven, Crossing Jordan, Judging Amy, the HBO movie Tyson, and many more.
Housed in a charming two-story complex, the Fountain is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a nurturing, creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. Fountain productions have won more than 200 awards for production, performance and design, with more Ovation nominations and awards than any other intimate theater in the history of the awards—and the only intimate theater to win the Ovation for Best Production five times. Fountain projects have been seen in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Florida, New Jersey, Minneapolis and Edinburgh. Highlights include a six-month run of Bakersfield Mist, written by Stephen Sachs, set to open in London this fall and optioned for New York; the Off-Broadway run of the Fountain’s world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances; and the making of Sweet Nothing in My Ear, also by Sachs, into a TV movie. The Fountain has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation from the Los Angeles City Council for demonstrating years of artistic excellence and “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles.”
Now a few weeks into interning at The Fountain, I have been able to do some very diverse tasks. This happens every few days when someone, usually Stephen, announces that they have a “project” for me. I have learned that project can mean a lot of things. Sometimes it is prefaced with, “this project is a really horrible boring job” and can be as mundane as organizing check stubs. Other times, like last week, it can mean something really exciting like working in our casting department. This was one project I was dying to be a part of. I would be scheduling times for actresses to audition for a role in our upcoming play, the US Premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris.
When thinking about working in the entertainment industry, obviously casting is a big part of it, but it is also a facet of running a theatre in which I have had no experience. I soon learned that it really is a world unto itself, populated with agents, assistants, and actresses, complete with its own language with which I was all together unfamiliar. Despite some brief coaching from Stephen, I felt a little unsure about how I could survive in this world . But, armed with my new-found knowledge of “sides” and “breakdowns” I put on my most confident voice and called agencies and actresses alike.
Sometimes it was easy. I got to speak to the actress herself, we picked a time, she said she would be there and it was done. Other actresses were not so easy to track down or I found myself talking to the second assistant of their agent. It was quite nerve-wracking to remember who was represented by Lisa from Momentum or who would be out of the country through the week. It definitely gave me a new-found respect for anyone who has ever worked in casting.
Still, one thing that really amazed me was how nice everyone was when I called. Every agent and assistant seemed more than happy to speak with me, e-mailed me back right away, and much to my amazement, seemed to believe I knew what I was doing. And the same was true with the actresses, each one was more polite than the next. I was surprised at how easy it all seemed. It was then I realized that I had a little bit of power. These actresses were grateful for my call. They wanted this role. And by being nice to me, their chances of obtaining it remained intact. I was so worried about them calling my bluff as a casting director, that I failed to realize that they wanted this audition even more than I wanted to not embarrass myself scheduling it.
The Audition Process.
If I thought calling everyone to arrange the auditions was exciting, it was nothing compared to having all the actresses come in the day of the audition. My job sounded fairly simple: have the actresses sign in, take a copy of their resume and headshot, and escort them into the audition room. But then there are the things that no one tells you. Like how some actresses will come a mere moment before they are expected while others will come one hour before and size up the competition. I also had no idea that Calvin Klein jeans were the unspoken uniform for auditions. Or how different every actress’s method of preparation is. Some remained very calm as if waiting for a doctor’s appointment and sat patiently in the waiting area until they were called. And then there were others, like the actress Julanne Chidi Hill, who would rather not sit just outside the audition room and feel the tension. Instead, she went elsewhere and practiced. And not just outside the theatre but a block away, to truly distance herself from the competition. So far away in fact, that I was afraid she had left all together. Yet, her unorthodox method obviously paid off, because she walked away as the newest addition to our Fountain Family, and with the role of Reita.
Julanne Chidi Hill
When auditions were over and the role had been cast I thought my job was done. I commended myself on everything going without a hitch, and considered my venture into the world of casting over. But I forgot something very crucial: I had to call all the other actresses and inform them that they did not get the part. The thought of making those calls seemed awful but in practice, it wasn’t really that bad. The few actresses who I spoke to were painfully nice about it, and thanked me for the call. The agents seemed to take the news as nothing out of the ordinary. And I was blessed with speaking to many voicemail boxes, who all seemed to take the news extremely well.
After the last “the role has been filled” phone call, I was actually done with this project. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief, as I did when I filed away the last check stub, I felt a little sad. While it might have been a bit scary to arrange auditions, it was also very exciting. Now when I get to see The Blue Iris next month in August, I will know that I helped to make it happen in some way.
Just as my many other projects have taught me, there are so many different jobs in running a theatre and countless people who work behind the scenes to make it run smoothly.
This was definitely one of my favorite projects thus far. I look forward to my next!
Jessica Broutt is our summer intern from UC San Diego.