Whateverland: A Playful Experiment in Performance and Design

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Performing arts laboratory The Playgroup is presenting a wonderful new spectacle called Whateverland. Written, directed and “designed” by Francesco Nassimbeni in collaboration with Richard de Jager and Heath Nash, the play is a journey to the ‘you’ within and provides a welcome reminder of the hidden worlds we keep under wraps. Whateverland stars Deborah Vieyra, Buhle Zulu, Thembe Mahlaba, Edward Berridge and Laura Windvogel and the performance runs from 13-17 July. Ahead of the opening show this evening we spoke to Francesco about his unconventional approach.


You’re currently enrolled in a Masters in Theatre Making at UCT, exploring the similarities between the directing and designing process. What intrigues you about merging these two fields?


I’ve always wanted to make work of a strong graphic nature. At some point recently I started to think of myself as a designer, working through the medium of performance. We have graphic designers whose output is ceramics. We have artists whose output is sound. Why not a designer whose output is performance?


This is very much what Whateverland is – an experimental mixture of performance and design – and you’ve been working with Richard de Jager (costumes) and Heath Nash (set design) to piece it together. Could you tell us more about this experience and your collaborative approach?  


This is my and Richard’s 6th collaboration. In 2011 I approached him to do a design for a student show I was taking to Grahamstown. I’d viewed his work at the Toffie Pop Culture Festival at the City Hall – he showed a collection called ‘Wie Gaan Hierdie Kak Dra.” I thought it was bold, witty, beautiful and kind of crazy. I loved it.


Since that show he’s designed other plays for me, most notably The Playgroup’s “How To Be Happy”, “Everything is Boring” and “Poetry for Dragons.” I marvel at his ability to let a visual idea expand in any direction it wants to – he is an incredibly exciting artist.


This is my first collaboration with Heath. Working with him is a long-held aspiration! Who doesn’t want to work with Heath Nash? His design mind is inquisitive, intelligent, playful. I think his work is awesome.


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The project forms part of the interdisciplinary performing arts laboratory you founded, The Playgroup. What implored you to start the collective to begin with and how has it grown since?  


I came up with the idea of Playgroup while spending some time in Berlin in 2012. I’d watched work there that seemed to cheekily question the nature of performance, its boundaries – poking fun at the idea of what ‘theatre is supposed to be.’ I started asking around for collaborators. The response was unexpectedly strong, and continues to be!


Whateverland is about being lost and being found…it reminds us of the “hidden worlds we keep secret”. Why are these themes important to you, and how does the production explore them?


I’d say this show is an impression of the inner life – the interior. It’s not narrative – ideas shift and morph, kind of like in a music video, or a poem. Maybe we’re trying to make a ‘total art’; something that is by everyone, for everyone. Something open, inclusive, spontaneous, but focussed.


Community theatre has become a dirty word in theatre writing, and it doesn’t deserve it. Community theatre can incorporate all forms of expression – together. And everyone, no matter what background, should be able to participate. This makes it difficult to control, and that’s good – it’s the obsessive control of your own art that kills it, well at least that’s accurate of my own practice.


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What were you influenced, inspired and informed by during the writing process?


A lot of the writing is creative writing I have been doing in my Masters. Asking yourself the question, “Why do I make art?” has been a good source of questions, ideas, jokes and imagery.


Is Whateverland quite a natural extension of the projects you’ve worked on previously, or do you view it as a bit of a departure?


Yes, it is development of my style. It’s an extension on the aesthetic and ‘mood’ I have been experimenting with Playgroup – the elements of chance, elements of surprise, and ‘play’.


Creativity and an openness to experiment were your only requirements when casting performers. What do you enjoy about working with people who don’t necessarily have theatre/acting training or experience?  


They’re not as programmed into ideas of how plays SHOULD be. They’re more open-minded, more flexible. They also pick up skills from each other, which is amazing to see happen.


Whateverland is showing from Monday 13 July – Friday 17 July at 8pm at the Bindery Lab, UCT Hiddingh Campus, Orange Street. Tickets cost R50 each, book yours by emailing weareplaygroup@gmail.com or phoning Nabeelah on 021 480 7129.


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