'Only the Sky is the Limit: A Swedish Playwright in Cape Town' by Anna Nygren
On the plane back home. There is a safety instruction video showing a men’s football team (it might be Manchester United, I’m not sure, I’m not the least interested in football, or in the bodies of men playing football, so I don’t really find it essential to remember) playing with the safety devices accompanied by a song whose only text (repeated over and over again) is: We are Turkish Airlines. We are globally yours. The flight will take almost twenty-four hours, including a stop in Istanbul. I’m exhausted. It feels like I’m leaving the world. Or like I’m going back to the world. To what I’m used to. It feels like I’ve spent the past week in another sort of reality than what I’m used to. I have a feeling of unreality, I do no longer know what is real.
Almost exactly one year ago I spent a week in Cape Town, South Africa. I was participating in an exchange program called Inspiring to Play, organized by Assitej in Sweden and South Africa. Together with five other persons, three more playwrights, a workshop leader and an administrator/team leader, I went to Cape Town to participate in workshops together with a group of South African writers – with goal of writing a play – and learn about how the work with theatre for young audience are being done in Cape Town. A few months later, the group from South Africa came to Sweden during the Bibu Performing Arts Festival for Children and Youth, to continue the workshops.
Participating in the program was, what one might call, life changing. Artistically and personally. I still don’t know how to describe it. I don’t know how to think about my experiences, how to organize and sort out my thoughts and feeling and memories. This article is a way of trying to do that.
On the ground. I’m lying on the ground. There are bricks on the ground, yellow-brownish bricks that are hard against my back and which makes a sort of unpleasant sound when I’m moving or when other people are walking over them. The air is warm, not too warm, but warm (I’ve been told that it is autumn in Cape Town now, in Sweden it is spring, the South African autumn is warmer than the Swedish spring, when we left Stockholm there was snow, this morning I took a swim (yes, I count is as swimming even though I was in the water about five seconds) in the sea). There’s a grid fence on my left and a yellow brick wall on my right, the space where I’m lying is like a small outdoor room. Outside the fence there’s a road. I can see people walking on it. Some kids singing. I feel empty. I feel like I want to cry. I feel that I (my thoughts, my body, my life, everything that I represent) am disgusting. I feel angry. I feel powerless. I feel sad. I feel ashamed. I feel guilty. The outdoor room is part of the Assitej centre building. We have all the workshops here. We are working here. It’s located in Vrygrond (I google “vrygrond”, google says: “Vrygrond is a socially and economically deprived community”), one of the so called townships I Cape Town. The Assitej centre is one of the few houses made here made of bricks. Most houses are containers. The brick ground is hard against my body. I feel that everything looks yellow-brownish. I feel empty – like if I have so many feelings that my body can’t carry them and therefore spit them all out on the ground.
The theme of the workshops during Inspiring to Play is poverty. The goal with the workshops is that every member should write a play on the theme for a young audience. Part of the workshop is also that we work with different sort of research methods while writing the play.
During the year since my Cape Town trip there has been an ongoing discussion (a discussion that (of course) was ongoing even before that, that is always ongoing, but, that intensified around the time for the trip) about children poverty in Sweden. That is a discussion that concerns social differences in a country that has, for the past decades, been regarded, and viewed itself, as a equal, wealthy, fair country – but where the past few years a political change has taken place (and takes place) and where many are now concerned about the welfare, the way humans are seen, and how they are treated. It is a discussion about Swedish self-image, about politics, about humanity – and I don’t really know if I understand everything, and I’m sure I can’t explain the complexity here. Focusing on children poverty is a way of making the discussion less abstract, and more concerning. There are some people saying that there is no children poverty in Sweden today. Other people, including me, mean that one have see poverty as something relative, that children poverty in Sweden today might not be mass starvation, but hunger, shame, and social isolation and loneliness because one cannot afford to do the same things as ones friend because of lack of money.
As a Swedish person, writing about poverty in a Swedish-South African collaboration feels strange. I asked myself: What right do I have to say anything about poverty? This Cape Town trip – it is a poverty safari? I see people living in containers – what do I think I know about poverty? There are differences. A difference grounded in history, globalization, imperialism, colonization, and much more. I feel this difference. I don’t know how to relate to it, think about it. What I know is: Before I went to Cape Town it felt strange, and difficult. But we talked about it in the Swedish group. We all felt that we could not write a play on poverty based on the things we experienced in South Africa. We had to relate the theme to ourselves, to the Swedish situation, in order to write a concerning, faithful play. And we had to believe that we, from that point, could write something that could speak and engage people outside Sweden – at least on an emotional, philosophical basis.
The research started back in Sweden. I went to a leisure centre for children aged ten to twelve and talked to them while they were eating sandwiches. We talked about poverty, expensive mobile phones, kittens and playing the violin.
We’re watching a play at the Community Theatre Festival. The play is in Afrikaans. I don’t understand what they say. Just a few word that sounds like German. But one of the South African participants told us that it was a play about “tuck”, which means drugs, and how it affects the communities. The word “tuck” sounds, when spoken, like the Swedish word “tack” which means thank you. There is something with that wordplay that makes me think about the absurdity of the world. I understand quite a lot of the play without knowing the words. I think about the language of theatre. Of dramaturgy without understandable dialog, of bodies without words, of language and voices without language. I think about how things are possible.
The workshops in Cape Town focused on finding and developing a story for a play. One day we used big papers that we lay out on the ground and lay our own bodies on them. We helped each other to draw the contours of the body on the paper and then we filled the papers – our bodies and the spare space – with words and pictures, following instructions from the workshop leader. On that moment the concentration in the room was almost touchable. No one said a word only the instructions for the painting were read aloud. The things we should paint and write were personal stuff, about our childhood, and about our thoughts on poverty. It was very helpful and sort of releasing. I could focus on my own thoughts, and the thought that I could not express in words I could paint. Afterwards we wrote texts inspired by our own picture, and in the afternoon we had a sort of exhibition of our paintings and read the texts aloud.
Experience the local children’s theatre, the community, the culture and the city of Cape Town included an afternoon with the kids in Vrygrond. The Assitej centre has theatre classes with these children every week, and this week we were part of the class (or we sort of borrowed the children). We played games and sang songs. I think just being together, doing ordinary things, talking free, is one of the best ways to do research for a children’s play. I think the everyday life is important – there is where the important, difficult and beautiful things are. There is where one can find the things that are interesting and anxious for children – as well as for grownups. (But that, of course, doesn’t mean that the plays need to be very realistic…) We also went on walking in the area. We were told that it was a dangerous area. We could not walk around alone. I felt, in a way, trapped. But then I thought I wasn’t the one who was trapped, I was only there for a short time. There was this feeling of unreality. Is this real? Where are we now? How am I supposed to feel? How should I react to this? I felt that I needed some sort of rules or regulations that could tell me what to do. I still don’t know what to think. Do I have the right to think anything? I feel that I want to do something. I don’t know what to do. I feel that I can’t do anything, what can I do, I’m only one person. I ask myself: What is a life? Whose life is a good life, worth living? What is money? What is poverty? Am I, writing this text, thinking these thoughts reproducing a picture of an imperialistic, capitalist, oppressive world, not interested in human beings but in money, power, global economy, or something like that. What is life? What is happiness? What is dangerous?
It’s raining. We’re sitting in a minibus driving to another township in the neighborhood. I feel terrible, I feel disgusting. I feel cold. It’s extremely cold. Extremely cold. I think that it’s symbolic. It doesn’t feel symbolic. It’s a physical cold. I’m shivering. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in this world.
Another day we visited the rich part of Cape Town. Enormous gardens surrounded by high fences and monitoring. We went to Table Mountain. The nature was fantastic. Great. But in a way the situation was absurd. The differences. Social gaps. Rich and poor. It was so obvious. I felt I could touch it. I thought about injustice. I thought about the color of skin. Speaking about skin color in Sweden is difficult. It is also, like the discussion on children poverty, a debate that has emerged, or developed during the last year. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing. I think that the emergence of these and other debates in Sweden for the moment has to do with the question: Is Sweden a Good country? Perhaps. A question about goodness. What is goodness – on a local level or in a global world? It’s not so simple, I guess, but that’s a part of it. Just a few weeks ago I talked with a friend who was working on a radio series on racism – racism on a sort of every-day-level. And I told her about how I, during the time in Cape Town, became aware of the importance of skin color in a new way. South Africa has a completely different history than has Sweden – which makes the debate today a different one. I do not mean that racism is something that exists in South Africa, and not in Sweden, I only mean that seeing other structures and hearing other voices makes it easier to get a new perspective on the questions close to ones ordinary life.
I read what I’ve written so far through. It sounds so depressing. As if everything was terrible. It was not. It really wasn’t. It was, as I wrote in the beginning, a life changing travel. The experiences from the trip, from the place, the workshops, the discussions, have made me a different person today than was I a year ago. Some things were hard, difficult. But I met, during this week, so many inspiring people. I felt so welcome. There were so many people giving me hope about the future. So many creative ideas, so much will to fight for a better world. My feelings are a combination of hope and sorrow, happiness and guilt. The world isn’t easy to grasp, the feelings aren’t either.
It is also difficult for me to write about it. Especially in English. I often feel I lack the right words. I sometimes felt the same during the workshops. I’m used to write and speak without problems. I’m used to have full control over the language I use and the way I express myself. For me, that means having a sort of power. Using English during the workshop reduced my vocabulary and my ability to say what I wanted to say. First it was frustrating. I felt stupid. But then I realized that I, in a way, felt freer writing in English than in Swedish. The linguistic limitations created the emotional limits that I needed to formulate my feelings. My writing in a foreign language became sort of a symbol for my play characters try to live in a world that doesn’t welcome them. I actually continued to write in English after coming home, just because it helped me think a little different, to get a new perspective.
I May, the next part of the workshop took place in Lund, Sweden. Meeting all the participants again felt great, and the festival shows that we watched when not working was very inspiring (for example a version of The Swan Lake with dancers and actors working together in a beautiful scenography made by bathtubs). One of the South African participants took a lot of photos of bicycles and posted on Facebook, writing about how many bikes there were and how wonderful it was. It made me think about spaces and places and infrastructures. The opportunity to go to other places is not obvious. It is a matter of money – and of politics. I remember the roads in Cape Town as mainly car roads. Inspired by this I decided that the play I was writing would take place on an abandoned train track.
After the two workshops in Cape Town and Lund we finished our plays individually. I named my play Only Sky Is The Limit (a quote from one of the characters named Sky). It’s about kittens, mobile phones, unicorns and two children playing on a train track. The story is based on my own memories mixed with influences from the time in Cape Town and Lund and the workshop material.
To sum up this text, I thought I should write something about personal and professional experiences. Or something like that. Something like them two melting together, and something about how I don’t know if this project affected me most on a personal or professional level. Because that is how I feel, and I think that is when I feel writing is most important, and difficult. When I am uncertain about how I think and feel. When it affects me on a personal level. When there’s a question that makes me lie awake in my bed at night trying to figure out an answer or trying to formulate my own thoughts about it. To see things from a new perspective make the things one knows and is used to look different. I think that’s important. I want to be able to see things. This project, the travel, the workshops, made me see things. I’m very happy for that.
It’s early in the morning. I should be tired because last night we sat up late talking about something that felt like everything. Talking about the world, our relation to it, our lives, how we feel, how we think it is. I should be tired, but I’m not. I start writing. I write for an hour or so. Then I take a walk outside. The place where we stay is safe I’ve heard (or relatively safe, I think, because one can never be safe, and I don’t think that’s important). I can see the sea, there’s a railway and on the other side of it is the sea. I’ve heard that there are sharks in it. When there’s a flag it’s best not to swim. There’s no flag. It’s sunny. I can see people. There are some people going to work, there are some people building thinks, like houses or roads. I walk on the sunny side of the street. I think about living. Every day living. Here. Now. Today. Tomorrow. I feel scared. But most of all I feel something like hope. Because of theatre. Performing arts. Because of children. Young people. I feel hopeful.