Mike van Graan, one of the country’s most esteemed playwrights, has received an honorary doctorate from UP for his influence in South African theatre. Van Graan has played a prominent role in shaping post-apartheid arts and culture through his work as an activist and playwright. He has been the recipient of numerous national and international awards for his work and his dedication to social justice. Mike van Graan on writing and activism
Where do you find your inspiration for writing?
I have been fortunate to receive a number of commissions, so the theme is often defined. But then, finding a story through which to explore the theme comes from a combination of research and imagination about the theme. Other times, much of what I write about comes from contemporary news, particularly my satirical work or writing.
What did it mean to you to receive the esteemed Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Prize for your contribution to the fight against apartheid?
The award is not only for my contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle, but also for my post-apartheid activities and work across the African continent. One does not work for awards or recognition, so when it does happen, it’s an affirming bonus and when it comes with funding attached to it (as the Hiroshima Award does), it is really helpful, particularly because of the difficulties in raising funds to support one’s work in the arts. External affirmation is great, but probably more meaningful, are the many messages from peers, colleagues and other observers of the sector who believe that such recognition is “deserved”, acknowledgement from one’s peers when there are so many other deserving candidates means a lot.
Would you say that your role and experience as a student activist has influenced the direction of your writing?
To some extent, that’s when the notion of “the personal is political” was embedded for me. Much of my theatre writing has only really happened post-1994. My theatre-writing before [then] was pretty much part of community or political rallies [and] street theatre, with post-1994 writing more for the formal theatre space.
In your MA Degree in Drama you explored the theme of HIV/Aids in mainstream South African theatre. What compelled you to explore this topic?
It is a degree I did not complete ironically, with just some corrections to do…Largely because I had completed what I wanted to find out, why it was that, given our history of anti-apartheid activist theatre, so few mainstream plays had been created around the theme of HIV/Aids that had devastated and infected so many of South Africa’s population. I want to know why mainstream (as opposed to community-based) theatre-makers no longer felt so strongly about dealing with major political and social issues in post-apartheid South Africa. My research showed that it was because of a mixture of “giving the market what it wants”, and theatre-makers believed that the “theatre market” was not particularly wanting to buy tickets for Aids plays, although that was not necessarily true. There was also a lot of self-censorship because of Mbeki’s Aids denialism at the time.
Your most recent play is Another One’s Bread. What kind of themes does this play explore?
It was a commission from the Centre for Excellence in Food Security, which has a base at UWC and at the University of Pretoria. So it deals with themes of hunger.
Do you have any other plans for 2018?
2018 has had quite a theatrical start. Another One’s Bread played at the Market Theatre in January/February. The Baxter in Cape Town then hosted When Swallows Cry, my play about African migration, in February/March and we just did a performance in Sweden a couple of days ago. And currently, Green Man Flashing is running at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton [until] 12 May. I’m working on a new piece – LAND ACTS – a multi-sketch satirical piece (in the style of Pay Back the Curry and State Fracture – my previous works in 2016 and 2017) on the contemporary and contentious theme of land. It will be done at the National Arts Festival in July.