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INTERVIEW WITH GREIG COETZEE (article first published : 2001-10-9)

The local university (Pietermaritzburg) Drama Department's first ever Artist-in-Residence is on familiar territory. Greig Coetzee is a graduate of the department and back there in his new role has plenty to tell students about how to succeed in the notoriously risky profession of the theatre.

Coetzee is currently on a high. When he gave up teaching in 1995 to try his luck in the theatre, he knew that by the law of averages, his chances of success were slim. But he has beaten the odds, due mainly to his hit satirical look at army life at the end of the 1980s, White Men With Weapons. And he has followed this with other successes, including Breasts and Seeing Red, the latter set among Pietermaritzburg university students.

But the biggest feather in his cap has come in the shape of a commission from a London production company. "I'm not allowed to mention names at this stage," says Coetzee. "But they are a successful company who are commissioning four works for next year - three from British writers and one from me. We each have to come up with something which will be staged at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002 and then move to a small venue in London for four weeks."

The contract was signed in May this year, but the spark was struck in Edinburgh last year. Coetzee had taken White Men there, hoping to get a prestigious Fringe First award - which he did, though he admits he had a sticky start. "I seemed to be heading for a big loss, with small audiences, and I was in a dangerous mood when I got into an argument with a Scottish critic who was going on about the wonderful relationship between Edinburgh and Africa."

"So I just shot my mouth off and said that only three kinds of plays from Africa fitted the simplistic paradigm overseas theatre - including Edinburgh - wants: theatre of wretchedness, of triumph over adversity, or happy natives." Coetzee says his own White Men would fit into the first category, Women in Waiting (another South African play which won a Fringe First last year) into the second and Gumboots, the highly successful dance piece, into the third.

His moment of bad temper paid off and has given Coetzee his title - Happy Natives - his subject matter and his commission to write the play.

"I was told to go home and think around that title, which I did. There's a need to bring some complexity into the African work that makes it overseas, and my idea is to write a two-hander about two actors, one black and one white, who are commissioned to come up with a ten-minute publicity piece to sell South Africa to the public." Coetzee says he is planning a comedy with dark moments which will tell the characters' stories, show their interaction and reflect on the inadequacy of imagery such as the Castle Lager advertising campaign which Coetzee describes as "nauseating". "It's turning the Rainbow Nation into a PR exercise," he says.

The first thing the commissioning company did was put someone in place to kickstart the process with Coetzee - a dramaturge. "I hate that word," he says. "It sounds like something an actor steps in." But he has been converted to the idea of having someone in the role of adviser, somewhere between a writer and a director. "After a couple of exercises, I could see that she had pushed me in new directions."

Does all this mean than another major talent will be lost to South Africa? "The more I travel, the more I realise what a selling point my South African-ness is," Coetzee says. While he plans to take the role of the white actor in his play - and is excited at the thought of acting in London - he is determined to bring Happy Natives back to South Africa. "I don't want to go," he says.

For Coetzee, writing is his first love, directing his second and acting only third. "I have been acting to pay the rent, and I don't have to do as much as I used to. A number of critics have picked up on the fact that I hone things in my plays on the road - it has been an economic necessity. But now I can spend more time crafting my work."

Coetzee hopes he will be able to do some of this crafting while he spends two months in the Drama Studies department as Artist-in-Residence. He is running a series of writing workshops where he will be drawing on six years' practical experience as well as on what he has learned about the creative process from the dramaturge. "I'll be discussing my own work in progress as well, and when I go, I want to be able to leave a writers' circle which can carry on without me," he says.

He is also working with four Honours students and Professor Hazel Barnes to create a piece of theatre, made up of five intersecting monologues. Once again, Coetzee is learning and teaching at the same time. "I'm using these exercises to draw female characters I would not necessarily have come up with on my own." He explains that he found it hard to create female characters for Seeing Red - the first time he had written parts for women.

In case this is not enough to keep him busy, Coetzee will also be taking the role of a night club torch singer in Paul Datlen's forthcoming production of Bent, a play about the experiences of gay men in concentration camps. And he is re-directing Seeing Red for both the Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival and a run at the Hexagon, opening certain rehearsals to staff and students in the department. It all combines to bring the perspective of a writer and performer who has been out there peddling his wares in a tough profession to the more academic world of the university. Margaret von Klemperer

NB: Bent (see separate article) runs from October 8 to 13. Tickets R25 (R15 students). Bookings at the Hexagon Office on (031) 260-5537 - mornings only. Tickets will also be available at the door.




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