Magnet Theatre: Three Decades of Making Space

Magnet Theatre: Three Decades of Making Space


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Cape Town's Magnet Theatre has been a positive force in South African theatre for three decades, a crucial space for theatre, education, performance, and community throughout a turbulent period in South African history. Offering a dialogue between internal and external perspectives, as well as perspectives from performers, artists, and scholars, this book analyses Magnet's many productions and presents a rich compendium of the work of one of the most vital physical theatre companies in Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783205370
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 09/15/2016
Pages: 300
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Megan Lewis is assistant professor of theater history and dramaturgy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Anton Krueger is a senior lecturer in the Department of Drama at Rhodes University in South Africa.

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Magnet Theatre

Three Decades of Making Space

By Megan Lewis, Anton Krueger

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-537-0


Plotting the Magnetic Field: Origins and Trajectories

Megan Lewis and Anton Krueger

Cape Town-based Magnet Theatre functions as a nationally recognized theatre institution; not only in terms of its aesthetic originality and excellence, but also because of the company's investments into cultural development and training. Over the course of almost three decades, the company has been 'making space' in South Africa: for creativity, innovation and embodied work, as well as for collaboration, community and cultural dialogue. Since Magnet Theatre's first productions – Cheap Flights (1987) and The Show's Not Over 'Til the Fat Lady Sings (1991–93) – the company has gained an international reputation for its original repertoire of performance events that emphasize the primacy of the human body. From its inception in Johannesburg in 1987 to the establishment of its own theatre space in Cape Town in 2011, Magnet Theatre has been dedicated to what it sees as its role of exploring sociopolitical issues through personal, unconventional and highly physical theatrical expressions that energize audiences by shifting bodies, feelings and ideas ( Furthermore, the company is committed to training young artists, and to cultivating theatre in under-represented communities. To this end, Magnet has also played a vital role in cultural interventions within the broader South African community; guided by a spirit of theatrical research, artists who have worked with Magnet have remained deeply committed to social development. Their interventions into multiple communities have reached tens of thousands of people.

To understand the impact and particularity of Magnet's work, we'd like to plot the magnetic field – the trajectories of their influence and influences – by framing the sociopolitical and historical context within which Magnet has functioned over the past three decades. Next, we briefly summarize the various sections and chapters of this book. We then trace the company's origins in terms of co-artistic directors Mark Fleishman and Jennie Reznek's personal and professional journey since their meeting in 1987, situating Magnet within the broader South African theatrical landscape before mapping how this unique and innovative company resonates within discourses and practices of physical theatre, devised work, workshop theatre and performance as research (PaR).

Our primary resources for the explorations of the company have been personal interviews with Magnet members and key collaborators. Extracts from these conversations are woven between more analytical, academic analyses of Magnet's work to form the multi-voiced substance of this project. As editors, we have curated many different voices in this collection to tell Magnet's story, engaging in a dialogue with internal and external perspectives: between reflections by performers and artists involved with Magnet, and scholarly articles responding to Magnet's many productions since 1987. In the spirit of Magnet's 'acts of storying, sounding, moving, feeling and relating' (Fleishman 2009: 126), we have curated a variety of voices so that Magnet's multi-textured nature is represented, pairing established scholars alongside more junior ones, and professional academics alongside fieldworkers and facilitators. We have deliberately ended this collection with the voices of two of Magnet's young graduates, giving the voice of the next generation of South African theatre-makers the proverbial last word.

Historical Context

Over the span of Magnet's existence as a company, South Africa has undergone an historic transition. In 2014, South Africa celebrated its 20th year as a democracy, having made the momentous political transition from the racially segregated apartheid regime in 1994. Since Nelson Mandela's election as the country's first black president, the young democracy has wrestled with what it means to be a truly multicultural society. Theatre artists have been at the forefront of this cultural transition, offering creative interventions that probe, question and (re-)imagine cultural identities as they tackle the viscous endeavours of memory and history in the postcolony (Mbembe 2011).

Apartheid came into being with the National Party's election to power in 1949, which solidified Afrikaner hegemony. Afrikaners (settlers of predominantly Dutch and French Huguenot descent) and Anglo-South Africans (settlers of predominantly British ancestry) had been battling for control of South Africa since the colonial era. South Africa's diverse indigenous populations had themselves been disputing control of contested territories, and, upon the arrival of the Europeans, they were relegated to second-class status. Imagined within the racial hierarchies of the state as a totalized mass, black and brown indigenous peoples were afforded few, if any, rights under apartheid law, while white citizens reaped the benefits of the country's imbalanced system of privilege. Apartheid hierarchized individuals along racial lines while its laws regulated bodies and behaviour: segregating public spaces, schools and workplaces; instituting a system of regulations that determined where an individual was permitted to live, work or travel based on their racial classification; and forbidding cross-racial contact from the boardroom to the bedroom.

When Magnet was formed in 1987, the country was at the height of an extended state of emergency. The African National Congress (ANC) was a banned organization whose aim had been declared as wanting 'to make the townships within South Africa ungovernable.' The state responded with an increasingly militarized clamp down. In 1990, Prime Minister P. W. Botha's successor, F. W. de Klerk, lifted the state of emergency, unbanning the ANC and other organizations. He released Nelson Mandela from his life sentence in prison and began the process of a negotiated transfer of power. Between 1990 and 1994, the legal apparatus of apartheid was gradually abolished, and with Mandela's election to the presidency, South Africa emerged into democracy.

The Aims and Structure of this Collection

This collection documents Magnet Theatre's work and ethos through a thick curation of scholarly investigation, first-hand interviews and visual material. Providing a deep analysis by means of a visual and verbal archive of past productions, the essays and interviews collected here reflect on the impact of almost 30 years of creative and cultural labours by a unique theatre company during a shifting and contested time in South African history. Our goal has been to provide an archive of performance practices easily accessible to the lay reader, as well as critical theory that would be of interest to theatre scholars. Furthermore, in using Magnet as an example, the book hopes to address questions of how theatre can serve as a vital site of cultural production, reflection and practice. While all of Magnet's works are listed in the 'Production History' section, not all of them are analysed in the same detail. Rather, seminal productions such as Medea (1994–96), Cargo (2007), Inxeba Lomphilisi – The Wound of a Healer (2010–14), Die Vreemdeling [The Stranger] (2010) and Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking (2006–present) have been selected as the focus of the essays in this collection, since these works represent decisive turning points in Magnet's trajectory, and serve as prime examples of the integration of praxis and theory, which is at the heart of the company's methodology.

Interwoven between the scholarly chapters are the voices of Magnet 'insiders:' performer Faniswa Yisa; director Mandla Mbothwe; former Jazzart collaborator Jay Pather; fieldworker Zwelakhe Khuse; writer Frances Marek; administrator Margie Pankhurst; designers Craig Leo and Illka Louw; musician Neo Muyanga; and former students – Magnet's next generation of theatre-makers and artists – including Nolovuyo Sam and Thando Doni. These reflections collectively paint a portrait of Magnet's style, approach, ethos and larger impact on South African culture through each interviewee's personal perceptions. Individually, they narrate the multiple stories of Magnet's many collaborators.

The critical sections of the collection have been organized into three scholarly rubrics: 'Concepts: Making Space for Ideas;' 'Collaboration: Making Space for Embodied Practice;' and 'Community: Making Space for Cultural Interventions.'

In Part One – 'Concepts: Making Space for Ideas' – Mark Fleishman, Miki Flockemann and Anton Krueger investigate how a profound complexity of thought – exercised intellectually as well as physically – permeates all of Magnet's work. Beyond Magnet's primary objective of creating a repertoire of original African productions lies a less obvious objective: to engage with a spirit of theatrical research.

In 'Making Space for Ideas: The Knowledge Work of Magnet Theatre,' Magnet's co-artistic director Mark Fleishman chronicles and elucidates how the work of Magnet Theatre links practice with the production of knowledge, both with respect to the content of individual productions and projects, as well as the methodologies and processes developed through its theatrical work. Fleishman reflects on two research foci around which productions and projects have been created and pursued over Magnet's history: remembering in the postcolony and migration.

Since 2001, Magnet artists have explored the possibility that particular practices of dramaturgy and performance might be one way of intervening in the problematic process of remembering in South Africa. Over a period of eight years, Magnet created a series of performance projects that engaged with key 'sites of memory' (Fleishman 2013) in and around the city of Cape Town in attempts to put back together (to 're-member') the fractured social body: Robben Island (a place of banishment and incarceration); District Six (an evacuated apartheid-era working-class city district); The Bleek and Lloyd collection of /Xam records (an ethnographic archive at the University of Cape Town); and the archive of slavery at the Cape (a dispersed collection of trial records, household inventories, legal and bureaucratic documents and physical sites). The productions created from these 'sensitive sites' (Roth & Salas 2001: 3) include: 53 Degrees (2002–03); Onnest'bo (2002–06); Rain in a Dead Man's Footprints (2004–05); and Cargo (Fleishman 2013). In making each of these works, Magnet faced two fundamental and interconnected problems related to the themes of time and silence: how to 'find an appropriate image in the present for something that has past' and how to make the archive 'speak in unspeakable ways' (Fleishman 2011: 12).

Since 2006, the company's second focus – migration – has yielded four separate performance interventions, framed around three simultaneously conceptual and actual routes (Cape to Cairo, the N2 and the N7): Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking; ingcwaba lendoda lise cankwe ndlela [the grave of the man lies next to the road](2009); Inxeba Lomphilisi – The Wound of a Healer; and Die Vreemdeling. These works were simultaneously theatrical and pedagogical, involving public performances as well as cultural interventions as part of outreach programmes, including educational workshops around the pressing issues of xenophobia and migration. Fleishman discusses his particular performance-led dramaturgy and also explores how making theatre can become a means of scholarly enquiry.

In her chapter, '"Being There": The Evolution of Performance Aesthetics from Medea (1994–96) to The Magnet Theatre "Migration" Plays (2012),' Miki Flockemann, drawing on Geertz's notion of the practice of 'thick description' to read cultural events, examines Magnet's performance aesthetic that encourages spectators to get close to a sense of 'being there.' Flockemann explores the evolution of Magnet's performance modality in relation to the landmark production of Medea, which coincided with the first democratic election in 1994. This collaborative production with Jazzart Dance Theatre is read in relation to in-house productions of the 'migration' plays: Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking and Inxeba Lomphilisi – The Wound of a Healer. Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking indirectly anticipated the xenophobic eruptions of 2008, and subsequent productions have continued to generate fresh unsettlements of recognition and 'being there.' As a companion piece, Inxeba Lomphilisi offered an insider perspective on the legacies of internal migration, and has taken the evolution of thick theatre aesthetics to another level as Flockemann examines how these innovative performance modalities unlock audience responses at the moment of performance. In this way, Magnet makes space for spectators to feel they can almost grasp the inscrutable otherness of the experience being performed.

In his chapter, 'The Implacable Grandeur of the Stranger: Ruminations on Fear and Familiarity in Magnet Theatre's Die Vreemdeling,' Anton Krueger considers ways in which South Africa could be described as a nation of strangers, marginalized minorities awkwardly pasted together. Krueger explores how Magnet Theatre's approach to intercultural work sidesteps the potential bigotry of ethnicism, as well as the compromise of homogeneity. Following Fleishman's goal of 'reassembling the social' (Latour 2005) and expanding what is considered as the collective, Krueger argues that Magnet's 'creative explorations have inculcated a growing awareness of cultural inclusivity while avoiding demands for conformity' (p. 130). Drawing on works by Zygmunt Bauman, Georg Simmel and Julia Kristeva, Krueger considers seemingly paradoxical notions of inclusivity and unfamiliarity as explored in a number of Magnet Theatre productions. Part of Magnet's longevity attests to their successful navigation of cross-cultural work, which guards against any easy assimilation or the forced enculturation of difference. The problematics of cultural exchange and a suspicion of reactive syncretism inform all of these continuing investigations.

In this first section, the deep conceptual investigative work of Magnet Theatre is explored in detail, with an emphasis on ways in which their theorization has been led by performance-based processes and practices. In Part Two – 'Collaboration: Making Space for Embodied Practice' – Jennie Reznek, Yvette Hutchison and Megan Lewis examine how Magnet's underlying philosophy and spirit of physicality – inspired by Jacques Lecoq's claim that 'tout bouge' ['everything moves'] – functions in Magnet's staged performances, rehearsal rooms and classrooms, as well as within the larger South African cultural landscape.

In her chapter, co-artistic director and Magnet's featured performer, Jennie Reznek, articulates the particular pedagogy and approach to the training of the body that Magnet Theatre has been developing over the past 29 years. Reznek argues that Magnet has been responding, pendulum-like, to a 'culture of violence' that has persisted in South Africa from the period of colonialism, through the apartheid era, and up to the present historical moment. Reznek analyses the impact of violence on the body by focusing on three of its consequences – stillness, erasure, and rupture – before exploring how Magnet's teaching of the body in physical theatre counters all three of these with a focus on the moving, articulate, individuated body capable of transformation. She discusses how such an approach is useful to the act of theatre-making (at the level of an individual performer) as well as in a larger society (in the sense of the larger cultural context of a democracy coming to fruition).

Yvette Hutchison then traces Mark Fleishman's search for what she calls 'a dramaturgy of displacement' (Fleishman 2011). For Hutchison (p. 209), this is 'about making rather than telling; about embodiment, where the dramaturgy must find ways of including silence and absence; of telling stories without co-opting the narratives of people who cannot or will not participate themselves.' Through a close reading of Medea, Rain in a Dead Man's Footprints, and Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking, she explores how Magnet Theatre productions trouble narrative, while at the same time negotiating the place of narrative in the work.


Excerpted from Magnet Theatre by Megan Lewis, Anton Krueger. Copyright © 2016 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Plotting the Magnetic Field: Origins and Trajectories
Megan Lewis and Anton Krueger
Production History
PART ONE- Concepts: Making Space for Ideas
Colour Photographs: 1987 2009
Chapter 2: Making Space for Ideas: The Knowledge work of Magnet Theatre
Mark Fleishman
Chapter 3: An Activist Company Inventing a Future:
A Conversation with Neo Muyanga
Chapter 4 'Being There': The Evolution of Performance Aesthetics from
Medea (1994 96) to The Magnet Theatre 'Migration· Plays (2012)
Miki Flockemann
Chapter 5: The Full Gamut of an Ideal Company:
A Conversation with Jay Pather
Chapter 6: The Implacable Grandeur of the Stranger: Ruminations on Fear
and Familiarity in Die Vreemdeling [The Stranger] (2010)
Anton Krueger
Chapter 7: Theatre That Can Organize. Mobilize. Conscientize:
A Conversation with Mandla Mbothwe
PART TWO - Collaboration: Making Space for Empbodied Practice
Colour Photographs: 2010 2015
Chapter 8: Performing the Language of the Body in My Mother Tongue:
A Conversation with Faniswa Visa
Chapter: 9 Magnet Theatre and the Moving Body
Jennie Reznek
Chapter 10: Ideas Dying to be Born: A Conversation with Craig Leo
Chapter 11: The Creative Flow of Arresting, Exquisite Fabric:
A Conversation with Illka Louw
Chapter 12: Embodied Practice that Troubles Fixed Narratives of Identity,
History and Memory
Yvette Hutchison
Chapter 13: Magnet's Recipe for Considered. Conscious Theatre-Making:
A Conversation with Frances Marek
Chapter 14: The Performance Labours of Magnet and Jazzart’s Cargo (2007) 203
Megan Lewis
PART THREE - Community: Making Space for Cultural Interventions
Clanwilliam Photoessay
Chapter 15: Making Space for Community: Magnet Theatre 'Intervenes' in
Gay Morris
Chapter 16: Vividly Feeling the Extremes of Being in the World:
A Conversation
Chapter 17: By Telling Stories We Can Learn Something from Life:
A Conversation with Thando Doni
Chapter 18: Catalysing a Community: Magnet's Clanwilliam Community
Intervention Project
Lavona de Bruyn
Chapter 19: Bursting the Bubble of Play: Making Space for Intercultural
Elliot Leffler
Chapter 20: Keeping Theatre Alive in the Community:
A Conversation with Zwelakhe Khuse
Chapter 21: Magnet Never Forgets its People:
A Conversation with Nolovuyo Sam
Magnet Funders

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