Nicholas Ellenbogen

WORK/LIFE: Nicholas Ellenbogen — playwright

Acclaimed playwright, director and actor Nicholas Ellenbogen discusses writing for the stage


Acclaimed playwright, actor and director Nicholas Ellenbogen has penned more than 150 plays. He has been involved in the designing and building of several theatres — including the Kalk Bay Theatre, The Post Box Theatre and The Zoo Theatre. His most recent project is the Rosebank Theatre, an intimate 40-seater space owned by the bestselling novelist Alexander McCall Smith which opened in July 2013.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on three plays at the moment. Black John has been in the pipe line for 12 years now, but it is a very big play set in Italy during and after World War Two so will only emerge when I have found a way to produce it. Dance and music are a big part of it. A rewrite of Cattle Drive a play that Luke [my son] and I did in Botswana about the great cattle drives to Labatse in that country. As dramatic as anything out of the Wild West. It is a super story for two actors. I have a week to come up with the title of Raiders for 2014, and get writing!Research has begun on a Winter Olympic theme, but that is no guarantee.

Describe the space where you write.

I have always battled to write so it is always a discipline for me. I find laptops unfriendly and like to use my Apple in my little office below my bedroom. It is warm in winter and catches a breeze in summer. Sadly I have had to write on the move a lot of my life so Land Rovers on bouncy roads  are my worst; under a big fig tree with paradise flycatchers in the north of Mozambique my best.

What’s your most productive time of day?

I like to write in the early morning, before anyone is up and about. My dogs always keep me company, so between scenes or if I dry up we go for a whip around the block. Then back to bed and a cup of tea.

Nicholas Ellenbogen

When you’re working on a play, how many words do you write in a day?

I write for specific spaces , dates and actors so oftenI work and rework right into rehearsal. I don’t do drafts as I like to share the first draft with the actors and rewrite on demand. The world is full of directors who demand endless drafts from playwrights. They believe like gods that only they understand. I believe in actors as a creative source, and often their instinct is acute. Some days I have to write all night to be in the right place for the next rehearsal. To get technical 10 pages of dialogue a day is a lot for me.

Do you first write by hand, or type?

I wrote my first play on a portable type writer, my next on an IBM Ball, and the next on a very humble computer. Now I have a wonderful Apple PC which was a gift from my friend Alexander MacCall Smith. I do work on ideas and scene structures, design ideas and character breakdown in my mole skin books that go everywhere with me. They date back to the 1970s.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

Because I carry ideas often for years in my mind and notebooks, when I do get to write it is inclined to pour out. But When it gets stuck I am surrounded by friends who are able to be very straight with me and help get things unscrambled. Liz my wife is no use but Luke my son and Andrew Brent are good bouncing boards. If it gets very complicated I can ask David Kramer, or my friend Ndlandla Mkanazi. But again, when you a writing for specific actors they will always bail you out. Unless you play God — then you are on your own.

How do you relax?

I just build another theatre, or home. I don’t relax much but I love reading and watching cricket. As I become more and more deaf, my love of restauranting has declined, but love meeting one of my children at a cafe for a skinner.

Nicholas Ellenbogen

Who and what has influenced your work?

The skills of Michael Atkinson, the pragmatism of Norman Coombes, I have had influences. But I was an overlap between the colonial theatre and the new South African stage. The cleverest thing I did when looking for a style that give me identity was to get in my car and live for a while with the River Bushmen and share storytelling with them. I did the same with the Masai and the Matabele. They have a great sense of both abstract and visual. I found the Fugard and holy-of-holy style really about talking to New York and London. Not to the Africa I loved. I encouraged actors to study in Paris if they could as the street theatre style of the French had more to offer Africa than the academic well-written play. I went on a journey when freedom was on the horizon with a new ensemble, Theatre for Africa. We worked in many African countries learning about the real voice of Africa; it was huge and the power and language that came out of that period was massive. We conquered the world with Guardians of Eden, but it never played South Africa. It was a musical with real African root. Perhaps one day it will come here.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Francois Swart and Mannie Mannim told me to give up when I was 23 and I didn’t because the public wanted me. Don’t listen to advice, but trust instinct — it is less devious.

Your favourite ritual?

I like saying grace because I am so grateful for food and a clean bed. But before I go on stage I pray that I will give the audience pleasure.

What’s the hardest thing about your writing plays?

Finishing a story is hard for me, largely because a story in the theatre is never the end: you want the audience to think ahead, to carry the history into the future. I often have to workshop an end which is really a technical happening in the theatre. Bells and whistles. Often a simple fade fade is the answer: an empty stage, devoid of life.

Nicholas Ellenbogen

What do you dislike most about yourself?

I don’t beat myself up much, but I wish I could spell.

What are you afraid of?

I am afraid empty houses, and the power of electric world to destroy the thinking of young people. I fear the limitation of synthetic learning and entertainment. I fear for my grandchild and the world he must understand, but his right to free thought and the power of art. I am fearful of the greed of those in power to destroy the future of live theatre in South Africa. Enough fear!

What advice would you give to people beginning a career as a playwright?

Do it, don’t talk about it. Theatre is a team event, the lonely writer in his garrick is a myth and not much fun, as is starvation. But be proud of what you do — if you create to feed what the market wants, become a standup comic and make a fortune out of corporates. Be fearless: failure is totally fine — ask Shakespeare. Research is huge fun and sharing with actors the ultimate. Don’t write about yourself — who cares but your mother?

What play are you proudest of writing?

I haven’t had time to look back on that. I have written  well over 150 plays now, so I don’t remember them all. But I love seeing A Nativity as Performed by the Nga Moya Players.



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