Many stories to tell: an interview with Kanna award-winning playwright

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Chenal Kock received a Kanna award in the category for best children’s theatre production at the 2017 Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudtshoorn for her children’s theatre play In die woud. Her other children’s theatre play, Cindershoeler, was also nominated. In die woud was performed by her creative team: Caleb Peterson, Jurgen McEwan and Kurt Jonas.

Chenal chats to Menán van Heerden about her aspirations and her involvement in applied theatre youth projects in various communities.

 Chenal, congratulations on your Kanna award! You are only 22 years old; what are your plans for the future?

Thank you, Menán! I call my journey “Mixed But Not Fixed”. I want to achieve the highest and truest expression of myself. I have so many more plans for the future. I firstly want to continue to do what I am most passionate about, and that is scriptwriting. I always have so many stories to tell. I love writing comedy, but specifically in the “Afrikaaps” language, or, as some would call it, kombuis-engels. I do not see enough theatre on stage that involves the language of Afrikaaps, or the existence of an Afrikaaps dictionary, because when I write my scripts, I at times want to find out the correct spelling, but, for now, Afrikaaps remains a language that you can pronounce but does not necessarily have fixed spellings. I want to continue to explore movement/physical theatre. It was introduced to me by my university lecturers: Samantha Prigge-Pienaar, Anel Joubert and Estelle Olivier. I am very passionate about working with the human body, and using it to express stories and test its strength and flexibility. In future, I definitely see myself writing a motivational book. I want to continue to create creative workshops that explore themes such as identity, the expression of the body and leadership. My other present and future interests include poetry, cabaret, Afrikaaps rapping, directing, motivational speaking, fashion and learning the business side of theatre; and I am also an aspiring comedian!

The creative cast of In die woud at the Kanna awards ceremony. From left to right: Caleb Petersen, Chenal Kock, Kurt Jonas and Jurgen McEwan. Photo: Izak de Vries

How do you define applied theatre, and how does it contribute to your work with youth? How can theatre empower youth?

Applied theatre is a very complex term. I would academically define it as an umbrella term for the use of theatre and drama practices in an educational, community or therapeutic context, which often takes place in non-traditional settings. I would personally and simply define applied theatre as theatre/drama with and for the community/people, which is aimed at a specific purpose.

Applied theatre contributes a lot to the work I carry out with youth. It has allowed me to be involved with creative youth projects such as Vlottenburg Primary (Stellenbosch), Axios School of Skills (Eersterivier), Goedgedacht’s Path out of Poverty initiative (Malmesbury) and Project Alternative (ALT) (Stellenbosch). Within these projects, the participants were guided to explore liminal space: the place of potential. This space of potential brings out confidence and boosts other factors of one’s well-being, which I think is important, especially for the youth. It empowers them to be taken through a creative process, where they get to explore a sense of self-discovery in relation to themselves and others. This process offers tools and techniques, but within my or my co-facilitator’s scope of practice. I often work around themes such as identity, role-playing, the awareness of one’s body and leadership. I find these themes empowering, especially for youth.

One of the projects Chenal co-facilitated with her applied theatre honours group: Project ALT from the Aurora PSO at the University of Stellenboch. The theme they explored with them was identity.

Theatre holds great power in introducing the youth to stories – important stories. These stories being told on stage often trigger hidden stories within the youth that they are afraid to tell or explore. When they see these stories being told on stage, they feel like they can relate to the themes or language, or critically question what they see or experience. Theatre further empowers youth by creating a space for their imagination to expand creatively. I fully believe that creativity is contagious and that it should be passed on!

What is your winning production, In die woud, about, and what was the message(s) you wanted to convey?

In die woud is a workshopped children’s theatre production, which tells the journey of a young man who, upon his exploration through the jungle, discovers a magic cloth. The play contains elements of physical theatre and object theatre, and makes use of soundscape. The message In die woud wanted to convey was to invite the audience on a journey of one man’s discovery through and with nature; furthermore, that when you allow yourself to step into liminal space – the space of potential – this is when the magic happens. Children’s theatre really allows one to explore the creativity of one’s imagination, and I find this theatre genre extremely fascinating.

What/who inspires you to write and direct plays?

It’s hard to describe, but I get inspired by everything: daily observations, family gatherings, people I come across when travelling via public transport (taxi, bus and train), music, nature, etc. I would encapsulate it in this one word: awareness. When I am aware of my surroundings, feelings and impulses, this is when my trigger for writing gets corked and ready to shoot!

My high school (Cedar High) drama teacher, Peter Braaf, inspired me to write and direct my own plays. He always said, “If you can already visualize it, it is already on stage, and that makes a good director.”

I would also add that I get inspired to write and direct during workshopped productions, because when you explore with your team, you discover amazing material that comes from the performers during improvised rehearsal/workshopped sessions.

How does your background influence your work, and how did you get into theatre?

I had a very busy and creative background. I was always interested in a variety of things, from sport (netball, volleyball, soccer, softball, karate, cross-country, high jump and cycling) to leadership (prefect, representative council learner) to dramatic arts – writing plays and directing my drama group at high school. And I had an interest in being an entrepreneur: I was known to be the tuck shop girl in primary school, because I had to raise my own money to be able to go on school outings; this also continued at high school, and I also participated in extramural activities after school (entering competitions).

All of these experiences contributed to my personality: having an independent drive, being curious to find things out on my own. This contributed to my versatility as a creative artist, and, as a whole, it allows me to embrace my phrase: Mixed But Not Fixed.

Chenal with her parents at her graduation ceremony for her BA degree in drama and theatre studies (2015). From left to right: Margaret Kock, Chenal Kock and Mervin Kock.

I think I got into theatre through my passion for the arts, which started at my high school, Cedar High. The school planned a trip to the KKNK each year, where I was able to watch professional theatre. I became more inspired, and applied to train within a theatre youth programme, called Sithi, at the Baxter Theatre. The process included creative workshops, and was aimed towards a group performance, which was performed at the end of each term at the Baxter Theatre. Thereafter, I continued to follow my passion for the arts when I applied to study drama at the University of Stellenbosch, where I was further exposed to theatre.

Chenal’s applied theatre honours group. From left to right: Moira, Chenal, Marli, Nelene and Zwelakhe.

Who is/was your mentor, and how did he/she contribute to the learning of your craft?

A mentor, to me, is someone who guides you to unleash hidden potentials, who challenges you to step outside your comfort zone and who believes in your capabilities. I have had many inspirational mentors, which include my family, friends, lecturers and facilitators.

My parents continue to be my mentors. Their unconditional love and support for what I do is extremely important. They have contributed a lot to my craft, especially when I’ve needed that “Good luck” or “We’re here for you” or “We will support you” – especially knowing that I am entering into an industry that is not seen as a financially stable career. It has its ups and downs. My family as a whole, including my three siblings, play a vital part in my life. They are the ones I turn to and ask, “Is this joke funny?” or “Do you believe this acting?” And when I tell them I have a crazy idea, they jump in and just go with it. They are consistently there to celebrate my achievements, and knowing they have got my back is a fulfilling feeling. It is important that parents support their children. I know not all parents support their children wanting to be in this industry, and I am grateful and lucky to have a family like I have.

Peter Braaf was my first drama teacher. He introduced me to theatre and contributed a lot to my passion for my craft. He introduced me to noting things down during my drama classes, and I never knew how important this skill would become later in my life. As a whole, he shaped me into a scribe. I cannot picture myself going anywhere without a notebook and pen. This skill also taught me to be very observant and record processes, and my passion for writing developed further. Another important lesson that he taught me was to find the balance between practical and theory. This lesson prepared me for the transition to university.

Samantha Prigge-Pienaar was my movement/physical theatre lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch. She inspired and sparked my interest in movement/physical theatre. I was grateful to have been part of her two productions, Paper Circus (a departmental production) and Unravelling (performed at the 2015 Grahamstown festival). I always used to think that I had the weirdest way of moving when it came to my body, but she taught me to embrace my body’s individuality, and that each body has its strengths and weaknesses, and that is okay. I learnt that the body is like an instrument that has the potential to play many tunes. If you allow yourself to tune into your body’s melody, the music you hear is uniquely you.

About two months ago, I was grateful to be selected as one of four artists in a residency program at the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative in Mpumalanga, where I was mentored by a number of industry specialists. This residency consisted of dance and physical theatre. I must admit, I was intimidated at first, because I do not consider myself to be a “dancer”, but more of a physical theatre mover. The residency experience involved a process of research, interrogation and the implementation of techniques, training tools and knowledge; creating a platform to learn, create and creatively play; tourist attractions and outreach programs. During the time of my residency, I was challenged to remove my mask and allow myself to tap into my vulnerability; this is what physical theatre does – it challenges me to dig deep, and if I were to give it a synonym, I would call it “emotional theatre”. The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative visionary directors, Peter John Sabbagha and Athena Mazarakis, as well as a number of industry specialists, such as Gerrad Bester, Lucia Walker and a few others, really created a diverse space of creative freedom. The rehearsal space (Ebhudlweni Arts Centre) was one floor but different bodies, unique in their own ways of movement. My solo performance towards the end of the residency weirdly enough turned out to be a performance by my hands and feet, which investigated their relationship between each other, and their mobility and limitations.

Amelda Brand was my applied theatre lecturer who inspired me to become involved in applied theatre. I loved the fact that she not only exposed me and the rest of my applied theatre class to theory, but also created opportunities to practice the theory within creative projects, either in schools or within communities. I was fortunate because, at times, experience only begins once you finish your studies. This experience also gives me an advantage now when I apply for work. An important lesson that I gathered from her was the importance of reflecting. This helped me to think about what I do in more depth, to think further than the conventional, to question things critically and to realise that, yes, at times opportunities are given, but you also have to create them yourself.

A mentor plays a vital role in one’s life. They come in different forms, and at times they teach you many lessons, or just that one lesson that positively impacts your life. I love being open-minded and constantly learning, and I still have so much to learn and experience. I always hope to continue to be surrounded by such inspirational mentors!

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