06 Nov Featured: Joanna Evans on Her Magical Play ‘Four Small Gods’
Joanna Evans is the writer and director of Four Small Gods which is currently running at Magnet Theatre in Cape Town. The play transports the audience to a world that’s equally magical and terrifying – the earth has flooded and a rhino, a dog, a girl and a panther are the only survivors aboard a ship floating on a vast ocean. The core cast comprised of Iman Isaacs, Siya Sikawuti, Amy Wilson and Richard September have a strong camaraderie and display the impressive dexterity needed for a text that is intellectually and physically rigorous. We chatted to this award-winning theatre practitioner about the how the play came to life and what inspired her to write this allegorical text.
Four Small Gods was first performed as part of your final theatre making project at the University of Cape Town and is the winning play of this year’s Imbewu Scriptwriting Competition. How has the play evolved since its initial conception, and has the time between the two runs provided you with any insights into the creative process?
It’s three years since I first wrote this piece…along the way I’ve gotten a bunch of feedback, grown up a bit, deepened my thinking, and have rewritten it over and over again. One of the changes included firing the tiger character (because I was tired of the Life of Pi references), and hiring a panther instead. I also added a god who comes to earth in the form of a chicken.
What did winning the competition entail?
I submitted Four Small Gods to the Imbewu SCrIBE competition. Along with five other scripts it was selected for a staged reading by a professional director at last year’s Cape Town Fringe, and from there it was chosen as the winner of the competition. At the staged reading I got a lot of very helpful feedback, and developed a close relationship with theatre makers Neil Coppen and Dylan McGarry, who have been guiding lights along the way.
The writing is allegorical. What inspired you to write in this genre?
I think in some ways people will always connect animals with allegory – it’s hard to really conceive of them and know them in all their true individuality. So instead of resisting this I decided to go with the allegorical and the archetypal, to set it in the mythical space of a world flood, and to search for the real and specific within the universal.
There are four small gods; a dog, a human, a panther and rhino, each who embody distinct physical characteristics and ideologies. Can you elaborate on the significance of these characters?
That’s a hard one to answer, because for me the panther, rhino, dog and human really are these characters. Audiences may view them as metaphors or ideological references, but to me they are very real. The panther hates being looked at, the rhino likes raisins and knock-knock jokes…I don’t know if that helps.
For this production, you collaborated with John Withers (of John Wizards) on the sound composition and Francois Knoetze (of Cape Mongo), who did the set the design. How has their expertise added to your creative vision?
John and Francois were an integral part of the piece. I’m asking the audience to make such a huge imaginative leap – to see animals instead of actors, a flooded world, a ramshackle boat, gods, even to believe that they themselves (the audience) are drowned. So the aural and aesthetic world of the piece were my most important tools in this. Francois created this incredible moving landscape of flotsam and jetsam (mostly sourced from the Woodstock drop-off) and John composed a haunting score inspired by church choral music and 80s South African jazz, which is at times sweetly sentimental and at others bitterly discordant. The play would have been a total flop without those two!
You’re an all-round theatre practitioner – writer, director, actress and designer. What compels you to the theatre and when did you realize you wanted to work in the industry?
The family story goes that after debuting on stage aged four as an ant in The Jungle Book (one of those “Fancy Ants” that Baloo eats), I announced my plans to one day become “a player”. So I supposed theatre has always been “my thing”. I’m drawn to the liveness and the fragility of it, how all-consuming the experience is, that strange contract between audience and performers, the potential for group catharsis, and the shared leap of faith.
You have a children’s theatre company. How did this come about?
I have a company called Pillow Fort Productions which creates Theatre for Early Years (under sixes). I started up the company after seeing a Swedish play for six-month-olds at a festival in Cameroon, and being blown away by the potential of this kind of work.
Children are honest audiences. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered making theatre for younger people and how has this influenced your work that caters for an older audience?
With little kids if you aren’t genuinely engaging with them they’ll just wander off, they won’t sit there out of politeness like an adult audience. So this work has really helped me clarify my relationship to live audiences, and think about genuinely engaging with them.
The play has six cast members. What were some of the challenges and what have you enjoyed the most during this process?
We had a very short rehearsal process, which was challenging, as there was no time to make mistakes. Luckily my cast are total geniuses, so we pulled it all together just in time. One of the most enjoyable things has been working with ten-year-old Nandipha Tavares Calburn (in the role of the Chicken god). It was my first time working with a child performer, and having her around just brings out everyone’s best selves. She has also taught us some incredible games.
Who or what fuels your creativity?
This is going to sound corny, but the initial spark for a play often comes from my dreams. Sleeping and dreaming is a big thing for me. Also reading, watching people around me, animals, talking to myself, long walks, stories my friends tell me, being South African and all the weird complexities that entails.
There’s often debate around whether or not writers should direct their own work. What are your thoughts on this?
I think there’s definitely an argument for a writer entrusting their work to a director, and allowing someone else’s vision to add a new layer of complexity to it. But for me right now being a Theatre Maker means being hands on. I write scripts because I want to make them; I want to wrestle with them on the floor with the actors, I want the long days, the nights spent stitching costumes, and drives to obscure parts of the city to buy rubber eggs (you’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen the play). I’m not ready to hand that over just yet.
Are you planning on staging Four Small Gods elsewhere or working on anything else that we can look forward to?
No further plans for Four Small Gods just yet, but here’s hoping! Next up for me is the Market Theatre with The Year of the Bicycle.
Four Small Gods is showing at the Magnet Theatre until 10 November, find the details here.
Jo has given us 3 sets of double tickets to give away. To enter, leave a comment with your name and email address. We’ll announce the winners today (Monday, 9 November).