Creative chameleon Jon Keevy is a writer, designer, director, performer and production manager. Daniel Dercksen shares a few thoughts with Jon on his play OWL and being a writer
How did Owl happen? What inspired the play?
There was no light bulb moment that got me to pick up a pen and start writing this story. Owl started out as a completely different story. I think there are two ways I write, either I work out the whole story in advance of the scenes and characters or I write scenes and moments and continuously throw them out and start over as I grope toward the structure. During the process of writing Owl I found that was a lot of discussion in real life and online about domestic abuse and sexuality - this really shaped the direction the script went in.
Is there any significance about the provocative title?
The narrator is nicknamed 'Owl' early on. It really is her story, rather than being a passive observer.
Where do you find your inspiration as designer and writer?
I'm a very technical designer - I like to solve problems simply and create sets that are transformable physically and symbolically. Actually that applies as a writer too, now that I think about it. I'm very structural. I'll spend a lot of time walking around letting ideas simmer - letting connections grow - but I find that only gives you a solution when you know what the problem is.
Was it a difficult process of bringing it to life on stage? Why?
No, I planned the production well in advance - booking space, saving money and approaching the creative team I wanted. I've been working in theatre for a long time now, so I've pretty much made every mistake there is to make without actually burning something down.
You are also taking on the task of director. Was this a difficult task? Why?
No. I was directing it while I wrote it; I had no actor in front of me or a stage, but I could see it happening. That wouldn't have been very useful though if I hadn't assembled a really great production team. Briony Horwitz is a great actress and really understands the material, while Fiona du Plooy… well, we're actually still trying to work out how to credit her. She brought out the physical side of the performance and was also my outside eye. Both offered many insights into the story and sent me off to rewrite or write whole new scenes several times.
Is it advisable for writers to direct their own work? Your views on this?
No. It's not advisable for any job to spread themselves too thin. I was the writer, producer, publicist, director, designer, and carpenter. That's ridiculous and I should not have done it. I did it out of necessity and it worked because I planned it well and had amazing support.
I recently wrote a very sarcastic rant on my blog that said in a nutshell: "Writers, direct your own work." - It was coming from a realisation that writers generate work for independent theatre, but very few commissions or collaborations go looking for a writer. It's for this reason that the pure writer is such a rare beast in Cape Town. If we want to have great writers we need to encourage them. Don't misunderstand me, there are programmes run by Artscape and PANSA that look for and produce promising scripts and I really don't want my issues to become an 'us vs. them' dynamic. But if you're a director looking for a project, why not go find a writer?
What do you think are the ingredients for a successful play?
'Successful' is a pretty fraught label. In the broadest sense I'd say sincerity and connection to your audience. Clever and witty have their place but your story needs heart to stay with an audience. The main ingredient though is marketing. You need good, good marketing. Whatever your play is, from the most mainstream concert hall comedy at the Baxter to the avant-garde solo dance piece on a rooftop in Salt River, you need to find the people who'll connect with it and tell them about it. That's marketing.
Did you ever expect that it would be so well received?
No. I watched the first performance and, in the audience listening to my words, I told myself I was going to give up writing and never go into a theatre again. I'm still a little suspicious that people are in a giant conspiracy to be nice to me. Probably orchestrated by my mother.
Why do you think the response has been so great?
I think people connect to the genuine, but not overt, South African setting and characters. Many people have said, "That reminded me of growing up" or "That reminded me of this girl I knew". Which, given the themes, is really depressing. Domestic abuse is so pervasive that we all knew that kid who had too many bruises, or who came to school with unwashed clothes, who just had a shadow over them.
How do you feel about Owl now?
I planned for the run at the Intimate, I didn't really think further than that though. I'm really nervous to take it up to Grahamstown in 2 months, even though we're a part of the Cape Town Edge, which will make it a smooth ride.
What is next as a writer?
I'm busy writing a children's play as part of ASSITEJ's Inspiring a Generation project. It's a collaborative programme with ASSITEJ Sweden and as part of it we'll be going to the Bibu.se festival in Lund. I missed the deadline for PANSA's new writing competition but there is another writing competition deadline coming up in August, so I'll be working toward that too.
Any advice for new writers who want to get their work staged?
Send it in to programmes and competitions - that's the most affordable way. But don't give up if they don't get in - many the scripts not ready, or maybe it just doesn't fit their ideas of what a story should be. Make a three year plan; I finished the first draft of Owl in April 2011, I staged it 10 months later. Patience and practice can pretty much overcome anything.
Where did your creative process start?
Owl started when I tried to rewrite a play I wrote in 2007 called Flight. I had made a lot of progress with it when my hard drive crashed and I lost it all, along with pretty much everything I'd written since 2004. I was devastated. But I hadn't really lost it all - in my head I still had all the themes and ideas. Losing everything made me start over and taught me not to be afraid to start from scratch or to throw out scenes.
Back up your stuff. Now I use Dropbox to keep it safe.
What excites you about theatre?
The limitations and the way the creative team uses them - they can either unleash their imagination and innovation in staging and design or craft a story and performance so intimate that we forget where we are.
Do you think there is a future for new writers in South Africa? Why?
Definitely, they are going to have to carve it out for themselves but I have no doubt that they will. I think English theatre in South Africa needs the next generation of writers to come shake things up.
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Copyright © 2012 Daniel Dercksen/ The Writing Studio