The Randomness of Chance: A Q&A with Refuse the Hour's William Kentridge

By Simon Hodgson

William Kentridge was born in 1955 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was raised in an intellectual, Jewish family by parents who were both prominent lawyers representing the victims of apartheid. A talented creator, Kentridge made his name as a visual artist with charcoal drawings and prints focusing on themes of social and economic justice. But his artwork took on a new dimension when he animated the black and white drawings—a creative leap that heralded the artist’s expansion into multiple media forms. Today this South African polymath tells his stories using printmaking, animation, sculpture, opera, tapestry, and theater. Before arriving at A.C.T., he talked to us from his Johannesburg studio about the multidisciplinary production Refuse the Hour.

William Kentridge playing the tuba. Photo by John Hodgkiss.
How did this project evolve from concept to final production?

It began as a series of conversations with the Harvard scientist Peter Galison. We would meet for breakfast and he would describe events in the history of science about time and relativity. As he did, I’d translate those theories in my head into how they could be materialized. How would one actually talk about pumping time under the streets of Paris, a process in which a clock would pump a pulse of air to give an accurate time signal to clocks throughout the city? This thinking suggested human lungs, as well as a brass instrument to illustrate pumping air. That gave a shape to the production’s musical forces—we knew there would be a lot of brass and air. It also became about understanding the human body as a biological clock. So there are ways in which science gets manifested in material one can work with in a studio.

What is it about Refuse the Hour that really resonates with audiences?

One of the things that audiences connect to is that you can see how it is made. It’s analog and low-tech. Even though it’s talking about things that are hard to hang onto, everything’s translated into performance. So ideas of entropy—fundamental to questions of time and the nature of the universe—are translated into demonstrations of what it is to cut a poem up and allow logical thinking to disintegrate into the randomness of chance.

The giant metronomes of Refuse the Hour. Photo by John Hodgkiss.
How does the show reference current ideas about time?

In the six years since we’ve started work on The Refusal of Time [the companion piece to Refuse the Hour], there have been many developments in string theory and black holes. So in our section about signals traveling through the universe, we’ve recently incorporated the sounds of gravitational waves as they’re translated by scientists in receiving stations. We’re not trying to make a science lesson. We’re trying to show how the ideas of science are rooted in human metaphors of trying to escape one’s fate.

Refuse the Hour
runs November 10–11 for three shows only at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website.

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