The World Cup of children’s theatre is headed to South Africa. Internationally renowned children’s theatre organisation ASSITEJ proudly presents it’s 19th world congress and performing arts festival, The Cradle of Creativity, a 10 day event that celebrates the very best of children’s theatre from around the world. We spoke to Festival Director, Jaqueline Dommisse about the festival and her career as a theatremaker.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I have this thing of pretty much remembering that I wanted to be in theatre my entire life. I think I was about 9 years old and I decided I wanted to go to speech and drama lessons even though I didn’t know what they were. I’ve had this single minded passion ever since. I did go to a very early production at the Market Theatre when I was 12. I went to go and see The Crucible and I was absolutely blown away by the fact that it was live and in front of me but I can’t remember a time where I haven’t been passionate about theatre.
I think that definitely comes across in your personality.
I just believe in it very deeply. What theatre does above all is that it teaches us empathy. If you can be sitting in your seat and experiencing what someone else is laughing at or crying at, what makes somebody else move, somebody else’s story, you are learning empathy. You are learning to experience life in somebody else’s shoes and that just feels like such an important thing in the world, to try and understand each other’s humanity and each other’s stories.
How did you first get involved with Assitej?
I’ve been a member of Assitej since it’s inception 7 or 8 years ago. I studied drama at Wits and then kind of made a transition from thinking that I wanted to be an actor to realising that I was more likely to be a director because I’m too bossy and I know best. I really like the big picture. In the early part of my career, I got involved in children’s theatre and then I ran a little puppet company called The Puppet People. Because I couldn’t afford to pay actors, I made them. Cathy Dodders and I had a little touring company that went to schools and we had holiday programs and then we went to The National Arts Festival with our little puppet company and kind of got connected with UNIMA and with Assitej through that. I got a little bit tired of children’s theatre at that time because of the lack of funding and the lack of status. In South Africa, and pretty much around the world, theatre for young audiences isn’t really given the industry status that theatre for adults is which is really sad and really hard and very often actors will take a job in children’s theatre if there is nothing else. I got a little bit tired of that experience of it and worked quite a lot more in adult theatre. I think I’ve remained pretty committed to that young audience aspect of theatre.
What can you tell us about the festival?
I kind of think about it as the world cup of children’s theatre. Assitej is an international organisation, a UNICEF organisation, a membership organisation around the world. There are about 100 membership countries and every year 3 years the executive committee has its tri-annual meeting and attached to that meeting is a festival. You essential bid for it like you do for the world cup. We pitched four years ago and we were awarded the festival. It really is a snapshot of what is current and best practice and happening in theatre for young audiences in the world today. We had over 200 applications from all over the world. We chose from the very best. The other exciting thing about it is that from 0-19 years old, is the time in a humans life when they do the most changing and developing. What will work for a 3-year-old wont work for a 13-year-old. It’s a real jigsaw puzzle of a range of different genres. There’s dance, there’s puppetry, there is music for young audiences, there’s drama for young audiences, there is really funny and entertaining stuff, serious stuff, a whole range of different genres and styles and elements but there also is this range of ages. There has to be puppetry that the 0-3-year-olds like and there’s got to be puppetry that the 16-year-olds will like and pretty much everything in between. It really is an opportunity to see an extraordinary range of work.
I’m quite intrigued by the idea of theatre for babies.
The most avant-garde, cutting edge, in your face, experimental work is happening for baby audiences because it is new. People are experimenting with all sorts of things in a very careful way with a lot of research about early childhood development and understanding. It never goes into pitch black out or get too loud. It is gentle and welcoming and it doesn’t have to be narrative at all. There isn’t necessarily a story because you won’t necessarily be able to follow a beginning, middle and end when you are 8 months old. It is very experiential, often quite textual because the children get to move into the space. It is really about the senses. It is really amazing work. There’s Scoop which is going to be on the Magnet Theatre platform and that is the very first South African baby piece that has ever been made. Then there is Sensescapes which is by a choreographer called Dalija Thelander. She is Serbian and works in Sweden and she is doing this extraordinary dance work. Then there is a beautiful piece from Denmark called Sparrow. The sparrows are supported by a small chamber orchestra with live musical playing and the little sparrows do what sparrows do and it is absolutely wonderful.
Is there anything in the festival that you are particularly looking forward to?
One is Full Moon from Lebanon. It is my favourite because the Middle East is such an intense and scary place and to find this exquisitely beautiful puppet story from that area and to have managed to ensure that the artists can get here and share it with us is really wonderful. It’s also a puppet show that uses the metaphor of a mother wolf and her baby wolf cubs to tell the story of human migration. I think it is really important that our young audiences, who are hearing the news and grown-ups talking about really hard, scary things in the world that they are exposed to, in a way of thinking and unpacking it so they can get a handle on it and not just be frightened of this big thing out there but be able to try to deal with those fears and see them in a safe, theatrical environment. The other thing that is making me terribly excited is a wonderful piece called Pim and Theo. It is for the 16+. There is lots of profanity and lots of in your face stuff, so definitely not younger than 16, but it is a collaboration between the UK, Denmark and Norway. The premise is that these two men are in a kind of purgatory space and it is an installation so the audience isn’t sitting on chairs looking at a theatre, they are involved in the performance and invited into this waiting room of past life space. Both of them have been assassinated for doing something offensive. They have both been Islamophobic in one way or another. It is based on the lives of these two men who were assassinated. They both have said incredibly offensive and horrible things and the whole piece questions our notions of free speech, do we believe in free speech and what is free speech? I saw this play when I was lucky enough to be invited to a children’s theatre festival in Sweden and as the young audience was walking out, they were talking but they weren’t talking about the play, they were talking about the issues in the play. They were really tackling these really difficult issues but in an excited way. I think a lot of the time when we try to use the media that teenagers use, we kind of get it wrong as adults and they kind of facepalm us. This show really gets it right. It really engages young audiences because it doesn’t patronize them one tiny little bit.
During your time with Assitej, or your career in children’s theatre, do you have an experience that was particularly memorable?
I’m a little bit embarrassed because I want to speak about a piece that I made. I created a work called Sadaco. Peter Hays wrote the play and I directed it and Janni Younge built the puppets for it. A very dear friend of mine put in some money to make sure that it would really happen at the level that it happened at. It was one of the only opportunities I’ve ever had to make a piece of theatre that really had a solid budget and a really extraordinary cast. It really was a profound piece of theatre. In terms of work that I’ve watched, the other thing that I found incredibly moving was a piece of work directed by Yvette Hardie, who is the director of Assitej, called The Ogreling. It told the story of a little Ogre, who is 6 years old and who is coming to terms with his dark nature because ogres do bad things. His mother is trying to send him to school and he doesn’t want to be bad. It really worked for an audience of 9/10-year-olds. When children’s theatre respects children as complex thinking human beings who don’t just have to be entertained but can also have their intellect challenged and their thoughts and emotions challenged and their perceptions questioned, that is when I find it truly exciting.
Have you noticed children’s theatre changing in response to what is happening in the world politically? Do those issues seem to be transferring?
I haven’t had the experience to really connect into children’s theatre globally until now. I’ve been really lucky to be in this position working with Cradle of Creativity but this festival reflects a lot of those elements. It is something that South African theatre generally has always done. Protest theatre is our stamp of who we are. How we tell challenging and important stories came out of protest theatre and the apartheid years and pretty much defines what really good South African theatre is. What we haven’t quite been able to do yet, and what I’m hoping will grow, is to do that specifically for younger audiences. I think we do it really well for adults. I’m not sure yet that we have a handle on how to do it for children without crossing that line of being triggering or upsetting and showing children gratuitous violence or gratuitous ugliness. I’m hoping that is something that will develop in South Africa.
What is your perception on the climate for female directors in South Africa?
I think that we are in a very exciting time. Although it is hard, I think there always has been extraordinary women directors, Janice Honeyman, Clare Stopford, Lara Foot, Lara Bye, Jennie Reznek, there have been these women doing extraordinary work. That being said, there are still the high-end things, the big places that remain boys clubs. I think something like only five women have directed at Maynardville in all its years of existence. What is very exciting about this time is that there is some extraordinary training happening. I think the theatre-making course at UCT, under professor Mark Fleishman is just producing some of the most extraordinary directors like Tara Notcutt, Nwabisa Plaatjie, she is just making the most amazing work. Somehow that theatre-making training at UCT is creating very particular voices, they aren’t coming out all learning the same thing. What they’ve learned is how to excavate their own art. There are some really exciting young women making very exciting work, Koleka Putuma, Wynne Bredenkamp, there are some really exciting young theatre-makers. I think in Joburg too there is a vibrancy and it is flippen hard because we all also have to pay the rent and put food on the table and whatever. The arts are not for everybody, whether you are a man or a woman. It really is hard but I do think it is particularly hard for women. I think that a lot of the bigger opportunities are more seldomly opened to women.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Nwabisa Plaatjie definitely. She is brand new and wonderful. Koleka Putuma is this young vibrant womxn. Lara Foot, definitely. Jennie Reznek. Lara Bye’s Master’s production, Eurydice, was one of the most extraordinary pieces of theatre I have ever seen in my entire life. It was just so beautiful. It was physical theatre and image theatre and a beautiful adaptation of a Greek myth with an absolutely beautiful cast. Lara really has an extraordinary vision. She just can put magic on the stage.
Cover photo by Jesse Kramer.