A show about colonial power, Born from the freedom to make mistakes

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A show about colonial power, Born from the freedom to make mistakes
An undated photo provided by The Centre for the Less Good Idea and William Kentridge Studio shows the cast of “Houseboy,” based on the 1956 novel by a Cameroonian diplomat, at the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater in Los Angeles. “Houseboy” took shape at the South Africa-based Center for the Less Good Idea, where artists are allowed to follow their own impulses. (The Centre for the Less Good Idea and William Kentridge Studio via The New York Times)

by Roslyn Sulcas

NEW YORK, NY.- William Kentridge is a protean creator of visual artworks, animation, installations, theater, opera and film. (He also occasionally performs himself.) A major exhibition of his work is currently on show at the Royal Academy in London, and another has just opened at The Broad in Los Angeles.

But Kentridge, 67, is also a collaborator, a believer in the communal power of art and art-making, and energetically engaged with his home city: Johannesburg, South Africa’s gritty and vibrant major metropolis. It’s there that he has set up perhaps his least-known project, the 6-year-old Center for the Less Good Idea.

Housed in a complex of buildings downtown in the Maboneng neighborhood, the Center — entirely funded by Kentridge — allows actors, dancers, singers, musicians, visual artists, poets and performers to collaborate over lengthy periods without premeditated ideas about the outcome.

But outcomes there are, presented at the end of each of the nine seasons that the Center has produced. Sometimes they are ephemeral; others have longer lives. On Thursday, the Center for the Less Good Idea was set to begin a short run of “Houseboy,” directed by Kentridge, at the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater in Los Angeles, its first staging outside South Africa.

The work, based on the 1956 novel “Une Vie de Boy” by Cameroonian diplomat Ferdinand Oyono, is a signature Center offering, involving performers from across disciplines (and a large Kentridge drawing as its backdrop), who recount Oyono’s story of a young man drawn into the dysfunctional relationship between his colonial master and his wife, taking on questions about colonialism, race and representation.

In a recent video call with Kentridge and the Center’s co-founder, Bronwyn Lace — both in Los Angeles — and Phala Ookeditse Phala, who runs the Center in Johannesburg, they spoke about how projects come together and the development of “Houseboy.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How did the Center come about, and where does the name come from?

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: The Goethe-Institut, a cultural center in Johannesburg, had closed, and at first my thought was to found something small scale to fill that gap. I had a studio in Maboneng and wanted to find a space nearby; someone said you should meet Bronwyn because she really knows the area.

BRONWYN LACE: I got a call, saying, Would you like to come to tea? I felt like I had been called to the principal’s office!

In his usual wonderful way, William made no assumptions. He asked, is a Center something Johannesburg needs? We started to look at spaces and to talk about a vision. Through conversations with many artists across disciplines, it became clear that a space that focused on process was missing. We didn’t need to find a grand theater or a beautiful gallery, just a holding space for activity.

Then William shared a Tswana proverb he had used in his art: “If the good doctor can’t cure you, find the less good doctor.” It was clear that it had to be called the Center for the Less Good Idea.

PHALA OOKEDITSE PHALA: At the core of the Center is the physical activity of making work with other people: thinking through movement, thinking through voice, through rhythm. It’s about observing ideas and recognizing things that the body knows, but you didn’t know the body knows. It provides space for doubt, uncertainty and the understanding that failure is only a beginning, not an end of things.

KENTRIDGE: What’s important to understand in the context of South Africa is that if you are an independent artist of any kind, you generally need to show what instrumental, social good your project is going to do to get funding. It was very important that the Center be a place where artists can follow their own impulses.

Q: How do artists come to participate?

KENTRIDGE: We made a decision not to have an artistic director, but rather invite two curators, who would select the performers, for each season. There is a kind of shape to each, which first Bronwyn, and now Phala, hold as what we call the animateurs of the Center. For example, one season we decided every performance would be an 11-minute epic, and we said to the curators, that’s the shape. Then they found actors, writers, dancers, musicians to work with.

Until recently we had two seasons a year, but since starting the Academy, a teaching arm, we now do one. With the exception of the Academy, we also don’t ask for proposals or applications. For many young artists, your life consists of trying to tailor your work to other people’s needs.

LACE: Phala, who is a theater director, co-curated that 11-minute season, which had about 20 extraordinary pieces. It became clear to us that he was the next animateur of the Center. It’s important, in terms of how it is run, that the voices shift and we don’t get stuck in habitual ways of being.

PHALA: After the season, I was called into the principal’s office, and I never left.

Q: Can you give an example of how a project might emerge?

LACE: We use the methods that William’s own big projects use, which is to workshop ideas from a very basic starting point, bringing people from varying disciplines into a room without a script or a score or an agenda, and saying: Let’s see what happens with just a small provocation or prompt. It could be an idea, or something physical: In the second season, we built a scaffolding into the Center space because of something the composer and choreographer Nhlanhla Mahlangu wanted to do. But then all the pieces made by other artists in that season used the scaffolding, for very different reasons and in different ways.

PHALA: Or last season we had a choir, which one person wanted, but all the artists could work with those singers. And it works both ways. That choir has now found new legs in terms of doing different kinds of work and challenging themselves.

Q: How did “Houseboy” develop?

KENTRIDGE: It’s a remarkable novel, because it gives such a clear picture of shifting power in the colonial context. When does knowledge give you power, and when is it a liability? It’s about master-servant relationships but also about the deep heart of colonialism.

The idea was always that it was a kind of reading, using the voices of some of the characters. When we started, it was going to be narration and small scenes, characters talking to each other, but eventually it turned into quite a strict form, with everyone performing frontward. More and more music came into it, with two percussion players and some songs, because of the performers we had. Then other people, who happened to be in the rehearsal room, joined in the singing moments, so we suddenly had an extra choir from the audience. There were other things that came from the actors; one spoke French, so we shifted his speeches back into the original language from the novel.

It was the Center at its best: Who are the performers here with us? From this, let us make the work.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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