The 13th Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa (SSFSA) kicks off its longest season yet tonight, 8 May 2023, at the Star Theatre in the District Six Homecoming Centre. We found out more about the SSFSA experience and his role in it from Managing Director, Blythe Stuart-Linger (BSL), in this Q&A.
TSCT: When were you first introduced to the SSFSA? How did you get involved?
BSL: I met Kseniya Filinova-Bruton, founder and CEO of the Educape trust and the Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa in 2017 while attending a HCI Foundation talk. At the time I was working on a small audience development project at Theatre on The Bay, bringing in schools to watch Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer’s production of Hamlet. I immediately fell in love with the SSFSA concept and was so inspired by Kseniya’s passion. I gradually became more involved and I am now fulfilling the role of managing director.
TSCT: If you had to describe the SSFSA to someone who doesn't know about it, what would you say to give them an idea of the essence of the festival?
BSL: A festival where being the best is not the focus but where enthusiastic young thespians immerse in a safe space that inspires expression, learning, laughter and creativity and produce wonderful, innovative theatre. Whether you want to be an actor or find your voice in relation to the world around you, this is your space to play! Shakespeare is merely the vehicle that we use to that end.
TSCT: How is the SSFSA making Shakespeare relevant in a diverse, modern-day South Africa?
BSL: Shakespeare is relevant today because his texts present people and situations our youth can recognise. He wrote characters in his plays with an emotional reality that transcends time and that surprisingly resonates with young people, year after year. His plays depict familiar experiences, ranging from family disputes to falling in love, suffering, loss, and enduring war and conflict --it’s all relevant in some or other way, depending on individual experiences. We encourage learners to translate the texts both linguistically and culturally --we have translated several plays into Afrikaans, isiZulu and isiXhosa-- and we love to encourage participants to reimagine the plays in dynamic and innovative ways. The sky is the limit and the kids come up with incredible concepts year in and year out!
TSCT: You are best described as an arts administrator. What does that job entail?
BSL: I am an extremely passionate arts practitioner in South Africa and abroad. I have dedicated my career and life to the sustainability of the Arts and Cultural industry, creating opportunities for South African artists to earn while practising their craft. About arts administration --my job includes managing people, personalities and emotions. I’ve been told I have a knack for placing people in the correct roles to ensure that projects get carried out efficiently and successfully, and I am so grateful to be able to do this. I am a doer, and a little on the quiet side as in less words more action. I like to inspire and motivate people into action. Part of my portfolio includes drafting, editing, and negotiating contracts, drafting schedules, planning logistics, and evaluating goals, objectives and milestones on any given day. And then my favourite is getting the most out of a budget which as you know is always challenge in our industry and I continue to be astounded at just how much we manage to do with so little in terms of budget. I also take every opportunity to engage with the communities around me through theatrical mediums as I am a firm believer in the power of the arts and their ability to bring about positive change, understanding, empathy, healing, and growth in this rapidly ever-changing world.
TSCT: As Managing Director of the SSFSA, what is your vision for the festival?
BSL: This is now my third year in this position. It's important to know that the SSFSA originated out of the Educape Trust, an organisation that looks at ways to tackle new learning methods through drama and how education, personal and skills development through theatre and the arts, with concepts and methods used that can also be used in many other environments. This is why I am always looking for ways to attract more substantial funding and investment to strengthen our team with even more skills and develop our programmes to be more impactful!
TSCT: What is the most significant impact your involvement with the SSFA has had on how you see the theatre industry and its development?
BSL: It continues to remind me why we do this thing called 'theatre and storytelling’. The theatre, arts and cultural space is vital to the health of a nation, and this keeps me grounded and focused on why we do what we do. But sadly, I am also reminded of how little investment and governmental support we get in this industry and now more than ever, we need more strategic frameworks in place to enable government, municipalities, private funders and corporates to invest in the arts and cultural sector.
TSCT: SSFSA has showcased 582 plays since 2009. What is your favourite part of helping everyone involved (from learners to teachers) get the productions on stage?
BSL: I love getting involved in all aspects of the creative process: from directing tips to breaking down the Bard’s text, to lighting and staging, it’s a thrill seeing how the participants come to the party with such fantastic ideas and concepts. That’s the biggest reward for us all at the SSFSA.
TSCT: The festival is described as interactive. What does that entail?
BSL: From the week long workshops we offer ahead of the festival, participants discover that they must interact on all levels, from casting their own plays to finding the best way to adapt them to 30 minutes, to directing them, choosing music, lighting and costume design, to running their own shows on the night. Different schools from all parts of the city come together at the workshops and then later at the theatre where they get to engage with those from others walks of life, be they differently abled or from other communities and cultures far removed from their own. The SSFSA is all inclusive --everyone is welcome. all that is needed is a love of Shakespeare and a passion for acting and the stage. The one-on-one and group experiences have proved invaluable to learners and educators alike.
TSCT: Is there an SSFSA production you have seen over the years that have stayed with you as a great memory? If so, why do you think it had such an impact?
BSL: I think my utmost favourite was a production staged by an outreach group titled Romeo and Julian, which explored love between a same sex couple. It was beautiful to see it come to life on stage and amazing to know that these young people were bringing something forward that would move the LGBTQIA+ and mainstream community.
TSCT: What are you most looking forward to with the latest SSFSA kicking off tonight (8 May)?
BSL: The first night is always a thrill. There is so much planning that goes into each festival and an equal amount of hurdles but it always works out and the events roll along smoothly. I can’t wait to feel the buzz of the live theatre vibe and am hoping that we get great audiences every night once again. (Please tell all your friends!)
TSCT: What would you say to someone who wants to support the festival but thinks it is only for school kids? What is the importance of audience support in the development of young performers?
BSL: We encourage everyone to support and appreciate young thespians. Book a seat, bring a friend and come be amazed at just what young people are capable of: performances are slick, very well rehearsed and innovative, and it is a highly entraining night out! A young person who is positively supported will have the courage to continue and the strength to take on the world and be a change-maker in society. The SSFSA also relies heavily on ticket sales to break even with overheads so it’s another reason to come and watch. Money goes into funding SSFSA outreach work as well as the programmes the organisors the run alongside the actual event.
TSCT: Any final thoughts to share going into the festival?
BSL: As a closing note, I would like to add that coming out of a global pandemic has been no easy feat. We have found that with rising interest rates and turbulent financial times companies, grants, and private donors have become less able to invest in our programmes. We desperately need their support to keep our SSFSA work alive! Theatre for young people --to those making it and those watching it-- is as crucial for the well-being of our youth as maths and science. What is a community without storytelling, without the gift of finding one's unique voice, purpose and values? What would a society look like if we couldn't use theatre and the arts to give the viewers a mirror of truth? Where would we go to laugh, cry and discover if it wasn’t for live theatre, a hallowed space devoted to developing and nurturing arts and culture?
For more info visit www.ssfsa.co.za . After the Cape Town season, the festival will be presented in Johannesburg, George and KZN in September 2023, details to be announced.
Booking for the Cape Town leg of the festival, 8 to 27 Mwy 2033 is via Quicket.