Words: Chelsea Haith
“Neon pink, pornography and Nelson Mandela, what more could you ask more?”
Archetype had tea with Jemma Kahn, a true renaissance woman, during the days preceding the National Arts Festival. The designer, actress, artist, producer and co-creator of The Epicene Butcher and other stories for consenting adults is involved in several other shows on the festival, including as a co-star in Amateur Hour! and a designer on Greg Homann’s much talked-about Oedipus. Kahnshared her views on Fest, the best place in Grahamstown to put a poster (the bathrooms at Long Table) and the art of making brave, little theatre.
A: How many times have you put The Epicene Butcher [and other stories for consenting adults] on at Fest?
JK: This will be the third year, the last year. I think we’re not allowed to put it on again, which is fine (laughs).
A: Have you gotten sick of it?
JK: No, not sick of it, I love performing it every time I do but I need to grow and change. So the Butcher needs to, not die, but just go to bed for a bit.
A: Is this the first time you’ve put Amateur Hour on at the Festival?
JK: Yes, it’s premiering at the Festival, same writer, same director. And it’s very exciting.
A: The same sort of effect?
JK: Yes, it’s a comedy. It’s the same in that it’s not the same as anything else. It’s not a linear story line, it’s has elements that form a bigger part.
A: So where did the technique, kamishibai, come from?
JK: The medium is what I discovered when I lived in Japan.
A: So you lived in Japan, that’s interesting, for how long?
JK: For two years, I taught English, and it was horrible I hated every minute of it, but I learnt this beautiful thing. And I think the culture embedded itself in my head in some way. But all the stories are written by a friend of mine Gwydian Beynon, who is a South African writer so he has no direct contact with Japan.
A: So very much a collaboration between you?
JK: Oh yes, and the director John Trengrove. A lot of people don’t really mention the writer and director, they say it’s my show, but it’s not, it’s OUR show. The writer sounds exotic but actually he’s just Welsh.
A: So there is life after an Arts Degree?
JK: Yes there is. But I am watching young graduates now, where I was at 24, 25 shitting themselves, and what you have to do is make your own work. Make your own work and work for free.
A: That’s scary advice.
JK: I know, I know. Well, what I did was run away to Japan. (laughs)
A: Who does the drawing?
JK: Some of them are by me and some I took favours from very talented illustrator friends. And some people just got it ‘cause the medium is a communicative medium, the drawings need to be quite bold. One particular artist, Carlos Amato, who also happens to be the Lifestyle section editor of the Sunday Times, he’s an incredible illustrator. I met him at a nude modelling class, where I was nude and he was drawing.
A: Good way to meet people.
JK: Ja, (laughs) so he drew two of the stories.
A: The drawings are so different, you can tell that there are different artists because some of them have very particular styles and I assume you were going for that to have the Anime and then the others…
JK: Yes, and that’s the thing, the writing also has those very clear styles, and that’s the wonderful thing about the show is that you’ve built in the element of surprise with every couple thirty seconds or a minute there is something new to look at. And I think an audience might think, “Why did these assholes draw all of those pictures, what a waste of time, but there’s magic in that.
A: Do you find that you get better at telling it each time?
JK: (nods) The shift in my performance from the beginning to know is massive. What my voice has done, what my body can do that it couldn’t before, probably because I’ve done it 250 times! (laughs)
A: So putting it to bed, what will that entail?
JK: If people offer me a lot of money I’ll do it. But I’m not going to put it in my car with a dream in my heart and go!
A: It’s a nice idea though.
JK: It’s such a loved show, it gives so much love, I give so much love, I get so much love.
A: Is Grahamstown your favourite place to perform?
JK: Yes, it’s the best, I love it. The nice thing is the travel we’ve got to do on the show, we did Edinburgh festival and we went to Amsterdam, we got onto the World Fringe Circuit, and we did a really nice festival in Holland, and in Australia, Adelaide and Perth, and Brighton. And Brighton was the closest to Grahamstown in terms of response because we were on the Main circuit, which was nice because I’d just come off Adelaide, where I’d done the show to like three people a night for a month, which was so depressing, but I got so good at it, three people is hard.
A: Tell me about Amateur Hour!?
JK: It’s the same kind of range of stuff, there are a lot of ideas. We want to be brand, we don’t want to be the kamishibai people, we want to be the people who make fucking weird small theatre. Theatre that can fit in a car. I think it’s better to make brave little shows than cowardly big ones.