My play Impisi was originally written as a two-hander and was created for specific actors, Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkwane. These two South Africans were very accomplished physical actors, one was trained at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and both of them had worked together for many years, in many countries including the UK at the Tricycle Theatre in London.
Early on in the production process Bheki had to drop out because he was engaged to work elsewhere. So Ellis went in search of a new partner, and we were all really lucky when he found a young actor called Sdumo Mtshali.
They performed together, bringing Impisi to audiences in Southern Africa. Sdumo went on to win the first season of the SABC (South African Broadcasting Co) reality competition Class Act, and as the winner he went to New York to work.
Impisi is a play about disability, self image and the friendship told through the characters of African wild animals. The next outing for Impisi was in a primary school in Devon in the UK. I was contacted and asked to help launch a production of Impisi that would involve two year groups – years 5 and 6. So I had to rework the script to allow us to use twenty five children!
The story is about a young male lion who is about to take over the pride until he gets his leg caught in a snare. He gets free, but his leg is permanently damaged and his future seems bleak. He is tormented by other animals including meerkats, warthogs and his life-long enemy the hyena. But the hyena turns out to be his saviour, forcing the lion out of his depths of self pity. The play ends with the lion tackling the biggest, meanest animal he can, the buffalo!
I decided that I would increase the number of hyena in the script from one to four so the actors could share that large part, I would have small herds of animals instead of just one or two, and the meerkat group grew from two to six.
I also introduced elements of dance so that children who were not confident in speaking could still play an important role, and we created a band who would ‘play’ instruments made out of kitchen items such as graters, pepper mills, salt shakers and jars of dry beans. They created the sounds of Africa beautifully.
All of the actors were on stage at all times, and they came to the front of the stage to perform before moving back to line the stage.
It was a really great production which was very different in appearance to the original, but it was effective in teaching the audience and actors the lessons we were wanting to teach – a person’s self image impacts on others’ impressions of that person; friendship is vital for a healthy, fulfilled life; people who are ‘different’ are still people; name calling and staring at people is not a good thing!