THEATRE: Thinking out the box, in boxes
Storyteller gives an age-old form of entertainment a fresh application
Some might question why Jemma Kahn, a South African, has made the Japanese kamishibai style of theatre-making her "thing." But in her visual narrating universe, it allows her to frame darkly satirical slices of life that resonate from Amsterdam to Zeerust. She has reinvented the ancient Asian form and has made it her own.
Traditional kamishibai used a box containing a set of picture cards that were changed as the narrating of a tale progressed. Kahn’s art consists of herself and perhaps one other performer on stage using illustrated boards, telling often disturbing stories about human foibles and frailties.
Over the past five years, Johannesburg-bred Kahn has earned an almost fanatical cult following with her smash indie theatre hits The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults, We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants and In Bocca al Lupo.
Now, she’s bagged the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for theatre.
And it all stems from seeing the underground entertainment potential of the simple frame.
"I was lying in bed once at a friend’s house in Cape Town, watching birds fly across the window. Watching them go from one frame to another was like seeing animation," she thinks back, a few days after the awards ceremony.
"There was something about the box that was interesting to me. Cultural appropriation is a relevant thing right now, but [my interest in kamishibai] wasn’t a cultural legacy I picked up on in Japan. It was the formal thing — the box — that really gasped me. The first thing that happens before the story is the box, the image, the idea of having more than one frame."
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Kahn has emphatically broken out of the box of conventional theatrical storytelling to incorporate a provocative (and often subversive) pictorial element that draws on the manga Japanese comic book style of illustration and the dystopia found in some graphic novels.
And ironic, too, that sometimes Kahn feels boxed in by the kamishibai form that has catapulted her to local and global acclaim. The creative force behind Epicene Butcher (400 worldwide performances, and counting) is loath to be typecast as "Jemma, the epi-lady", but she says: "I’m coming to terms with it."
It’s become her bread and butter. At one stage her parents were starting to grow weary of the "carousel", and were pressurising her to either make work, or find work. Realising that time was running out and that "you don’t get a 40-year-old with potential; potential has got a shelf life", Kahn borrowed money from her (now late) grandmother and created Epicene Butcher, written by Gwydion Beynon and directed by John Trengove, as a sort of "last-chance saloon".
Her gamble paid off: it packed arts festival venues, was nominated for Fleur du Cap and Naledi awards, and was awarded the Critics’ Choice Award at the Amsterdam Fringe and an Archangel Award at the Brighton Festival, and was nominated for best theatre piece at the Fringe World Festival in Perth. No less a figure than Scottish singer and songwriter Annie Lennox proclaimed: "Jemma Kahn is brilliant. I came away with my mind slightly blown."
Her second kamishibai work, Croissants, which won the Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award, drew together a number of SA writers to pen works about the seven deadly sins, and was directed by Lindiwe Matshikiza. In Bocca al Lupo was written by Kahn (with the assistance and support of Tertius Kapp) and directed by Jane Taylor.
These theatrical concoctions are graphic in both senses of the word — wickedly adults-only and comic-like in nature.
But the skewer they insert into the dank and shadowy recesses of society’s psyche is more about the dirty realism of life than about one-dimensional cartoon cut-outs.
If you want to call it paper theatre for the paperless hipster generation, well, then, this enterprising creative polymath with the pert pixie cut will probably take that with a wink and an elaborate bow.
Sitting in what’s essentially her second home – the tiny but influential independent hot shop that’s the POPArt Theatre in Johannesburg’s Maboneng precinct — she muses, tongue firmly in cheek: "We were in good time for the hipsters ... I think [my work] appeals so much to hipsters because it’s art-eee-sanal."
Adds POPArt’s Hayleigh Evans, with a dollop of dry humour: "It’s also temporary, so you can have it and no-one else can have it." "And then," adds Kahn, warming to the theme, "after they’ve seen it they come back because it’s like: ‘Look what I’ve found!’"
Kahn’s works may be bonsai and minimalist in scale, but her impact has been off the charts. She usually works collaboratively ("I love the interaction, though at the end of the day it’s just me by myself, holding my hand") and she prizes stories that resonate with millennial angst, dystopia and, perhaps, something deeper: with a yen for something real, in your face and uncontrived in an era of glossy fakeness.
Kahn is clearly thrilled with her latest accolade, but is acutely aware that the Young Artist award "has shot some people’s careers into megastardom and others have disappeared, so [future success is] not guaranteed".
Kahn placed her own imprint on the style as a mash-up of art and social commentary that nibbles away at suburban middle-class complacency
Grappling with an existential creative crisis of sorts, she wonders: "The big question, because I’m a fringe artist, is: must I now go mainstream, and will that expansion destroy what I had in the first place? I’m not sure. And I’ve never worked from an existing text before — should I do a kamishibai Hamlet?"
But ramp up in scale is what she feels she must do. For her Standard Bank Young Artist commission for the main programme of next year’s National Arts Festival, she plans to step out of her comfort zone — conceiving, illustrating, writing and performing — and will direct her own work for the first time, though she admits: "It’s a risky and ambitious choice." Expect more performers and more boxes and — who knows? — perhaps some bells and whistles in a new work that looks set to plunge into the heart, soul and viscera of artistic darkness.
It’s an area Kahn knows well. She studied fine art and then drama at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she fell in love with the history of art and theatre design in particular. She also taught in Japan for two years.
She considered coming back to enrol for her master’s at Wits, but was talked out of it by the artist Gerhard Marx, who advised her to "get a studio instead — it’s cheaper."
"I’m very glad I didn’t go the academic route," she reflects.
"The more academic qualifications you have in the arts, the less work you make."
It was in Japan that Kahn found her spiritual muse and her theatrical voice, and in 2009 began training in the ancient art of kamishibai theatre, which originated in the 12th century as a type of travelling street theatre. She’s since placed her own imprint on the style as a contemporary mash-up of art and social commentary that nibbles away at suburban middle-class complacency.
Part of her journey, and her awakening, is documented in In Bocca al Lupo (which literally means "into the wolf’s mouth" but is a way of telling actors to "break a leg"). This "100% autobiographical" kamishibai work will be returning to POPArt at the end of November — fittingly, because that hot-box indie theatre gave Khan her first break.
In fact, Evans and co-owner Orly Shapiro booked Epicene Butcher without even seeing it (confides Evans: "Jemma’s first question to me was: ‘Do you not vet at all?’") and they have since become co-producers of her work.
The first night there were 17 people in the audience. The second night they sold out. "I think that in true hoofmeisie [head girl] fashion, I didn’t want to disappoint POPArt, John [Trengove] and my parents," Kahn admits. And the rest is history.
In demystifying theatre and theatre spaces, she is part of a new wave of indie trailblazers who are enticing new audiences that prize ingenuity and authenticity, and closely observed, minutely sketched character studies in all their explicit glory, over flash and pomp.
Kahn has never shied away from portraying sex and erotica through her illustrations on stage: "I never want to make ‘clean’ theatre, not because I think I’m a pervert but because human experience is entire: there’s sex in life, there’s sex in novels ... It makes it more interesting," she says.
"The joy of kamishibai is that there’s less danger with sex because it’s not two actors simulating sex on stage; in kamishibai you can get away with it because it’s illustrated."
It’s no surprise that two of her artistic idols are painters Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, the latter who noted so memorably: "In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present."