Cape Town calling

Alice Abracen ’15At the Women Playwrights International Conference, Alice Abracen ’15 embraces theater's political power. 

By Alice Abracen ’15
Artist Development Fellow '15

Cape Town calling

The Montreal delegation was fretting. We’d been warned in the guidebooks not to walk in the dark in South Africa, even the five minutes or so it took us to arrive at University of Cape Town (UCT), Hiddingh Campus, where the conference was being held. We gamely staved off jet lag with coffee and lamented that the morning’s rehearsal should draw us into the perilous night. Finally, the prospect of being late (we were out of range of Harvard Time) forced us out of doors into the dark.

The walk was beautiful. The sun rose, and the thick mist, known as the “Table Cloth," swathed its way above Table Mountain, misting and curling over its roof and stopping eternally short of the city, as though an invisible wall barred its entrance.

I was rehearsing that morning for a funny, incisive piece by the Guerilla Girls that would be performed the following day, shortly after my own play would be read. The readers included local performers and drama students as well as visiting playwrights like me who had volunteered to read someone else’s play, seizing the chance to meet fellow artists and learn from South African directors.

After rehearsal, we joined everyone for tea and coffee in the foyer of the Little Theatre of UCT, a beautiful, intimate proscenium theater. Stories were swapped, cards were exchanged, snacks were shared across borders on every continent. I spoke to Zimbabwean, Norwegian and Italian playwrights; we looked forward to nightly performances by Afghani and American writers.

The five days of the conference fell into a pattern: readings and workshops were punctuated by tasty food and drink. In the morning, workshops were offered by theater professionals from around the world. I attended a workshop on community play creation; a workshop wherein we created a capella soundscapes; a workshop on devised theater for social justice.

The play readings of the afternoon varied in country of origin, in subject matter and in style. They did share one commonality—they were all political. Whether their politics were more explicitly stated or shrouded in layers of narrative, whether their authors believed a message should score a story or a story should serve a message, whether said author was a student from a peaceful Canada or a war-torn developing country, all of them sought to challenge injustices, revive dialogue, introduce neglected issues, and serve the cause of the marginalized.

After the readings, there would be panels to inform the playwrights on networking and publication strategies, and after a dinner break, there would be a full production. Nearly all the performances were solo pieces; but one performed on the second night, Walk, South Africa, featured several actors who guided the audience through the building and a horrific representation of the epidemic of sexual assault.

Haunted by the piece, we followed the performers out into the Cape Town night. Puzzled passersby watched the strange procession of women flooding past the university gates. Chilled by the night air, I wondered why we so needed to be drawn from the unheated, but at least sheltered, interior to the frigid, dark, outdoors. Then I remembered how that morning, another actress and I had been afraid to walk the short distance to the conference before the sun rose. Here, now, buoyed by numbers, surrounded by female playwrights and male audience members, curtained in the new friendships forged at the conference and armed with the shared contract of the audience, we were made to follow women out into the darkness of the night, and we felt safe.

Alice Abracen ’15, a resident of Adams House concentrating in English, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to travel to the Women Playwrights International Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, where her play Players was performed. Abracen has written three full-length plays during her time at Harvard, and was awarded a creative Senior Thesis in Playwriting. Her junior paper was nominated for the Roberty Kiely Prize for Outstanding Junior Essay. She plans to purse a career in playwriting to spark dialogue and community through the practice of theater.