“Children need to see themselves in the story” – Alexander Bar manager, Jon Keevy, on creating theatre for young audiences
Carla Lever recently conducted a Q&A with Jon Keevy: playwright, arts activist and manager of the Alexander Bar independent theatre, for Nal’ibali’s seventh column of their third term, as published in The Daily Dispatch and Herald. Carla and Jon discussed the value of introducing children to a huge range of storytelling, including characters they can relate to, and breaking down the racial divide in Cape Town cultural spaces.
What’s so compelling about creating theatre for young audiences? Why is it important for children to be exposed to this kind of storytelling?
Children value surprise and ingenuity above all things and the only way to successfully create those elements as an author is to have fun, to buck the rules and be cheeky. It’s valuable for young audiences to get a huge range of storytelling, but most especially they need to see themselves in the story. They need to see young heroes. They need to see brave girls. They need to see clever kids of colour overcoming villainy and evil. They need to hear characters that speak like them and come from the same place as them.
What support does SA need to put in place at a national or regional level to nurture young writers and storytellers?
This is such a big question I’m not sure I can answer it. Behind almost every project is someone passionately trying to make a difference, so I don’t want to disparage what’s out there. In fact, more funding for existing projects and organisations would be a great place to start.
You’ve been committed to creating independent spaces for local writers and performers for many years. Why?
I hate the idea of gatekeepers in culture – that only few people have the ability to give a wide platform to new voices. I think that having a platform gives you a responsibility to take risks. Institutions have power to control access to training and opportunities and so far in South Africa many have used it poorly when it comes to transformation. When I was younger and more fiery, my attitude was that if you couldn’t get in to some theatre or programme, then you made your own. It didn’t always work – my first ‘underground theatre’ was shut down by municipal regulations after 7 months! But I learned a lot from it: failure is not a pleasant teacher, but it is an effective one. I have a theatre now and I’m not turning away anyone who is passionate about working in this crazy field. I never want to be a gatekeeper.
Tell us about some initiatives you’re trying at Alexander Bar to change creative spaces?
Well, Alexander Bar itself is an attempt at making a platform for independent theatre makers, with the best financial model for artists. But besides that we’re also creators of the Open Theatre Toolkit – software that drastically lowers the cost of running a venue in terms of time and money by allowing small organisations to manage their entire operation on one platform. We want to see small theatres and galleries flourishing across the country. This is our way of contributing to that. We have a regular exchange of shows with POPart in Maboneng, Joburg and we’re building a relationship with Makukhanye Art Room in Khayalitsha to break down the racial divide in Cape Town cultural spaces. But it’s very much about supporting people with great ideas.
Can you tell us about your latest arts activism project?
The Internet has changed the world, but many of the opportunities have been neglected in South Africa (and Africa more broadly). The world is not going to wait. We have to use the tools that are out there to shape our future. That may seem like a lot of big talk for getting academics and journalists in a room to update Wikipedia pages of South African oral, visual and musical storytellers, but I really do believe that so much South African cultural history is being forgotten through neglect every day. We’re planning on changing that!
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to enter its national multilingual storytelling competition, ‘Story Bosso’, running this September, visit www.nalibali.org.