Interview:  We can’t change our families, but we can laugh at them –Sophie Joans talks about Île, her award winning comedic play

Île- comedic/drama play
Performer and writer: Sophie Joans
Director: Rob van Vuuren
Producer: Spark in The Dark –instagram @sparkinthedarksa  

Mothers and daughters: It is usually complicated. That was a trigger for Sophie Joans to write her play Île, which premiered at the National Arts Festival [NAF] 2022, Makhanda [formerly Grahamstown], on the Fringe. The comedic play, directed by Rob van Vuuren, won a Gold Standard Ovation Award at the festival and received rapturous acclaim by audiences and critics. It is funny, entertaining and wistful and universally relatable but the humour is framed with a jagged edge as Joans references the white Mauritian colonial heritage- her heritage. Her matrilineal family line is rooted in Mauritius. Île is a journey for Joans, not only into the personal but also into the political which elevates the narrative beyond a relationship dramedy. The medium of the play – stand-up comedy and physical theatre/clowning – is underpinned by punches of wry acknowledgment and honesty. Joans embraces the uncomfortable bits in her story and let’s face it, most of us have murky stuff in our backgrounds – who we are and what has shaped us.  Île is a remarkably mature piece of writing for a twenty-something theatre maker. The journey of Île is emblematic of the resilience of young theatre makers, during the global Covid pandemic. The first incarnation of Île was performed live on Zoom in Joans’ living room and was screened on Zoom at NAF 2021. Africa’s largest festival went out online in 2020 and 2021 and kept live theatre alive on the screen. Buoyed by the response to the screen Île, Joans worked with Rob van Vuuren to take Île from screen to stage and that resulted in the Gold Ovation Award at NAF 2022. I saw the screen Île and then the stage Île, in Makhanda at NAF 2022 and was amazed at its development. The stage Île is not simply a facsimile of what Joans put out at vNAF 2021 as screen theatre. In transitioning from screen to stage, she was cognisant of teasing out the funny in her play and using her body and stage as a medium of expression. Sophie Joans in conversation with TheCapeRobyn:

The genesis of Île

I saw the first version of Île, online at vNAF 2021 [National Arts Festival- virtual/online festival of 2021]]. That was filmed in your living room. Was the intention at that point, to take the piece to the stage? Was that recording a place-holder, because you were not able to perform live in public venues as the pandemic surged around us?

Sophie Joans: “I think this story has always been the one I’ve been burning to tell. I saw a play at NAF in 2014, about a young man grappling with his relationship with his father – both yearning for connection and yet so frustrated. I remember for the first time, feeling seen. It was at that moment that I decided to pursue theatre. The next year, I went to Mauritius for my gap year, and all the events that are told in Île happened… Which gave me the content/narrative to channel the feelings I had wanted to put into words. So yes, it has always been in the pipelines for the stage. I was SO glad I got to do it on vNAF, doing a play in your lounge is much more affordable… So it definitely gave me an opportunity to get it all together.”

Îleas title- everything is growing and rotting at the same time

The title?

Sophie Joans: “Firstly, it’s pronounced: ‘i-ll’, not ‘I-lay’ (as many people say). I think that I like the way Île sounds- a bit like ‘ill’. When an island is so isolated, things can start to get a bit twisted, and as a result there’s a fair amount of mental illness after generations of cousins marrying each other. At the same time, it’s quite a pretty name that evokes the postcard-esque beauty of a tropical paradise. I use the phrase: ‘Everything is growing and rotting at the same time’, I think that’s what it means to me: an abundance of life, and a lot of unpacked baggage and old ways that need updates.”

Screen to stage – heightening the funny

How did you come to work with Rob van Vuuren, in taking Île to the stage?  Can you talk about how the two of you worked in calibrating it for stage – from screen to stage? With Rob, you brought in more physical comedy and used the stage space – obviously something that you couldn’t do for online?

Sophie Joans: “I knew Rob through the stand-up comedy circuit, and then I stage-managed Corne & Twakkie.  It came a long way from screen-to-stage. I think, fundamentally, Rob opened the doors to the hilarity of all the crazy (borderline traumatic) stories. We can’t change our families, but we can laugh at them. The first version of Île was very much a scripted play. But in our first few rehearsals, I found myself recounting crazy anecdotes about Mauritius, in between reading the script. He found those stories, as well as the style of me just playfully telling them, far more captivating. Since my first fest [NAF] in 2013, I have always been such a fan of Rob, and the way he weaves humour and truth through relatable stories. I saw his show at the beginning of the year – and I just realised, he was the man for the job.”

Île – the stage play – premiered at NAF 2022

On top of everything opening up, you won a Gold Ovation Award at NAF. That must have been amazing – after two years of the pandemic- full houses and that recognition?

Sophie Joans: “I am still flabbergasted that I won a Gold. I have never been so shocked, happy, and tearful all at once in my life. I think, like all good stories, this one came from a place of a lot of pain. It might not be obvious with all the jokes. And while the story largely happens in Mauritius, and my mother features only at the beginning and end, it’s really a story about us: how we both have a longing and hope to be whole and love each other, and yet – we just fight like crazy. Going to Mauritius made me realise how much generational trauma affects relationships of present generations – and how despite your best intentions, it manifests in one way or another. So it meant a huge deal that that message shone through, and was well received.”

Cross-generational issues

You wrote Île with young women in mind but it has resonated with all ages?

Sophie Joans: “It has been a long journey, probably because it is such a personal piece. So much how I see and process the world is through a comedic lens. The first incarnation that you saw on Zoom, at NAF 2022 wasn’t that funny. I almost want to bury it. It was an important moment to get the story line. It changed quite a lot with Rob’s input. In Île, I wanted to unpack relationships – parents and their children. I didn’t see many plays which grapple with this which made me really want to study theatre. I feel that it is important to have stories out there – our relationships with our parents. Those relationships inform so much who we are- as much as we might want to escape it. I met a women from Réunion, the island next to Mauritius. It has a similar culture and history to Mauritius. I invited her to come and see the play as she was at the festival. She came to me afterwards in tears. It warmed my heart so much. I always thought that I was making this piece for young women who hate their mothers, yet really want to love them but I realised that it is for mothers as well who have such high expectations or high hopes with their relationships with their daughters and it just f**s out.”

Inner clown

What interested me in the stage incarnation, directed by Rob is the clowning, which I loved. Have you have attended clown school somewhere?

Sophie Joans: “I LOVE clowning. I was part of a circus on my gap year, and went on to study a course in clown at RADA (London) under Peta Lily. I’ve also studied with South Africa clowns/mimes: Sjaka Septembir and Richard Antrobus (who taught me in matric). Then I also did a short course under Jon Davison.”

The genesis of Île

When did you start working on Île? Before the pandemic or was it conceptualised before the pandemic? I seem to recall you saying that you had presented some of the sketches at Alexander Bar, where you worked at front of the house, before the pandemic? 

Sophie Joans: “This play came in bits and pieces. Many stories were former stand-up bits.  And others were actually told at storytelling events (Southern Rights & Wrongs and Raunchy Renditions). It all came together with a course I did on storytelling and solo performance, under Jess Mitolo over Zoom. Jess is actually the director of Second City (Toronto), so it was amazing to get to work with her. She has a great way of teasing a story out of a participant.”

Family reactions – the personal in the fictional

You are now 24. Île is a coming of teen-hood story. You convey that after your time in Mauritius, on your return, you were able to really connect with your mom – something that you had found difficulty to do in the past. How did your mom feel about being depicted in the piece and your family in general? The response of your family?

Sophie Joans: “It’s definitely a true story, my story. Some moments are embellished for dramatic effect, and a few characters are echoes of more than one person. But even the things that aren’t entirely factual, are closer to the emotional truth and the true feeling of the experience. As for my mother – she hasn’t seen it. I’m a bit scared that she’ll stand up and shout out “That didn’t happen like that! She’s exaggerating!. My sister saw the play, and said it was sweet, and fair and honest. My dad hasn’t seen it either – but he did read a piece of the monologue (where I make a joke about my bother hitting me as a baby when she was pregnant with me)*, and he said with great concern: “I think you have the wrong angle”.*She didn’t hit me when she was pregnant with me. It’s a joke.”

Île on tour

Let’s circle back to you as a twenty something theatre maker and the fact that you not only perform in Île but you have also produced it under your production company, Spark in the Dark. There are two seasons coming up in Cape Town- Avalon and Drama Factory [August 2022]. And then? Will Île tour elsewhere? To international festivals?

Sophie Joans: “Much more on the cards. On September 8, 2022, we go to Durban for the Point Waterfront Comedy Festival, and after that the Hilton Arts Festival. Thereafter, a Joburg tour is on the cards. I’d love to take the play to other Francophone countries – and translate it into French. So Reunion, France, Canada… But probably not Mauritius. A little too close to ‘home’.”

After Île

What is next for you as a solo performer?

Sophie Joans: “Sjoe! I’m still going to be doing a lot of stand-up comedy. I’ve just been accepted into the Artscape’s New Voices Writing Programme, for a play called Dog Rose. I won’t say much, but the maternal themes carry through, and this one also touches on autism in women. As for what’s next after that… Rob is a big inspiration, and I plan to attend NAF every year – 25 years, here I come.”

Laugh, cry and feel warm

Anything else to add about Île?

Sophie Joans:  “It’s a show that will make you laugh, and maybe cry. But all in all, I hope it’ll make you feel warm and at peace.“

Île: “Everything is growing and rotting at the same time”, reflects Sophie Joans on her play, Île. This photo captures a sense of the physical movement in this compelling piece of theatre – a heady intersection of spoken word, physical theatre, images and ideas. Pic supplied by Spark in The Dark/Sophie Joans.

Artists supporting artists: Sophie Joans (right) and her partner, Ethan Goldberg, at The National Arts Festival, Makhanda, attending a performance of Janni Younge’s Hamlet [performed with puppets], June 27, 2022 in the Rhodes Theatre. Before the curtain went up, Younge went on to the stage and alerted the audience to loadshedding [electricity outages]. The lights would go down and it would take a few minutes for the generator to click in. Younge invited the audience to raise its arms in the air to get a sense of what it takes for the puppeteers to keep their arms raised and the physical exertion required. Image credit: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

❇ Featured image – Sophie Joans in Île. Supplied.