Back in the year 2000, legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard was residing in Del Mar, teaching playwriting, acting and directing at UC San Diego — while continuing to turn out the prolific body of work that had earned him worldwide acclaim.
He heard from friends of his, whose opinions he respected, that the Fountain Theatre in LA had mounted a very good production of his 1984 play, The Road to Mecca. With trepidation, Fugard traveled to the Fountain to see what this director named Stephen Sachs had done to his work.
Six Fugard/Fountain Theatre collaborations later, the Fountain is now presenting the US premiere of Fugard’s latest work. The Blue Iris, helmed by Sachs, opens Friday, in celebration of the master playwright’s 80th birthday and his ongoing collaboration with the Fountain.
In a telephone interview from New York, Fugard admits, “I’ve always been wary of seeing plays of mine that I myself hadn’t directed. Eventually I went to the Fountain and saw this marvelous production, staged by Stephen. I met Stephen and I met the cast of that production and found myself saying to Stephen, ‘I want my next play to be done in your theater.’ I loved the feel of it. Everything about it felt right — the theater, the size of the space, the atmosphere. It was perfect for my sorts of plays. So, when my next play was ready, I brought it to Stephen.”
Sachs has his own memory of his first encounter with Fugard in 2000. “I was told he never goes to see productions of his plays that other people do. Well, I learned he was coming. Of course, I was excited and terrified. I didn’t tell the actors that Athol was there. After the performance, during the applause, I want backstage quickly and told the actors, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’ The actors came out and I said, ‘I would like you all to meet Athol Fugard.’ And they all screamed. Of course, we were all so happy when he told us he loved our production. We all went out afterwards. And we just kept corresponding after that. When Fugard was directing Sorrows and Rejoicings at the Mark Taper [in 2002], I kept saying to him, ‘If you’re ever looking for a small, intimate, artistic home to develop a new work, away from a larger theatrical institution, where you can just work quietly in a nurturing environment, the Fountain is yours’.”
One day in 2004, Fugard sent Sachs an e-mail with a file attached to it. The e-mail message read, “Attached to this file is my new play and I want you to direct it.” The play was Exits and Entrances, which went on to garner three Ovation Awards and a slew of LADCC, LA Weekly and Backstage honors.
Fugard’s newest work, The Blue Iris, recently premiered in Cape Town and has since moved to Johannesburg. It is a three-character play in one act, which Fugard takes time to carefully explain.
“The inspiration for this play came from two directions. It is set in the Karoo, a semi-desert area in the heart of South Africa, where several of my plays have been set. One of the features of this rather small area is a very beautiful mountain. I’ve climbed that mountain several times, often with a friend. It is quite a stiff climb but a good one, not dangerous really. We always used to park our car at the foot of the mountain at a lovely old farmhouse, which was owned by a very cordial farmer. He became a friend of ours. When we would come down from our climb, he was always there waiting for us with something to drink or to eat. It was a great relationship. But on this one occasion when I went with my friend to climb the mountain, we arrived at this farmhouse to find it had been totally destroyed by a fire, which was started by a lightning strike. This wonderful man and his wife were living in a little tent outside the house, just trying to salvage what they could.
“The second image which inspired this play came from a farmer’s wife, totally unrelated to the first farmer I mentioned. She was a wonderful painter of wild flowers, of botanically accurate wild flowers. These weren’t only pretty paintings, these were botanical drawings that helped you identify the flower — the seed capsule, the root structure, everything. It was a fusion of those two images that finally brought me to writing The Blue Iris. There were a lot of complex personal issues that came into the play as well. I had a sense of how we men can get so absorbed in our own egos, our own personalities, never fully realizing what damage we do to others on the way.”
Fugard pauses in his discourse and chuckles. “I don’t think I properly understand the play yet, myself. I mean that. We writers quite often don’t know what we’ve written about. There have been many times that I haven’t known what the full resonances are of the story that I’ve told. It has often been only when I have been in the rehearsal room directing actors, helping them to understand the characters that they in turn helped me to understand what I had written.”
“I received The Blue Iris a few months ago,” Sachs continues. “I knew about the play for a few years. I know that Athol was working on it, developing it. I knew that he was going to present the world premiere in South Africa, which is pretty much his way of working now. They’ve named a theater after him, the Fugard Theatre. I am honored to be doing it here at the Fountain. My cast includes two Fugard regulars here at the Fountain, Morlan Higgins and Jacqueline Schultz. Julanne Chidi Hill is new to the Fountain. She’s a discovery.
“The play begins after the house has been burned to the ground by a fire and Robert and Rita are sifting through the debris. She wants to move on and take Robert with her. While going through the debris, they discover a painting of a blue iris that his wife Sally had done. Finding that painting triggers memory and forces Robert to look at the truth of the reality of his marriage to Sally.”
Fugard will not be at the Fountain for its debut. “I’ve been here in New York for a whole year directing plays, currently The Train Driver. This is also a play that Stephen Sachs has done. This is its New York premiere. I will be coming to see Blue Iris. I am leaving New York this coming Sunday and flying down to San Diego. I’m going to give myself a bit of a rest first and then come up to Los Angeles to see Stephen’s production. I am not going to tell him the date because I don’t want any fuss or bother when I come to see it. I am just going to quietly slip into the theater.”
As for the future, Fugard wants to keep it simple. “I do not multi-track. I work on one play at a time, like a good alcoholic goes one day at a time. My home now is in Del Mar. My plans for the immediate future are to go back to South Africa in September to direct a new play that I haven’t got a title for yet, because I am still putting the finishing touches to it. I’ll decide on a title a little bit later on. I will always premiere my work in South Africa. And I’ll probably always think of the Fountain as the next possibility.”
The Blue Iris, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave, LA 90029. Opens Aug 24. Plays Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Sep 16. 323-663-1525.www.fountaintheatre.com/perform.html
***All photos by Ed Krieger