World-renowned playwright Athol Fugard is in town for the premier of The Shadow of the Hummingbird, his new long one-act about the disappearing capacity for play and for wonder delivered in the form of a grandparent-grandchild love story. It features a lot about bird watching, as well as Plato’s allegory of the cave
This is the fifth world premiere of a Fugard (pictured) play in New Haven, where the 81-year-old South African writer has found a directorial soul mate in Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein.
It’s also the first time in 15 years that Fugard, who began his career as both writer and actor, returns to the stage. He said he was a little nervous at first but is finding his legs.
He’s staying at the Madison Towers through the show’s April 27 conclusion. (It opens March 26.) He took a break from rehearsals to speak with the Independent. We chatted about the birds in his life and in his new play, and lots of stuff in between.
Independent:When Gordon [Edelstein] announced he’d received your play about a year ago, he [reported] he said to you, “You know there’s only one actor who can be in this play [playing the grandfather]. You said, “Sam Waterston,” and he replied: “No, dummy, you!”
Are you nervous returning to the stage as an actor?
AF: That’s right. When I wrote the play I hadn’t been in a play for 15 years. For 15 years I’d concentrated on my essential function in the theater, to try to write plays. I hadn’t reckoned with the fact that during this lay-off period of 15 years a certain mellowing had taken place in my nature. I was a difficult actor to handle in the old days. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find with what sort of mellowed harmony the three of us [Fugard, Edelstein, and the author of an introductory scene, Paula Fourie] work together in the rehearsal room.
Independent: Am I mistaken that you call this a “meditation”? Is that different from a play?
AF: I thought I was writing a long one-act play. In a sense the character on the stage doesn’t meditate. He describes himself as a grumpy old piss-pot. He’s raging and raving. When you turn 81 years old, you’ve got to start taking stock of your life. You’d be a fool if you didn’t. The final farewell is a lot easier if you’ve come to an understanding of yourself; you’re grateful for whatever you got right, regretting what you got wrong. So there is a meditative quality in terms of the play-writer writing this play. But as we explore in the rehearsal room we’ve actually discovered there is quite a drive to the play. When I come to the end of a rehearsal, I feel I have traveled.
If the play meditates on anything, it meditates on love. I’ve known this for a long time: the only energy I use in trying to write a play is love. It’s a pretentious statement, but it happens, and I unashamedly say it. It happens to be my truth. Whether the results are worth sharing with anybody, that’s a different issue. Emotions like anger, prejudice, distrust, I have to leave those outside the door to the room that leads into the desk where I write. Whether I’m writing about a villain, saint, or hero, I’ve got to bring love to the act of creation.
Independent: Can you talk a little more about this “love”? Because he’s [Fugard’s grandfather character] really crusty, and he puts down the little boy’s dad, his own son. Isn’t there a bit of tough love there?
AF: Tough love. That’s right. The germ of this play came when my only daughter fairly late in years gave birth to her only child, my only grandson. I saw his opened eyes an hour after he was born, cradled in his mother’s arms. From that moment on ... it continued to be amazing from that point on. My surprise, delight, and wonder increased. Now he’s my best fishing buddy. He’s going on for 10. He’s a wonderful fisherman. And most important of all, he knows how to wait. That’s a very hard lesson to learn.
Independent: I guess that’s an important lesson for a playwright to learn also.
Independent: Did you wait for a long time for this play to emerge? You’ve said that the germ of a play requires a symbol and the coming together of something external and internal.
AF: That’s absolutely right. I’m a very keen birdwatcher. I’ll tell you exactly how it happened. I was in San Diego in the room where I was writing. The room opened onto a patio. On the patio I had a nectar feeder for hummingbirds. In the chair I sat in to write I couldn’t see the feeder. I knew humming birds were there. One particular day when I suddenly saw something moving on the wall in front of me. I identified it as a shadow of a humming bird at the feeder. It reappeared every morning.
That shadow absolutely fascinated me. At that moment all the desperate elements that I had already floating around in my subconscious—my grandson, the nature of love, Tolstoy, Blake, Plato because I studied the classics really seriously for a long time—all came together. I suddenly realized I found in that external shadow a corresponding element in myself. One thing I believe we must never lose sight of in this era of cell phones ... surveillance, we must never lose our connection to the mystery and beauty of nature. That is something I’m trying to talk about to the audience through this little play.
Independent: When you sit down to write, do you sense you’re a 10-year-old? In addition to the quality of love you’re talking about, do you summon being a 10-year old?
AF: Fortunately I’ve got a model [grandson Gavin]. I try to leave this aging body of mine to give myself a feeling for being inside a young body and a young mind. You’ve got to try to take a leap out of yourself.
Independent: You’re opposite a 10-year-old actor who, I assume, is not Gavin but a professional actor ...
AF: They finally settled on a pair of twins. Two brothers who are identical twins.
Independent: Hold it! How many are going to be on the stage at once?
AF: The point is the labor laws in the country do not allow you, I think, if you’re under the age of 15 to have an actor perform every night. So you’ve got to have a second actor if it’s a play that requires a child. We’re coming to the end of our third week of rehearsals, and it’s already obvious they are going to deliver. One day one twin rehearses with me. The next day the other. They alternate performances.
It’s been very interesting for me, because they might be identical twins physically, but they are not identical twins in terms of their natures and characters. There are subtle differences. This keeps me alive [on the stage], and my role shifts accordingly.
Independent: We’re not getting any younger, any of us. The play very much feels like a transmission from Oupa [his character]. You’ve had Oupas before ... in Coming Home, but [this feels different], isn’t there a sense of some transmission from Oupa to the grandson and you hope to audience as well?
I hesitate to ask, but is there a sense of swan song here?
AF: I really don’t know what comes after this. In anticipation, yes, there is definitely. I’ve got five stents in my body. You know, I could be gone before the opening night! I don’t know how much time I’ve got. It’s not a sense of urgency, but a sense that the reckoning necessary for closure is approaching. I’m in the process of it now, and it might well be that The Shadow of the Hummingbird is my swan song. It would be kind of nice if it was because I like this little play. It surprised me in the rehearsal to discover how much of my craft is still sharp, accurate, and clean. I know also that your tools get blunt. There’s no way of sharpening the blunt tools of old age.
Independent: If you had another 80 or 40 years as a playwright, what should playwrights of the future be writing about that have the urgency of what you’ve written about? Climate change? Surveillance?
AF: Absolutely. The villains of the past, the Hitlers, the Stalins, the villainy of the past has morphed into those very issues you mentioned: climate change, overpopulation, the desecration of nature. How much of the green earth is being covered by parking lots each year? And it is terrifying ... You know conflict is the essence of theater and plays. There’s got to be conflict [in plays] because conflict is inherent in the human condition. Since the Neanderthal man tending to homo sapiens, we’ve been struggling with our reality, our environment, ourselves, and I don’t see that ending.
Independent: Would it be presumptuous for me to ask what is the conflict in The Shadow of the Hummingbird?
AF: The conflict is, I suppose ... that’s a good question. And I’m not sure I can give you a satisfactory answer. I know that I feel the conflict.
Independent: I do too.
AF: I have a sense of urgency, as I move around as Oupa, that something must be taken on and resolved, which is exactly what plays should try to do. I think I’d be very unwise to try to formulate it at this period [during rehearsal]. I’ll leave it as the ghost that I wrestle with, my dark angel.
Independent; I think that’s so wise, and I hope I haven’t jinxed you by asking that question
AF: Not at all.
Independent: My very last question: What birds have you seen out the window of Madison Towers?
AF: I have watched gulls. I’ve seen terns. I have seen little sparrows. The feathered beauties of summer and spring are not around at this moment. But as we talked, two geese have just flown by, passed my window in the distance.