In her short professional career to date director Nwabisa Plaatjie has fast become recognised as a trailblazer in the arts. After graduating from the University of Cape Town in 2016, she joined Magnet Theatre’s year-long Theatre-Making Internship Programme where she created Aha! and 23 Years, a Month and 7 Days, both productions which have toured locally and internationally.
In 2017 she was awarded the Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s 2017 Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary for Reimaging The Native Who Caused All The Trouble and that same year she became the first recipient of the Baxter Theatre Centre’s Playlab – a new playwright residency.
Nwabisa was nominated in the Best New Director category at the 2018 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards and in 2019 she was honoured with the Baxter Theatre Centre’s CEO Artist of the Year award.
She is currently a recipient of the Mellon Foundation scholarship, pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Cape Town and she is the curator and coordinator of the Baxter’s Masambe Theatre, driving its relaunch as a space for performance, collaboration and networking.
1. Hi Nwabisa, Welcome to TV Series Hub. Please introduce yourself to our audience?
Thank you for having me Ammar, my name is Nwabisa Plaatjie, I am the Baxter’s Coordinator and Curator for their Masambe Theatre, a Masters Student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the director for Florence & Wine in the Wilderness by Alice Childress.
2. Some argue that a career in the entertainment industry is risky, what is your side of this argument?
It is very risky, I think it was quite a dangerous move. But when my parents said no, I forced my way towards it and that gave me an edge, I now had to work 150% because my parents were convinced it was going to fail. There just aren’t enough jobs and because I knew that, I was looking everywhere. I think at some point something needs to change. The entertainment industry has existed for a long time but a career in Theatre and Art is still considered unorthodox as there are many artists who find themselves unemployed or are just living off freelancing. Perhaps it is time to change the unemployed/ poor artist narrative, because since my undergrad I have been employed but I just think we don’t hear those stories often and only hear the ‘broke artist’ narrative and not the narrative of: there are many theatre directors that are women and are living off the arts.
3. How does passion play in this?
It is a big driver because like in any career, everything is hard, but when you have a passion to do something you go the extra mile and you start learning. Whatever field you go into, there is a theory of structure outlining how learning must happen (how you will learn it) but because of your passion, you start to question and challenge the study, inserting your own way of understanding. Passion becomes a strong voice of enquiry and not just accepting things the way they are. I think it is different when you walk into a career you are not passionate about, you just do what you are told. When you go with passion, you become an innovator, you start investigating why it matters to you and why things need to change.
4. Your career began before your time at UCT, how much of an influence has your background been to who you are today?
I am from Eastern Cape, I had drama as a subject in high school but was not exposed to professional Theatre, I kind of like imagined how everything sort of fits together. I did plays, but the space and environment I was in didn’t allow me to witness a full-scale theatrical production, I could only see school plays in the hall. That has made me come with a much fresher voice. Every piece of theatre that one has seen has the power of influencing their theatre-making, I have not seen enough. My work also depends a lot on images because I’m an isiXhosa speaker who often creates work for people who don’t necessarily speak isiXhosa so I’ve always paid attention to how I am going to be received, how meaning will be found in my work and it’s quite important that my work transcends language barriers.
5. Where do your best ideas come from? How much does experience play at hand?
That is a hard one, a very hard one. I take it from everything, I think being at UCT, staying in residence (I stayed in Graca Machel), you meet different people studying different things, and because of the nature of UCT, residences and the dinning hall, there is a lot of conversations that happen, and within those conversations I started to see I am not only interested in creating work for artists, I want the engineer to come in and understand themselves better through the world I’ve created. It is very important for me to know various people and industries because that is what I use to shape characters that speak to people. I am not going to always create work about artists, I am going to create work about human beings, and human beings do various things. So a lot of my influences come from different people and also the things that I read, watch, the conversations that I have, my experiences. I’ve also investigated language and identity a lot, a huge part of that came from being part of RMF (Rhodes Must Fall) and Fees Must Fall movements and also having conversations with black students who have lost their mother tongue. I get my best ideas from meaningful encounters with other human beings.
6. What is the difference between an actor in a series/movie and one in theatre?
I have never worked in a series, I don’t think I can really explain. I think one is happening in real-time and I know the strength of theatre lies in it being live. You are not engaging with people through a screen and everything is happening over 1 or 2 hours and a series can have seven seasons to tell a story. I have never worked in the film industry so I can’t speak about specifics, but I can speak about time, we have lesser time and it’s cheaper to create theatre plays.
7. In terms of mistakes which may occur, a series may just ‘cut’, how does Theatre work?
In the theatre there is no ‘cut’, you continue, you can improvise but the show must go on. I remember in one of my shows there was a power failure during a performance. The audience sat there waiting to see how the actors would save the situation, I thought ‘Will the actors continue without lights?’ I wasn’t sure myself how they would proceed and at that moment one of the actors just opened the curtains and we used natural lights. It is those moments that are very real. Whenever something goes wrong in the theatre- it becomes part of the world and the show must go on. We don’t have ‘cut’, it is very weird and unprofessional to have a ‘cut’ while your audience is there.
8. Would one take be, Theatre portrays a more realistic world where mistakes happen?
We can consider it that way, it must go on, like life, it doesn’t matter if things go wrong, you can stop and breath but it must go on. If the show is an hour we can’t wait 20 minutes to figure out how to deal with a crisis, you just figure it out in that moment, we are less forgiving, the show must go on.
9. How does your day look like?
On a good day, when I am not busy, I wake up around 6 (am), and I am at the Baxter’s Masambe by 7 (am) emailing various people as I handle the coordinating and curating of the events. At around 9 (am), I head to UCT for my masters program and at 12 (noon) I am back at Masambe, reading original plays and giving feedback. So on a good day I am just between Masambe and UCT.
When it gets a little tricky like now, my day starts at Masambe, then it goes to a rehearsal room where I am directing Alice Childress plays, and then I go home and focus on my master’s paper that must be submitted end of September.
My busiest time which was really crazy was in March this year, I ran Masambe, I had to submit my 2nd seminar paper, I was the producer and production administrator for my Shanghai tour (one of my plays had a month long tour in Shanghai with some performances happening in Chengdu and Hangzhou), I was directing a show at City Varsity for the month of March and it was the Zabalaza Festival and I needed to watch 40 productions from the 11th-16th of March.
10. What goes behind the scenes for a production?
Preparing the actors. The script gives you the story and little bits of information about the characters – . My role as a director is to help the actors become those character in the most human way possible, how does the character walk or talk, what do they want, in every scene someone wants something – it is the nature of human relationships, engagements happen because I want something from you and you want something from me. In the play, it is not always direct, you have to find it in every scene, what does the character want, what tactics do they use to get what they want, how do they view the world, what is happening in their mind.
For the Alice Childress plays I am currently directing I had to understand the periods in which they are set and the influences of that time. One is in 1950 and the other one is set in 1964 during the Harlem Riots.
Those are the things that are quite hard, finding the backstory, understanding the period, the history and the main themes.
11. Your latest project involves directing two short plays by Alice Childress at the Baxter. What should we expect from it?
If you look at South African Theatre, and you look at the plays that have black characters, very often, you see a black maid, here you will come to a play, particularly for Florence, where the entire idea of ‘black maid’ is questioned. In both plays people can expect to see black characters with urgency, they are not supporting the dreams of others but pushing their own idea. The double bill is sort of like a black moment, people can also expect a lot of feminism – And it is coming from the 50s and 1960s, challenging how black women are defined. The play has the potential of being triggering for black women because they’ll have to engage with some of the limiting ideas that they already deal with on a day to day basis. Black artists can expect to be affirmed and reminded to keep trying to do their thing. If you’re not interested in politics, or feminism, you can come for the theatrical experience/ the art of it all.
12. How was it working with the cast?
They are amazing. I have watched my cast in various productions and having an opportunity to work with them has been a blessing and a half. Some of them I watched while doing my 1st year, and it is quite interesting, inspiring and uplifting to be in a rehearsal room with people you look up to. The process has been challenging but they are a very generous group so it was all good.
Looking at a 50s and 60s play, in 2019 when we’re still struggling with racism, sexism, classism, and poverty can be very tricky.
13. What challenges did you face?
…Trying to not make the white liberal racist, that has been the most challenging. In one of the plays, you have a black woman and a white woman, and even before they speak, they just carry so much weight and immediately you go ‘Woah, this must be about racism’.
The thing is, some of the things she says are quite problematic, when reading the play Florence, you can understand that she is a liberal, and is totally unaware how problematic she is. But when we are playing it, the minute she is aware that her character is racist, it feels like we are playing stereotypes-what has been really hard is to try and protect that white character so much so that even the audience start questioning how she is racist, because even in our day to day lives, racism is not always blatant, sometimes you realise much later just how problematic a certain encounter was.
14. Side tracking a bit, how difficult it is to separate an actor with the character. For example, King Geoffrey’s actor quit acting.
Perhaps that is another difference between Theatre and film. In film or television, we see the actors embody the characters so much that if you see them in the street you can call them by their character names. But in Theatre, everyone knows it is make belief, it is because everything happens in 2 hours.
When you walk out, you know people played a certain character, television is not always fortunate, your roles follow you. Sometimes it happens, particularly when you have played beautifully but the character follows you not in terms of people attacking you but people remembering that ‘Oh my word, that person transformed right before my eyes’.
In Theatre, there’s the curtain call, where all the actors bow, and you see them come out while you are still in the foyer. You can have a conversation with them about the play. The proximity allows for people to realise that was staged whereas film you see on screen and you don’t see them step out.
The first step is the curtain call, when they bow down they don’t bow as a character, and the second thing is when they come out and you see the actors. In the theatre there are constant reminders that the actors are merely players.
15. What did you learn from it? What is the best memory you have?
The importance of thorough research. I have written and directed my own work, but I have often taken for granted my influences. Now, because I directed work that was written by someone else, I had to listen to the music, view the art, read the conversations, the books and the poems that came out at the time. I started mapping the influences, influencers and the great discoveries that were made when these plays were written. This has made me realize how everything impacts everything and how things move together.
I feel for my own work I took that for granted, but if I look at my own work now, and how I’ve shaped some of my productions, I can map how Cape Town/ contemporary South Africa influences my way of staging theatre. I’ve started to map the different components that are not necessarily from me but are significant of the time, environment and current conversations.
Another thing I realized, I am starting to develop a system of directing and staging. I guess I’ve learned two things from this process, the importance of research and the importance of developing a directing system. These will definitely develop my way of theatre making, it’s like having a system or formula.
16. What impact will both plays (Florence and Wine in the Wilderness) have in South Africa?
One idea is listed in Florence, it is a line in Florence, when mother says “keep trying” and I think that should resonate a lot. South Africa is trying to find its identity and people are trying to find their own identity. We have this history, we have these stories that come with us, our environment is constantly challenging us, sometimes in negative ways, and sometimes in positive ways. I think it is very important that we keep trying to find our voice and our truths.
When people watch Wine in the wilderness I hope they understand how limiting definitions about other people are but more than that I hope both the actors and the audiences realize that everyone has a particular story about them, and in that story they are not always the protagonist and it is our responsibility to keep trying to tell our story, it doesn’t matter if you are white or black. We all have a story about the next person, you see them and you have a story about them.
When someone treats you horrible, you must understand that there is a story about you and in that story you are not always the good guy and you’ll have to decide whether to change the narrative about yourself/ your people or not but whatever you do keep trying to be the version of yourself that is most pleasing for you.
17. What do you hope viewers will leave with after seeing the play?
I hope black mothers that have children pursuing artistic careers feel celebrated and that every young artist feels inspired, encouraged and affirmed. I hope every viewer is encouraged to self-reflect, and really check their identity and how they treat others. There is no one way of being human or doing things- we are all different- but we have to treat others with respect.
May you reflect on your ideas and the stories you keep about other people and challenge them.
18. Circling back to you, with a great career so far, recognized both locally and internationally, what do you hope to achieve in the coming years?
I want to be based in two countries, right now I take few works to other countries, I have taken some work to different parts of Germany and China. In the next few years I want to be based in two countries. I’m still not sure which other country will be best to establish myself firmly in though.
There’s also this idea of my work existing in different places at the same time. For example, during my Shanghai tour ‘Aha’ was doing its things in Shanghai, I was busy directing a piece at City Varsity, so this idea to have multiple plays with different people just touring the world and that one is specifically for money.
It is important for me to diversify my income streams, you have this product, and everyone wants to know it around the world. There are various international festivals, in the next few years I am thinking 4-5 plays happening at the same time in different countries and in an ideal world, people know my work and my name but don’t know my face.
Right now, you know my face, but in the next few years you will see less of my face and more of my work. I can already see the lapses between the pictures that exist now in the social media and when you see me face to face.
19. Is that a personal preference?
It is a personal preference, but it is also a way of freeing myself. When people watch your work they start having stories about you based on the content you’ve been creating. I don’t want you to watch my plays and start mapping my life and analyze me like I am a case study, sometimes, some things, are just interesting and I want to explore them and they are not linked to me in any particular way.
Note: I took out the part of asking if you have any stories of something like that happening. (Please inform me if you would like it to be in)
20. What is your motto in life?
I am actually a meme, you can check social media platforms and look for something written “Oksalayo”, it is an isiXhosa word, if you translate it, it means ‘regardless of all else, I am correct’. That word means it doesn’t matter if all the facts are against me, what is important is what I think, and I have become a meme making rounds on twitter and facebook.
That has been my motto for the longest time, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, I am going to create Theatre, I am going to be great, I will make money, a whole lot of it regardless of what people think artists do.
What is also important for me is to establish good habits, it is not important to make big wins, it is important to establish habits that will make the big wins possible, if you focus on the small tasks that is it. I don’t try to do big things, I try to do small things. I guess my motto is focussing on small things and doing a whole lot of them to achieve the big wins.
21. What is your vision for Theatre in South Africa?
It is an old industry burdened with so many incorrect stories and beliefs. The story of the ‘broke and dirty artist’, the narrative of artists who die poor and can’t be buried because there’s no money’. It is so unnecessary to die a broke artist, don’t do it. There are all these taboos and stories about the industry and they’re most visible when people ask what you studied or are studying and as soon as you say Theatre they overwhelm you with their beliefs about the industry which in most cases are negative and have to do with how you’ll be broke for the rest of your life. We just need to change that.
22. If you had to give advice to aspiring actors/actresses. What would it be?
Like any other career, you have to immerse yourself deeply and trust yourself. You have to give in your 10,000 hours. If you want to stand out you really need to solve the problem of your industry, figure it out and attempt to solve it. Two, learn to diversify your income streams. Three Keep creating content.
23. In a few sentences, how would you pitch our viewers to attend the play?
This is a very funny question, I write funding applications and I also teach professional practice (Enterprise Development) sometimes and I always encourage my students to do a 30/60 second pitch for their plays, because when you are asking for money you need to know how to pitch, but I’m definitely not sure how to pitch these plays
The plays celebrate the underclass, underprivileged and uneducated heroine, something seldom seen in South Africa. They also provide a theatrical framework to celebrate black history while facilitating difficult conversations about racism, sexism and classism in contemporary South Africa.
24. Thank you for joining us, before we conclude, what do you imagine for Theatre in South Africa?
Employment is so important for me, there are a lot of artists that don’t know how to create a career. In the future, I hope people know how to diversify their income by creating a portfolio of careers. I don’t think there is any one person that will give you R100,000 per month, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. If you study theatre and performance at UCT, you learn Research, voice, movement, lighting, costume and set design etc. There is a whole lot that happens behind the scenes but we have reduced the entire industry to people on stage. Anyone with a degree in acting is equipped with more than one of these things and they are all potential careers. You can do voice-overs, be a movement teacher, help people with research, you can write and develop ways that speak to a South African way of directing pieces. I hope the future I hope that creative people understand this thoroughly, that although you’re an actor, singer, writer, you are equipped with a whole lot more that can be used to generate income.
It’s funny how, even in University open days, the Theatre and Performance component is reduced to acting and directing. There are so many careers in this field, if you have a degree you have touched on a lot of things which are potential career possibilities. It is so important to see the skills that you have, you’re not skilled in one thing.
And then just understand that everyone is winging it, sometimes you feel so intimidated but everyone is winging it. You go in with confidence, there is google or youtube, spread your skills and create portfolio careers.
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