Big Book Chain Chat #79: Short, Sharp & Snappy

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 “If I see another modern adaptation of a fairy tale, I’ll scream!”

Teachers who have to do with school theatre have been having it tough lately.


Well, no one wants to inflict on school students the “hoary old chestnuts”, those dreadful one-act plays like The Monkey’s Paw and The Bishop’s Candlesticks that seem to have been around for centuries. Nor, it seems from the heartfelt cry of one teacher, endless sub-Thurberesque “hip” updates of old fairy tales.

The trouble is: no one in the professional theatre is writing plays that short anymore. The idea of three short plays making up a “triple bill” of one-acters for an evening’s entertainment is completely passé now. Every bit as much as the “well-made play” of three acts and two intervals. Nowadays very few plays have an interval at all, and plays generally last about 70 to 90 minutes at one stretch and then they’re done!

So what do teachers do when they have to suggest short 20-minute plays suitable for their students to do for events like the inter-house play competition or inter-school play festival or just a short class reading? Where do they go to find them?

I still have a strong interest in school theatre and I go and see schools’ play festivals. And I’m struck (sometimes struck dumb) at the banality of the texts they have to work with. So I decided Something Had to Be Done. And Junkets Publisher would do it.

Of course, Junkets Publisher is me. A one-man operation (with an admin assistant coming in twice a week).

I put out a call in 2010 for short plays suitable for performance or rehearsed reading in high schools. The brief was wide open. I specified that the play had to be no shorter than 1 500 words and no longer than 4 500 words. The writer needed to be “a South African or a member of a SADC country or a person living or working in Southern Africa”. I said nothing at all about what the play should be about; all I said was that the plays should be “suitable for reading or performance by high school students, ie teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19”.

Astoundingly, 57 plays were submitted. Of these, a few disqualified themselves by being over the word limit or inappropriate for the specified age group.

I enlisted the help of a long-standing friend and colleague, Colleen Moroukian. (When I say “long-standing”, together we directed Iphigenia in Taurus, the first Greek play to be staged on the Jameson Hall steps at the University of Cape Town, in 1960, when we were both students.) Colleen agreed to become my co-compiler of the Short, Sharp & Snappy collection, and we started working our way through the plays submitted.

The standard was so high that we decided that there was material easily good enough for two volumes. Junkets Publisher will now publish the two volumes in The Collected Series, as Short, Sharp & Snappy 1 and Short, Sharp & Snappy 2 at the same time, with publication date 1 December 2011.

So who are these 24 playwrights whose plays were selected for publication?

They range from experienced writers for the stage (such as Ashraf Johaardien, Omphile Molusi and Peter Krummeck) to those for whom this is their first play. In age they range from 16 to 77. Margaret Clough, an ex-physical science teacher, is the oldest, enjoying her retirement both by walking her dogs on the beach and by writing – she has just had her first collection of poems, At Least the Duck Survived, published by Modjaji Books. The youngest are three 16-year-old students from King David High School Victory Park – Dean Salant, Gav Rubin and David Wein – who, together with their drama teacher, Renos Nicos Spanoudes, wrote Child’s Play. Just one year older than they are is Caitlin Spring, author of The Search, which she directed last year at Fish Hoek High School.

The authors come from a wide spread of places in Southern Africa, from Kwekwe (Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala) and Harare (SM Norman) to Simon’s Town (Caitlin Spring) and Bonteheuwel (Barry Morgan); and from Olievenhoutbosch (M Andries Phukuntsi) to Schoenmakerskop (André Lemmer); and many other places besides, like Itsoseng (Omphile Molusi) and McGregor (Suenel Holloway) and Voëlklip (Renée Muller).

These are definitely plays that young players can get their teeth into. The plays deal with a wide variety of themes and issues, including:

  • bullying in schools (Omphile Molusi’s For the Right Reasons and David Stein’s The Goliath Project)
  • life in a small South African town (David and Bruce by Martin Hatchuel)
  • an abandoned baby left in a window (Rob K Baum’s The Opening)
  • slave stories (Samson, the Storyteller by M Cassiem D’arcy) and a traditional African folk tale (André Lemmer’s Thabo and the Tar Man)
  • dysfunctional families (Gisele Turner’s Woof Woof and Renée Muller’s HOP-House Dance)
  • blossoming love despite difficult situations (Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala’s Faith in Love, M Andries Phukuntsi’s Love Secondary and André Lemmer’s Playing in the Park)
  • sexual harassment in the workplace (Tariro on Top by SM Norman)
  • drug abuse (the four-author Child’s Play)
  • HIV teaching in schools (Monti Jola’s The New Struggle, workshopped with The Lost Voices group of students from New Crossroads and Phillipi)
  • caring for children with disabilities (Cassandra Puren’s To Care for You Always and Kirsten Miller’s Remember Joe) or infected by HIV (Ashraf Johaardien’s Miracle)
  • the hazards of having a bicycle (Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala’s The Bicycle Thief)
  • … and even ghosts (Margaret Clough’s Ghosts in the Supermarket).

The plays are often raw, gritty, even uncomfortable. Whether worked through in fierce realism, or played out in jaunty comedy, or handled through images more abstract and symbolic, these are plays for young actors to tackle, and – above all else – find the reality, the truthfulness, of these scattered shards of life lived at this time in this place.

Clearly, these two volumes will prove valuable to everyone involved in drama, theatre arts and performing arts in all high schools and teacher training institutions. School libraries, university libraries and public libraries will be very interested in acquiring them.

I hope we will be able to send these two volumes out into the waiting world with a launch on 1 December 2011, World Aids Day, with The Lost Voices student drama group performing an extract from their play about HIV in the classroom, The New Struggle by Monti Jola.

It will be interesting to see if all teachers react as one teacher in Cape Town did, just on hearing about the Short, Sharp & Snappy volumes: “This is a brilliant idea and something needed by us at school.”

To order, and for further information, please contact Junkets Publisher at or on 076 169 2789.

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