Playwriting and Theatre History

A summary of Mike van Graan's theatre career.

The initial interest: 1975-1981

Van Graan first wrote sketches and plays as part of a church youth club while still at high school. In his matric year, he played one of the lead roles in Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the annual school play directed by John Badenhorst, an English teacher at Harold Cressy High School at the time.

The following year, Badenhorst directed Romeo and Juliet, the first production at the newly-opened Community Arts Project, located at that time in Mowbray, Cape Town. Badenhorst used 8 of his former school students in that production, including Van Graan who was in his first year at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

In order to be accepted at UCT at that time, black students needed to apply for a permit and this was generally granted on condition that the students undertook a course at UCT not offered at “their” ethnic university in terms of the grand scheme of apartheid education. Van Graan obtained a permit to attend UCT from the Department of Coloured Affairs, and his permit subject was…drama. He had gone to UCT to train as a teacher, majoring in English and was required also to major in Drama, which turned out to be an advantage when he decided to return to UCT to pursue an Honours degree in drama a few years later.

Anti-apartheid theatre practice: 1982-1990

On graduating from UCT in 1981, Van Graan worked for three years in faith-based student organizations. This period coincided with the rise of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and with it, sustained and organised resistance to apartheid. Van Graan wrote, directed and acted in a number of sketches and plays that were performed by members of these student organizations, and which were extensively used at political rallies, cultural events, conferences and educational workshops within the broad anti-apartheid movement. These were performed in community halls, civic centres, church halls and campus venues rather than formal theatres. The Community Video Education Trust (CVET) recorded some of these sketches, and these videos were also used as part of workshops and conferences.

These plays and sketches included:

Prisoners of Conscience

A play about a detainee and a conscientious objector, their respective stories and how these related to each other.

Tricameral Blues

A satirical piece exposing the absurdities of the tricameral constitutional system introduced by the Nationalist Party government as a way of co-opting the “Indian” and “coloured” communities.

Boetie, hy gaan border toe

A satirical piece denouncing the conscription of white males who were being sent to “the border”, now increasingly townships where anti-apartheid resistance was rife.

Passing by the other side

A street theatre piece based on the biblical parable of the good Samaritan, that protested the migrant labour system and pass laws that shattered many families. The actors who performed this piece on the streets of Claremont were arrested and charged with constituting an illegal gathering.

After the banning of the “People’s Culture” Festival in 1985, Van Graan returned to UCT in 1986 to do post-graduate studies in drama in order to develop theatre – particularly amongst community-based organizations – as a more effective anti-apartheid tool. His Honours dissertation, International models of popular and political theatre: some principles, functions, forms, techniques and creative methods and their possible relevance to political theatre in South Africa, was published later by UCT’s Centre for African Studies.

He was then invited by the Community Arts Project (CAP) (one of the foremost community arts centres in the country), to devise and manage a theatre training course. With the aid of Patti Henderson and Itumeleng wa-Lehulere, Van Graan established the CAP Popular Theatre Facilitator’s Course in 1988 where trainees were recruited from community organizations around the country, to be trained over a two year period as popular theatre (theatre of the people, by the people, for the people) facilitators.

Some of the graduates of this course and others were then invited to comprise the new CAP Theatre Company, which was to be a model of a progressive theatre company that was both theatrically interesting, and politically incisive.

The transitionary years: dipping into mainstream theatre 1991-1998

In 1989, the ANC, PAC, SACP and other restricted organizations were unbanned, political prisoners began to be released, and the political liberalization process had begun.

The Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown had been boycotted – along with state-subsidised performing arts councils – by progressive arts practitioners (going by the label of “cultural workers” at the time), as white establishment institutions, purveying the politics, interests, aesthetics, values and worldviews of the status quo.

With the transforming political scenario, progressives began to engage with the National Arts Festival. It was in this context that Van Graan had his first play at a mainstream festival (Standard Bank National Arts Festival) and venue (The Market Theatre) in 1991, performed by the CAP Theatre Company.

The dogs must be crazy (1991)

This play comprised a series of seven sketches, each dealing satirically with some aspect of the changing political scene, and each having dogs as the central characters, with the respective scenario viewed from their canine perspective.

The dogs must be crazy was selected by a panel of judges as one of the six best Fringe productions that year, and subsequently had a short run together with the other productions at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg as part of a “Hot off the Fringe” season.

By the following year, Van Graan had moved to Johannesburg and was working at the Congress of South African Writers. With the changing international (the collapse of the communist bloc) and local political scene, international funding became more difficult to access, and CAP’s trustees decided to downsize the organization substantially. Notwithstanding their recent success at the National Arts Festival, the CAP Theatre Company - together with most of the organisation’s staff - were retrenched.

Given the success of The dogs must be crazy the previous year, Van Graan was inspired to do another play at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in 1992.

Some of our best friends are cultural workers (1992)

This two-person satire, focused on the activities of the Cultural Wankers Congress (CWC), an organization that had acquired much status and power during the days of the cultural boycott, but was now beginning to feel the pinch as funding dried up in the wake of international donors allocating funds to countries in their own (European) backyard, and as the struggle against apartheid had entered a new phase where international support for the arts was no longer necessary.

This play – featuring Junaid Ahmed, General Secretary of COSAW at the time and Van Graan - was also selected Hot off the Fringe in 1992, and subsequently had a short run at the Market Theatre.

In 1992, Van Graan played an active role in initiating the Arts for All Campaign that led to the National Arts Policy Plenary in December 1992 and at which the National Arts Initiative was launched. He served as the General Secretary in these lobbies for new arts and culture policies in a post-apartheid dispensation, and was elected to a similar position in the National Arts Coalition that arose in December 1993. With the political changes in 1994 and his role within the policy-making processes at that time, Van Graan didn’t write a play again until the mid-1990s, by which time he had moved from Johannesburg to Durban. (He married Janet Purcell in December 1992 and they moved to KwaZulu Natal where Janet was a lecturer in fine art at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg).

Dinner Talk (1996)

In response to the oft-asked question of the time, “what will you write about now that apartheid has gone?”, Van Graan wrote Dinner Talk, a trilogy of two-handers, each dealing with a completely different contemporary South African theme to show that in fact, there was a great deal more to explore in the emerging democratic era than the us-them apartheid past. The play, directed by Jay Pather, premiered at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in July 1996, and over the next two years, undertook a national tour that included Durban, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudsthoorn and Cape Town.

This trilogy – or parts of it – also had staged readings at the Young Vic in London and in Rotterdam.

Dinner Talk was the first fully professional play by Van Graan i.e. acted by professional actors, with a professional director, and performed in mainstream, professional theatre venues around the country.

Van Graan was awarded the Fleur du Cap prize for Best New Script for Dinner Talk in 1998.

Not Exactly PC! (1996)

Van Graan premiered two works at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 1996. One was Dinner Talk; the other was completely different, a one-person, stand-up comedy piece entitled Not Exactly PC!

If Dinner Talk was a response to the myth that there was nothing to write about in post-apartheid South Africa, Not Exactly PC! was a conscious attempt to practice freedom of expression and to celebrate our nascent democracy by not conforming to the prevailing self-censorship and political correctness of the time, but rather to “say it as it is”.

After the birth of his second son, Van Graan returned to his native Cape Town at the end of 1997, where he still resides.

The Tables Trilogy (1999)

The trilogy Dinner Talk was a verbal piece, essentially three conversations between two people. Having picked up an award for this piece, Van Graan experimented with a completely different, non-verbal style reminiscent of The dogs must be crazy with The Tables Trilogy, three playlets exploring completely different themes, but in which tables were the primary props used in a multi-functional manner. This piece was directed by Warrick Grier with five actors (Mbuso Shandu, Thabathani Zakwe, Nan Hamilton, Nana Mngoma and Luthando Mthi) and premiered at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in July 1999.

The Reunion (radio play, 1999)

SAfm had a relationship with six English broadcasters around the world – BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Television Hong Kong, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, LA Theatre Works and Radio New Zealand – where each country would enter a radio play into Worldplay, an international festival of radio drama, with each radio station then broadcasting the plays of the other countries.

Nigel Vermaas, Senior Radio Producer with SAfm, commissioned Van Graan to write a play for Worldplay 2. Working with Vermaas as a mentor, Van Graan produced The Reunion, his first radio play, which turned out to be the last play broadcast on the English public broadcaster for six years. The Reunion was also broadcast by the BBC World Service.

The current cycle: writing for the professional stage: 2003 onwards

The year 2000 was the annus horribilus for the performing arts in South Africa. The State Theatre was mothballed with more than 450 jobs lost. The Market Theatre retrenched half of its staff. The Windybrow Theatre was about to shut down. PACOFS was facing closure after fraudulent investments of public funds. The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra was liquidated and numerous NGOs were facing funding crises.

The following year, Van Graan was instrumental in launching the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA), a national lobby to promote and defend the interests of the performing arts industry and of workers within the industry. As the General Secretary of PANSA, Van Graan was responsible for the initial fundraising, organizational structure and growth of the organization, limiting his capacity to write for theatre, which, in any case, was in deep crisis as the result of a combination of out-of-touch government policies and poor management of the sector.

Amongst other things, and in the light of flagging morale within the theatre industry, PANSA launched the Festival of Reading of New Writing, an initiative to promote new writing for theatre that was initially funded by the Royal Netherlands Embassy. Writers were invited to submit scripts which a panel of judges evaluated anonymously i.e. writers’ names were removed from the scripts, and then the five best scripts were selected for staged readings over a weekend. The public and industry practitioners were invited to the readings and to make comments to the writers who would then continue to develop their work before a full scale professional production. There were two prizes: a Jury prize where the judges gave the best script an award, and an Audience Award, where the audience voted for the best piece. The first PANSA Festival of Reading of New Writing was held at Spier in February of 2002.

Green Man Flashing (2003)

Van Graan adapted The Reunion for the stage. It made its first appearance in this form as Slippery Slope, and as a staged reading that was part of a season of new South African writing at the Baxter Theatre Centre in 2002. After this reading, Van Graan reworked the piece substantially in dialogue with Clare Stopford, and entered it as Green Man Flashing in the 2003 UCT Drama School/PANSA Festival of Reading of New Writing, held in November that year.

The reading, directed by Liz Mills, saw the script winning the Jury Award for best script at the Festival. It was first produced as a full scale professional production on the Fringe of the National Arts Festival in July 2004 under the direction of Clare Stopford, and with a stellar cast that included Jennifer Steyn, Vusi Kunene, Charlotte Butler, Sechaba Morojele and Andre Samuels.

Green Man Flashing played to critical acclaim and full houses at the Festival that served as a springboard for a national tour the following year that included the Market Theatre (the first play produced under the reign of Malcolm Purkey, the new artistic director), PACOFS, the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and the Baxter Theatre.

It was nominated for a Naledi Theatre Award for Best New South African Play produced in 2005 and was also nominated as Best Script for 2005 in the Fleur du Cap theatre awards.

Faith Creations, a Cape Town-based film company, has optioned Green Man Flashing and is currently raising funds to transform it into a movie.

Hostile Takeover (2004)

Inspired by the success of Green Man Flashing at the National Arts Festival, Van Graan wrote Hostile Takeover as an entry into the 2004 PANSA Festival of Reading of New Writing. Given that there were some murmurings the previous year about a possible “hometown decision” since Van Graan – the General Secretary of PANSA - was the Jury Award winner at the PANSA Festival (the National Steering Committee had agreed that anyone could submit a script provided it was done transparently or PANSA would risk having artists not stand for leadership), and notwithstanding the relative success of Green Man Flashing both critically and with regards to attendance, Van Graan submitted Hostile Takeover into the PANSA competition under a pseudonym, Peter September.

The two organisers of the Festival were only informed of the real identity of the writer on the first morning of the Festival, and the judges were only informed after they had made their final decisions on the last day of the Festival. By that time, Hostile Takeover had been selected as one of the five finalists for participation in the Festival and was also selected as the Jury Runner-Up.

The process had allayed Van Graan’s insecurities about his writing abilities as the script had been recognized in its own right without any reference to him, but it had also confirmed the PANSA process as two writers from outside of Cape Town – Kobus Moolman with Full Circle and the completely unknown Peter September who hadn’t even attended the festival – had been made the Jury and Jury Runner-Up winners.

Hostile Takeover was first produced by the Market Theatre and the National Arts Festival as part of the Main Programme of the Festival in July 2005, under the direction of Malcolm Purkey, and it subsequently had a run in the Barney Simon Theatre at the Market Theatre.

Mixed Metaphors (2005)

Given the success of the previous festivals, the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF) gave PANSA substantial funding for its subsequent reading festivals. PANSA then decided to host three festivals on consecutive weekends to encourage writing in different genres or forms. A festival of one- and two-handers was scheduled for Durban followed by a festival promoting satire and comedy and the third festival to promote new contemporary drama was hosted in Johannesburg in November 2005.

Van Graan decided to enter a script into all three categories, and each of these scripts was selected as finalists in their respective categories.

One of these was Mixed Metaphors that appeared at the reading – directed by Jaco Bouwer – as a play featuring a male protest poet (Oscar Petersen) and a young female arts journalist (Ndoni Khanyile). When the play was produced as a professional production a few months later by the State Theatre in February 2006, it featured two young women – Lindiwe Matshikiza in the lead role of the poet, and Chantal Stanfield as the arts journalist.

It ran at the State Theatre for six weeks, and then had a short run at ARTSCAPE before being performed at the Fringe at the National Arts Festival in July 2006. It was adapted to be performed at schools and in community centres as part of the June 16 youth activities co-ordinated by Workers World Radio in Cape Town.

Mixed Metaphors has been nominated as one of four “Best New South African Play Produced in 2006” for the Naledi Theatre Awards, and earned Lindiwe Matshikiza, a “Best Performance by a Newcomer/Breakthrough (Female)” nomination. It has also been nominated in the Best New Script category in the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards.

Two to Tango (2005)

Two to Tango was selected as a finalist for the NLDTF/PANSA Festival of Reading of New Writing (Comedy and Satire) hosted at UCT’s Intimate Theatre,in November 2005, where it was selected the Jury Runner-Up. As with most of his other plays that had featured at the PANSA Festivals, Van Graan reworked Two to Tango substantially after the reading festival before it was premiered at the Liberty Life Theatre on the Square in Sandton in April 2006.

Directed by Ruth Levin, the play featured Bo Petersen and Bruce Young in this comedy about a couple that had been married for sixteen years, and their resultant trials and tribulations.

Two to Tango subsequently ran at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, opened the Hilton Festival in September, played the Cultivaria Festival in Paarl, had an extended run at On Broadway before returning for a short season at ARTSCAPE in December 2006.

Some Mothers’ Sons (2005)

For the PANSA Festival featuring contemporary drama, Van Graan developed the third part of his Dinner Talk trilogy into a full-length play dealing with violent crime, one of South Africa’s primary contemporary challenges.

Directed by Jerry Mofokeng, the play – called Some Mothers’ Sons - won the Audience Award, the Best Director Award and was the Jury Runner-Up at this Festival in November 2005.

The Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees produced Some Mothers’ Sons at its festival in April 2006, and it featured Dumisani Mbebe and Gideon van Eeden, who were directed by Jay Pather, the original director of Dinner Talk.

Some Mothers’ Sons went on to have a national tour that included the Baxter Theatre (from when Dumisani Mbebe was replaced by Wiseman Sithole), National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Kalfiefees in Onrus/Hermanus, Klein Libertas Theatre in Stellenbosch, the Hilton Arts Festival, the Apollo Film Festival in Victoria West, Aardklop Festival in Potchefstroom, the Market Theatre and the Musho Festival in Durban in January 2007.

It also had a three-week season at the Oval House Theatre in London, and had four performances at a festival hosted by De Appel Theatre in The Hague.

In total, the actors have had the equivalent of more than seven months of full-time work from this play.
The play is currently being developed into a film script for submission to M-NET.


In 2006, Van Graan attracted five commissions.

Neighbourly Love (radio drama sketch, 2006)

This seven-minute radio play was commissioned by the BBC World Service as part of a large “Seven Ages of Car” project to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Ghanaian independence in 2007. Van Graan was one of seven African writers selected to write a seven-minute sketch as part of this project.

The play was recorded in December 2006 and will be broadcast later in 2007.

Mirror, Mirror (2006)

Van Graan was invited by his alma mater, UCT Drama Department to be the artist-in-residence in August/September 2006. His primary brief was to write a new play to be performed by the final-year acting students in 2007.

A reading of the first draft of the script – submitted in October 2006 – took place under the direction of Geoff Hyland in the Intimate Theatre on 22 November, with useful and constructive audience feedback afterwards.

Mirror, Mirror, a satire about the role of artists in contemporary South African society set in the time of The Wizard of Id, has been entered into the National Arts Festival Student Festival as the official UCT entry for 2007. It is currently being developed.

Brothers in Blood (2006)

Charles Diamond, a South African businessman living in London, saw Hostile Takeover at the National Arts Festival in 2004 and decided to commission Van Graan – via the Market Theatre – to write a new play.

Working with Craig Higginson, the Market Theatre’s dramaturg, Van Graan has submitted the third draft of this play about Jewish/Muslim/Christian relationships in Cape Town, set at a time when People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) was active in the city.

The Aardklop Arts Festival in Potchefstroom celebrates its tenth anniversary in September 2007, and has commissioned Van Graan to write a new play to coincide with this anniversary. This will be Van Graan’s first play that will be substantially in Afrikaans.

The Suidoosterfees in Cape Town has commissioned Van Graan to write a new play for their festival to be hosted in January 2008.

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