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Peeking Through the Stage Door

Photo by Ted Soqui

Upstairs, in Hollywood’s Fountain Theater rehearsal room, the many strangers who come together to stage a small-theater play — actors, directors, stagehands, staff, 14 people in all — sit around a large table or huddle against a wall, preparing for a first read-through of Athol Fugard’s latest, Exits and Entrances. It’s early April, a little more than a month before the opening of the legendary South African’s autobiographical, two-character enactment of the friendship between a young playwright and a fading star named André Huguenet. The assembled introduce themselves. Moving up one length of the table, the focus settles on a slender redheaded young man. “I’m William Dennis Hurley,” he says. “I play the Playwright.”

Next, a wiry, craggy-faced elf, with sparkling eyes and a neatly trimmed beard: “I’m Athol Fugard. I am the Playwright.”

After the introductions are complete, director Stephen Sachs remarks about his first impressions of Exits and Entrances.

“Athol described it as ‘my small play,’” Sachs explains. “I said it’s a very big small play. I am living now as a theater artist, looking around me, seeking answers for why we do what we do. This play is the artist’s appointment with self, when one’s disguises are stripped away. Andre goes from ‘I am’ to ‘Who am I?’ while the Playwright goes in the opposite direction.”

Fugard has been listening, absorbing. After a pause, he pounces.

“The reason I’m sitting at this table is, I can count on the fingers of one hand the good experiences I’ve had in a production I’ve had nothing to do with. One was a Fountain Theater production of [Fugard’s] The Road to Mecca [in 2000]. I knew it was being done somewhere and, God, I dreaded seeing it. In fact, I deliberately slipped in without letting anybody know I was coming. God knows it was one of the happiest moments of my career, just wonderful, everything about the theater, the sense of what the theater stood for, the sense of what that man [Sachs] stood for as a director and what he wanted to move from the page to the stage, all of that made me feel very, very comfortable. I knew, with a little bit of prodding from Stephen [Sachs], that I would be back in this theater.”

Fugard then talks about the autobiographical essence of the play:

“My circumstances were extraordinary in South Africa in that I had an extraordinary mother, almost illiterate, an Afrikaner. When she had to write a letter to our creditors for more time to pay the rent, or whatever, I had to write them as a schoolboy. But in one of those mysterious ways this world works, she was endowed with a natural sense of justice, and my political consciousness comes from her. She started asking questions: Is this right? What’s going on? I don’t think this is right, we can’t do this to people just because of a different skin color. I was the one person in the family she could talk to. We were very close.

“By the time of Sharpeville [a 1960 massacre in which South African police opened fire and killed black demonstrators who were protesting the “Pass Laws” — an apartheid fixture that regulated blacks’ movements and opportunities through a stamp in their passport], I was already at war with the system. One thing I could do is speak out, and that’s when I began to see the theater as a form of protest. Sheila, my wife, shared my political convictions; it was a problem when the government starts putting pressure on you. What this young playwright [in Exits and Entrances] doesn’t know in his vision of a theater that tackles the truth is that he’s going to have to pay a price for it. They were trying to force us to go into exile, that issue came up many times. Finally you say — the police get on to you, there will be six police in your house in the middle of the night, they tap your phone, they read your mail, but you enjoy a degree of protection because you’re a white man, but if you’re black . . .”

Fugard drifts into a reverie.

 

Athol Fugard was born in the Karroo village of Middleburg in 1932 to an Afrikaner mother and an English-speaking, Irish-Polish father. The family moved about through the mid-’30s, when his mother ran a boarding house in Port Elizabeth and a tearoom in St. George’s Park.

In the early ’50s, Fugard attended the University of Cape Town to study philosophy, but he dropped out and hitchhiked up Africa before traveling the world as a merchant seaman.

After returning to Cape Town a few years later, he started an experimental theater group with the woman he was courting and eventually married, actress Sheila Meiring. They tried out his own material for Sunday-night performances at the Labia Theater.

One of his early jobs was working as a clerk for the commissioner’s court in Fordsburg, where he came to understand the full extent of apartheid’s injustices.

In 1960, while the Fugards were broke in London, seeking theatrical experiences, they read about Sharpeville in the Evening Standard and saw photos of the massacre. Shock and dismay compelled them to return home immediately.

Through slice-of-life dramas that are structured like Greek classics (Blood Knot, Master Harold and the Boys, Boesman and Lena, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, The Road to Mecca, A Lesson From Aloes, My Children! My Africa!, The Island and more), Fugard reflected his countrymen in a theatrical mirror while chronicling the human face of apartheid in its waning years; his dramatized indictments of apartheid’s savagery probably contributed to its demise.

After the collapse of apartheid and the ascendancy of black majority rule in South Africa, Fugard has continued writing (and sometimes acting in) deeply humane plays set in his native Karroo province. Plays such as Valley Song and Sorrows and Rejoicings are bathed in memory and capture the paradoxes of holding to tradition in a volatile and rapidly changing society. Fugard’s later plays also imply the isolation of an aging white activist playwright after apartheid has gone. It was, after all, apartheid that provided Fugard’s primary moral purpose. It was his contempt for apartheid that propelled him to international acclaim and to become a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. When Nelson Mandela became president, apartheid, the crystallizing symbol of injustice, shattered into a thousand tinier injustices that are considerably less easy to frame.

“As a writer, what do I have to do now?” Fugard asked in a 1995 interview for Brown University’s alumni magazine, Under the Elms. “Am I in fact going to be South Africa’s first literary redundancy?”

Though rude critics like John Simon have shouted “Yes!” from the rafters, Fugard now writes more of God-made degradations than man-made ones, using memory and regional locales to ensnare the sprawl of life, death and the cruelties of destiny.

All of which raises several questions: Is Fugard questioning his own purpose? Does the theater even have a purpose in a swiftly changing society? And, finally, why would a playwright whose writings have been presented on the world’s major stages choose a 65-seat venue in Hollywood to launch his latest play?

The answers to these questions are revealed during three weeks of observing the playwright during rehearsals at the Fountain Theater and corresponding with him by e-mail.

 

Exits and Entrances is Fugard’s third autobiographical play (following Master Harold and The Captain’s Tiger) — a drama set almost entirely in various theater dressing rooms. The play, which opens this week, is a love letter to the theater, narrated by a character named the Playwright from the vantage of 1961 (as the bigoted new Republic of South Africa replaces equally bigoted British rule). It flashes back five years, and then forward through a series of meetings between the rising dramatist at the dawn of his career and the vainglorious actor André Huguenet, whom Fugard calls “the Barrymore of South African theater.”

In the play, André dresses and undresses, applies and removes makeup, while offering the Playwright scenes from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Bridget Boland’s The Prisoner and, finally, Hamlet — proud characters, like André, whose eventual humility devolves into humiliation. His performance style is filled with grand gestures and thundering recitatives that will soon become unfashionable as both the new realism of the theater and the new reality of South African society begin to unfold. The play’s five-year span sees proud, in-the-closet André degraded as a living anachronism, a local patriot forced by necessity to manage Johannesburg’s Pigalle Cinema and watch with disdain the sight of South African crowds reveling in American movies.

Meanwhile, the Playwright steadily gains the vision and confidence to put black and white characters together on the stage (a first in South Africa) and to depict life in the slums rather than in the homes of the prosperous and the privileged.

“Purpose” is a word and an idea that recurs throughout Exits and Entrances. “Fan the flames of your purpose; make them burn as big and bright as you can,” André counsels the Playwright, who speaks of his own father dying of “unimportance.”

Back at the rehearsal table, Fugard continues his spirited stories to the cast and crew. “The play’s first scene comes from a 1956 production of Oedipus the King at Cape Town’s Labia Theater, starring André Huguenet,” Fugard says, eyes blazing and hands carving the air. “I played a shepherd, and soon became the star’s prompter and friend. The review said, ‘Fugard should take lessons from the old stick he was leaning on.’ You’re going to fare better,” Fugard tells the company. “That was an extraordinary experience for me. I may not have been sitting at this theater had it not been for those hours with André, talking in his dressing room, and I sat trying to ask myself, Who am I? What’s it all about? To formulate an identity for myself.”

“How were you with him?” Sachs asks.

“At first terrified, but he was such a lonely man . . . He came to rehearsals in a suit and a tie, reined himself in, literally and figuratively buttoned himself up. In time he relaxed with me. I was very, very privileged — maybe he recognized something in me, just as I looked up to him.”

“Were you sad for him at that stage?” asks co–artistic director, Simon Levy.

“That’s a nice question, let me think. I think by the time we come to the end of the Labia Theater section [in the play], he’s given the young playwright things to think about. He opened my eyes progressively in the course of that experience. Then there was that encounter five or six months later . . . There was André again giving an extraordinary performance, in The Prisoner, and we talked for a long, long time. Obviously, I’ve taken liberties, but in substance what’s in these pages [a bitter argument over the Playwright’s attempts to depict social injustices] is what happened in that meeting. The two of you [actors Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley] are going to tell me what the play is about. As a playwright, you have only a vague sense of what the substance is. In my experience, the actors help me understand, so that’s it!”

 

Later the same day, during rehearsals, Fugard and Sachs allow me to eavesdrop on their conference. They speak in excited whispers while seated at one end of the table.

 

Athol Fugard: André has to be a storyteller. He must charm us in the beginning, the Albert Finney thing in The Dresser, but then there’s that moment when the cannibalistic greed of the Playwright takes over, he knows he’s got something very special. [Whispering.] It’s greed. I’ve always been greedy. It’s greed.

Stephen Sachs: He’s hungry.

Fugard: And then the progression, of course, which I’m sure you know, and then slowly the emergence of André’s performance.

Sachs: It comes in stages.

Fugard: Yes, it comes in stages. Even as Oedipus is talking. . . He’s got to spin that magic, even the blind Oedipus railing [Fugard impersonates Oedipus], and then he stops. [Silence.] The sense of that one place, and of his destiny waiting for him at that crossroads.

Sachs: I keep seeing this image of him holding out a sheet of paper . . .

Fugard: Absolutely, you’ve got to try it.

Sachs: The first scene, when they’re together in the dressing room, he’s putting on his makeup, it’s got to be very fast . . .

Fugard: Oh, yes, that’s right, absolutely, you’ve got it.

Sachs: And that last image sitting in the chair, this naked man, so he’s gone from this all the way to that.

Fugard: That’s it. That’s it. That’s it.

Sachs: Well, the Playwright is a conjurer in the play.

Fugard: Absolutely.

Sachs: While the scenes with André are happening, I see the Playwright watching, looking for a clue, but he has to be active, not an observer.

Fugard: Absolutely. The one speech I’m really proud of is the one about André being the manager of the Pigalle [Cinema] Theater, and the feeling he has of being flayed alive. It’s the stories that André tells that create the flesh and blood.

Sachs: To make that clear and vivid . . .

Fugard: That’s storytelling — taking your time.

Sachs: As in music, you have to earn the right to take your time.

Fugard: Absolutely. What I keep pointing out to actors, you’ve got to be ahead of the audience. That’s something Danny Glover taught me when I was doing Master Harold and the Boys at Yale Rep. I was convinced that Willie was underwritten, that I had not fleshed him out. Danny taught me a wonderful lesson, that his function in the play was to listen, it was the way he listened that made us listen. It’s the quality of the Playwright’s listening that has to be so active. Because he’s alert, he’s like a little animal. It’s his fascination with André that will lead into our fascination with André, watching every move, what can I learn tonight? What’s it about? What is acting about? What is theater about?

 

After the first read-through, an opportunity to interview Fugard was superseded by Sachs’ need to discuss the play with Fugard. Fugard and I corresponded by e-mail instead, here excerpted.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: How did your inspirations to write change when your country changed? And how did it affect your sense of purpose?

ATHOL FUGARD: I’ve slowly come to a now unwavering conviction of the social significance and relevance of theater. I write “now unwavering” because there were moments during those four decades of apartheid when I had doubts about whether writing was a significant form of action. I have battled through to a conviction that it is and that the “defiance” literature of my country — novels, poems and plays — played a decisive role in the near-miraculous changes that took place there 10 years ago. In the case of theater, I make the claim that although it reaches only a fraction of the audiences that the movies and TV command, it has an infinitely profounder affect on the matrix of a society because it digs deeper into the dreams and psyches of its audiences than any of those trashy media do.

 

What can we learn from the South African experience?

First of all, the situation is different in South Africa. There, the coloreds and blacks were in the majority. It obviously evolved differently from the American experience. But there is still something to be learned. In South Africa we have possibly the highest crime statistics in the world, and this can be attributed to the poverty and neglect of human problems (AIDS), bad education, and the lack of reforms necessary to enable all human beings to enjoy a good chance at life. America should be warned that if they do not make necessary reforms in alleviating poverty, providing jobs and some sort of rehabilitation for convicted criminals, besides continuing the many abuses caused by a double standard, crime rates will grow or at least remain at some of the appalling levels they are now at. America should learn this lesson from South Africa.

 

What do you prefer: the fanfare of having your plays done in New York and London and L.A. on larger stages, or staging them in the tiny theaters of Cape Town and, now, Hollywood?

I prefer the smaller venue. I speak to individuals, not crowds, and my plays are best received by individuals.

 

April 16. Rehearsal in the theater. Fugard sits next to Marianne MacDonald (a scholar from UC San Diego who is writing a critical study on Fugard and his works) in the front row. William Dennis Hurley (the Playwright) stands alone on the bare stage, script in hand. Sachs is rehearsing André’s entrance. Morlan Higgins, a big man with a thundering voice, curses offstage before bursting on, all twitches and severed impulses.

“I’m looking for the moment when I finally see him,” Higgins explains. “Since I bust in the fucking room, when do I actually see him? [Perusing the script.] Oh! Oh, I know where it is. He wrote it, didn’t he? There it is. He wrote it.”

Fugard leaps up onto the stage and offers help transforming the American offstage curses into Afrikaans.

“Try this: ‘Ho, yo fokin bek, yo lacehat.’”

“Which means?” Higgins inquires.

“Shut your fucking snout, you lazy ass.”

“Oh, that’s good. That’s good. Ho yo fokin bek . . .”

“Ho yo fokin bek, yo lacehat,” Fugard snarls.

Higgins repeats, amid howls of laughter from stagehands.

Fugard describes André as a fat, vain actor whose career is sinking into oblivion.

Higgins jokes, “Do you know what it’s like to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and realize that you’re absolutely right for this part?”

Later, Sachs works a section of the play when André recalls a memory of seeing Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova performing The Dying Swan in the South African railway hamlet of Bloemfontein in 1916. The memory is typical of Fugard’s deceptive realism. It seems like just another story, and then it blazes with poetry and metaphor. In a world filled with violence, disease and the oppressions of man and nature, a ballerina takes flight in a local town hall, as though with wings, as though carrying the hope of a new way across what Fugard has called the “open veldt, as wide as God’s mercy,” before sinking down and down and down into the stage floor.

 

Exits and Entrances is being performed at the Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood, through July 25. Call (323) 663-1525 or visit their Web site.