Athol Fugard: Exits and Entrances

LA Stage, May/June, 2004

by Rob Kendt

Athol Fugard has always written small plays--two- or three-character dramas which refract the dilemmas and conflicts of the larger world through the human-scaled interactions of a representative few. This has made his works quite at home in L.A.'s small theatres. Now, with the world premiere of Exits and Entrances, Fugard himself is feeling at home in one of L.A.'s most acclaimed small theatres.

"My canvas is a very small one," Fugard, 72, says from one of the 78 seats in Hollywood's cozy Fountain Theatre, where Exits has just begun rehearsals for a May opening. "I'm a miniaturist, if anything. Although I've put my plays onto big stages, they live most happily in a space like this," he says, gesturing to the low-ceilinged space where actors Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley have just been working with director Stephen Sachs.

Resident director Sachs agrees that Exits is a small play, but "such a huge small play, even in its 40 pages." It was Sachs' 2000 production of Fugard's The Road to Mecca that impressed the playwright enough to pledge a future collaboration.

"Normally, I never go to see my own work done by anybody else, simply because I've had so many bad experiences," Fugard confesses. When he heard good things about a production of Road to Mecca at the Fountain, he was nearby in San Diego, where he lives part-time, but he remained wary. "I first said, ‘No, I've been burned once too often, I'm not going to see it.' But the messages kept coming through, and finally… I decided I would break my resolution and take a chance."

The chance paid off, he says: "I had one of the truly rewarding and rich experiences of my career, in terms of seeing my work done by somebody else."

Fugard later thought of the Fountain as an ideal venue when he finished the two-hander Exits, in which an aspiring young South African playwright learns about the art of the theatre from an aging star actor. It's as autobiographical a play as he's ever written--and he's written more than a few.

He explains, "Without really intending it, I have actually been telling my literary biography as a playwright by way of a couple of the plays I've written." He points out the schoolboy lead character's "eagerness [to] put his pencil to paper" in Master Harold… and the boys, and the young college dropout of The Captain's Tiger, on a sea voyage and writing "his first ‘great' novel, which he then fortunately throws into the sea in Fiji."

Exits picks up this literary development in the early 1960s, when, Fugard recounts, he "crossed paths with this great actor, Andre Huegenet, who cast me in his production of Oedipus Rex." From Huegenet, a white Afrikaner who dreamt of a theatre by and for this much-misunderstood "white tribe" of South Africa, Fugard learned about the ways live performance can reach out directly to an audience.

But Fugard, whose roots are both English and Afrikaner, ultimately rejected Heugenet's vision of an Afrikaner national theatre as "too limited" for the apartheid-riven country in which they lived. Indeed, Fugard would go on to write and star in South Africa's first mixed-race production, 1961's Blood Knot, kicking off a long, rich playwriting career in which apartheid was a fraught and signifying background, if not always the central subject.

Speaking of a limited vision, though, is a 78-seat theatre in Hollywood really going to reach the wide audience his plays merit?

"Oh, no, theatre doesn't work like that," he says. "That's for the movies. Movies or television deal with hundreds of thousands--and I don't think they have any impact on society, incidentally. I think that this small space, or spaces like this, can actually influence the matrix of society--ooh, look at the word I've used, ‘matrix'--much more profoundly than the cinema or television. They just don't dig as deep into the psyche of the audiences as theatre does."

Doesn't a midsized theatre--such as the Mark Taper Forum, where Fugard's last play, Sorrows and Rejoicings, played, or the La Jolla Playhouse, where The Captain's Tiger was performed--offer a suitably intimate experience?

"Yeah, but what's very interesting is that you go to a place like the Taper or La Jolla Playhouse," Fugard says, "and a kind of commercial psychology begins to operate. Whereas this [the Fountain] is a venue where one can really be courageous, where you can live without compromise."

There's another reason he's so at home at the Fountain.

"This is how I played in South Africa," Fugard says, warming to the memory. "That's why I'm so comfortable here. I mean, plays of mine that ended up on Broadway and got Tony Awards started their life in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in a garage, playing to an audience of six black domestic servants."

For Fugard, who credits American audiences and institutions with "80 percent" of his success, theatre is a vital form wherever it takes root. And his roots show, whether in Port Elizabeth or Hollywood.

"My passion for theatre, for live theatre, is greater at this point, as I sit talking to you, than it was even 30 years ago," he says, a fire lighting his eyes, and his lilting, excitable voice dropping a pitch or two. "My faith in theatre, and what it can achieve, what it can do, what its function in a society is, is totally intact and beyond the possibility of erosion."