If you are a drama student at the University of Pretoria, you must crawl before you can crouch. And you must crouch before you can walk.
The drama department has devised a graduated system of roles for its students. First-year students work behind the scenes as part of a technical crew managing the audio and lights. Second- and third-year students can audition for parts in shows at the Krêkvars Student Arts Festival. And honours students who take a module in directing sit in the proverbial director’s chair. “Everything links.”
First-year student Wilf Mahne, who is part of the rotating technical crew, says the system is important because it builds up faculties that he will need when he will be able move to the stage. “I [would have seen] how stuff works now. Now I know where to plot things and what works the best with sound and lighting and what doesn’t work.” Seeing his seniors in action he learned a lot, he says. “It’s been absolutely great working and realizing what works and what doesn’t…”
Mahne would like to do his honours in drama and the experience he is gaining in his first year will come in handy if he gets to write a play. “[In] the Masker you have so many limitations. To make a show brilliant you can only use what a venue has to offer. If I in my honours years have to direct a show, I will write all my limitations into my script and make sure my show fits to the venue so that the venue doesn’t have to fit into my show.”
In his second or third year, Mahne will be able to audition for roles in Krêkvars plays. FP Engelbrecht, a third-year student, collected tickets in the foyers of the Masker last year. This year he stars in three productions: Live, Comedy Overdose and 70° Sterker. He says putting on a play in collaboration with a director is a great inspiration and a learning curve.
“You won’t ever be a 100% complete actor. There will be new stuff to discover. You can try your best to give them what they (directors) want but they also understand that they give you the crayons but you’re going to draw the picture.”
Engelbrecht says the evolution system is working as it should.
“If I were to write a show now, I would know much more about how to go about doing it,” he says. “Last year … I thought [I] have this experience but this is only the technical side. Now we (second- and third-year students) can act in shows. So I’ve got the 50% of tech, now let’s get experience on the practical side. Now knowing how these two work you have enough understanding and experience to attempt to write something and put it in your honours year.”
Engelbrecht says it is important for drama graduates to know the technical aspect of putting on a show because usually they do not have access to a technical crew.
“If you don’t start at the bottom and get that basis, then you won’t have anything to work with because everything links (together),” he said.
And everything all comes together when the student steps into the director’s chair.
Carla Tuate, an honours student who directs Burnt in Ember, worked as a stage manager in her first year and says it is a privilege to see an idea sprout into a play. “You help people connect shows. You actually see shows and see possibilities before you act so by second year you’re already inspired to write and direct.”
Being a director now she has to balance her actors’ strong points and their own ideas of her characters with her own in a collaboration.
“In third year we are the actors and work with directors. You’re all [the] more comfortable with the process because you’ve been there,” she said. “It doesn’t turn out as expected in the beginning, but there’s hope.”
Taute says the actors create their own characters, whom she puts in different situations and builds a story around them. This organic collaboration of ideas improves scenes as her team shapes things according to a story.
“Working with the actors, it changed and evolved,” she says. “[It’s] a bit different but better.”