Jemma Kahn draws on personal history for rich and rewarding sketches
It’s the perfect way to go if you are creating your own work, which is, as it is for most stage creatives, all about making a living.
Jemma Kahn — winner of the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre award — had to turn somewhere new while maintaining the structure that has made her solo series such a rich and rewarding enterprise.
This is where Kahn cleverly brought in playwright Tertius Kapp. Even — and especially — when telling such a personal story, it is good to have an outside eye, and arguably someone who is not involved with what is being shared on stage.
"After every kamishibai show I say ‘not again’ or rather ‘not again immediately’ but then an idea comes to mind that niggles me," she says. "The idea of the multiple boxes came first and then I thought, ‘if there are four, it could be about family — one story, four perspectives’."
Kamishibai is a form of Japanese storytelling that combines the use of hand-drawn visuals with the narration of a live presenter. Kahn, who lived in Japan for a few years, has brought this style of theatre to local audiences.
"I approached Tertius to write with me because I had enjoyed his story for Croissants [one of the instalments in the series] so much. I’d also enjoyed our back and forth and I wanted to work with him again.
"He asked for some writing and I sent him a pile of s**t; a few diary-type entries (some which I had written while in Japan) and some pretentious descriptive pieces. He thought the kamishibai origin story was a good one.
"We sat and had a bottle of wine. I told him about The Irishman and he was like ‘Whaaaaa? There’s a story here’."
The partnership was on a roll … again. He hammered it into a three-act structure and Kahn sent him writing.
"He would say ‘We need to know what happened here’, or ‘Did this happen?’ — prompting me. I needed prompting because writing is an impossibly irritating and boring and painful exercise," says Kahn.
"Was it hard to be that personal? Yes and no. Again, Tertius was very helpful with curating what ended up on the stage.
"He told it like it is: ‘Don’t put a wound on stage and expect a plaster.’ So nothing that ended up in the show was emotionally unresolved," she says.
"Through the process of rehearsals with director Jane [Taylor] and then hitting the road alone, I did relive some stuff and sometimes that was painful — painful but not destructive."
This is hard stuff, putting yourself out there, but Kahn has always been that girl. She knocks your expectations down quite quickly in In Bocca al Lupo when she shares how unhappy she was in Japan, especially as this is seemingly where her theatre genesis established itself in her mind.
Whatever the case may be. I’m starting to understand what makes me watchable. Though I resent the word brave I think that is it. Fearlessness. Of course it’s not real. In real life, I have fears. But they are very deep down. Over the course of a show, I can be fearless
However, she describes this latest work as cathartic, because she could learn to love Japan again, "although it nearly killed me. Also it was a way of telling my parents things that were too difficult to say to their faces.
"And I like remembering my grandmother. I like that strangers know her name because if people know her name, she can still be around."
Kahn might not be the predictable pick for certain roles but it is quirky choices that often turn a theatre piece on its head and appeal to those who want the unexpected. In tough times, however, taking risks is often prohibitive — sadly.
But then again, had Kahn’s obvious creative talent been spotted from the start, what she has come up with now might never have seen the light of day. She was forced to experiment and explore — and being who she is, she did.
"Good actors are watchable for so many reasons," responds Kahn. "Whatever the case may be. I’m starting to understand what makes me watchable. Though I resent the word brave I think that is it. Fearlessness. Of course it’s not real. In real life, I have fears. But they are very deep down. Over the course of a show, I can be fearless."
That’s how it works, and those who need that push and can deliver share the magic with those watching. Which is exactly what Kahn does that makes her performances so exciting — and I haven’t even touched on her visual acuity.
She has street smarts. She picks the right team to surround her, knows and understands the effect of design, and colours every corner of a performance in the sharpest shades. Add to that 160 illustrations by Kahn that illustrate her story and music by the brilliant Charl-Johan Lingenfelder to set the mood, and it’s a wild ride.
And when you ask her about the young artist award, she’s quick to respond: "I always wanted to win this! Of course!
"I already had an idea for an ambitious kamishibai show brewing, so when the award came I was luckily not stranded in the position of ‘Now what?’. The what is taken care of. But the how is the thing!"
• In Bocca al Lupo can be seen at POPArt in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct on November 29 and 30 and December 1 and 2 at 8pm, as well as December 2 and 3 at 3.30pm.