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Brent Meersman

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Publishing play scripts in English in South Africa

After a show, when the audience bursts out of the doors of a theatre, there are usually ushers brandishing paperback copies of the script for sale. In London that is, not in South Africa. However, the situation may now be changing.

South Africa has always had a chequered history when it comes to publishing plays, but it has become increasingly patchy since the mid-1990s.

In the 1970s A.A. Balkema put many playwrights from Guy Butler to Athol Fugard in print. Collections of plays would emerge sporadically from various publishers, especially AD Donker and Ravan (Contemporary South African Plays, 1977). International publishers often weighed in, such as Methuen Drama (Woza Albert, 1983), Penguin Books (publishing Pieter-Dirk Uys) and Heinemann, sometimes collaborating with Nick Hern. In addition to various plays, A.D. Donker brought out two important compilations (Market Plays, 1986 and More Market Plays, 1994). Fugard was kept in print throughout those years by Wits University Press (WUP) and Oxford University Press (OUP).

Individual scripts are today rare. The small publishers have fallen away and the larger houses have not produced any specialised imprints.

Of the many plays produced since 1994, few have reached book form outside of anthologies. Notable are OUP’s South African plays for TV, radio and stage and Heinemann’s collection of three plays by the Sibikwa Players in 2005. Double Storey brought out a luxuriously illustrated glossy compilation of Brett Bailey scripts entitled The Plays of Miracle and Wonder (2003).

WUP has been the most active, though they have only published a handful in the past eight years and only the big names: Zakes Mda, John Kani (Nothing But the Truth, 2002), Athol Fugard (Sorrows and Rejoicings, 2002) and Lara Foot Newton (Tshepang, 2005). To complete this brief survey one should mention that Oshun published At Her Feet by Nadia Davids in 2006, David Phillip Exits and Entrances by Fugard in 2005, and STE Relativity – Township Stories by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and Presley Chweneyagae in 2006. At this point, dear reader you are hopefully recalling plays you have seen and lamenting that they are no longer extant. Apart from some foreign anthologies, the list above is pretty much it from our publishers for this past decade.

The market is therefore ripe for a small publisher to create a niche, especially since modern technology has drastically reduced the costs of typesetting, printing and binding.

Around 2000, Compress (which now does annual reports for corporations) tried to fill this niche by vanity publishing with various playwrights and working with the Baxter Theatre Centre’s New Writing Programme. The latter produced a volume 2 2 Plays that included such important hits as Suip! and Fiona Coyne’s Glass Roots.

Without scripts finding their way to print, South Africans are in danger of losing their recent theatre history and an important aspect of their culture. Plays tell us much about a society, particularly if they’re good, which unfortunately one can’t say about all the plays in the Junkets series. However, historically, as cultural artefacts theatre proves a reliable indicator of the tensions and developments within a country; demonstrated for instance by Michael Billington’s recent book State of the Nation examining British society through the lens of the theatre from 1945 to the present day.

The new hope for South African playwrights is Junket Press. It already has five plays out and two more within the month, which is far more than anyone else has done these past five years.

The man behind Junket is Robin Malan. An author of several novels (Rebel Angel and The Story of Lucky Simelane), Malan has worked in English teaching and theatre all his life. He was artistic director of the PACT Playwork theatre-in-education company in the 1970s before moving to Swaziland in 1978 where he lived for fourteen years. He ran a specialist bookshop in Mbabane, Africasouth Books, and he was the Series Editor for the Siyagruva Series of novels for South African teens published by New Africa Books.

Malan may succeed where others have failed for several reasons.

Firstly, he is hands-on in the old sense of what is expected of a publisher. He knows his Junkets authors personally. Nadia Davids (Cissie, 2008) and Karen Jeynes (Everybody Else is F*ing Perfect, 2007) contributed as high school students to English Alive, the annual anthology of high school writing Malan founded and still edits. He assisted Juliet Jenkin (The Boy Who Fell from the Roof, 2007) in developing her work for its first presentation as part of the annual Artscape Spring Drama Season of new plays. He first encountered Omphile Molusi (Itsoseng and For the Right Reasons, 2008) as an actor at the PANSA Festival in Johannesburg where Malan’s own play The boy who walked into the world was presented.

Secondly, Malan is focused on getting the play into the foyer of the theatre. He is in constant contact with the Front of House and buzzes in and out of the theatres with stock.

Thirdly, although the print runs are small, his pricing is affordable. Malan says, “The whole idea of this series is that they must be kept as cheap as possible, so cheap that people will buy them in the foyer. In the theatre they cost R30, in a bookshop R60. It’s crucial.”

Malan adds, “Publishers will tell you nobody buys plays, unless you’re going to be able to promote it in the education area or if you’re very famous, like Fugard.”

Megan Hall of OUP agrees: “The school education market is driving our focus, but it is lovely to be able to offer learners at school something new and interesting. Roy Sargeant’s play adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country was prescribed for school learners of English at grade 12 in North West province – the resulting success has led us to look for other successful playscripts”.

Unfortunately, the education department still thinks in terms of one-act twenty minute and three-act two and half hours plays, neither of which anyone writers anymore.

Maskew Miller Longman and Nassau are now seeing possibilities in the Junkets playscript series. A Tsetswane version of Itsoseng is in the works.

Itsoseng is currently running at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Molusi has taken with him 400 scripts, which at ₤3 each he is likely to sell out.

Sponsorship is another solution. Presently, the Cape 300 Foundation (who also used to assist Compress) generously supports Junkets. Malan still however carries up to 50% of the risk. “I have to like the play otherwise I don’t want to work on it,” says Malan.

The figures involved in small print runs are not prohibitive, and sales may recoup all if not some of the cost. Many producers spend half (sometimes as much) on the programme. This seems short sighted. Producers and producing theatres should make an effort to get the work in print for posterity at least.

“After watching the play in the theatre,” says Malan, “people either want to have nothing more than a souvenir, but quite often people want to be able to go back over parts of the play and to be reminded of what the character said at a certain moment.

“Also those people who aren’t going to see the play and can have the opportunity to enjoy it in another form, that audience is the one I am currently missing.”

Libraries may be part of the answer. Currently, Hiddingh Library holds the series. The only bookshops to keep Junkets in stock are the meticulous Clarke’s Bookshop in Long Street Cape Town and Johannesburg’s oldest bookshop, Frank R. Thorold. The Baxter bookstall also keeps copies.

The series itself is well turned. The covers are attractive, the proofing professional, the typesetting attractive and most editions give introductions, biographical notes and useful context to the works. Here’s to many more. – Brent Meersman

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This article appeared in the Mail & Guardian August 8, 2008


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