Winston Ntshona: We get the inspiration [to perform The Island]from the nobility within the piece itself, from its history, its meaning to us. And we rely heavily on the rapport between us. We date back to as early as 1962 when we met in drama productions in high school.
John Kani:When we began, there were no Tony Awards, there was no Broadway. There wasn't even the possibility of the work we were doing reaching a theatre. We looked at what was going on and we couldn't continue being spectators of the suffering of the people. A conscious decision was made that we were going to be involved in creating and performing work that has an impact and a relevance to our own society. That motivation is the foundation of why we are actors. Not that there is no room in our lives for No, No Nanette,or A Chorus Line or British farce. But the foundation of who we are is to be a reflecting surface for our own community and society, to be the conscience, the watchdog.
Ntshona: Somebody once asked: How do you go through your life in South Africa? At that time, it was at the height of the apartheid system, there was social oppression. I said, one must understand that what is called art is life, and conversely what is life is art. There is no way to separate one from the other. So when one goes back home, one responds to the immediate surroundings, which is basically how we operate as artists. I am working primarily with young kids introducing them to the work of theatre and promoting art in general and helping them write plays. I have two units -- the Port Elizabeth Youth Theatre, and the Eastern Cape Cultural Unit, which is a collection of the various arts groups working in Port Elizabeth, especially in the black, disadvantaged communities.
Kani:I am the chairperson of the National Arts Council of South Africa, as well as the artistic director of the Market Theatre, which is well known for having produced some of the most challenging and exciting work in South Africa. I'm always searching for new work, arranging festivals, holding writers and directors workshops. I like to call what we do a calling. We wake up with an idea, or we are tortured by something or disgusted by the world. Then one day you wake up and celebrate the world. We walk around the city observing. That's where inspiration comes from.
Ntshona: All of those people who bring excitement to the arts, that bring meaning to the craft, their good work widens one's perspective of the arts. I look forward to meeting them, as well as up-and-coming artists. I remember I saw this guy in 1961, acting drunk on stage. It was so beautiful. I just loved it.
Kani: We all begin with the greatest gift as Africans: the handing down of storytelling as a craft, as a means of education, of preserving history. We are all students of our grandmothers and grandfathers around the fire who told us who we are culturally. So when you grow up, you always wish you could be as good a storyteller as your grandmother was. When you come into theatre, you think you are going to learn something new, but at the end of the day, it hasn't changed from the same grandmother storytelling.
Ntshona: When we started our involvement in local theatre, it was just entertainment. South Africa was a strange place. Everyone was totally oblivious to the need to express the plight of the black people. Everybody wanted to forget there was pain -- they just wanted to be entertained. This worried us, and when the time was ripe, one picked up the responsibility to do something about one's life. Now, when you see a youngster, you have to ask a question -- it's not enough to be enthusiastic about something, to have a positive attitude toward anything. There has got to be a reason, a sound and solid reason as to why one wants to do something. If you want to help, you have to fathom that reason. People want to go on stage, some because they've seen movies, plays on the google box, and they want to mimic them. Others want to be famous, or they are careerists, or they want to make money. But is that all [there is] We were not involved in that, we wanted to elevate the level of the arts within the community that is Africa.
Kani: Africa is different. There is no Broadway, and the community is what is important. When you become an artist, you become an artist in that village -- a storyteller, a dancer, an entertainer, a percussionist. You're doing it for the village. The fact that it may be seen by people coming from the neighbouring village is just another embellishment.
If you really want to be an actor or writer, please take the glory, the glamour out of it. It's hard work. And there are no short cuts. It begins by finding your passion. Actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona appear in The Island at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto until June 16. They spoke to Rebecca Caldwell