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SHAKESPEARE IN SOUTH AFRICA (article first published : 2008-04-24)

Director and former head of the Playhouse Company’s Drama Department, Murray McGibbon was interviewed by Amber Kerezman of The Bloomington Alternative (http://www.bloomingtonalternative.com:80/) on February 10, 2008:

Professional actor Stephen Gurney played Prospero in IU theater professor Murray McGibbon's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in South Africa. Alyson Bloom, who played Miranda, was among six IU theater students who traveled to the African continent for The African Tempest Project.. Murray McGibbon sits on a plush beige sofa, surrounded by native African Zulu masks that scream of far away places. The 2 p.m. sunlight streams in on the native South African and IU theater professor as he discusses The African Tempest Project. The project, he says, "was a hands-on workshopping of Shakespeare's play within a South African context." McGibbon's receipt of a Lilly Endowment New Frontiers grant enabled six students from IU and 14 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal to produce The African Tempest Project this past summer in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. And it all might happen again. If more funds are granted through the Lilly Endowment, IU will return the favor, housing several South African students while rehearsals for The Tempest are underway in Bloomington. "I am going to be applying this year for another grant," says McGibbon. "Speaking to senior IU administrators, and I can't quote them, but I'm led to believe that it looks favorable."

A brief history lesson in changes South Africa has undergone helps explain what makes The African Tempest Project different from other studies abroad programs. The country suffers the remnants of a longstanding racial divide, a consequence of almost a half century of enforced segregation known as apartheid. Apartheid, which, according to MSN Encarta, means "separateness" in the Afrikaans language, was the official government policy from 1948 until the early 1990s. "The white population retained control of more than 80 percent of the land," Encarta says. "Increasing violence, strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations by opponents of apartheid, and the overthrow of colonial rule by blacks in Mozambique and Angola, forced the government to relax some of its restrictions." But the legacy of the social, economic and political inequalities between white and black South Africans persists. And economic strife continues.

"At the time we were in South Africa, there was the biggest strike the African National Congress has had to deal with since they came to power," McGibbon says of a nationwide strike for higher wages. "People had been shot dead and killed within a few miles of the theater we were working in." McGibbon's decision to take American students to South Africa meant he also had to warn them of some dangers, including the AIDS epidemic South Africa and the rest of the continent face. "AIDS is rampant in the province where we worked," says McGibbon. "Eight of 10 [live births] are HIV positive." And, as Americans, they had to be aware of the animosity the world feels toward them over the war in Iraq and American foreign policy. "I coached the American students before we went that America at that time in South Africa was not exactly top of the hit parade," says McGibbon. "There is still considerable Anti-American feeling for what has occurred."

At one point on their journey, IU musical theater graduate student Carmund White learned first-hand that McGibbon's cautionary tales were not exaggerated. While the students spent a day in Drakensberg, White noticed a black South African making his way toward the group just before they entered a restaurant for lunch. White, the only African American, would be singled out. "This man had a Coke can and suddenly threw it at me," says White. "I couldn't really understand him, but he said something like, 'You look like me, do you talk like me?' It happened so quickly." As some of the restaurant staff ran after the attacker, White wondered about the man's frustration. "I think there was something in that can other than coke," he says. "Still, I think my presence just felt like an intrusion."

McGibbon didn't change a word of Shakespeare's dialogue, but he set the play on a fictional island, and incorporated South African social and political contexts into the play. Conflict aside, the six American students built strong working relationships with their South African colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. McGibbon's relationship to South Africa, though, is personal. Growing up in Pietermaritzburg, McGibbon was bitten by the "theater bug," as he puts it, at age 3. On recommendation from his parents, he pursued a teaching degree to have "something to fall back on." As speech and drama became part of the curriculum in many of South Africa's high schools, McGibbon began teaching at Maritzburg College, an all-boys high school. In his second year there, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a master's degree in the United States, earning an MFA in acting and directing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. McGibbon returned to South Africa to work with The Natal Performing Arts Council in Durban. He then became head of another young acting troupe, The Loft Theater Company. But 10 years later, funding for many of South Africa's theaters ran short.

"The country was undergoing a transition from one government to another," says McGibbon. "Our funding from the central government dried up." Before it did, McGibbon says he received a call from George Pinney, professor and head of musical theater at IU. Pinney proposed an interview for a one-year visiting professorship. As McGibbon was scheduled to come to the United States the following day to attend the Humana Festival in Louisville, he got the interview and was offered the job on the spot. And one year at IU turned to 12. He has since directed several productions at IU and seen several of his students go on to create their own theater companies and experience success worldwide.

"Though I'm not at the forefront of commercial theater anymore, I'm still fueling it," says McGibbon. McGibbon began mulling over the idea of The African Tempest Project several years ago. But getting approval and casting the right people was challenging. "I thought of doing the production here [at IU] actually," he says. "Certain people at IU felt the project was too ambitious to handle over a summer."

McGibbon began looking at other theater programs across the state, including Butler University's. It only occurred to him as a last resort to produce the play in South Africa. "The theater department shook on its foundations," McGibbon says with a smile. "But the more we looked at it, the more viable it became, and the more the New Frontiers people seemed to like it." The Lilly Foundation's New Frontiers liked it enough to award it one of the largest grants ever distributed, $48,760.

Auditioning students to participate in The African Tempest Project proved different than the normal actor call-out. One set of auditions was held at IU and the other at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The auditions were restricted to students from each school. "I was looking for people who weren't necessarily our best actors but people who were willing to take risks and had resilience because being taken out of your home environment for two months can be somewhat daunting," says McGibbon. After selecting six American students, none of whom had ever been to South Africa, McGibbon began preparing himself and the new travelers for an experience both personal and professional. "I had no hard and fast ideas," he says. Neither did the students. "I knew only certain things about South Africa before I took this trip," says White. While White remembers the awe of the terrain and wildlife, he also acknowledges the country's distress. "I'm from Washington D.C.," says White. "South Africa, to me, is like Washington D.C. on a much larger scale. AIDS for instance is a huge problem in D.C. Just spread over less space. There are more similarities than differences."

Mike Aguirre, a junior at IU majoring in theater and English, recalls his experience. "Murray tried to describe the situation in South Africa," says Aguirre. "But even Murray admitted there was a lot he didn't know." Aguirre, though, was pleasantly excited by the travels the students took when taking a break from rehearsals. "I loved meeting random people," he says. "We stayed at a backpacker's inn for a few nights where we socialized with other travelers. We woke up early to watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean. It was an amazing site." But he was also aware of being an American. "Of course there is always a guilt of seeing people much less fortunate than you," he says. "It's no wonder so many countries despise America as to the opportunities we are given. Going through cities that are a century behind in technology (no electricity, no running water) creates a feeling of appreciation for what you have, as Americans can typically lose site of that."

McGibbon attributes the students' experiences to a non-sheltered approach to the country. "I didn't steer away from dangerous areas," says McGibbon. "We didn't take the circuitous route." Once the actors were cast and the logistics of travel were aside, it was time to begin creating The African Tempest Project. The student actors worked from 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening in Pietermaritzburg, with the exception of weekends. And though not a word of Shakespeare's play was changed, McGibbon set it on a mythical island with South African overtones. And some students struggled to envision the play within that context. "I think it was hard for the South African students (in particular) to work in this way because they're used to being told by directors what to do," says McGibbon. "What they found difficult was I was the South African, not the American, and I'd done my degree at that same university."

Eventually, the students adopted the concepts concerning South Africa's political divisiveness and brought them to life before an audience. The students even brought the severity of the strikes on stage. In an original scene from The Tempest, Shakespeare introduces hounds to the play. McGibbon substitutes the South African police for the dogs. "They were carrying AK-47s and machetes," says McGibbon. "And this brought a startling relevance. The audience felt like they were in the middle of an uprising, which they were. You could just feel their hearts beating" In the end, McGibbon says he didn't want to be politically correct. While some of the audience members may have been shocked, he wanted to show them reality. "[The audience] was getting worked up," says McGibbon. "They howled with laughter, they cried. I thought that was enormous praise because that meant the play had touched a nerve -- it engaged people on a visceral level."

McGibbon says he's eager to explore the possibilities of a second round of funding. But he is careful not to project false hope. "The theater gods will have to smile on us in order for it to happen," says McGibbon. "There are no guarantees in theater."

Amber Kerezman can be reached at amber.kerezman@yahoo.com




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