Athol Fugard Turns 80 in 2012

Athol Fugard on the "Road to Mecca" set in NY.

Playwright Athol Fugard calls the Fountain Theatre his “artistic home” on the West Coast. For twelve years, the Fountain has produced five premieres of his new plays. The Fountain’s world premiere production of Fugard’s Exits and Entrances toured the country, was produced Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in NYC, and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

This June, Athol turns 80 years old.  He is being honored with four major New York productions.

First comes The Road to Mecca, which opened last night at the Roundabout Theater Company’s American Airlines Theater. It was the Fountain’s Los Angeles premiere of The Road to Mecca in 2000 that first caught Athol’s eye to our theatre.

Fugard makes it a general rule not to see a production of his plays that he had not directed.

“What do I say if I don’t like it? So a friend of mine and I drove to Los Angeles, and we slipped in, and I had one of the happiest experiences of my theater career,” he said. “It was a beautiful and truthful production.”

An artistic alliance and friendship between Fugard and the Fountain was formed. It remains to this day.

Rosemary Harris stars in the Roundabout production as Miss Helen, an Afrikaner widow who earns the mistrust of her village when she begins filling her yard with ambitious, whimsical sculptures after the death of her husband.

The Signature Theater Company in New York, which dedicates its entire season to the work of single playwright, has selected Athol Fugard for its inaugural season in its new home on West 42nd Street. The Fugard plays are Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa!, and The Train Driver.

Athol at the Fountain Theatre for rehearsals of "The Train Driver" (2010) with actor Adolphus Ward.

Blood Knot, the 1961 play that vaulted Athol Fugard into international prominence, features two young South African men, one black and one white, grappling over what the world owes them. The Train Driver, which Mr. Fugard wrote in 2010 and had its US premiere at the Fountain, features two older South African men, one black and one white, grappling over what they owe the world.

Written in 1989 shortly before the end of apartheid, My Children! My Africa! presents an honest and unflinching portrait of a country on the brink of revolution, and is a testament to the power and potential of youth, hope, and ideas.

Fugard, whose efforts toward the abolition of apartheid and the creation of a multiracial theater resulted in banned plays and a revoked passport, is not finished chronicling South Africa’s tumultuous past and future. He recently finished a one-act play that he plans to perform with his 8-year-old grandson. And the draft of a new play is nestled alongside his iPad and a neat pile of English- and Afrikaans-language books by Pablo Neruda, Breyten Breytenbach, Ted Hughes and Antjie Krog.

“That’s glorious, isn’t it?” he said. “Everything is exactly in place.”

His recent thoughts on Mecca and Train Driver:

Priscilla Pointer and Jacqueline Schultz in "The Road to Mecca" (2000)

THE ROAD TO MECCA (Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles Premiere, 2000) starring Priscilla Pointer, Jacqueline Schultz and Robert Symonds. 

“Something that has always intrigued me, as I think it does any sort of artist of any description, is the nature, genesis and consequences of a creative energy. Where did it come from? How does it work? And what prices do you pay for having it? Because there are consequences. Sometimes it’s a marvelous thing, and sometimes it’s a curse. And sometimes it’s both. And sometimes the discovery of what your life should really be about comes to you very late. I’m an alcoholic — I don’t try to keep that a secret — and I wrote this play when I’d just decided I was going to stop drinking. There’s a line in the play when Miss Helen says, ‘I’ve reached the end of my journey.’ The other night, at the first preview [in New York], I suddenly realized: ‘Wow, you’re reaching the end of your journey. You wrote this play for yourself.’ And it turns out to be the story of this moment in my life, because in a way I’m not far away from the moment that all my candles are going to be blown out. So there we are.”

Adolphus Ward and Morlan Higgins in "The Train Driver" (2010)

THE TRAIN DRIVER (Fountain Theatre, 2010, West Coast Premiere) starring Morlan Higgins and Adolphus Ward:

“The graveyards of the unnamed in South Africa stretch seemingly to infinity. And as you walk among them, from time to time you find that somebody has thought to put a bottle filled with seashells on the ground.

“That is where my idea of Simon [the caretaker] comes from. Although these are nameless people that he buries, he’s trying to do what I’ve tried to do in my writing. You can’t give them a name, but you can say, ‘Here lies a human being.’ That’s all you can say about them. ‘Here lies a bubble of dreams and hopes that came to nothing.’”

For 80 years, the life and brilliant writing of Athol Fugard has certainly come to something deeply meaningful to other human beings around the world.

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