Interview with Mike van Graan

Posted: March 23, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

First published in the Sunday Independent,  December ‘08

©Astrid Stark

Mike van Graan has a CV as long as Loop Street which is acompanied by a string of awards including the Naledi Theatre and the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards.  Playwright, director, actor, policy maker, administrator, mentor and journalist are just some of the guises of this multi-talented South African.  


 Mike van Graan

 I half expected a flamboyant and boisterous man but van Graan’s dignified grace made the Mount Nelson Hotel’s lounge seem brassy and pretentious.  He has a stillness that is poured into his slim and neat frame and his brown eyes reflect a gentle curiosity.    

Earlier this year van Graan accepted the position of Executive Director at the Africa Centre which is both an institution and a performance venue dedicated to the arts, culture and heritage of Africa.  “It was not a decision made overnight,” he recalls. “At the beginning of 2006 I was working as a consultant and I was commissioned to do three plays in the year’s first quarter.  I decided that I want to make my living as a theatre maker and that I will work around a three year cycle.”

Van Graan’s extensive experience has taught him it is very difficult to only be a theatre writer; given the way that theatre finance is often mismanaged, I have tried for a long time to try and change policy to better benefit theatre makers on the ground.  The politicians and officials in charge have no vision and no commitment to this sector,” he says without a trace of bitterness. “You need to produce your own work, market it, and make sure people come to see it.”

In 2007 van Graan was invited by the Dutch humanitarian and donor organisation, Hivos, to run a conference group, Arterial Network, on the advancement of African creative industries. I felt there was a huge synergy between the Arterial Network and Africa Centre with its resources and infrastructure,”  says Van Graan, “accepting the position at Africa Centre was a way of bringing the two together.  It also allows me to employ someone to produce, market, and tour my plays.”

As a theatre maker he feels that one of our biggest challenges in the South African arts industry is management.  “With even a little funding, excellent management can achieve great things, conversely poor management can wither away even the biggest budget,” he says.

Buoyed by what he calls the ‘incompetence at our national funding agencies,’ and a fierce need for independence, Van Graan’s dream of becoming a self-sufficient theatre maker is slowly being realised.  “If I can find a successful model to becoming an independent theatre maker, we can replicate that at a horizontal level and do more for the sustainability of this sector.” 

It is not the first time this unstoppable work-a-holic, cultural activist has used adversity to his advantage. During the 70’s van Graan applied to study teaching at UCT.  The apartheid Government forced him to take a permit subject. Van Graan chose Drama “At the time it was not a very nice experience to go through but it was just something that one had to do,” he remembers.  “However, I went back five years later to do my honours in Drama and it was my choice.”  He graduated from UCT with a BA Honours degree in Drama and a Higher Diploma in Education. 

“I may not have become involved in theatre if it wasn’t for apartheid,” van Graan laughs at manner in which the irony of his own life at times reflects that of his plays.

One of his first projects with Africa Centre is the Pan African Space Station music festival (PASS) running in Cape Town from 12 September until 12 October.  Musicians from across the globe are gathering for an online and live celebration of African talent at a variety of different venues across the City.

When van Graan is not busy directing the Africa Centre or jetting around the globe organising cultural conferences, and generally re-coding the cultural universe, he writes new plays.  “A lot of the writing that I am doing now explores the relationship between individual people, the macro conditions in the country, and how the two impact on each other,” he says.

On 12 September when PASS was launched at the NewSpace Theatre, the life of Steve Biko was also commemorated. At the same time a wobbly peace deal was brokered in Zimbabwe under the quiet diplomacy of President Mbeki, only hours before a high court judge lambasted President Mbeki for apparently using his political powers to interfere with presidential hopeful, Jacob Zuma’s, trial.

“Today our country is more interesting than ever to write about,” says van Graan. “Under apartheid it was all black and white and we all knew how it was going to end. There is now so much more contradiction, complexity and room for irony.”  In a wicked twist of recent events, South African fact has indeed become more bizarre than fiction and van Graan sums up that these days in search of new material, he simply edits the environment around him 




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