The Interview: The Market theatre's James Ngcobo

2013-06-23 14:00

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James Ngcobo, the new artistic director of The Market theatre shares his vision of the arts with Babalwa Shota over a cup of coffee

To have a sit-down with James Ngcobo is a bit like being in a mini tornado. He seems to have so much energy, you can almost hear it crackle.

He constantly moves his hands, shifting positions and changing expressions in keeping with the avalanche of words tumbling from his lips.

He will leave you reeling if you are too slow to keep up.

“Things have been crazy. I officially take over as artistic director of The Market theatre in August, but have been at it since May. There’s a lot to learn and so much to do,” says a breathless Ngcobo a short while after storming into the coffee shop we are in and unceremoniously dumping his tan coat on the floor next to our table.

Ngcobo recently returned from a week in Paris, during which the Eiffel Tower was lit up in the colours of our country’s flag for a day to mark the South African season.

For a man in his position, the veteran actor says this was a good opportunity to interact with other theatre makers and academics, and gain invaluable experience and contacts. But it’s Paris itself that bewitched him.

“It’s beautiful. I loved running in that city. It’s breathtaking. Jogging in cities is one of my favourite things to do,” he offers up before diving into the state of South African theatre as he sees it.

“One of the saddest things that started happening with the arts is it suddenly became too territorial. It’s all about what Cape Town is doing, what Durban is putting on and what’s showing in Joburg. I’m looking at a place where, as an artistic community, we start collaborating and putting works on together.

“There are directors who have always excited me in terms of how they tell stories, and those are the people I’m trying to attract to The Market so that we can have a beautiful, diverse programme in terms of the works we are putting on, and different genres.

“Even (Arts and Culture) Minister Paul Mashatile has spoken about a touring fund he’s made available, and bringing back touring because it speaks of employment. When you tour, you can work for a year. And you go to other regions and see what the talent from those regions is,” says the “Durbanite who ended up in Joburg”.

Ngcobo admits he is influenced by a passion for bodies of work that have been written by some of Africa’s literary giants, but that “one is looking at a place where, as you curate, you are able to balance the emerging voices and feeding voices”.

He says: “A big mantra for me is ‘memory, memory all the time’. We’ve become a nation that’s got collective amnesia, in that we don’t want to remember in this country.

“In the US, they revisit Tennessee Williams every year. The English are crazy for Shakespeare, Chekhov is still a favourite with the Russians. And yet here, when you pick up a piece of writing that’s a period piece, someone will ask you why you are picking that, because it’s old. I say: ‘How do you put a sell-by date to narrative?’ Our staging of Woza Albert! put more bums on seats than ever before.”

In an age of information overload and a generation that is always connected in cyberspace, these grumblings about the dearth of theatre do not come as a surprise.

While international, big, travelling musical productions have been keeping our theatre spaces occupied, small local productions are said to be suffering because of a lack of interest from a new and younger audience.

But Ngcobo disputes this vehemently, pointing out that even though theatre is now competing with reality TV and social media, there is still a space to cultivate a young audience for theatre.

“Last year, I wrote and directed a centenary piece for the ANC, which was broadcast on TV and showcased the likes of Zahara and AKA. I also wrote a piece called Thirst, about water carriers who travel long distances to fetch water. As I was writing it, I knew I wanted the soundtrack to be hip-hop.

“I had a very talented young hip-hop producer called Rufus, who wrote the score. We had hundreds of young people coming to see it. So you see, you have to speak to young people in the language they understand or you’re just wasting your time.”

Ngcobo admits that getting a generational mix in the auditorium is going to be a challenge, but it’s one he is up for.

“I want to preserve the loyalty of The Market audience while at the same time looking at new audiences. It’s about finding the right voices to showcase, about apprenticeship and mentorship, something that has died in South African theatre. So I’m going to be finding those young guys

who are interested in being beautiful writers and directors, and putting them together with seasoned writers and directors so that we can fast-track training.”

For Ngcobo, one of the ways to propel local theatre to loftier heights is what he terms “cultural arrogance”.

“We have to find a way of telling our stories that will be universal, speak to the world and be of international standard. But when people look at it they have to be able to recognise that the signature is South Africa.

It’s time to forget the formula and throw away the template. It’s time we were in sync with the world,” he says.

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