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Interview

His Country's Conscience

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If ever a dramatist represented the conscience of a country, that person is Athol Fugard. During South Africa's decades of apartheid and right up to, well, today, when Exits and Entrances world-premieres at Los Angeles' Fountain Theatre, Fugard has been writing impassioned plays set in his native land. From his first international success, Blood Knot (1961), through major works such as Boesman and Lena (1969 Obie Award), A Lesson from Aloes (1980 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award), "Master Harold" … and the boys (1982 Drama Desk Award), and others—many of which he himself has directed—the playwright has continued to "confront fundamental human truths," in the words of Lisa Brower, of the Lilly Library at Indiana University (which houses Fugard's papers). As Brower has said, Fugard has explored "man's inhumanity to man, [and] demonstrate[d] the transcendent ability of art and literature to heal the human spirit."

Half English and half Afrikaner, Fugard was born in 1932 and grew up in Port Elizabeth. Dropping out of Cape Town University, he hitchhiked around Africa and worked as the only white seaman on a merchant ship.

In 1958 Johannesburg, he founded a multiracial theatre, where he wrote (he once referred to himself as an Afrikaner who writes in English), acted, and directed. By that time, apartheid had been in full swing for a decade. Subsequently, Blood Knot and other plays by Fugard were banned for their anti-apartheid stance and instead premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre, London's Royal Court, New York, and elsewhere. In 1962 Fugard supported an international boycott of South African theatre because of the abhorrent policy of segregating audiences. The government withdrew his passport between 1967 and 1971.

Fugard went on to establish theatres in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, collaborating with black actors and continuing to write critically of apartheid. He sometimes played unsympathetic whites in his own plays.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. Accordingly, Fugard has embarked upon a new era in his writing. His first post-apartheid play, The Valley, opened in 1995. In Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001), he probed the racial tensions of the new South Africa. Now, in the two-hander Exits and Entrances set in Port Elizabeth in 1956 and five years later, he reverts to the autobiographical format (as he did in "Master Harold"), dramatizing several encounters between two white South Africans: an idealistic, young playwright (played by William Dennis Hurley) who is appearing in a small role in a play starring an older, embittered actor, Afrikaner André Huguenet (played by Morlan Higgins).

"I think it's a beautiful play," veteran actor Higgins told Back Stage West as he began previews for this, his first Fugard role. "I think any actor would be excited out of their mind to do a Fugard play. He's one of the few, I think, who will be remembered centuries from now." Higgins' task in Exits is monumental: Not only is he portraying an icon of Fugard's memory but also, as the old-school stage actor André, performing climactic monologues from classic literature, most notably from Oedipus Rex; part of Exits takes place backstage during a production of that tragedy. "He even sets me up with the most well-known piece of dramatic writing in the human endeavor—the "To be or not to be" speech—and basically says, in the script, here it is and here's how it should be done," says Higgins. "How intimidating!"

Fugard, who has sat in on a few rehearsals (he no longer acts or directs), immediately took the pressure off. "He was so sweet, very open and loving," says Higgins. "He invites you in with his whole personality. And he's not at all precious with his own writing; he's very willing to make changes." Adds Higgins, "I think Athol's chosen to do this play because it takes him back to his roots in theatre, and that same spirit has taken me and … everyone involved back to why we got involved with theatre ourselves: the passion."

In a phone call last week, Fugard lived up to his reputation for charm and utter lack of pretension. Speaking in a distinctive, South African accent—in which pen becomes pin, and craft is crahft—he was chatty, warm, and self-effacing, with a wry sense of humor.

Back Stage West: I saw a revival of "Master Harold" … and the boys at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco last season …

Athold Fugard: That was an excellent production. I broke a rule I usually have, which is to try to avoid seeing my work done by other directors. It puts me in a very invidious position. They usually know I'm in the audience—unless I start wearing a Groucho Marx mustache and a nose and a pair of glasses. My features are fairly distinct. And then if I don't like it, what do I do? Do I just tell a lie, which I'm unhappy with, or do I tell the truth, which would be very hurtful to the actors?

[Another] very happy experience I had was at the Fountain Theatre [in 2000], with The Road to Mecca, directed by Stephen Sachs [who also directs Exits]. And I said to Stephen at the time, "You know, the Fountain Theatre is really the sort of theatre I like. It's small, intimate. And I think of my plays as small plays, and so I said to Stephen, "I'm going to come back to you with a new play." And it's been a couple of years. But here we are.

BSW: When I saw that revival of "Master Harold" on opening night, the audience rose as one person and cheered wildly.

Fugard: You know, it's really a tribute to the power of theatre. Forget about me and my play. When you get all the elements together, when you get a play in which the writer has tried to be honest, and you couple that with performances in which the actors have brought courage to their portrayal of their roles, and you get an audience which is open to the experience, you're going to get magic.

BSW: So—Exits and Entrances is a true story?

Fugard: Yes, it's one of my biographical pieces. I'm in the process of putting down my biography in the one form that I feel competent in which to tell stories, which is theatre, the stage. And it's virtually as I experienced it.

I had the extraordinary good luck to be cast in that production of Oedipus Rex in 1961. And I had that very, very important relationship with André. We talked, and he had a considerable effect on my thinking. And then five years later, we met again, as the play reveals … I had just finished writing the first of my plays to make me realize that I could in fact earn a living in the theatre: Blood Knot.… And my daughter had just been born, and there I was with my first glimmerings of a vision of a new South African theatre that would try to break some of the taboos that existed in that society … and there was that encounter between my fresh and—I like to believe—vibrant and urgent vision, and Andre's: disillusioned, cynical, and defeated at the end of his life. And he went on to commit suicide a few months after that meeting.

BSW: Oh, my God! … An important theme in this play and in other plays of yours is the concept of home. Where is home now?

Fugard: Home for me always will be South Africa. [My daughter lives] here in Southern California. She's just made me a grandfather—[she had] a boy. So we moved to Southern California. And we have a base in South Africa. One of the most beautiful words in the English language is "home." I know for some people it's a nightmare. But I just love it, I'm a very domesticated animal.

BSW: Yet you've traveled a lot.

Fugard: But reluctantly. My best traveling, the longest journeys, have been at the table at which I write.

BSW: In The Island, the prisoners are staging a production of Antigone, and in Exits, and possibly other plays, you also integrate excerpts from classical theatre.…

Fugard: Well, it's quite simply that I don't think we've ever done anything much better than those great Greek playwrights. In my opinion, Oedipus Rex is the greatest play ever written. When you talk about The Island—Antigone is so relevant to the South Africa in which I was laboring at that time, characterized by oppression and brutality. And that's the point about these plays: They're timeless. That's how I learned my craft, and I still go back to them, read them, think about them.

BSW: In Exits, André refers to theatre critics as vipers. Have you yourself made peace with criticism?

Fugard: Nobody has ever sailed through a career in theatre unscathed, and I've had a couple of bites and also lavish praise. I myself personally don't think of critics as vipers. I know André did, particularly in terms of theatre in South Africa at that time, because usually the man who edited the sports page or the motoring column was also the drama critic. That was how little significance theatre had.

BSW: Another thing that comes up in this play has to do with the very nature of acting: André talks about being the character and therefore being allowed to do what he can't do in real life, but at the end of the play he talks about finally being, onstage, his truest, deepest self—as though it were something he had to come to over a lifetime of acting …

Fugard: That's true. Peter Brook, the great British director, asked me a rhetorical question one day. He said, "You know, these actors, they play Hamlet, they play Lear, they play Macbeth, they play all the great roles: Oedipus, Creon—all these roles in which great playwrights have distilled the wisdom of the ages. Then when they come off the stage, they remain damn fools. They haven't learned anything from the roles. How is it, Athol?" What could I say? "I don't know, Peter."

BSW: Do you know how your writing has been affected by your being an actor and a director?

Fugard: I've been flattered many, many times by actors who say, "You really write for us." And that simply means I know what it requires up there on the stage. I know how a moment works. I know when it's too long. I know when it's too short. You get a real intimacy with that aspect of the craft when you direct really good actors, which I've had the privilege to do, and when you have been up there on the stage yourself. It's no accident that so many playwrights—Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Shakespeare, Molière—were actors.

BSW: Years ago you feared that going from alcoholism to sobriety would ruin your writing, and obviously it didn't. And you've also feared that the end of apartheid could do that, too. What was the transition like for your writing, post-apartheid?

Fugard: Rather exciting, because, you know, the changes that have taken place in my country have literally freed me up to take on the writing and the telling of a lot of stories that I've felt would have been an indulgence before. My own stories.

BSW: You've also written that your plays seem to go in 10-year cycles. So now, 10 years or so post-apartheid, do you feel like you're going into a new cycle?

Fugard: I absolutely do. Just what that cycle is about I don't know. And what the first work is going to be that comes out of it I don't know.

BSW: In reading Exits I saw that the young playwright was you, but I also thought that the two characters are two sides of you.

Fugard: Very interesting—only last night over dinner with a friend I made an observation similar to that. I pointed out that although I haven't ended up bitter and disillusioned, like André I am at the end of or reaching the end of a road that I've traveled all my life.

BSW: You've talked about the power of theatre to implement social change. During the apartheid years, you must have wondered to what extent your plays could affect the social system. Looking back now, what do you think?

Fugard: I still believe theatre's amazing. It doesn't command the size audience that the movies do, or television, but I still think that somehow it's at the matrix of a society in a way that I don't think film and television ever are, certainly not television. Except of course when you get [a show] preceded by a stage production—something like Angels in America. And I think the impact of Angels in America on American society is going to be working itself out for many, many years to come.

BSW: In your memoir, Cousins [1997], you wrote, "I passed a drunk bleary-eyed colored woman … her face swollen and bruised … in all of her ugliness, she became a symbol of the world that had claimed me." And a voice said to you, "You must love her." And you wrote, "Those were my orders. I have tried to obey them." Where do these "orders" come from?

Fugard: My conscience. My sense of myself. Or my muse.

BSW: Do you have an actual muse?

Fugard: Not any one person. I've been inspired and helped along the way by a handful of people who have come into my life and had enormous influence for the good on my career. Barney Simon [Fugard's colleague, the late director/playwright with the famed Market Theatre in Johannesburg]. Yvonne Bryceland [the late South African actress who, among other things, appeared opposite Fugard in Boesman and Lena in 1969]. A designer, of all people, who is up for the Tony Award at the moment for her design of Wicked: Susan Hilferty.

BSW: You've written both black and white characters. Is it easier to write one or the other?

Fugard: You could add to that, I've also written female characters. Writing about a black man is no more challenging than to imagine what it's like to be somebody of the opposite sex. In some ways the gulf separating male imagination or the male world from the female world is huge, infinitely huger than it is separating a white man from a black man. At least as large, let me put it that way. It's the quality of your imagination that finally decides whether you pull it off or not. Can you make the leap from your own experiences into those of another? Or can't you?

BSW: A play like Exits sticks very close to a true experience. But which is more fun to write, that kind of play, or one where you leap into a whole other world?

Fugard: They're different challenges. The play where you have to use your imagination to leap into a world you've never actually experienced, say, for example, The Road to Mecca, you have the sense of adventure, obviously. You're incognito, you're the first person to arrive at this uninhabited island and to see what's on it. Whereas with a play like "Master Harold" it's the journey into yourself that's the adventure in that case. Holding your pen above a sheet of blank paper—that's the challenge.

BSW: Do you actually write in longhand?

Fugard: I used to do everything, before Exits and Entrances, by longhand. I've decided I've littered the world with enough paper. So I went to a computer.

BSW: Do you write any differently on the computer?

Fugard: No, I've customized it to behave as if I were still at my desk with scraps of paper.

BSW: In Cousins you say that you regretted never having written a true comedy. Do you still feel that way?

Fugard: Yah, I do enjoy a good laugh, and I wish I'd been able to come up with [a comedy]. Who knows? Maybe the next 10 years will be my cycle of laughter.

BSW: As advice to writers, you've said, "Guard your secrets." You were talking about the inner lives, the dark secrets, of your characters, which give you the power and inspiration to write. Any other important advice for aspiring playwrights?

Fugard: Not really. I think there are as many ways to write a play as there are individuals who want to have a go at it. I don't think my own method would be of any use to anyone other than myself. … I don't mind sharing my own experience…. But to try to guide somebody else in the writing of their play—that for me smacks a little bit of, if you want the Greek, hubris. Or if you want the Yiddish, chutzpah.

BSW: In Exits, André blesses the young playwright. Are there any particular young playwrights you'd want to bless?

Fugard: Anyone who says, "Listen, I like telling stories, and I'm going to start telling them.…" Although, interestingly enough, there's a young American playwright, now that I think about it, who I've to a certain extent taken under my wing: Brian Quirk, in New York; he's written an extraordinary play based on Mapplethorpe.

BSW: What are the most important qualities an actor can bring to your plays?

Fugard: Courage. They've got to be prepared to go to the edge. And those actors that I've had in my life who've given me rich and formative experiences, like Yvonne Bryceland and just more recently John Glover in my play Sorrows and Rejoicings, courage characterized them. I mean, they were skilled artists, which you obviously also look for … Also, you're not going to get anywhere if he or she doesn't give you that trust. Courage and trust.

BSW: Several of your plays have been made into films—

Fugard: Not interested. I can't think of even one of those attempts at a film that has been in my opinion even moderately successful. I don't like them. Master Harold with Matthew Broderick—I think that missed the boat by miles.

BSW: The films of Boesman and Lena and The Road to Mecca, too?

Fugard: Yah. Absolutely. I don't think I have good material for film. I've never been interested in that medium.

BSW: You've lived and written for theatre during a historic time in your homeland. What would you like to see on your tombstone?

Fugard: Oh, that's a nice question. "He tried." That's all. It's been a life of endeavor, you know. Of effort. I don't know that I've succeeded. I think if I'd succeeded once, I'd have stopped. It's dangerous. It's why artists set themselves impossible challenges and standards. Just imagine it: You get there, you've won, where the hell do you go from there?

BSW: If you'd succeeded, and if you'd stopped, what would you have done in your life instead?

Fugard: I would have spent my life with birds and wildflowers. A naturalist. BSW

"Exits and Entrances" will be produced by and at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood, Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. May 22-July 25. (323) 663-2525.

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