A Conversation with Kanya Viljoen

Kanya Viljoen is a theatre-maker, performer and designer. Recently, Kanya wrote and directed RAAK, which debuted at the Vrystaat Kunstefees and was nominated as Best Production of the festival. Furthermore, it has been nominated for two Kyknet Fiësta Awards and is heading to US Woordfees 2019 for a limited run. Earlier this year, Kanya was awarded South African Theatre Magazine’s Best Emerging Director Award. In 2018, Kanya directed Like Hamlet, which was performed at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective as part of the Annex Theatre Bursary. Her script, mank, was selected for further development by Kunste Onbeperk’s Teksmark and she was awarded a writer’s bursary for this script. Currently, Kanya is an Andrew W Mellon scholar, completing her MA in theatre-making at the University of Cape Town.  

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I don’t even think it was a thing of who or what. It was just always there. It was just so inherently there. I’m the oldest of four and my poor siblings because, since the age of five, that was the thing. On Sundays we made shows and it was a traditional thing. My parents would nap and wake up and then they had to come and see the show. There was never an option. It never felt like there was an option. It was just always there.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You did your training at UCT and are now back there to do your Masters. What was your first time there like and how is the Masters going?

The first time at UCT was a time of a lot of growing. If I think back on it, that’s what I think of and growing in multiple parallels. It’s not only growing in the understanding of your art or the understanding of making, but it’s also growing as a person. I think university catches you at a very specific time in your life where you, yourself, are trying to figure out yourself and thank heavens it was a space that challenged and [that] there were people of so many walks of life that you come against and that shapes and shifts you. For the politics of the space, I think it played an important part in how I view things currently and I am so grateful for it. That was part of the learning and teaching. I always find it very funny when people say it was a shutdown because I’m like, “It stopped but the learning definitely magnified in that moment.” For me personally. If I think of it, I think of it as a growing [experience] but exactly what growing is; it’s painful and slow and you can’t always see it. There are moments of bumping against things and then you look back at it and can understand where you have been moulded. We are still figuring out the Masters. I think I’ve underestimated how much I like to think about things. I think that’s where the Masters came from. Even though I had a wonderfully busy year last year, there was something that was very understimulated and I could go, “I miss that.” I miss the reading and debating and the thinking through doing. I think its different this time because you are not there to prove something. You are not there to learn something. It’s about figuring it out for yourself. It feels a bit more self-guided. I’m hoping that it only enriches everything else I do. I hope it does exactly what the first four years did which was just to continue growing everything.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

RAAK is heading to US Woordfees following a run at the Baxter and several other festival runs. What was it that sparked the idea and what was the initial creation process like?

Honest answer?

Yes, please. 

I was out in Stellenbosch, as one is. I was in my second year or something and a bunch of Afrikaans guys got very drunk and they started talking about their upcoming hunt and previous hunts they had and I just remember sitting there shivering a bit because it was quite unnerving, these very violent images and very violent language and their casualty about it. I have a little book where ideas are written down and I remember opening it that night and going, “There needs to be a play about Afrikaans masculinity and hunting.” It’s funny because now, looking back, I don’t know if that’s the play. I don’t know if RAAK is actually about that but that was the beginning image at least. Then there was a lot of, Mark Fleishman calls it dwelling. I love that term. He talks about sometimes you just have to dwell in the world and you don’t have to make sense of it. You just walk around in this world and then at some point you will construct it. I dwelled for months or years and then I often know my physical space before anything else. I knew what I wanted on stage and I knew who the characters were and where we were going. And then I allowed two actors into this world and honestly, it was just me going, “We are going to explore this.” There was some written script and some parts were blank that I knew they had to fill for themselves. It was literally just a week of us improvising around this world and then I sat and constructed. That’s pretty much how it got born into this world. We always say that the play knew what it wanted to be even before we got involved with it and we just had to allow it to be the thing it wanted to be.

How do you feel the piece has evolved during its lifespan?

It’s definitely sat in muscle a bit throughout us doing it. The first couple of times we did it, I kept telling the actors that they were rushing and that they weren’t still enough and now it’s at the point where they are sitting, they are not scared of the silence anymore. I think it’s such an important element of that world and I think as actors, we are so scared to sit in silence and just do an action like chopping up cabbage. In the sense of how it’s sitting, rhythmically, I can feel where it’s settled into muscle. It’s nearly two years now but even in a year and a half that we’ve aged, I can feel how its shifted views on the characters. If I think about it, the young characters always felt wide but the older characters are quite difficult to play because not one of us knows what it’s like to be 35 or 30 and married, which is quite interesting. It’s just my own perception of it but I can feel we are starting to understand those elements of heaviness or of life a bit more and I’ll be really curious, even if it rests now for a while, if the three of us can pick it up in ten years time. I’d be really curious to see what it does to a performance to pick it up at a point where it was supposed to be or where the characters are and see how that shifts it.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

Obviously, we can’t give anything away about the play but there is a special effect in the show. I know you can’t really tell me how it was done but how did you go about creating that?

These images really just come and I know that’s what needs to happen image-wise. Originally, I wanted it to seep more than drip but its a trial and error thing. I spent hours in a workshop going like, “What does it do? What does it do if there is a little bit more water? What does it do if the cloth is wet? What does it do if the cloth isn’t there?” Trial and error like a crazed woman but I was like, “It will do this thing! It will because I’ve seen it, so it must be able to do it.”

You’ve been in the professional arena for what feels like five minutes and just this year alone you’ve been nominated for two Fiësta Awards and a Fleur du Cap Award. How are you feeling about everything?

It’s quite surreal and very humbling because I know there is a multitude of people working in this industry that don’t get recognised, so I’m very humbled and grateful that I am being seen. I’ll be honest and maybe because I’m young, there is a sense of pressure that comes with it. I had a moment where I was like, “Is the next thing I make going to be a complete mess?” Because now there is an expectation, to a certain degree. I’m trying to sit with it and go, “Be grateful for what it is and understand that we are all just learning and growing.” There will be points where the work will not be magnificent and there will be moments when it comes back to itself again.

Last year you debuted a new piece of work at Teksmark and went on to be awarded a bursary to develop it further. How is that going?

It is going amazingly. I had a conversation with the festival that awarded the bursary and we both understand that currently, I feel like the script is where it is and now it needs actors and it needs someone to go, “No, I wouldn’t actually say that.” We are in conversation with it being picked up and hopefully staged one of these days, which is really exciting. It’s been cool to have a project where I am involved in one facet but not necessarily in another and see what someone else does with it.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What are the stories that you, as a theatremaker, feel you tend to gravitate towards?

I think currently, because I do think it will shift as I age, I’m quite interested in playing with myths or folklore. I think just because I grew up where stories were constantly being read to me, there is something about taking a story that we all sort of know and finding your own voice within that. I can honestly say that I’ve not made something where there hasn’t been quite a strong reference to something else or another piece of work. There’s that sense of adaptation or dialogue with stories which is quite comforting because then I can go, “It doesn’t have to be original.” You can just talk to the other stories. When you start to think about it that way, it becomes a bit more… You don’t have to create something new. Just be in a conversation and then something new will arise. I’m trusting.

As a theatremaker, your work spans all different aspects. Which of those aspects comes most naturally to you?

I think I’m still figuring that out. I do know that they all feed one another. For example, what I said about RAAK, it was the design first and then the making and writing came from that. It’s the three and it’s funny to watch them work with one another. With the script for Teksmark, I get very specific about certain little design things like eggs that need to crack at certain points. I don’t know what that’s about but I know that’s what must happen. I’m figuring it out is the honest answer. I think it’s what each project needs that comes first and then you fill from that place.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You’ve managed to carve out a career where people understand you to be a bi-lingual theatre-maker. What are the challenges involved in working in those seemingly different worlds?

I think the challenge is to find authenticity in both. I think it’s a bit easier in the Afrikaans because I come from that world so I’ve got extreme confidence when I choose a piece of music because I know that world. The English world, although I know it because it is me making it, certain things seep in and then I’m scared it makes it seem inauthentic. But I think there is extreme beauty in the two worlds constantly clashing and meeting and you are translating and not just linguistically. You are translating design, you are translating rhythm. I think I’m going to try to see it more as a wonderful challenge or a wonderful clash and merging. It’s an interesting question. I’m going to think on it. I haven’t thought about that. I think it’s because it feels like two separate worlds really. It calls for two different things as well and two different ways of going about it, so you are completely separated. You don’t even think of yourself as one person that has both of them involved with you. But I think there is that inherent need to classify work and makers and I hope we continue to unravel that because I think that is one of the wonders of this country, the fact that there is a multiplicity of language and we all do live in a multi-lingual world so our work should reflect that.

What is the best piece of advice you feel you’ve received at this point in your career?

I had a voice teacher, Darron Araujo, and me being the little Afrikaans girl who really wanted to get it right in first year, I tried hard with this voice thing and I kept going to Darron with questions and kept questioning, “Am I doing it right?” One day, he said, “Imagine you are brushing your teeth. If you want it clean and you keep brushing so hard, you are going to eventually cause bleeding. You need to stop trying. Just do it. Trust that brushing your teeth is enough and you don’t have to scrub it.” That little bit of information is so translatable to so many things. It’s not only about how you make or how you perform. Even in day-to-day existence when I go, “I wonder if this person likes me. I wonder if I’m doing it right. I wonder if I’m networking enough.” I just think of that image of just brushing your teeth and brushing it too hard and trying so hard that you miss the point and the very notion of wanting to get it right. That was a good thing I had to hear. Don’t be the first year that brushes your teeth too hard. There is just something inherently in me that wanted to do well. It’s a good piece of knowledge to carry around that doing well might not be the point.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What is something that is exciting you about the arts right now?

I think we’ve got a long way to go. Talking specifically on theatre, I’m not going to speak on the other art forms but I think in theatre, and I can feel it, there is a sense of people moving into spaces but I think our forms need to shift and I think our making needs to shift. I think we can be bolder. I think we can be making way more exciting things and maybe I’m saying this to myself as well. One thing though that is exciting me, I feel like there is a lot of young makers in and around theatre at this point. It really excites me that the people I graduated with and the people of my age group, I can feel a metaphorical banging against the door going, “Let’s do it!” I can feel the pulse of something new coming. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

I think first and foremost, my class [that] I graduated with just because we were women. We were a bunch of women and that includes Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni, Puleng Lange-Stewart, Qondiswa James, Andi Colombo, Naledi Majola, Liese Kuhn and Laura-Lee Mostert. It’s a stunning group of women to be able to say I graduated with because I can see us all doing things.

RAAK will run during US Woordfees 2019 at the Adam Small Laboratorium from March 2nd-4th. For tickets, click here.

You can follow Kanya on Instagram.

Special thanks to Kanya Viljoen.

All photos were taken on February 12th 2019 at The Blue Cafe.

Sarafina Magazine maintains copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.


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