Kyla Davis’ Well Worn Theatre Company has been making eco-conscious activism theatre works since before we all rubbed our eyes and woke up to the climate crisis. That the company is presenting five works on the National Arts Festival Main programme is testament to the rising backing and interest in work with a focus on environmental justice.
Beginning on Wednesday is the work that’s been a hot and mysterious topic on everyone’s lips.
What is it and where is it? To answer the ‘where:’ the National Arts Festival and Well Worn’s social pages announce the different starting points each day (and see details further below).
And for the ‘what’? Swarm Theory is a site-specific ‘happening’. The starting location is set but what happens next is up to the seventeen-member ensemble. There is no one leader. They must work as one. The impetus is their environment. People, pictures, smells, colours become the stimuli as the swarm “manifests a group mind”. The swarm is exploring the world and it’s curious about the world. It lives in the moment.
This is less about improvisation and more about the swarm members concentrating on their surroundings, and channelling into each other with authentic impulses and to be “hyperresponsive”, says co-creator Kyla Davis, Artistic Director of Well Worn, adding, “Swarm Theory is a playful, physical meditation on the possibilities of collaborative human intelligence.”
“We’re at this point where we all have to come together”, says Kyla, “and Swarm Theory is an exploration of our human experience, right here, right now”. She is clear that we all need to hold government and world leaders to accountability, to come together, be vulnerable together, be honest with each other. To acknowledge that “we don’t know what to do now … but we’re going to figure it out”.
Kyla speaks about how the company, and she, has shifted in practice. For a long time “I was the person on the outside shouting in” but in her research as an activist, she’s learnt that no amount of “telling” activates actual change. Her approach nowadays is to ask, “what can we achieve together?”
Swarm Theory embodies this principle. Ensemble is the form and mobilisation is the message. The climate crisis is too great a problem to imagine someone else will arrive to save us. It’s here. And it’s now. And like the swarm, we will need to decide what’s next.
“When you see a flock of birds you don’t see the individuals, you see the shapes the group makes”. It is its own entity. As one. Like the birds, we can shift together, be together. Through the researching process of Swarm Theory, Kyla has come to believe that “empathy is also a muscle, that we can train”. It’s an inspiring thought.
Swarm Theory operates with a manifesto, some ‘parameters’ of sorts. The swarm is not a hive and not an army, explains Kyla, “we are a rag-tag blended bunch … and curious”. When someone appears to be on their own tangent or starts taking the lead, they are not dismissed, they aren’t punished… but the action is integrated somehow. And there must always be room to move, both on a practical level and in the open attitude of being non-judging. This is where the human element exists.
But actors are trained to create action, to put on a character mask, and as Kyla adds, when you’re working with a cast of such formidable performers … it was and is challenging to actively resist their instincts to make things happen.
Most of the Johannesburg members of the cast have performed in the company’s four other works at National Arts Festival (all have finished their runs now). Joining this crew who have been working together for years, are local Makhanda artists from Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company who too have worked together for many, many years. So the connections run deep, and it is this Kyla hopes will be communicated; a sense of closeness, of interconnectedness, of mutual reliance.
The nature of the work is highly playful but within this playfulness is a serious tone. As the swarming moves and interacts – and human relationships are established – the notions of power dynamics and hierarchies are examined.
“There are natural leaders in a group and there are natural followers, and then everyone in between. And how do we constantly fuck with the balance? … For those who are used to hanging back and just being along for the ride or have experienced a lifetime of exclusion – how do those people feel supported to come forward? And, the people who are used to leading: the white men, the loudest, the physically strong, the rich, the educated… how do they learn to pull back, to say: my idea is not always the best, this is not my time to take up space, I am not alone, this is not a one-man show?”
In this, the swarm reflects and is a microcosm of the current South African situation. Swarm Theory is “a particularly South African experience … learning how to live in a rapidly changing world, together, coming from really different backgrounds and experiences”, says Kyla.
Well Worn’s ‘Theatre Activism’ season forms part of the Re-Imagining Festival, co-curated by Kyla Davis and Dylan McGarry, which examines how creative practice is used to re-imagine the world. Says Kyla, “…because the world as we know it is in trouble and we need to collectively re-imagine how we could do something to change it”.
Of the process, co-director Daniel Buckland says that it is the specific challenges in ambiguity of the performance where the greatest fun is to be had. There is an ecstatic performance space to be found in the balance between proposing an impulse and sitting back and waiting to follow a proposal, between finding the mischief of play within the group, and the solemn sacred presence of the chorus member, and between following the impulse of the ensemble and constantly questioning and reinterpreting the microcosmic shifts.
Swarm Theory hits the streets of Makhanda daily from Wednesday 3 July to Sunday 7 July. Performances are FREE to the public. See this link for more details: Swarm Theory
Swarm Theory is:
Directed by Kyla Davis and Daniel Buckland
Jaques De Silva
TIMES and VENUES:
03 July – Meet at 5pm on the Drostdy Lawns
04 July – Meet at 1pm outside Noluthando Hall
05 July – Meet at 2.30pm outside the Shoprite, Market Square, Beaufort street
06 July – Meet at 1pm in the central avenue of the Village Green
07 July – Meet at 1pm in Church Square, near the church entrance