• Chenal Kock

The Bold Flower From "Tales From The Garden"

Tales from the Garden opened at the Baxter's Masambe theatre on & May 2019. A one-woman show written and performed by Ameera Conrad, sound design by Naledi Majola, and direction and set design by Kathleen Stephens, who makes her directorial debut. The play tells a heart- wrenching tale which explores the joys and traumas of being a young woman living in post- Apartheid South Africa, raised in a world that makes female - identifying bodies targets for aggression and violence. We with Ameera Conrad, who has gained international acclaim as a performer, writer, director and twice published playwright of The Fall and Reparation.

1. Why should someone come and see the production and why do you think this story is important?

All stories from women (especially women of colour) about gender-based violence and sexual assault need to be told, but more than that, they need to be heard. I think the greatest tragedy about the piece itself is that it's the first time that the character is able to talk to people in a space about what had happened to her, and her experiences of sexual violence. That's the case for a lot of women around the world because a lot of us are raised to feel shame and guilt even though we're not the problem. That's really the main reason I think people need to come to hear the story because we as a country need to be more open to hearing these stories in the real world.

2. "Tales of the Garden" is not your first one-woman show. In 2018 you played the title role in "Lolly", directed by Dara Beth - that was nominated for Best Uitkampteater Production at the 2018 KKNK. How different is this production from your previous one-woman show?

It's very similar in terms of the subject matter, but the structure and the choices are totally different. Where 'Lolly' was in your face and punchy and all about making the audience laugh until they cringed, 'Tales...' is more poetic and lures you in. And that comes from the nature of it, I think - it's a delicate play with a delicate story that is more about taking you on a journey than whipping you over the head.

3. What do you want audiences to take away from this piece?

Ideally, I'd like audiences to leave with more empathy for young women who have to live in the world with this fear. There's a line in the play that says "rape is our punishment for existing in a world that wants us dead" - and that sounds really dramatic and hectic but that's truly how I feel sometimes. You hear so many stories about girls and women being assaulted or killed that it all becomes one blur and you stop wanting to know about it because it hurts too much to know, so you bury your head in the sand. But 'Tales', I think, begs people to not bury anything anymore. It asks the audience to listen, and to take that and continue to listen after the final bow is taken.

4. I saw that "Tales from the Garden" was featured as part of the John Thaw Initiative. How has that experience influenced your current performance?

It was a wonderful part of the journey for me as a writer to be able to give the script to two incredibly talented artists in London and just get feedback from an audience about what worked and what didn't. It's really important in a process to hear different opinions and come at a text from different angles when you're trying to get from the first to the final draft; straight out of the gate I knew which parts would be cut, which parts needed shifting, how to incorporate the space, how to change my vision of it as the writer. And to know that it was featured as part of the Blacktress UK season of works for and by African and Caribbean women was all the more sweet because at it's core it can be a story told by any woman from any country; that's the beauty and the horror of it.

5. I am intrigued by your choice to focus on your Christian/Roman Catholic grandparents as oppose to your Muslim upbringing. Could you elaborate on this creative choice?

I toyed with the idea of it for a long time, trying to write it from the Muslim perspective didn't feel like it worked for one reason only; the funeral. Islamically the character would never have been allowed to witness the burial of her grandmother, and for me, that moment in the play is more important than me making a commentary on my community. I think that the issues that the play explores go beyond one culture or religion, and I definitely think that Muslims need to take a good long look at how we speak (or don't speak) about assault. But at the end of the day, there were some moments in the play as they are right now that would have needed to be entirely different from a Muslim perspective.

6. How did your director help prepare you for this role and what was that process like?

Kathleen Stephens is incredible. Before rehearsals even started we spoke about the difficult nature of the topic and how triggering it could be for anyone who would come into space - as creatives, or as audiences. The process was definitely one of mutual respect because we're both performers and theatre-makers, it allowed us to bounce off one another and play with joy. We spent about four weeks creating the piece together; everything from the set to the performances were crafted in Kat's bedroom because we couldn't afford to hire rehearsal space. It's been difficult, because of the nature of the text, and because one person shows are always tough, but at no point have I felt scared or unsupported.

7. What inspired the set design? The "flower mask" was beautiful as well as the use of newspapers.

When Kat and I spoke about the design, we started with the text. There's a line in it, towards the end, that speaks about the newspaper articles that get written about sexual assault, and we wanted to draw on that, because it's something that the play doesn't elaborate on further, it's almost like a throwaway line. It also hearkens to the anti-apartheid theatre of Barney Simon, and a style of theatre called Newspaper Theatre, where people would take the news and create art from it. That's essentially what the play is, it's about taking these stories that get turned into a media storm and making them human. The flower mask, well, I won't say too much about that, because it's one of those things that means something different to different people.

8. What did you find most challenging about this project?

The hardest part was really willing myself out of bed in the morning. That sounds really dark, but the subject matter is very important to me, and it's my first full one-person show, that the fear of failure and the fear of embarrassment made me not want to even try. But I'm very glad that I didn't give in to those fears, and worked through them and with them because we've got a product that I'm very proud of and very excited to share with people.

9. You have achieved many goals thus far. What is your ultimate goal(s) to achieve within the South African theatre industry?

I've always wanted to own a warehouse space where artists can create work in all disciplines, be it music, theatre, dance, whatever. And attached to it would be affordable housing for the artists to be able to live in while they're working. I wouldn't want to run it myself, but I've always wanted to create something like that. My own personal career goal is to be the Artistic Director of a theatre that works particularly with emerging artists to help develop new voices and a new canon of work.

Tales from the Garden runs at the Baxter's Masambe Theatre from 7-18 May, at 7:30pm, with a matinee on Saturday, 18 May at 2:30pm. Bookings can be made through Webtickets on 0861110005, online at www.webtickets.co.za or from Pick n Pay stores.

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