Student productions: The antidote to stale theatre experiences

I’ve learned to appreciate when an actor bungles a line on stage. No, I’m not a sadist of the theatre. It’s just that in the midst of scripted and rehearsed reality, it’s a reminder that these imperfectly equipped bodies are brazen enough to strive for perfection.

You see so much at the National Arts Festival that it can all become a cloudy amalgamation of ‘art’  Even the really good stuff can blur. Or worse, you become a rabid consumer, who wants only to be entertained, pleased, given your money’s worth.

Enough preaching now.

All that to say that student theatre should be on the agenda of every festival-goer. I’m not saying it’s some moral obligation, like a festival tithe. But if you’re not watching young minds grapple and stretch to create and execute their ideas with limited experience and meagre budgets, your appreciation for the process of art and its successes will never be adequate.

This isn’t to say that student theatre is poor and unpolished, or that it should be pitied.

It can explore sophisticated themes, complex relationships, topical political and social issues. SA Shorts: Quickies for a Microwave Generation, a production of The University of Johannesburg, is simple yet poignant and, at times, wonderfully sardonic.

Using a variety of devices, including a chalkboard set, videography and an ingenious combination of light and costume, it conveys four prototypical South African stories. With such familiar motifs as murder, premature death and alcoholism, these stories risk cliché – or rather, we risk a doped and diminished reaction. However, each one bends our view just enough to subvert the cliché and resensitise us to the horror. In the vignette Please Kill Me a lonely, suicidal woman stalks a serial killer only to accidentally reform him.

Very often it’s under-budgeted theatre that possesses the wealth of creative capital.

Tshwane University of Technology’s Relocation utilises physical theatre and simple but highly metaphorical props to convey the emotional complexities of township life. The actors’ movements are beautifully rendered, highly stylised and fluid. The performance playfully grapples with the gritty and grim realities of poverty, prostitution, drug use and broken families, in a way that makes these stories feel fresh.

With well-established, big-name productions, it’s easy for expectations to become inflated – fair enough, we’ve paid our R150. But the theatre air can grow stale and we can become less like delighted fans and more like bitter critics.

Student theatre has a way of challenging our objectives, however, asking that we view with empathy. It also opens the door for us to be completely surprised, and refreshed.

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