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Interview with RUST Co-Operative

This is the first of three interviews profiling Cape Town-based theatre artists and companies presenting work at the 42 Annual National Arts Festival (NAF), held from 30 June through 10 July 2016 in Grahamstown, South Africa. This series will lead up to my eventual review of the festival for HowlRound's NewCrit section.

An eleven-day extravaganza of theatre, dance, music, fine art, and more, the NAF is the largest arts festival of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and serves as a dynamic platform for both new and established artists from South Africa and around the world. It's my hope that these profiles will provide a tiny glimpse into the flourishing theatre ecology of South Africa and to the questions artists in the country are posing through their work.

First up is Cape Town's prolific and energetic RUST Co-Operative, run by Penny Youngelson and Philip Rademeyer. In four short years, this charismatic duo produced nine critically acclaimed works. Focusing on the perspectives of people who find themselves on the margin, RUST uses a combination of lyrical texts and piercing physicality to tell stories that subvert long-held ideas of beauty and worth. Among RUST’s impressive repertoire is Siembamba, which examines the complicated relationship between black domestic workers and the white children in their care. More recently, RUST has produced Philip's searing play Ashes, which centers on a relationship between two coloured men and the profound reverberations that result when one of them is murdered for being gay. Fresh off a run at Artscape Theatre’s Suidoosterfees in March 2016, Penny's two-hander NAT follows the dreams and struggles of three teenagers from Grassy Park, a suburb in the Cape Flats where people of color were relocated after being forcibly removed from their Cape Town homes during apartheid.

I sat down with Penny and Philip to get a sense of what motivates their work, and to get a sneak peek of what they're planning to present at Grahamstown.

Paul Adolphsen: How did the two of you get together and form RUST Co-Operative?

Philip Rademeyer: We met at UCT [University of Cape Town] doing post-grad. Penny was in the second year of her Masters’ program when I did my Honours. We became friends and towards the end of my Masters, we started talking about forming a company. We just realized that our interests in theatre were quite similar, as were the kinds of stories we wanted to tell.

Penelope “Penny” Youngelson: Certainly our writing styles at that stage were even more similar than they are now. We both felt like outsiders with what we were doing [at UCT]. And there’s that whole outlier mentality of “We’re just going to stick together and show them how cool we are!” So we made our first two shows and they went pretty well. Then it just kept on going. We joked that we’d give it eighteen months and then reevaluate. And now we’re in our fourth year. It shifts and it morphs, but it keeps on going.

To quote Audre Lorde, we’re not a 'single issue' people. If you care about one thing, you have to care about everything, or you have to try to care about everything. And so these stories—this is actually a quote from one of Philip’s plays—'these stories seem to come at you.'—Penny Youngelson

Paul: Why “rust”?

Philip: I remember sitting on my couch coming up with ridiculous names for the company like “The Purple Turtle.”

Penny: That was never an option, for the record. We were at Phil’s house, and I think we were drinking a little bit of wine. We made these grandiose plans for the theatre we wanted to make, and we were talking about what we stood for. First of all, we wanted it to be a Co-Operative, implying that everyone has an equal sense of ownership. This is important to the ethos of how we like to run rehearsals and our production company. Then, “rust” became an interesting concept for us. It refers to something that’s been a bit weathered and affected by time. We think that perfect things have less stories to tell because they’re perfect. There’s too much symmetry in perfection, and asymmetry is what makes things beautiful. So we like things that have been outside, they’ve been through something, and you can see on their faces they’ve lived. Because a lot of our stories, now and then, have to do with people who don’t easily fit into society, who struggle, and who aren't beautiful to look at in the traditional sense. Yet, their stories are much more interesting because they have lived a bit.

Philip: We call them our “rusty people.” People who find themselves on the outskirts.

Penny: If you want to really break down the metaphor, rust is also a little dangerous, it's hard to hold because it’s been left somewhere. Rusted things don’t get protected, they get left outside. [At the beginning of the Co-Operative], Phil had just completed his Masters’ on queer theory, and I had just finished my Masters’ on South African whiteness. So we were grappling with our own identities and the way they had been projected on to us as theatremakers. We were thinking about the work we were “allowed” to make in this country. All those things together made us quite proud about how uncomfortable our work was, and so “rust” seemed like a good way to capture that.

two actors on stage
Jason Jacobs and Stefan Erasmus perform in Ashes by Philip Rademeyer. Photo by Nardus Engelbrecht.

Paul: What kind of questions are you asking through your work as a Co-Operative? What stories are you telling?

Penny: To quote Audre Lorde, we’re not a “single issue” people. If you care about one thing, you have to care about everything, or you have to try to care about everything. And so these stories—this is actually a quote from one of Philip’s plays—“these stories seem to come at you.” Or they wash toward you, they seem to find you. I know that sounds terribly esoteric, but it’s true. If you are a person who is interested in the world around you, particularly in this country, these stories come at you all the time because there are so many. And so it’s just a question of finding stories that we personally connect with and hopefully doing them enough justice to let them breathe on stage. It’s not about us being martyrs, or champions, or white messiahs. It’s about us finding stories that need to be told, and making the space to do that.

Paul: Given the fact that South Africa has eleven official languages, how are you using language in your work?

Philip: Deciding on a language is really about what a particular show requires. [I wrote my play Ashes in English] because we were showing the piece in Cape Town, and taking the show to Grahamstown. But when I translated it [to Afrikaans], the story sort of came home because that’s the community where the events that inspired it happened, Afrikaans communities. I think mixing languages in a production is a reflection of what happens every day on the street. We don’t live in a monolingual society, and to pretend that we do is a bit daft. The mixing of languages is a reflection of what happens in our country.

Penny: Two of my plays now have been multilingual, in fact NAT is quadrilingual because I teach at the Batswood Arts Centre in Grassy Park, a low resource area where the kids come from very diverse backgrounds. Most learners are learning in their third or fourth language, so I’m teaching huge classes with kids with different circumstances and different languages. Language becomes a really important issue in the classroom, which spilled into the content of [NAT]. While that is only specific to one of our plays, it certainly cemented something in my mind around language and access. In a country with eleven official languages, there are so many people saying things all the time and no one is listening. No one is talking to someone, they’re just talking into a void, especially in theatre—theatre is so niche and elitist. I started to reevaluate why I was writing, what I was saying, who I expected to hear it, and what I expected them to do with it. If I’m going to show you how clever I am, or how good I am at words, or how beautiful the bodies are, or how great the lighting is—there’s a place for that, and I respect that. But if I purport to care about these things in the context of my country, I need to think about language and what it's doing, both metaphorically and physically.

There’s also this idea of a hierarchy of languages in this country. If you can speak English, it's seen as a step up on a ladder in some workplaces. I believe that’s because of our colonial history, with this whole idea that Europe, or America, is better. So reclaiming part of our identity through language usage, through localizing accent, through owning and claiming our suffering bodies—there’s something very political in that. And I’m very proud of our plays that are doing that. We’re not using neutrality to hide very significant individuality in this country, which I think is actually our strong point.

two actors on stage
Richard September and Iman Isaacs in NAT by Penny Youngelson. Photo by Jesse Kramer.

Paul: Can you tell me about the shows you’re bringing to Grahamstown?

Philip: I’m taking a show called The Graveyard, which I let rest for a while. It’s exciting to revisit it and find the “thing.” Of course, every play you write turns out to be something very different than what you thought it would be in the beginning. I’m calling it a very loose reinterpretation of Ibsen’s Ghosts, which is a story about the sins of the past coming back to haunt people in the present. It’s interesting because it’s the least South African story I’ve written. It’s a bit of a domestic drama, dealing with domestic violence and notions of masculinity. Essentially, it’s about a man returning to the basement of his childhood home. This basement is a graveyard of objects that gather dust, and as the show progresses, we figure out what these objects represent. It’s a family drama about a man, his estranged sister, and his estranged mother.

Paul: What was the impetus to adapt Ibsen, particularly Ghosts?

Philip: I’ve always been fascinated by Ibsen’s female characters: Nora, Hedda, and now Helene in Ghosts. And I’ve always been fascinated by Ghosts because of this idea of something sitting in your genes influencing who you are and how you engage with the world. Hedda Gabler was my Master’s thesis production, which I did as sort of a queered version. So I’ve had an ongoing interest in Ibsen.

Usually our work [as RUST Co-Operative] deals with how society-at-large influences us and our decisions. Not that this play operates in isolation of that, but I wanted to do something where the “whirring” happens from inside. It also deals with domestic abuse, alcoholism, and addiction. Gendered violence is a very big social issue, so I see this play as a vehicle to explore that. I think it’s a combination of things: being interested in the Ibsen story, and then dealing with particular topics that seem relevant.

Paul: Penny, can you tell us about your piece?

Penny: I’m taking a show called Sillage, which is a French term referring to the scent you leave behind in a room when you’re wearing perfume. It’s also a small—it’s sort of small and big at the same time—domestic drama about a mother and daughter packing up a garage. The mom is getting older and has to move into a smaller house, so they’re sifting through her stuff. The play has a lot to do with families and how they communicate, or don’t communicate. How do we imbue all of our feelings for our families into heirloom objects? And then when you pack it away, what do you actually say to each other? Normally I’m quite verbose, but this particular play uses banal language on purpose. I’m creating a veneer-like surface of polite conversation. Then in contrasted, there’s a heavily coded gestural vocabulary, which speaks to an internal monologue, or an internal landscape. For example, the characters talk about something really ludicrously boring while they Skype each other. They talk like this for twenty minutes while playing this really intricate hand game that we devised. I think that’s interesting, or it could be a disaster.

It does touch on quite a few topics that I’m still interested in, such as South African female whiteness and particularly English-speaking whiteness. I come from an English-speaking white family and there’s a very strange tension around “within and without,” and not taking ownership for atrocities of the past and the present. There’s lots of scapegoating. So [the play] juxtaposes the younger daughter and the older mother, and [asks] who blames whom for what, and why?

I had a review a year ago where the main critique was, “Youngelson leaves one feeling very unsettled because there is no end to the story.” I thought that was such a compliment. In this play, there’s no resolution, there’s no happy ending, and there’s not even a conflict you can put your finger on. It’s more just this churning, or “whirring” between the two of them. There is constant bickering and nagging discomfort, unease, tension, yet incredible love at the same time. And I think that’s how a lot of South Africans live every day.

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Thoughts from the curator

A nation characterized by its Apartheid legacy and struggle for liberation, we hear the story of a South Africa reborn, and the art at its center, through the voices of some of its most dynamic artists.

South African Theatre Artists at National Arts Festival


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