Featured: The Titillating and Seductive Theatre of Jemma Kahn

Jemma Kahn’s brainchild We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, directed by Lindiwe Matshikiza, is a titillating and devilish theatre show that explores the seven deadly sins through the ancient Japanese style of storytelling, Kamishibai. Each tale is skillfully penned by a different writer and told by Jemma and her side-kick Roberto Pombo, who share immoral tales and seduce the audience with their scantily clad figures and the sheer enjoyment through which they delve into the erotic, macabre and darker side of human nature. 

The show was awarded a Standard Bank Silver Ovation at this year’s National Arts Festival and played to sold out houses at the Cape Town Fringe. Jemma’s discerning eye for detail and ability to collaborate with artists across different mediums has brought a fresh twist to storytelling on South African stages and delighted audiences worldwide. All the stories are accompanied by custom-made illustrations and the comedic antics of Roberto, who can play squeaky toys as masterfully as the accordion. 

Due to popular demand, you performed an extra show at the Cape Town Fringe Festival. I’d repeat the tiresome adage of (anything vaguely related to) sex sells but I’m sure that’s not the only reason…

I think it has good appeal for people who haven’t seen Amateur Hour or the The Epicene Butcher. We had a new audience and capitalized on that with a sexy poster and design. The popularity – it’s very nice. I’m not sure what the formula is but I think because we collaborated with seven different writers and three illustrators, that immediately widened the audience base. It’s quite a cunning plan. 

‘Spagehtti of the Whores’ by Lebogang Mogashoa, illustrated by Rebecca Haysom:

We Didn’t Come To Hell For The CroissantsJemma KahnWe Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants

It’s smart, which prompts me to ask who you’re making the work for? 

I think the problem with a lot of theatre is that no one bothers to ask that question in the first place. They ask, what do I want to make? Not even, what do I want to see? You have to make something that’s entertaining and watchable and not just because “it’s time that I did a Hamlet”. 

How do you honour your artistic pursuits and still attain commercial success? 

It’s hard. Maybe as I move further into my career and want to get more obscure, I might get burnt – suddenly Jemma’s done her silent monk piece and no one wants to watch it! A lot of the stuff I love is not popular. But, I’m not afraid of being popular, especially if you want to earn a living making theatre. You have to be popular otherwise you can’t stick bums on seats. 

The obscure stuff I enjoy still gives the audience some kind of hook. Perhaps visually it’s unusual and I enjoy design. I think an audience appreciates it when they see that work has been put in, especially with obscure stuff. You can’t go fifty percent and ask the audience to reach you half way. You have to go a hundred percent if you’re taking them into weirder territory. I love getting weirded out.

Your work is implicit rather than didactic. As a theatre maker, how conscious are you of this? 

I’m glad. I think both can work and you never want the audience to feel stupid or to think that you’re clever. You want to engage in a lively brain dance so that you all feel clever and happy. There’s a lot of didactic shit out there. I think Lindiwe’s got a really light touch and was so respectful of all the work from the writers. A couple of times we’d try a version where we pushed something too hard and I still think there’s a couple of stories where we could be more subtle. I think when she and I sat down and read all the stories for the first time, we were just so fucking pleased that we had such a strong set of material.

The style of show is inspired by the art of Kamishibai. After spending time in Japan, what prompted you create work like this? 

When I saw it in Japan I realized I was watching something my country had never seen before. That is an extremely powerful thing and I wanted to do it as quickly as possible before someone else did. It was such a mesmerizing medium. I thought I had to be the box lady. I don’t undervalue the importance of that uniqueness. 

‘Meine Schnukiputzi, Schatzi-Spatzi, Sussë Schneckchen Ntombikayise’ by Tertius Kapp, Illustrated by Carlos Amato:

We Didn’t Come To Hell For The CroissantsJemma KahnWe Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants

You’re establishing quite a brand for yourself. Do you feel more pressure to consistently deliver a certain standard of work after the success of The Epicene Butcher

There is more pressure but it’s easier because I remember going to Grahamstown with Epicene in the first year and no one knew who I was or had seen any my stuff so I had to hustle so fucking hard. It takes a lot of energy and you have to be really into what you’re doing. It’s really, really hard, so it’s nice to have a bit of a brand going and knowing that the show is sold out when you arrive is an enormous privilege. 

Did you always know you wanted to pursue a career in theatre? 

I did fine art at Wits for the first three years but I’d always been interested in both fine art and drama. Fine art became very lonely so I switched to drama in last two years and I haven’t found anything more satisfying than theatre. If I do, then I’ll move to that. Theatre at the moment is the optimal expressive medium for me. I am a performance monster, the act of performing is so incredibly satisfying and addictive.

Who or what has been most influential to your creativity? 

One of the luckiest things for me when I was studying was when I switched to drama. Gerhard Marx, who is a visual artist, was teaching design and he blew my mind open. He is amazing. It was a fine art inroad into design.

One of the unique things about the show is that each story was written by a different person. How did you select which writers to work with?

The idea for the show was jumping around my head for a while and seven is the number of stories that works in terms of timing. Epicene Butcher had six and eight or nine at one point but seven is a good mix because it won’t be too long, and the seven deadly sins was a marketable idea. It’s got a dark and sexy feel. With the writers, I bravely approached people, although some I knew before, and The Epicene Butcher came with cache so they said yes. 

‘The Tragedians’ by Louis Viljoen, illustrated by Dave Jackson:

We Didn’t Come To Hell For The CroissantsJemma KahnWe Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants

Was this process anything like you expected? 

The process was different with each writer and because it was territory I wasn’t familiar with, I let each relationship develop organically. Some were particular about the editing – they wanted to edit their own work. Others gave me three ideas and together we chose one. Some needed to have sketches done concurrently with the writing, so it was all a little different. I was fortunate that most of them worked. It’s a puzzle and the last stories to arrive had to be moulded because all the writers wanted to write the cool, dark stories but you also need light, fun ones; the silly story and story with feelings. It was like curating. 

Reading the tales from a literary perspective is one thing, and then having to interpret them for performance adds another element. What was the rehearsal process like when you began to physicalize the written text? 

Lindiwe, Rob and I had a weeks workshop without any written text and that was where the burlesque stuff came in, because Lindiwe has burlesque performance experience. The pictures in the box work on a reveal and that’s a sexy thing in burlesque – it’s what you choose to hide and show. The metaphor of the reveal is what Lindiwe brought into the first week. Rob and I had worked together on improv and we get on so extremely well. What Lindiwe said about Rob and I is that we’re both very game, like we’ll do anything. She had strong approaches to each piece and understood that they needed to be as different from each other as possible in order to get the sense that you’ve had a fully rounded experience. She came to each piece with a unique notion that would unlock it.

Have any of the writers seen the show? 

No, not all of them. Nicholas Spaglonetti who wrote ‘The Slothful Tale of Erasmus Blank’ has. Tertius Kapp saw his. I’m scared for Rosa to see hers because I’ve met her and got to know her now and I hope she likes what we’ve done with it because it’s a very strong character choice. I wonder if she’s expecting something a little more subtle. It’s a very interesting creative place to be a writer because your creativity ends where everyone else’s starts.

Some of the writers I wish had seen the show once it had run for a little bit longer. Tertius saw it quite early and I wasn’t quite on point with his story. They’ve all been nice to my face but I don’t know what word on the street is – I hope it’s nice. It’s like playing fantasy football for me. It’s like choosing a team of amazing artists and playing with and putting them together in weird combinations. Basically, you’re the king of your castle. 

‘Lady Fiona’s Song’ by Justin Oswald, illustrated by Anne Green:

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What value do you think there is in creative cross-pollination? 

The value has to be more than the sum of its parts because everyone got paid but no one is making a fortune from it so the value comes from other stuff, like meeting people. Many of the writers don’t need more credibility, they’re better established than I am, but the fact that people got to meet each other and work on other stuff is great. It adds more connections to the web.

The problem with visual arts collaboration is often two artists get thrown together in a room but there’s no parameters so they can make anything, and that’s actually very limiting. With this, the writers and the illustrators received direction and I think those boundaries are very inspiring. 

We performed the show at the Joburg Art Fair because this year they had a special focus on live performance and visual art people are so doff. They go like, “Oh my god! It was so amazing because you remembered all the words”. Come guys! The discipline of theatre is often lacking in performance art. Performance art is concept driven but then it sometimes lacks the rigor of the rehearsal process or the same set of skills we learnt at drama school. 

Then, the deficiency of theatre is the visual, a lot of it isn’t stimulating to the eye and you can look at visual art stuff and learn from there. I love the fact that I have a visual and performance art vocabulary so those things can be constantly playing together. Really good dance is probably the best bridge – when it’s well designed and the story is internalized and the body is used as text. I think that’s the best performance art out there really. 

‘Pride’ by Jemma Kahn, illustrated by Bev Strindberg:

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What’s the most important thing to you in a collaborative process? 

Collaboration is such a buzzword in the visual art would because they don’t do it naturally, whereas with theatre it goes without saying that you’re going to be working with other people and I love that. I work much better when someone is expecting something from me. Having clear terms from the outset like the administrative stuff i.e. how much you’re getting paid, how much time you’re expected to work on things, that the producers have the rights not to use certain material etc. is important.

Everyone responds well to that kind of clarity and not promising things you can’t deliver. And, don’t indulge in scope bleed. If you’ve asked someone to do something then don’t take advantage and ask if they can do this or that. I think it’s about just starting in a professional business way, which we don’t often do in theatre because people work for free and that’s delicate. God forbid anything goes sour but if it does, you know that you’ve agreed on terms from the beginning. That’s quite a boring answer. A career in theatre is still a job. Even if you’re pretending to be a professional, it’s better than pretending to be an amateur.

We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants is showing at POPArt in Joburg from 2 – 8 November. In Cape Town, you can catch it at Alexander Upstairs from 30 November – 5 December and at the Kalk Bay Theatre from 7 – 12 December. Book here.

‘The Slothful Tale of Erasumus Blank’ by Nicholas Spagnoletti, illustrated by Tommy Wallis:

We Didn’t Come To Hell For The CroissantsJemma KahnJemma Kahn

Production credits: 

Performers: Jemma Kahn and Roberto Pombo / Director: Lindiwe Matshikiza / Illustrators: Dave Jackson, Carlos Amato, Rebecca Haysom, Anne Green, Bev Strindberg and Tommy Wallis / Writers: Tertius Kapp, Rosa Lyster, Lebogang Mogashoa, Justin Oswald, Nicholas Spagnoletti and Louis Viljoen / Producers: POPArt Productions and 133 Arts Foundation

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