Myrto Papoulia and Tegan Arazny sat down with Jennie Reznek, Director and Trustee of Magnet Theatre, on Thursday, 22nd June 2017.
You can watch the full video (32 minutes) of their conversation here, or you can read the full written transcript below:
Jennie Reznek: Hi, my name is Jennie Reznek and I’m one of the three artistic directors of Magnet Theatre. Mandla Mbothwe and Mark Fleishman are the other two directors. And basically, Magnet Theatre is a 30-year-old organisation and we […] have two very clear streams.
And one stream is to create professional productions foregrounding the language of the body as the primary source of meaning in the production. And that kind of came out of the fact that, in South Africa, we have 11 official languages and there was a real necessity to create work that could be inclusive, that could really talk across the language barriers – particularly seeing that the company was created in the 80s, which was during the apartheid regime. And it was very important, in a response to that, to create work that was not excluding of any particular group of people. So that’s why we […] focused on the language of the body as the primary […] element in the theatre for Magnet. And so, we’ve created, I think, over 35 new South African productions, mainly focusing on South African story, South African archive and in the last, basically sort of five years, also focusing very much on Early Years work – Theatre for children under the age of 7.
“there was a real necessity to create work that could be inclusive, that could really talk across the language barriers”
And then the other stream, and that’s been sort of growing in clarity and in import over basically the last sort of 20 years, is a commitment to youth development. Youth unemployment is very, very high in South Africa and it seemed to be really important to provide young people who come out of school who are talented, […] who are rich in every other way other than economically, to provide them with some kind of way in which they could feel empowered in the society and feel that they could go out and get jobs skills, feel they could get into the university. So, we now have a pyramid structure of youth development that all kind of stacks on top of each other and leads into each other with the main intention of developing young people so they can be employable and, if they want, they can go on to be accepted into the University of Cape Town or other universities. So, it’s kind of a bridge from the communities to the universities and to employment.
So, that sort of structure starts at the bottom of the pyramid with the Culture Gangs programme and the Culture Gangs programme has been going now in various forms for, I think, 15 years. And basically, what it does is it works with young kids after school targeting drama groups that already exist and trying to support them in what […] they still feel they need to know. And so, we run workshops in scriptwriting, in physical characterisation, in movement, in singing. And the intention is really to build up and bolster the structure of those groups so that they can have a stronger voice in their community, so that they can create product that can be shown in their community, and also in […] other theatre structures in the city – like, for example, the Zabalaza Festival at the Baxter Theatre […] Over the years, we’ve worked with between 100 and 250 kids every year and we take them the theatre, we do the workshops, we end up with a wonderful showcase always here at Magnet Theatre, where all the groups, the five or six or seven or eight participating groups, all present a short work that they have done over the year. And we bus the parents and the community in here and it’s a very emotional event because the parents really have an opportunity to see their children performing on the stage with lights and in a real theatre. And it’s a real moment where young people can feel a sense of their visibility to themselves and also their visibility to their community.
“the intention is really to build up and bolster the structure of those groups so that they can have a stronger voice in their community”
And then, in the middle of the pyramid, we have the full-time training and job creation programme. And that was initiated after a while of working in the townships with these young groups and Mandla and I both felt, “Hang on a minute. You know, we’re sort of developing these people to a certain point but not really to the point where they can be employable, where they can feel in control of their skills.” […] And also, we are witnessing a lot of very talented young people in these groups feeling that they have nowhere to go.
So, we decided to create the full-time training programme. And that was nine years ago. We started with no money, we had nothing. We had three months worth of training and so we said, “Well, let’s start. We’ve got a tiny space. We didn’t have this theatre yet. We’ve got a tiny space. Let’s start.” And we started with 8 trainees for 3 months and then the money sort of came in and 3 months turned into 18 months and, during that time, we found this space. And in a way Magnet Theatre has always been committed to taking work to where people were. Because of the way that, geographically, the cities are set up in South Africa as a result of apartheid […] there are a lot of people who are very far away from where the centre of financial investment is, in terms of social life. So, all the major theatres are in the centre in Cape Town. It’s very difficult for people to come in. So, our intention was always to take it to where people were. But once we started the training programme, we understood that we needed a home because we wanted to be able to have a space where we could teach and we found this building luckily and we’ve been here basically for 8 years and this is basically where the home of the full-time training programme [is].
So, we’re now busy with our 5th cohort of trainees. I think we have 53 graduates. Of those 53, and as well as including some of the Culture Gangs’ participants, we’ve managed to get 23 first-time university attendees and their families into the university. 10 have graduated and 9 are still studying. So, the dropout rate is very, very low. And, of the rest, 71% of the graduates are employed in various forms, either at the Baxter Theatre or at The Fugard or travelling overseas with international companies. So, the programme really, really works and they are also employed at Magnet. So, Magnet has a whole lot of productions that we do over the years and we use the people that we’ve trained because they understand the way that we work, they understand the particular ethos, they understand the ethics of working that we have. So that’s kind of at the top of the pyramid basically – employment at Magnet Theatre. We also have an Expanded Public Works Programme where we basically have four interns every year who focus on really expanding their theatrical skills. So, looking at technical skills, looking at administration skills, looking at teaching skills, facilitation skills.
“71% of the graduates are employed in various forms […]So, the programme really, really works”
We all kind of feel that, in a way, we need to provide some kind of support for them to be able to come here. So, they don’t pay. They get a bursary to cover their food and transport. And we know, even then, that that bursary is actually supporting more than just them.
The teaching happens in all our programmes in a very particular kind of way. And, because it focuses on the body, it really focuses on the stories of the individual. We’re really keen to make people feel that the stories, the experiences, the histories where they come from is actually the stuff of theatre.
“We’re really keen to make people feel that the stories, the experiences, the histories where they come from is actually the stuff of theatre”
And that’s something that was a gift really that I was given. I studied at Jacques Lecoq in Paris […] I had studied at UCT [University of Cape Town] as an interpretive actor. You know, where you get text and you get to learn how to act out someone else’s text. And what I felt when I went to Lecoq, is I felt he gave me the gift of myself. He made me feel that what I had, and all my crazy stuff, was actually really interesting. And it was the stuff of theatre. And that gift was so empowering for me personally and it was something that’s really driven the training and the teaching at Magnet Theatre. It’s not about making people feel they have nothing and the teachers have everything, and the teachers give them a whole bunch of goodies that then […] they use. The teaching is really about an excavation of every individual person that comes into the training. And it’s really trying to get them to understand who they are, where they come from, what kind of stories they want to tell, where do they feel powerful, what is their voice. And that’s very much […] one of the main cornerstones of the training […] working with the individual, working with the individual story to make them, in a way, kind of owning the means of production. So, they go out from the training not just being able to be a performer. Yes, they do get that but that they are able to generate their own work so that they can go and make a piece about corruption in the funeral services in their community and they can put it on. They can make a piece about, you know, the violence that’s happening and […] they can take it and perform it to festivals.
“The teaching is really about an excavation of every individual person that comes into the training. And it’s really trying to get them to understand who they are, where they come from, what kind of stories they want to tell”
So, that’s one of the major parts of what we try and do but also beyond that is that we work with the collective. So, if you see at the moment, they’re all working together trying to understand each other’s proposals. They’re trying to work with each other’s ideas. They’re trying to understand difference, you know, there’s Zulu, there’s isiXhosa, there’s Afrikaans people in the training. And they’re trying to find a way of working together. So, this notion of diversity and difference, which is kind of embedded in the individual, is also really what we try and work with at Magnet […] the people that we bring into the projects that we work on, we don’t bring them in because we want to tell them what we want to do. We bring them in because we’re interested in what they have to offer to each particular project that we do. And that’s the same thing with the training is we’re really trying to make people feel confident enough to offer what they have inside of them.
We can certainly influence how people respond to each other so we can hear if there’s kind of harsh, rude ways of speaking to each other. So, we can influence and pick up on that and say, “Hang on a minute. That’s not so cool. Bullying is not cool. It’s not okay to marginalise somebody. It’s not okay to lie.” […] A lot of it is kind of basic stuff but it’s actually really important to be able to have a space where we can really affirm those things. A lot of the people who come to Magnet come from spaces that are quite harsh and often not much attention [is] given to them because parents and the community [are] struggling to survive. So, in a way, we try and make the space a home where we really try and affirm certain values and certain ways of responding to each other – listening, trust, respect, respect for the space. So […] we don’t have anybody to clean the space, we all clean the space. So, there’s a sense of pride that this space is ours, this is our home for the next two years and we all contribute and do what we need to do to make it feel like a good space. And […] they’re things that come up all the time. Do you know what I mean? […] We understand, I suppose, as pedagogues or us who were running the programme, we understand that the teaching is not just about what happens on the floor. The teaching is also about what happens all around the floor and [with] each other.
“A lot of the people who come to Magnet come from spaces that are quite harsh and often not much attention [is] given to them because parents and the community is struggling to survive”
Another thing about it, the way that we structure the teaching is that […] there’s a morning of hands-on classes where they have contact time with teachers and there’s always two hours in the afternoon that’s independent. So, we’re really teaching them how to use their time independently. So, when they leave here and they’re on their own in a group of four people and they say, “Oh, what do we do?”, they’ve had the experience of sitting for two hours structuring a two-hour rehearsal. “What do we do? Oh, we do this, this, this.” So, it’s really, really important for me that we don’t teach […] six, seven hours of the day. So, we teach from 9 o’clock, where they’ve got a skills class from 9 to 10:30, and that’s a different skills class every morning. 11 till 1 they have a hands-on module with the teacher. And that module could be ‘Performing Identity’, or “Place and Event’, or ‘The Elements’. And the afternoon they’re on their own. I mean that was how Lecoq was structured. So, it really is taken from there. He also only taught hands-on 9 till 1 and then you had to prepare tasks and everything for a Friday showcase. The way the training is structured is that […] it has two streams going at the same time.
So, the first training module is about ‘Identity’ and ‘Performing Identity’. And it’s very much about who I am. Where do I come from? Where are my parents? Where are my parents buried? Where do I want to be buried? It’s very much about who I am but it’s performed in the context of the village, or the community. So, at the same time that we are doing classes about who I am, we have another stream of classes which is about the ‘Village’. In other words, how do we listen to each other? How do we connect? How do we support? […] And those two things are really important for theatre. […] You cannot have the collective without the individual and you can’t have the individual without the collective because we make Theatre together and we live together. Do you know what I’m saying? So, I think it’s really interesting that you picked up that point and it is absolutely [… something] that we are completely aware of. But we feel that we have to start with who I am. And, at the same time, understand who I am in relation to each other – which is what we all have to do and I think in a way [that is] how we grow […] from little [children…] We understand who I am in relation to my primary caregiver and then slowly, slowly, slowly the world starts coming in. And there’s “Oh there’s a family, there’s brothers, then there’s a community.” […] So the training in a way follows those steps.
What happens is, after the ‘Individual’ and the ‘Village’, then, and after being very much inside of themselves, they start moving outwards so we start … the next module [which] is ‘Place’. Some understanding what place is. So, then they have to go and look at exactly that. What is the bigger community and how does the bigger community function? What does it look like? How does it operate? How does having different spaces move? And in terms of actually performing in those communities … A lot of the trainees, in fact I would say probably 80%, are involved in their own community groups. So, a lot of them are filtering what they’re learning directly into a whole lot of other people sitting out there [that] they’re working with on the weekends. And those people are often making work performing in their communities. But, in terms of the training, in the first year they only do one performance at the end of the year. And that is performed here. But we do bring their community in and then when we do the Early Years module, it is a module that absolutely goes out into where they are, where they come from and performs there.
“a lot of them are filtering what they’re learning directly into a whole lot of other people sitting out there [that] they’re working with on the weekends”
Magnet Theatre was a name that came about by chance because I did my first solo show called ‘Cheap Flights’ and I entered for a festival and the festival needed a name. So, I looked out the window where I was staying and the street’s name was Magnet Street. So, I thought, “Okay, ‘Magnet Street Theatre‘? No, no, no, ‘Magnet Theatre.'” And it was completely by chance. But as we’ve kind of developed as an organisation the notion of a magnet has kind of become central to an image for what it is that we do. So, it’s a place that attracts people, but also it has a field, a magnetic field. So, we don’t just work here, there are communities that we continue [to engage with] … both in the Culture Gangs, but also in how these young people impact in terms of where they do their work, there’s a kind of magnetic field around the company.
“the notion of a magnet has kind of become central to an image for what it is that we do. So, it’s a place that attracts people, but also it has a field, a magnetic field”
Myrto Papoulia [Dialogue]: I always thought that it was deliberate the name.
Jennie Reznek: No, it was completely by chance […] So it’s really funny how some things happen like that […] It was just completely arbitrary and then it really becomes essential to how the company feels.
I mean obviously the other influences are the influences that the other three artistic directors bring in the sense that they have their own obsessions and their own backgrounds where they come from. So, Mark comes from quite an academic background and so his notion of research in relation to theatre has influenced us a lot in terms of the sense that we are constantly asking, “What is Theatre? How do you make Theatre? Who do you make Theatre for? What does Theatre look like?” And so is that more academic […] research approach has been an important influence.
Mandla Mbothwe also … his obsession is around community, around history, around language and particularly around isiXhosa nation and how those stories have been lost or need to be recovered … it’s very much a driving kind of influence of the company. I think that obviously South Africa is huge, I think that Magnet is an organisation that is constantly in response to its context. So, we live in a very, very violent society where the kind of violence has been endemic since even colonial times and […] I think that we are really caught within this and we haven’t found a way out. And I think that the teaching certainly, by focusing on the body, looks very much at the body as a site where violence is perpetrated and, in a way, [encourages an] understanding that that’s also possibly a site of healing. That if one works with the body around empowerment, around movement, around just mobility it’s […] in response to the violence of the South African community that we live in.
“I think that the teaching certainly, by focusing on the body, looks very much at the body as a site where violence is perpetrated and, in a way, [encourages an] understanding that that’s also possibly a site of healing”
Obviously, the young people who we work with, they influence the training. We change things in the training. […] There was one particular group that was really depressed. All I can say is that they were depressed. And so, I changed the curriculum to put Clown in there because I felt it was important to work with this kind of opposition of the laughter and the tears because they were just in the tears. […] So we are influenced a lot by who comes in and […] what they need and then the work tends to be driven in terms of thematically.
The work that we make professionally tends to be driven by Mark, Mandla or myself, in terms of the initial impulses but it’s collaborative in the sense that the people that we bring in offer [their own additions]. So, for example, ‘Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking’ which is a work that … this work … that travelled, it had 24 international tours. It was a collaboration between Faniswa Yisa who was a student of ours, Mark and myself […] We wanted to do something about losing home […] My father just died, I’d packed up my own childhood home and there were issues around xenophobia in South Africa that was happening at the time and there was an interest from all of us in working with that theme […] But it was […] driven by the people who are the participants [of that particular project].
Basically, about sort of five or six years ago, we decided we really wanted to include in the training a module around Early Years Theatre. And it had basically come about because Faniswa and I had been touring around the world with ‘Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking’ which was a piece made for teenagers. And we were often performing in the context of festivals for Early Years work. And I started to watch this incredible stuff […] it was like Performance Art for babies. You know, people were doing anything and everything and it was really satisfying creatively to watch this work. And, in South Africa at that time, the only kind of work that there was for Early Years was kind of adaptations of […] American or European fairy tales. And I, [was like] “urghhh”. In fact, I had even, as a younger actress, performed in such awful things. Anyway, so […] I started to feel I’d really like to understand how this work gets made and to embed it within the training programme – so that we could then make work within the training programme and then take it out to […] the most forgotten corner[s], where Mamma was looking after children in a crèche and in a sort of childcare centre without any support or without any kind of financial backing or even skill on how to do that.
And I had an instinct, that something about working with Early Years Theatre would have an impact or be healing in some way for the trainees themselves in terms of their relationship with their own inner child and their own history. And I was right about that.
“I had an instinct, that something about working with Early Years Theatre would have an impact or be healing in some way for the trainees themselves in terms of their relationship with their own inner child”
The first time we did it, with the support of ASSITEJ South Africa, Roberto Frabettei came out from Italy (from La Baracca) to run a week’s workshop – we had five days. And he worked with the trainees on the floor and it was really very basic exercises – but exercises very much about paying attention. It was really about paying attention: paying attention to things in the space, paying attention to one’s body, paying attention to each other […] In one of the rehearsals, we made a big image of a tree, of everybody together. 20 trainees made this beautiful image of a tree. And that was interesting. And then, after he left, we decided, “OK, let’s make something.” So, we divided the floor into four. And we had one group in each corner. And we basically developed three or four versions of this work called ‘Tree/Boom/Umthi’. Basically, a very simple story about a boy or a girl who was hungry, wanted to eat a peach, planted peach seed. The seed grew into spring, summer and he gets to eat this peach in summer, and then autumn and fall. And it was […] really about man or humans’ relationship to nature and it was really, really very beautiful. And we toured around. We had four versions so we could tour a lot. We performed, I think, to over 3000 little children in a very short space of time.
The impact that happened, when we did sort of feedback after the work, it seemed very clear that … how powerful the response of the children had been to the work for the actors. And one of the actors, who had been in the training for two years and had really struggled with his sense of self and everything, she said to me, “It made me feel that there was nothing wrong with me.” The experience of working with the young children. And I think that that[‘s…] such a strong image of what that Early Years work does […] It allows the trainees to pay attention to themselves and to their own past and their own feelings and it makes them feel, because they’re so well received by the children (the children just love them), […] like there’s nothing wrong with them. And so, it’s an incredible boost of confidence. So, we made ‘Tree/Boom/Umthi’, it ended up traveling, it travelled to Italy, to Germany, to the UK, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It had an incredible life.
“one of the actors […] she said to me, ‘It made me feel that there was nothing wrong with me'”
And then we started again, with another work […] And each time we had basically experts who’ve been […] really working in the field for a long time, come to work with us. So, we had Barbara Kölling from Helios Theater in Germany working … I saw a piece that she had done in Italy and it was really interesting to me because she was working in a non-narrative way. So, Roberto is very narrative but she’s very non-narrative and I really was interested – she was working with matter in [a] very kind of Performance Art kind of way. So, I asked her to come and she came and spent two weeks with us thanks to the Goethe Institute and with her we made, in fact we made two or three works. ‘Knock’ was one of them, working with wood. And then she came again and we made ‘AHA!’ which was with wool, and ‘Paired’ with shoes. And we also had an incubation with some companies from other parts of Africa who joined us for this training and they came from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya and, what was the last one? Cameroon! And they made two works, ‘Sandscapes’, which also performed at the ASSITEJ Congress, and ‘Woodways’, which performed here. So, there were four pieces that came out of that.
And then, very excitedly, we invited Anna Newell from Replay Theatre company in Ireland to come and work with us developing a work for very young babies, from sort of 3 weeks to 12 months old. And I was really interested in her coming from Ireland because it’s a post-conflict society … I wouldn’t say that we are conflict yet [in South Africa] but […] I think there are lots of similarities in terms of her context and our context. Anyway, it was a really lovely experience and out of that incubation came ‘Scoop’, which was a kind of South African version of a work for mothers and babies, or carers and babies, from 3 weeks to 12 months. And it’s performed in a very contained environment, there are four actors in the corner who’ve been specifically trained in working with very young babies and then we can have kind of 8 mums and babes in the tent. And that opened up a whole new area for us and it really made me understand how important a work like that is in South Africa. There’s a lot of […] gang violence in the Flats and certain areas at the moment and there’s a lot of research that’s starting to come out. Indicating that that violence is not going to be solved by sending in the police or sending in the army. That it’s actually going to be solved by paying attention to the first 1000 days of a child’s life, to really look at the quality of attachment between mum and babe and notions of shared pleasure […] I’m still trying to get funding for this project to roll out this project […] There’s a research possibility with the University of Cape Town of looking at the relationship of fathers and babies and trying to use the piece to impact that attachment and the importance of […] the tenderness of that relationship. So beyond just being a lovely work for mums and babes, there is a political and social agenda around that work.
“beyond just being a lovely work for mums and babes, there is a political and social agenda around that work”
With all the works, we were using it also to train young people to make Early Years work so [for] ‘Scoop’ we mentored a young director, Koleka Putuma, to direct that. She also directed ‘Ekhaya’. Lwanda Sindaphi […] was mentored to direct ‘Paired’. And Nwabisa Plaaitjie was mentored to direct ‘AHA!’. So, it was, the intention is really to grow the work. So, we mentor directors and leaders who can then be skilled enough to then continue the work so it doesn’t stop with us.
“we mentor directors and leaders who can then be skilled enough to then continue the work so it doesn’t stop with us”
We’ve been going for 30 years […] I would really love to not rent this space. My dream is that the space is ours. I have a feeling that we’re at a very interesting point in the sense that Mark and I’ve been doing this for a long time and I am getting close to 60. And I feel like, in a way, it needs […] the younger people who we’ve trained […] to come in and start taking ownership of the training […] Mandla’s much younger than us so I think that, in a way, that’s kind of how it’s going to go […] I suppose I see more responsibility being taken by the young people who we’ve trained to continue this project. I think there is a very real need. Every year […] we audition over 150 people for 20 places. So, there’s an incredible need. There’s no other trade school like Magnet Theatre in the Western Cape in the theatre industry. So, it’s completely unique. And very difficult to let it go. But I think […] we have to pass the baton.
“Every year […] we audition over 150 people for 20 places. So, there’s an incredible need”
Myrto Papoulia [Dialogue]: A new generation?
Jennie Reznek: A new generation, ya […] I would love to hang on to the space. I’d love to build on the space so that we had rehearsal rooms […] so that we could keep the theatre as a theatre and then have rehearsal rooms upstairs and teaching rooms upstairs. But that’s an injection of a good few million which we don’t have. You know it’s a really happy, happy space. I mean, I think everybody who works here is incredibly happy to be here. And […] because, I think, South Africa is quite an embattled community, to have a space like this that works, that people feel happy to be here, is something that you really want to fight for […] You want to hold on to it. And […] I’m hoping that we can get some investment from someone in some way, because it’s very expensive. I mean I’m an actress [… and] I love teaching but I spend 80% of my time basically fundraising for the organisation. So, it needs an injection of a good bit of money to keep it going and that’s the fight. I don’t mind the teaching and I love working with the people. The thing that I really struggle with is the 80% of my time fighting to convince people that the programme is worthwhile.
“because, I think, South Africa is quite an embattled community, to have a space like this that works, that people feel happy to be here, is something that you really want to fight for”
Please click here to access Dialogue’s other posts in this series of interviews with alumni and staff of Magnet Theatre.
The Full-Time Training and Job Creation Programme receives support from TK Foundation, Rand Merchant Bank, Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, Hosken Consolidated Investments Ltd Foundation, Rolf-Stefan Nussbaum Foundation, Ampersand Foundation, Potjie Foundation, Business Arts South Africa, Western Cape Government Department of Cultural Affairs and Sports Expanded Public Works Programme, Joan St Leger Lindbergh Charitable Trust, and Distell.
© Dialogue Community Performance / Magnet Theatre