Profile: HeyJanice’s buffet of theatre is food for all souls

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Bringing a show to the National Arts Festival takes a lot of hard work and dedication. Bringing three shows to the National Arts Festival, well, takes an added sprinkling of dynamism. Especially when you’ve written and directed all three, designed and made the puppets yourself, written all the songs… and after all that, will perform in all three. Solo!

Avril Cummins is doing just that and the buffet she’s offering is an assortment of delights. Her three productions are The Pursuit of Hobby-ness, an exuberant search for one’s authentic self; 2Dee, a charming foray into the magical world of shadow puppetry; and Veronica’s Monster, designed as a kiddie’s show (ages 3 – 8) but like good family theatre should, it dishes up a generous helping of heartwarming creativity which is food for all souls.

Children’s theatre is one of Avril’s top passions. “When I started off freelancing, I cut my teeth in a little children’s theatre in Joburg”, says Avril, so connecting with the young’uns has become second nature. Keeping a roomful of enquiring minds focused for an entire 40 minutes without Cartoon Network or an iPad game in sight, is not for the timid. But you’ve got to have a trick up your sleeve. Avril’s? “Lots of singalong and every song has its own little actions.” A good storyline doesn’t hurt either and Veronica’s Monster has just the right balance of adventure, friendship, and a lesson in life too.

Little Veronica, aka Ronnie, meets the monster who lives under her bed. As their humorous interactions unfold, they discover they’re equally afraid of each other. Ronnie comes to realise that “fear is just ignorance in disguise [and so] she learns how to be tolerant and accepting”. Through this unlikely friendship, Avril hopes to evoke curiosity in young hearts “about people around them who they might not otherwise engage with”.

Shifting gears for us older hearts, The Pursuit of Hobby-ness, you may notice, plays on the catchphrase “the pursuit of happiness”. It’s what we all want, not? But is happiness inside us, do we create it for ourselves, or must we seek it ‘out there’? The Pursuit of Hobby-ness muses on these ideas while the protagonist Bee tries to figure out what makes her, her. Is she an enviable chef and dinner party hostess, or the world’s next Vanessa Mae, or soon to be Banyana Banyana’s new star goalie? Not likely, as the fine china, violin, and sports gear gathers dust in the attic.

So in what hobby or talent does that elusive happiness lie? Who are all these ‘selves’ we try out before ‘becoming’ who we are? Avril reveals that much of The Pursuit of Hobby-ness appears funny and light, but there’s a dark underbelly… and in that we’ll discover some truths about what really matters in life.

“What I want people to leave knowing is that the only one for whom you should change yourself… is yourself. We tend to accept conditions from others that we would need to change in order to be accepted by them… but that’s never true change.”

Audiences are important in more ways than being ticket-purchasing attendees. We’ll play a vital role in each performance of The Pursuit of Hobby-ness. In one scene, suggestions are requested to feed into a potentially hilarious, potentially chaotic, potentially ramshackle improvised scene. Avril’s outlook: “It’s loads of fun to not know at all what people are going to say … I have no fear of improvising in front of an audience. It’s more exciting than anything else.” So we’re encouraged to bring our weirdest and wackiest ideas when it comes to the different hobbies we’ve attempted to undertake. Let the fun ensue.

In 2Dee we’ll enjoy some improvisation too. We’re limiting the spoilers here, but with some on-the-spot poetry and interpretive dance, there’s sure to be a hilarious surprise or two.

Melding together the ingredients of the ancient art-form of shadow puppetry (a tricky skill to master), soundscapes, storytelling and poetry, 2Dee will deliver a satisfying blend of whimsy and fantasy, the mystical, with a splash of something altogether different.

2Dee is the embodiment of Avril’s dream to create and reveal an enchanting other world. As a teenager many years ago, she experienced 360 Degrees in the Shade at the National Arts Festival. This production so captivated her imagination, that the experience stays with her to this day. And it is this lingering wonderment that Avril hopes to share with audiences of 2Dee. Playing with light and shadows bursts open the well of creative possibilities, and as Avril explains, the shadows “can do things that we can’t when we’re stuck on the ground … shadow puppetry is so magical and simple, and part of its magic is its simplicity”.

The most crucial role NAF audiences play, says Avril, is being “willing to take a risk on your show” because “shows are organic things and an audience will always develop your show”.

It’s this which draws Avril back to the National Arts Festival each year. And participating in a festival which is “like a blender… this mad flurry of new voices and it’s such a magical, magical time. It means a lot to me to be part of that”.

2Dee is going on to perform at the WITS969 festival, an annual selection of productions which make the trek to Jozi after having performed in Makhanda (the fest is named for the distance between the cities). Whilst no further plans are yet set, Avril says the shows will definitely have a lifespan after the NAF.

A correction to note: the website correctly reflects that Avril Cummins directs all three works, but because the ink was dry before corrections could be made, the printed programme erroneously states that Kirsten Harris and Ryan Dittmann direct 2Dee and The Pursuit of Hobby-ness respectively.

For more details, full schedules and bookings, follow these links: The Pursuit of Hobby-ness, 2Dee, Veronica’s Monster.

CREDITS:

Writing, directing & performance: Avril Cummins

Produced by HeyJanice Productions

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