Summer Suitcase: York theatre prof teaches in South Africa

This is the seventh and last in a series of weekly “Summer Suitcase” stories showcasing the international breadth of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

“The town of Stellenbosch is certainly a must stop these days on any visit to South Africa,” says York theatre Professor Don Rubin, who was there from January through June as part of a teaching exchange between York’s Theatre Department and the University of Stellenbosch’s Department of Drama.

“South Africa is in the midst of enormous cultural and social change and Stellenbosch is at the intellectual centre of it,” says Rubin.

Founded by the Dutch in 1679, Stellenbosch is the second oldest town in South Africa, cherished by tourists for its charm and historical significance. Just 45 minutes east of Cape Town, this community of about 80,000 is also scholarly and culturally sophisticated.

With a student body of about 20,000, the University of Stellenbosch is South Africa’s foremost Afrikaans-language institution of higher learning. It is also the editorial home of the country’s prestigious South African Theatre Journal.

Right: Don Rubin outside The Market Theatre, Johannesburg, South Africa

In the southern hemisphere the seasons are reversed, so Rubin was there during their summer semester but our winter term. While there, he taught three courses: a graduate course in theatre theory, a senior-level course in African and Canadian drama, and a junior-level course in modern world drama.

Temple Hauptfleisch, the long-time Chair of Stellenbosch’s Department of Drama and editor of South African Theatre Journal, replaced Rubin at York, where he taught a fourth-year seminar in theatre theory, a third-year modern drama survey, and a fourth-year seminar in African drama with a focus on South Africa.

“Temple and I’ve known each other for a long time,” said Rubin. “We collaborated on the South African section of the $3-million, six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre published by Routledge that I edited.”

In between teaching courses at Stellenbosch, Rubin conducted a series of interviews with theatre professionals and playwrights that he plans to share with his students. One of the highlights was an extended interview with South Africa’s foremost dramatist, Athol Fugard, who received an honorary doctorate this year from the University of Stellenbosch.

                                                     Right: Athol Fugard

“It was an emotional occasion for Fugard,” recalled Rubin of the convocation ceremony at which Fugard was honoured. “For decades his work attacked the apartheid regime in South Africa and for a long time he was persona non grata in the country. Stellenbosch’s decision to give him an honorary doctorate – proposed by Hauptfleisch – carried enormous symbolic power. After apartheid fell, Fugard received numerous honorary doctorates, but never one from an Afrikaans-language university. Unfortunately, Hauptfleisch couldn’t attend Stellenbosch’s convocation ceremony because he was teaching at York,” said Rubin. “So I took his place and Fugard asked me to pass along a specially signed book to Hauptfleisch. In it, he described the receipt of this honorary doctorate as one of the most special moments he had yet experienced in the history of the new South Africa,” said Rubin. “I was deeply moved by the experience.”

One of the premier cultural events in Stellenbosch is the annual, four-month Spier Arts Summer Season, a national cultural showcase attracting artists and audiences locally and from abroad. “Running from December through March, the festival takes place at the elegant Spier Wine Estate,” said Rubin. “The festival commissions performances in theatre, music, dance and poetry, bringing together the daring and the legendary in its 1,000-seat amphitheatre.” According to the festival’s Web site, the company “believes that the arts have a crucial role to play in the African Renaissance as art has the power to transform societies through breaking down notions that we are different.”

Rubin, who is president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, is also an active freelance critic. While attending the festival, he reviewed several shows, including a site-specific production based on the Greek myth of Orpheus.

“Hauptfleisch and I were impressed by our respective visits,” said Rubin. “We hope to find ways of maintaining this exciting exchange at both the faculty and graduate student levels because our two countries have much to share with one another.”

Left: Karina Hauptfleisch (far left), Patricia Keeney and Temple Hauptfleisch in Toronto

“Stellenbosch has a large body of graduate students working in theatre studies and York begins its new MA and PhD programs in these areas come September,” said Rubin.

“York students enrolled in Hauptfleisch’s courses were absolutely fascinated to have someone from Africa teach them,” added Rubin. “Becoming immersed in another culture is an enriching opportunity, both academically and personally.”

York humanities and English professor Patricia Keeney was also in Stellenbosch this year, doing research and writing – her visit a testimony to South Africa’s magnetism.

This article was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena in the Faculty of Fine Arts.