Maverick Life

MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Sparking connection: Brett Bailey’s new immersive outdoor event

Brett Bailey joins the campfire circle, watching Fire Guardian Dizu Plaatjies. Image: Supplied

Conceived by theatre-maker Brett Bailey, Constellations is an immersive outdoor event in the Cape Winelands, a chain of campfires around which stories are told and rituals unfold, forming a framework upon which spectators must make their own meanings, and determine their own narrative – or not.

Brett Bailey dislikes eating in restaurants. The boundary-defying director who heads up Cape Town’s Third World Bunfight theatre company, says he doesn’t like being “served” by other human beings. His sense is that eating is a communal experience; an act of sharing and connecting around a table, not being waited on by servants or having strangers performing menial tasks for him.

This conception of social life might be considered slightly out-there by some standards, but it highlights the manner in which Bailey, arguably the country’s most provocative director, views the world. And it says something of his approach to the work he does, which is to create theatrical experiences that, rather than offer easy answers, challenge audiences by opening up complex discourses. He invites audiences to participate in ideas rather than have them passively consume theatre entertainment. 

Not that everything he creates quite so easily fits into the category of “theatre”. 

Bailey is an artist and storyteller, and while he does work in traditional theatre spaces, he seldom makes work that conforms. His productions defy easy categorisation; they frequently have audiences scratching their heads, grasping to try and make sense of the vast repertoire of meaning, the multiplicitous signifiers assembled in order to poke at an issue and express otherwise unsayable ideas in imaginative, unorthodox ways. 

“I’m not particularly interested in simplistic, narrative-driven work,” he says. “That doesn’t correlate with my understanding of life. The referents in my creative process are as much dreams and ritual as they are theatrical vocabulary. The subject matter is an interweaving of myth and politics. I’m far more drawn to the non-rational – and to perspectives that we silence in our societies and within ourselves – than I am to the trending ideological, academic and rational reductions that dominate. Paradox is a much more real and fascinating realm to me than a world of binaries and hard lines.” 

There’s otherworldliness in his work, a sense that we are being given access to a kind of parallel universe. He manages this even when his source material is current and newsworthy. Or when he trawls historic events and excavates pre-existing texts, such as he did with his radical make-over of Macbeth, for which he transformed Shakespeare into a kind of African opera to convey some sense of the postcolonial horrors in the Congo. And he has recently returned from a tour of France and Spain with Samson, a work first devised for the 2019 Stellenbosch Woordfees which brings the Biblical myth of Samson and Delilah into a post-colonial African context in order to tell a multi-strand tale of socio-political treachery, one that’s infused with bloodshed and enlivened with shamanic dance and an electronic score.

“I don’t identify with any groups, I’m not part of the ‘theatre set’, and the mainstream and its games and conventions have never made much sense to me.”

He’s drawn to issues that are disturbing, that stir emotions and rile audiences up rather than placate. Themes he’s tackled include sexual abuse within the Catholic church; xenophobia faced by refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East; and various forms of exploitation in Africa and of Africans. 

He has been responsible for some of the most enigmatic, attention-grabbing, and radical productions ever to come out of South Africa. And yet his work is probably better known in Europe, where there’s a taste for challenging theatre and the intellectual discourse around live performance tends to be more robust, especially in France, which awarded Bailey the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) in 2019, honouring his output.

Brett Bailey. Image: Victor Sguassero

While his work is often difficult to grasp, even divisive, Bailey himself might also be considered something of a dark horse, an outsider who is deliberately removed from theatre’s mainstream. There is nothing showbusinessy about what he does. 

“Eish,” he says when I ask him about his relationship to the mainstream. “I’ve always been pretty much an outsider. My earliest memory is of sitting in a field of flowers and butterflies in kindergarten, and looking up at the other lighties playing a game, and wondering what they were getting out of it. After soccer practice one day, I asked my mother: ‘Why can’t we all just have our own ball?’ That’s pretty much how I am as an artist: I don’t identify with any groups, I’m not part of the ‘theatre set’, and the mainstream and its games and conventions have never made much sense to me.”

It is not only thematically that he provokes, though. He has also developed a unique aesthetic, one that weaves together often conflicting influences to arrive at something sublime. “In my work, I tie strong images and moments together with multiple diaphanous threads,” he explains. “The juxtaposition of strongly contrasting themes, emotions, aesthetics… This is another language. I’d rather spectators find their own way through and into my works – as we do when we wake from a dream or look at an extraordinary painting or are swept away by music – than ramming a perspective at them. I try to create an atmosphere in which that is enabled. If you are not sensitive to some of this, or hold yourself at a distance – then you might find my work a tad obscure.”

Bailey says that as a child he was already a storyteller, already searching for something beyond the surface of “make-believe”. “My protagonists always had kind of ‘through the looking glass’ adventures in other worlds.” 

He says a foundational influence in his life’s outlook was his paternal grandmother – “she was a spirit medium who was attuned to past lives, held séances and interpreted dreams”.

It was while studying drama at university that he was awakened to the availability of many different elements of expression: “time, text, music, location, bodies, interpretive minds, light, rhythm…”, but then, while in India in the mid-1990s, it was the transportive quality of rituals that he witnessed and experienced at ceremonies of diverse faiths that “spoke” to him “on a deeper level than conventional theatre”.

And thus was sparked the unfolding of what might be regarded as a new kind of theatrical experience, something enigmatic, boundary-defying, even transcendental — and which invariably involves the collaborative efforts of diverse artists.

And while Bailey sidesteps attempts to box his work, what does stand out is his ability to tap into something that’s more ancient and more overtly steeped in ritual than most of what passes for theatre nowadays. It is theatre that engages you fully – mind, body and soul – rather than merely stimulating the intellect or delighting the senses.

“The element of my creative work is fire,” Bailey says. “As a playwright-director I envision my work akin to building a blaze of energy, emotion, sound, associations and light. I demand a lot from the creative people I work with. I want performers and spectators to experience something vast, explosive, incendiary. That is what nourishes me, and that’s what I like to give.”

Which brings us to his latest project, the second iteration of Constellations, currently taking place at Spier, the wine farm where he also lives, in rural Stellenbosch. The event, which debuted last year, takes to heart Bailey’s connection to fire – the night out at the wine estate has spectators travelling between a series of literal campfires that are hosted by a number of “Fire Guardians”. 

Bailey says “there is something magical, even ritualistic, about sitting around a fire at night, in nature, within a circle of people, watching the flames, listening as stories are told, memories are shared…”. He says, too, that such rituals around the fire “connect us across millennia to our primal ancestors”. 

Experiential, interactive and unpredictable, the event requires spectators to spend about 30 minutes at each fire; there are two paraffin lanterns and ten tree stumps – “for bums” – and it is here that the Fire Guardians do their thing. “The Guardians are performance artists, musicians, poets, mystics and other quirky, interesting cultural people,” Bailey explains. “Guests have no idea which three Guardians they will encounter on their journey – every campfire reveals a new surprise”. 

Among these “surprises” are musicians such as Khoisanboy Man, Jak Tomas, Manu Grace and Dizu Plaatjies, performers Gaetan Schmidt, Thando Doni and Rehane Abrahams, and poets Malika Ndlovu and Liza Scholtz. Bailey says he’s taken an altogether non-directorial approach, acting more as a sounding board and a bringer-together of diverse creative people and storytellers. 

The concept was borne out of the pandemic. Bailey says his life at Spier has been a great contributor to the spirit of the event.

“I am blessed to live here. During lockdown when most people were confined to barracks, I was able to roam the estate. Obviously, on my mind was the bleak state that so many performers found themselves in with no work and no platforms on which to share what they love doing. So too was the hunger that people have for being in nature, and for attending live performances with others. I have made several site-responsive performances over the years – two of them at Spier – where small groups of people move between installations, and I started with this model to develop Constellations.” 

The Constellations’ Guardians formulated their sessions “as a gift to present to a public overwhelmed and leached by the instability of the Covid era”. 

Bailey says his experience of the pandemic has been enriching. “It freed me from the scant social obligations which still shackled me, and allowed me to go inwards and be quiet. Obviously, with very little opportunity for work, I have to play my bank cards very close to my chest. But, freed from deadlines, I have been able to get a firm sense of the kind of work I want to do.” 

He says that Constellations is also directly inspired by Covid, by “the isolation and alienation that so many of us have experienced”. He wanted to create an event that is “basic, intimate and heartfelt” while satisfying his “inclination to weave something unusual with fascinating elements on a truly beautiful canvas of trees, and reeds, and a river, and the dusk, with a soundtrack of frogs and insects”. 

For 2020’s iteration, he asked the Guardians to formulate their sessions “as a gift to present to a public overwhelmed and leached by the instability of the Covid era”.

This year, the theme is “Into the Woods”. 

“Forests, woods, the wilderness… These feature in the mythology and tales of many peoples,” he explains. “Often they are presented as strange, liminal regions – places beyond the ordered, familiar and constricting rules of towns and the codes of civil society.” 

He says that in the Grimm fairy tales there are characters such as Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel who confront weird and wonderful figures when they enter the woods. But there are story seeds closer to home, too.

“In Xhosa folktales, the creatures of the wilderness are forever threatening to invade the fragile boundaries that define the homestead. Dark, fertile and even dangerous, the woods may be associated with dreams, the imagination, reflection and the unconscious arena; with plant medicines, wise outsiders, counter-cultural rites and initiation… 

“From another perspective, forests are the vital – and all-too-endangered – ‘lungs’ of the planet: the realm of wildlife, clean air, and pure water. They are sanctuaries of rich and abundant life, and the natural order (or the law of the jungle). And they are places to be treasured and protected.”

Constellations. Image: Supplied

 Bailey says some of the Guardians are approaching the event ritualistically: “bringing healing to the land, remembering and honouring forgotten histories and silenced voices”. While some will be “going into themselves” to find a response, others are taking a lighter approach.

“There is no telling what might emerge, or how their sessions will evolve over the four weeks in response to the game,” Bailey says. “I urge Guardians to unsettle, provoke and challenge, to push themselves beyond their boundaries and not to think about commercial imperatives … to create brief, affecting experiences that will haunt for nights the spectators who gather beneath the trees in the darkness around their fires.”

For audiences, there’s no telling what might unfold. “I don’t know what the pay-off will be for spectators, other than an adventure into something unique that has its own logic, having very different encounters with talented and fascinating people which they would never typically have the opportunity to do. There are too many variables to have expectations: 27 Guardians each with their idiosyncratic approach – a drag artist, an astrologer, a sangoma, a Ugandan storyteller, a range of very diverse poets, musicians and performance artists. Spectators will each encounter three of these: You might be tickled at your first fire, Zenned out at the next, bewildered by the third.”

And so there’s a kind of luck – or fate – involved, too. And, a multiplicity of ways of connecting with strangers around the fire that’s as infinite as the universe. 

Constellations affords an opportunity to reflect on the vastness of time and space that enfolds us,” says Bailey. “You will return to the mundane world with the smell of smoke in your clothes, your soul enriched and imagination expanded. Or not.” DM/ ML 

Constellations runs at Spier on Thursdays through Saturdays from 25 November to 18 December 2021. Tickets (R180 per person, including a glass of wine) are extremely limited (only 80 per night) and must be booked in advance. Spier.co.za, thirdworldbunfight.co.za 

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