Actress and artist, Jemma Kahn returns to the Alexander Bar with In Bocca al lupo, her latest Kamishibai endeavor. Following the breakout success that was Epicene Butcher and We Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants, Jemma has become a pioneer of not only the Kamishibai style in South Africa but for boldly creating her own boundary-pushing work.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
The Handspring Puppet Company. My parents dragged me to The Market Theatre when I was little and I’m very grateful that they did. The early productions, Ubu and the Truth Commission [and] Faustus in Africa, just blew my mind. And Dawid Minnaar… he drinks coffee at the little coffee shop outside my flat and I still am totally starstruck. I can’t believe that I get to sit near Dawid Minnaar because I suppose it was him in his siff undies.
Were those productions the moment when you decided, “I’m going to be a performer?”
It’s not really like you know, you just have a kind of fantasy or a desire or a drive and then it gets fed. I discouraged myself from theatre because I thought it’s really a difficult choice and quite an embarrassing choice, in a way. So then I did Fine Art and then unfortunately went back to theatre.
And now you’ve managed to combine both of those things with the Kamishbai style. What was it that made you want to explore that medium?
The combination of illustration and performance. It took me about three years from seeing it to making my first production. I was nervous that someone else in South Africa would kind of find it and do it first. Because obviously there is an enormous power in having something that no one else has seen before. It was a gamble. It was a risk.
It’s paid off and now you’ve become the pioneer of it.
That frightens me also because if you’re lucky to find the thing that you are really good at, what the world wants you to do and what you want to do might not be the same thing. The world might not let me be anything else or be successful at anything else, but I don’t necessarily want to do it for the rest of my career.
Did you anticipate it being such a success?
No. It really was a last ditch attempt. It took about a year into Epicene Butcher [when] I realised what a hit was and I haven’t had one since, to the same level. So you get a whole lot of unrealistic expectations around how you’ll be received and how easy it is to fill a house because with Butcher, I knew nothing. The first time we went to Grahamstown, I printed 8000 flyers. I didn’t know how many you should print. It was too many and also I can’t hand out a flyer. It is the most terrifying experience. I had panic attacks so I don’t print flyers anymore…also they don’t work and it is a waste of paper…
…and you still have 7999 left.
The number has diminished with every festival. When we did Fringe World in Perth, we printed a bunch of flyers. [I’d] say we printed 1000, which is still far too many, it’s a realistic number if you are going to go out and flyer but I am too terrified to do that so then you leave 850 flyers to be thrown away in a hotel room. Butcher spoiled me in a way. I didn’t know how Butcher was sold out at The Market Theatre. That was a total fluke. Having just done Bocca now at The Market, the run was fine. We broke even but it hasn’t hit that peak again and that’s when you start going, “What are you doing wrong? Was it luck?”
How do you balance the fact that there is now that expectation around you doing this style?
After Butcher we made a show, we being the same creative team, called Amateur Hour which wasn’t Kamishibai and not as successful but I loved it. Then I went back and we did We Didn’t Come to Hell For the Croissants which is Kamishibai. I don’t feel limited but I may in 10 years time realize that I will only get bums on seats when I use the box. Friends have said to me, “Why would you want to abandon it? It is such a mesmerizing medium.” But the work involved is frightening. It is such a fucking mission to make the shows.
How long does each show take to paint?
In the old ones, a story would take three weeks to illustrate and Bocca, because it is only one story, took three months but it should have taken six. I budgeted six months to do illustrations but obviously with funding and timing and such, it narrowed down to three so then you just work which is mainly the best way to just finish something. But also, do we always have to kill ourselves to finish making work? Do we always have to work in those circumstances? It seems unsustainable.
What do you think it is about the Kamishibai medium that makes it so universal?
It seems whenever you aren’t involved in something it seems mystical. I think the medium works because it has the built in reveal which was identified by Lindiwe [Matshikiza] who directed Croissants and she tied it into her experience with burlesque. She said that the thing that is titillating about burlesque is the reveal and anticipation. Kamishibai has that built in. You always know there is something coming to entice you. You are constantly being given new images. In theatre, although it is a visual medium, often people don’t treat it like a visual medium so then your eyeballs aren’t fed maybe as much as they could be. With Bocca, with the four boxes, you can see what is past and what is present at the same time and then you can start making new associations with images. It is theoretical because I have never seen the pieces. I always just see the back.
The front is great!
The back is awfully boring. It just has lines telling me when to stop pulling.
I feel like it must be so technical.
It’s not. You could learn it in a couple of hours. It’s not hard. I draw a zig-zag line so when I start to see the line coming, I know to slow down. When it reaches the apex of the point, that’s when I stop. And then number them obviously so I know they are in the right order. In traditional Kamishibai, the words are on the back but for Bocca, because of the four boxes, it is too complicated to put them on the back. People learn it by heart so I just thought I’d also learn it by heart. “It can’t be that hard.”
Have you ever accidentally mixed up the order of a slide and then only noticed during a show?
Yes. It is very embarrassing. It happened once, I didn’t know it had happened. There was an old slide from a story that wasn’t being used anymore and it came up as the last slide of the Nelson Mandela story in Butcher. It had happened for about a week in performance but I didn’t know that it was happening. I think it said “We miss you daddy” upside down. “And they all lived happily every after…we miss you daddy.” I suppose it would make sense? I don’t know if Mandela was dead yet…He hadn’t died yet!
I didn’t know that was happening. All you can do is be embarrassed, I suppose. I picked it up pretty quickly because you start to notice the markings in the back and also the audience maybe isn’t reacting properly and then I just stop the show and say, “Sorry!”
Ja. Because there isn’t the fourth wall in the same way, you can just do that and it’s funny. The audience seems to love it as well, which they shouldn’t because you are being really unprofessional. I try not to do that and I have a little ritual now where I count them and touch them and fix them, because they break very easily.
What is a question you wish you were posed more?
I know that the conversations that I like to have about the work that I make… is about practice. Not rehearsal but your practice. Like if I’m talking to a painter, I’ll say, “What kind of paint do you use on this surface to get that kind of effect?” That is the stuff that interests me. That’s because art is not only consumed by artists. I suppose anyone in any job, you want to talk about the ‘stuff.’ I like questions about the ‘stuff.’
Because Croissants was a very collaborative process, what did you find to be the biggest challenge about forming that piece?
Croissants was surprising the easiest just because the angels were smiling on the way it worked. Everyone just delivered beautiful work. I think the illustrators and the writers are really encouraged by the low stakes because it is only a 5-10 minute story and it can be utterly fantastical and you are working with someone else. It really is just a fun way to work for everyone. Fun is the cheap word. Also, Lindi is a very calm person to work with. She is just so chilled. She is not one of those people who thinks “You have to work until 10pm.” She’s like, “Ok, we’ve done what we need to do.” The chemistry between her, myself and Roberto Pombo was really great. I don’t know what the challenges were. It was the first time POPArt had worked as producers so the money was coming in, I didn’t have to find funding. It was a blessed process.
Because Bocca is a one woman show and once you leave the rehearsal room you are pretty much left completely on your own to travel with it, what has that experience been like? Have you found it enjoyable?
No. It’s awful. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. The reason I left Fine Art for theatre was because Fine Art is so solitary and then once you are performing in a one-woman show, you are back into that and there is no one to commiserate with. You also can’t have a conversation with the audience because you want to get different things out of those conversations. They want to tell you how much they enjoyed it because if people hate it they don’t want to talk to you afterwards. That conversation would be quite interesting because how do you respond to this conversation that you’ve had a couple of times before and you just want to say, “I’m tired and I’m emotional and I’m sad.” You can’t be that. You need to be the kind of, “Thank you. Yay!” It is really very painful.
I think this is a very important conversation because young actors are often told to make their own work.
The work wouldn’t be difficult if I didn’t have to perform it for a long time. The making is the interesting part and then, if your work is fully funded, you get paid to make it and then you don’t have to rely on ticket sales. If you get work fully funded and get paid a nice, fat salary and do a two week run at a festival or are commissioned by a theatre, you do it and finish. Maybe that is the way to work around it. I think there are ways to fund work so that you don’t spend money that you can’t afford and then desperately need to get bums on seats. It’s hard.
What is it about telling this story in Bocca that excites you?
The format came first. It was the four boxes and then I thought about having four separate narratives and then thought about the family as perhaps the characters who could inform that narrative. Working with Tertius [Kapp] it became a memoir rather than a personal story. What excites me about it is the genre of graphic novel and graphic memoir. I looked at Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Maus and also Bitter Comics and all that stuff. It’s a combination of deep psychological content with cartoon and I really liked that. And you always think that you invented something yourself so I was like, “Oh my god. I portray myself as a cartoon.” And then you realize that other people have done it before but it is the kind of case where you have to look at your own story when you illustrate yourself and you have to be kind to yourself. Often, the way that illustrators draw themselves is as this diminutive, vulnerable character. That was really interesting to me.
I read that you were working on your second short film. Is that still in the works?
Yes. It’s done! You can see it on the internet. The making of the second one was superb. Luckily we were funded, which is always nice. It’s nice to get money to pay people for what they do. The concept of the first film was the same content for the second film. It was a surprising reversal because Lindiwe had directed me in Croissants and I was directing her in this short film. Both of them are lip-sync films. It is a piece of existing footage that I then recreate and have actors sync the original dialogue. It’s fun to watch because of the level of detail the actors put in to mimicking the performance and there is something very interesting that happens in mimicry. I think it is the same as puppetry or animation. You get new meaning out of the content when there is that disjuncture between whose saying it and the words that are being said. I think Handspring talk about how profound it is to watch a puppet pick up a glass and that all of human suffering can be seen in that motion because you know how hard it is for a puppet to pick up a glass.
I feel like that quote is quite an accurate summary of the work that you do because you never just make work for works sake, you tend to add on additional elements that the audience sees as quite technical.
I think that is a lucky byproduct of never feeling like you work hard enough so you have to work really really hard to prove that you worked hard. It’s like a prefect cry for acknowledgment, “Look how hard I worked! I didn’t just make a play, I drew the whole thing!” And that is why we love stop motion and all that stuff because why did you bother to make that, it’s so hard! I keep coming back to futility and why futility is so poetic.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?