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June 12, 2020

Sour-dough and Minecraft: what I learned about playwriting during lockdown. – Tamara Schulz

The 2019 CASA winner, South African Playwright Tamara Schulz, shares her writing challenges and triumphs in this beautifully written blog. Tamara is currently working on a new play with her Canadian mentor/dramaturge Patti Flather and South African mentor/director, Tshego Khutsoane as she navigates creativity during the pandemic.

This quarantine was never going to be about baking.

Two things a playwright really needs are time, and someone to read their drafts. These are scarce resources for the juggling, gig-to-gig teaching, studying mother I have become in the long period between that first skeleton draft of Thin Air, and now. So it was with sweet astonishment that I opened an email last October telling me that I had won the CASA award and would get three months of paid time to work on this long-neglected play, plus a mentor who would be that external beacon I’ve realised is so important to the playwrighting process – someone else to invest belief in the world you are creating.

I suppose I am not alone in having those one or two pieces that are quietly composting away while life seems to take us further and further away from whatever the original idea might have been. I had said I could officially begin the writing period directly after submitting my MA on the 16th of March. “Little did she know,” the synopsis might read, that the very next day, schools would close and 10 days later the entire country would go into full lockdown.

Perfect, I thought. I can home-school my son, keep in touch with my once-a-week students from a distance, and work on my play in the all-expansive time in between, right? While colleagues were reeling from cancelled gigs and staring at hollowed out schedules, I felt almost guilty at being in the position of having three months to work on a play – months that I had already planned and set aside time for. Perfect, right?

When I casually let slip that I would be writing a play during lockdown, the nine-year-old’s eyes filled with tears.

“You’ve just finished writing your book and you were literally on your laptop the whole time.”

Cue the familiar theme tune of maternal guilt and the next thing we knew, screen time regulations had been significantly relaxed, and a happy child was tunnelling his way through flying blocks into a Minecraft wonderland of his own making.

I’ll wake up early, I resolved. Like I did when I was writing the MA, I promised. Keep that routine going. It will be fine. Sure, there’s an extra domestic load now, but it’ll be fine. A little bit every morning will make a lot by the end of lockdown.

But I had underestimated the pull of the horrifying spectacle of soaring COVID-19 infection and death stats, bewildering accounts of symptoms that seemed to be morphing in real time, and the quiet shock of a tutorial on the importance of sanitizing groceries. Sure, I was waking up early, but not to write. Along with the doom-scrolling came uncontrollable empathy storms, as we all began to realise how this was going to affect the average South African household, which as one commentator memorably wrote, was going to “imprison crime in the home” while supposedly stopping the contagion. A fog drifted over me, flattening out the days as well as the curve, and nothing much seemed urgent anymore.

The rest of the world seemed to be baking. One half of my timeline filled up with sour-dough recipes and pictures of smug little loaves, the other spawned webinars on how creatives can get digitally savvy overnight. I kept signing up for Very Important Conversations affecting our work, our industry, and then turning down the volume and watching the familiar faces of peers and friends discuss things like how to adapt long-crafted embodied curricula to Zoom, how to devise online, what will our beloved national arts festival look like in July?

With one family member about to go into oncology treatment and others scattered around the continent, this bleating phone felt like a lifeline and I couldn’t switch it off. Besides, it was my son’s lifeline too. Schoolwork, precious words of encouragement from a teacher, and the drawn-out Minecraft sessions where I could only hope he was building a better world than the one I was reading about.

And during those early morning sessions, I found myself staring at this play in puzzlement. Writing a play is like getting lost in the wild. So many forking paths in the forest, each decision leading to a slightly different outcome, a different draft. On an old hard-drive, I found no less than twelve versions of Thin Air, none of them complete, and each one with a slightly different emphasis and opaque titles like “Thin Air_the version where she doesn’t care” or “Finaller than the last final”. I had no idea how to reconnect to characters that certainly didn’t seem to need me as much as my small housemate who was asking for hugs every three minutes. I couldn’t relate to them anymore. Should I rewrite this as a plague play? Should I scrap it and start something new?

One morning I decided to be the cat. I took myself to a spot in the yard where the sun lingers. I had with me a pile of old notebooks and I was convinced that some magical code could be unlocked if I just sifted for long enough. Looking for some autumn warmth, my son came and nestled there too, eyes on hand-held screen, thumbs uncovering portals, enchanting tables, journeying to the Nether and back with samples of ender-wisdom to show for it.

Perhaps it was through a scratched bit of dialogue in one of those old notebooks, or maybe just letting the sun’s heat ferment some granule in me, but that morning a portal opened for me too and I began to listen closely, following the beat by beat logic I had put on the page more than ten years ago. Suddenly it was possible for this character to change, and for that one to react differently. A stuck story slowly began to heave itself out of storage.

And on about day 50, I made a sour dough. Casually at first, a little bit of flour mixed in with water (is it really that simple? Just ingredients and time?) Each day you add a little more mixture to the mixture, and it just kind of does its thing. After a week it bubbles and smells softer than beer and you can use it as the beginning of a loaf of bread.

Finally, I am baking. The anxiety I’ve had of not being productive enough during this time has eased. I’ve started to remember that huge parts of writing are not writing, but allowing. That the reason you need the luxury of buyout time like the one CASA provides, is so that you can give your characters some real estate in your head again, and trust that somehow, somewhere, the yeast is doing its thing.


The CASA Award

In the summer of 2015, a group of Canadian playmakers attended the Women Playwrights International (WPI) Conference in South Africa. In Cape Town, the Canadian women were struck by how few African women playwrights were represented. However, the handful of South African theatre-makers who did attend were extraordinary, with unique and important stories to tell. The Canadians formed a partnership with Amy Jephta, then President of WPI, in order to find funding opportunities for South African women* playwrights who lack support and time to write, as well as form meaningful connections between Canadian and South African theatre artists. Theatre is an important and vital voice: advocating for change as it responds to and reflects the world we live in. Through the CASA Award, we are able to support and mentor women playwrights living in South Africa who have demonstrated a commitment to playwriting.  CASA is a partnership between The Playwrights Guild of Canada Women’s Caucus and The African Women Playwrights Network. CASA is thankful for the continued support from Playwrights Canada Press, Scirocco Drama, ARC Theatre Company (Canada),  Outreach Foundation Performing Arts Project (Johannesburg), and Theatre Arts Admin Collective (Cape Town).

For more information, including the recent call for applications, please follow the CASA Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/thecasaproject/

* The term “women” refers to all people who feel they are women. This includes cis, trans women, and other gender-oppressed people. We support sexual and gender self-determination.

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