We sat down with the three creative minds behind the Auto & general Theatre on the Square’s production of Tracy Going’s Brutal Legacy; Natasha Sutherland, the writer and lead actress, Lesedi Job, the director, and Daphne Kuhn, the producer at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square. We talked about the adaptation process, what drew them to the story, and some of their motivations in storytelling. Part 1 of a 2 Part interview.
Hi guys! Thanks so much for sitting down with us and telling us a little bit about the process of putting Brutal Legacy on stage. It’s an important show with a very direct meaning, so could you please tell us about what drew you to Brutal Legacy?
Daphne Kuhn: As a theatre producer at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square I’m always looking for interesting plays that will not only entertain, but also uplift the community, and educate at the same time. When Lesedi Job approached me and told me more about Tracy Going’s memoirs, Brutal Legacy, therefore, I was highly excited, because obviously in between some of the lighter entertainment, I’m always searching for an “issues” play that will really educate and create the momentum for discussion – as we have with so many plays – such as Odd Man Out which I am bringing back soon. But I was so very proud to work with Lesedi and in turn with Natasha, who wrote the play, and to see the way they work so beautifully together in putting together a production. And of course working with Tracy herself on this issue that is so close to all of our hearts – because we know how rife women abuse and domestic violence is in South Africa – it was obviously a no brainer to pursue this.
Lesedi Job: I was sitting in my car last year round about this time, listening to Tracy on Azania Mosaka’s show. And there was something that went “This could be turned into a play.” I think it was the fact that there was domestic violence, and that it included incidents of abuse that happened in 1997, and this concept of a “brutal legacy” informing all of Tracy’s life. And I think I was interested to see how she had dealt with the issue in her writing. It was just an idea that I was passionate about. I then approached Natasha Sutherland – we were doing Meet Me at Dawn [at the Market Theatre] at the time. After the show one night I went to her, and I gave her a copy, and I said “Tash, I’d love to direct you in this. I think we could go on a journey together with this.” Then after a couple of meetings, I remember talking with Tash and she said: “I could write this, do you want me to write it?” And I said: “Go for it, write!” We all have to start the journey somewhere. At one point I’d never directed before, but I ended up directing. So even if Natasha’s never written a play before, now she’s written a play!
Daphne: I think what was very inspiring, speaking to you, was your enthusiasm. You said that Natasha would be involved, and for me what was interesting is that from what you spoke of, Tracy’s story is really one of triumph, and of upliftment. And even in our marketing efforts, it’s not easy to sell a play on this subject. So we tried to promote that the subject is actually inspiring.
Natasha Sutherland: I come from a family of storytellers. My dad was a theatre director, and my mom used to tell stories the old fashioned way – without books, so we grew up with legends, and myths, and Bible stories and that sort of stuff. And Lesedi brought me this book, and it really was just like she said. It was like a little bit of magic, or providence. She said, “I just feel like there’s something that we have to do with this book. I’m not sure what, but there’s something we have to do.” And I read it, and I just loved the story. I loved the back and forth that Tracey did with time. I loved that it wasn’t her just talking about the physical abuse of her ex-boyfriend but that she’d woven in the backstory, which is where this book gets its title, Brutal Legacy. And I love that sort of shift on looking at the cycle of abuse, and how it is self-perpetuated unless we step in and try and stop the legacy. And her prose and her storytelling were so beautiful, I was very excited. So I went to Lesedi and said, “Let’s do it!” And we started to build this theatre production and Lesedi was inspiring. I’ve been immersed in this book for a year, and I wondered, “Can I? Will you let me try?” And she just said, “Write. See if it’s any good.” And she was so supportive. And I had to start thinking, “Let me think…. 70 minutes. Cast it for three. Let’s see what we could do.” So I think it was just a beautiful storytelling opportunity. And it has this wonderful mix of an intrinsic South African flavour but a completely universally relevant theme. How often do we get that? And of course I was also a bit of a fangirl of Tracy, I suppose!
Daphne: And what was fascinating too, Natasha and Lesedi, is that you created two Tracys from the audience’s point of view. And I think at first they are not quite sure of what’s going on! And then they realize, you know, it’s a timeline. As the conscious and the subconscious get closer and closer together.
Natasha: And sometimes you hear the audience talking to each other, going “Ohhhhh!” when they make the connection! I’ll never forget one night, Lesedi was in Cape Town, and I had just sent her the first draft. And I remember she phoned me and says, “Hey, I just want to try and get into your scriptwriter head… These two Tracys… tell me about them!” [laughs] And they had just jumped out at me. In any case, we were trying to find a technical bridge between the monologues of the first Tracy looking back, and then the enacting of the scenes with the ex-boyfriend and the court. We had to link them with some device for the structure of the play. And that’s sort of where the two Tracys come from, from our love of the psychological component of storytelling. We just thought it would be intriguing to have one character represented by two selves. Especially in the fact that we are having a journey with ourselves constantly, we are having dialogue with our inner selves all the time. Lesedi and I are always talking about “the conference”. So these two Tracys were really just a bit of magic! It was really cool. And then of course, what’s good on paper, to put it onto stage is where Lesedi’s magic came in. You know, creating space, trying to create a style that the audience would buy and understand, and help them to make the connection, because once they’ve made the connection, the whole play is there, and you can run the whole play that way.
Daphne: It was quite brilliant because there’s an economy of style in every play, and the use of only 3 actors made this practical for me as the producer because of the economical nature of it all. For instance, the male character playing the two parts in his own brilliant and menacing way – that was a stroke of genius as well!
You said in the post-show Q&A that this show was workshopped in rehearsal. How much of what we saw was workshopped, and how much is written down? Did any new material come out of the rehearsal process?
Natasha: I’d written the whole play down, and then we got into the rehearsal process and we worked on it. It needed to be shortened. And I said two things to Lesedi: One, it’s more a case of what we leave out, than what we put in, because there is SO much in the book. And two, because of the subject material, we have to be sensitive to the audience. We need to get them in, and get them out. We’re looking for 70 minutes. So there were some things in the play that had to be cut , pieces we loved, that just didn’t serve the heart of the story. And that was what was wonderful about Lesedi, was she was so proactive in seeing things that needed to be cut because they didn’t work, and helping me cut and trim down the script. So it was more of a condensing and tightening of what we had.
Lesedi: So we had the written text, the script. But what we workshopped is, where do we place these people? How do these relationships develop? How do we make these paradigms work? What you read and what you see are always so different. And one of the things that I’ve learned about audiences is that they’ve got a very short concentration span. And that’s a little bit of my trickery, honestly, is figuring out, “How do you keep an audience engaged?” So there are certain things that I will do, like I did in this play with Natasha’s entrance – her getting up and down off that couch is so that an audience sits there going, “What is she about to say?” so that by the time she opens her mouth you are holding on to her every word. So that wasn’t written in the script.
Natasha: That was such fun. Because we set aside those hours and I said, “If you’re going to keep me in this little bubble on side of the stage, I want to make it home.” When we staged it, Lesedi said, “Just bring props.” I brought a whole tog bag! The glass, wine, shoes, candle. Lots of stuff that we didn’t use but lots of stuff that we did! And then we played and we built it.
Lesedi: So those are the elements of the play that we workshopped; the things that are not written. The undefined business of character. And then obviously looking at the text it’s basically going, “What’s going to keep an audience entertained?” And like Natasha said, what can we do to get them in and get them out? And also there needs to be a very clear beginning, a clear middle, and a clear end. Also, because of the complex story with an older Tracy, a younger Tracy, the present, and the past, we needed to find simplicity within the complexity of the script, and that’s where I went, “Okay, that would be lovely, but we need to take it out.” That’s all part of the creative process of storytelling, of creating a play.
You’ve both said, “It’s not a play, it’s someone’s story.” How does that alter what the two of you were doing?
Natasha: It actually had a huge impact on me. That extra awareness, the fact that we were representing somebody who had been incredibly brave and vulnerable in the telling of the story.
Lesedi: Any play is someone’s story, right? But this is quite specifically somebody’s lived experience. Those words are her words. You know that experience is her experience. So what that then means is that you need to constantly be truthful. You need to honour that truth. You need to honour that writing –not necessarily the writing, but the words themselves. Generally, I believe you honour and own the words regardless. But in some contexts, you might possibly let it slide, because it is in many ways just a representation of the truth. But this IS the truth. It is her truth. It was a little bit challenging, even, for the younger actress Jessica (Wolhuter) who said to me once, “But Lesedi, I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do, because I feel like it’s Jessica saying these things, and it’s my emotions” and I said, “Yes, it’s always your emotions, but it’s not YOU. It’s Tracy.” Because those aren’t your words. So when you respond to the perpetrator in anger, that’s your emotion. But the words you use are not your words. So I needed that truth. I needed that anger. Because if you don’t have it, then you’re not Tracy, and you’re not honoring her story. So I think that’s the difference between telling someone’s story and doing a play. Because it is someone’s personal experience, it becomes her personal story.
Natasha: I also think for me, having Lesedi as our captain, it was always very clear. As a performer, one worries about one’s technique, or performance, or writing, or walk or whatever. But at the end of the day it was just this constant reminder that the story, or as I call it, “The Spirit of The Story,” is bigger than all of us. And if we can just focus on that then we are hopefully getting things in the right areas of the performance, and getting the play right.
Lesedi: You have to shoot above. You’ve got to hit the essence of the story before you decide to act. As an actor or actress, you often get caught up in the details of your performance and technique, whereas if you just hit that essence, you’ve actually already done half the job. And then you can kick into the technique to hold on to what you’ve found in the honoring of that story. For me, I was so afraid that Tracy would walk in and go, “But that’s not my story. That’s not the story.”
After the performance, Tracy said she “wanted to be able to look people in the eye.” I want to delve into that. Why do you think she felt that this play might make her feel that she couldn’t look people in the eye?
Lesedi: Two things about that. One is something that she and I covered personally and privately, when I went to Cape Town for rehearsal. It’s that it is one thing to write your story but it’s another thing to see your story being portrayed. In reading the book, you will read about Tracy’s life and you will imagine it in your head. But it will be imagined differently from person to person. Putting it on stage gives it a body within which words are held, and it gives it a definite shape. It’s a very thin line between a positive experience, and making her look highly problematic – even though it’s not possible! But unfortunately, it is possible – as though she asked for abuse. That is the judgment out there, unfortunately. Actually making it look like she instigated the abuse. She was anxious about how we would portray her. She’s speaking quite personally about her family, and growing up in a in a home where her father was an alcoholic. And the second aspect of it is the fact that anything that we’ve experienced that is traumatic, that society doesn’t understand or deems abnormal, such as abuse, brings about an element of shame. We hold a weight on our shoulders around horrible experiences. And for her she constantly speaks on it, and in all of the interviews that she’s done, and that we’ve done about the incident, she speaks about shame. She always makes sure to talk about how it’s a very big part of the abuse. And so for her, she was anxious that she would feel ashamed again. And that she would feel ashamed in the way that she’s portrayed, in the way that her family is portrayed. Because that’s all of the negativity that frames abuse societally, and makes it so difficult for someone to come out with the fact that they’ve been abused. So that, I think, has been her biggest insecurity with the play. It basically makes you realize how afraid victims of abuse are, in terms of knowing they are the victims. But they’re still afraid that they’re going to be looked at as a perpetrator, or at fault, or in the worst possible way. So I think that that’s been the biggest anxiety and fear for her is how society looks at victims of abuse, and will she be looked at in that way again? I spoke to someone who said to me, “Lesedi, we in the media are so sorry for what we did to Tracy” because the minute she came out with the incident, it was plastered in newspapers. And nobody sat and asked, “What happened?” She was bashed. People judged her.
Natasha: Because when the incident went to trial she was, made to look like a perpetrator. So she is thinking, “Is this going to be a mirror of that?” I think with her, what I felt – and I don’t know if it’s accurate – is the beauty of storytelling is you can tell the same the same story 50 times depending on the lens. But what I feel – and maybe I’m wrong – with Tracy is also that the book was so beautifully written. And there is so much empathy and compassion in it, that at no point in any way during the writing of the book did she want to appear to be provocative, or did she want to appear to be pleading for sympathy. So I think maybe in the play she was worried that maybe we would tell the story in that light. Because a play is not a radio show, or a book. It’s visceral, and it’s visual. So we had to represent the visual parts. You read the book, which is one thing, but then you experience and the energy of the actors. And so I think that that provocative element was something maybe she didn’t know how we were going to deal with. And I believe that we tried to deal with it as realistically and with as much rawness, but also sensitivity to her storytelling as we could manage.
In terms of specific choices, we never see the abuse from the father. Was this a choice, or was it just a result of having three actors?
Natasha: Again, we were always working within the boundaries of what we had. And like Lesedi said, we needed to simplify it. When I started writing it, it very much became three performers. And of course using Tracy’s beautiful prose and monologues. There’s the Older Tracy, willing to step in for the younger versions, the 7 year old, the 13 year old, the 18 year old. And the other paradigm is Young Tracy who represents the 1997 abuse, and the court case. I think for us to have brought in the father as a physical component, would probably just have muddied the scenes around it, because it was already complex, and we were trying to simplify it.
Lesedi: I had the idea of having Charlie play the father at some point. I had the idea of having the younger Tracy or even the older Tracy become the mother and then having the father. And then I went, “This is just going to confuse an audience.” And so the only time that you have the father and the mother in front of the crowd is at the end when the lives collide. And it’s enough to hear about it. You don’t have to see it. And one also has to choose what to show, because if you’re showing the father’s abuse, and then she gets assaulted again, it’s too much.
Daphne: However, that dark menacing father lurks, all the time. These things are present, and just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Natasha: Her storytelling outbreaks about her dad are far more prosaic than her storytelling of her ex. It’s actually quite interesting, and it almost lent itself to the father content spoken by T1 being a monologue stylistically, and the 1997 incidents being enacted by T2. And so that’s sort of why I set it up like that, a little bit creatively. We think we created a bridge.
Speaking of T1 and T2, is T2 more muddled because she is less able to cope, or is it because she is just closer to the trauma itself?
Lesedi: The way I interpreted it in terms of being able to then communicate it to the actor, was to say, “In life, we’re walking.” So, for the Younger Tracy, because it is current, it’s right there, she is closer to the trauma, she is reliving the trauma. She is the trauma. Whereas for the older Tracy, it’s not as if she’s not as affected, but she’s not as close to the trauma, and she’s begun the process of healing.
Natasha: It’s like Daphne has been saying: the story is triumphant. But it’s not triumphant in a Hollywood, Charlize Theron/Atomic Blonde, walks up the court steps and kicks his ass. But it is triumphant, firstly because of what happened on the court steps, that some of her story also resonated with others and secondly, it is triumphant in that T1, the older Tracy that you see writing her book, even though she’s triggered, there is something about her, like Lesedi said, that she’s managed to recover. And to me, that’s true recovery; when you haven’t got a mask or armour so that you are resistant to the nostalgia, but you can engage with it in a way that you are vulnerable. That you are healing, and moving on. And that’s a note Lesedi gave us for T1 and T2, specifically for T2, it’s the PTSD symptoms and the energy that T1 has less of and T2 personifies.
Brutal Legacy is showing at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square from April 4-27.