Owl’s first week at the Brighton Fringe: Pints, Armchairs and Openings

We left Cape Town a week ago, Briony and I both racing through our last minute chores to make it to the airport on time. We checked in and suddenly the rush and the pressure to finish jobs and send emails and edit documents ended. We sat in Departures and we could do nothing more. It was bliss. After a week trying to balance rehearsals, marketing and managing the Upstairs, and getting my flat ready to be left empty for two months, I had finally reached the point where I couldn’t do anything more. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t.

We arrived 7.30am in London and hopped a train to Hove station where we’re staying with my sister. We didn’t have long to settle in because the main task for the day was finding an arm chair for Owl. We visited six second-hand furniture stores in the morning. It was proving difficult, there were many small details about the chair that I hadn’t realised were important: the angle of the back, the width of the arms, the depth of the upholstery. Fortunately there are a lot of second-hand stores here selling good quality stuff much cheaper than in Cape Town.

Briony outside Nightingale (480x640)At midday we popped in at the Nightingale Theatre, the space to be our home for the next couple of weeks. It’s a lot like Alexander Upstairs – a smallish room above a pub with a capacity of around 40 -50. It’s got a couple of advantages… better lights and more stage space; just as we have ours. Both of us share the problems of being a small space, the biggest being bad sightlines from the operating desk.

The Nightingale team is led by Steve, a trim bearded dancer who occasionally does kicks. He makes us feels very welcome and the office is very friendly. That’s generally the feeling of the Brighton Fringe – friendly and welcoming. The locals are far more mixed, ranging from the scarily grumpy to the scarily cheerful.

Thursday has me working on the armchair’s spinning mechanism and then watching as Briony subjects it to the blocking; spinning, jumping on it, tipping it and then deciding it was too nice. So we scratched it, tore it, kicked it and stained it in to a more suitably disreputable state.1368106666792 (608x457)

In the afternoon we went to a Participant Mixer hosted by the Fringe and featuring free pizza and wine. We set out to enjoy ourselves first. A lot of people see these sorts of events as opportunities to meet important people and make them come to your show. It’s not. It’s an opportunity to meet interesting people, have some free wine and have fun. Maybe you’ll meet important people too, and that interaction will be more rewarding because it doesn’t follow from an agenda. I met a Master synchronised swimmer, a part-time actor and air-steward, a former prostitute, a sartorial comedian, and a Welsh cake. Our new fest friends We Are Goose are doing a musical on the life and work of John Hunter. We had pints!

We opened with 2 shows on Saturday and one Sunday. The audiences were small but very attentive and there have been some great tweets about the show and Briony’s performance. So far we’re feeling confident that the run will be worthwhile. It’s also great to be out of Cape Town for a bit and some perspective on our little theatre world.

 

Owl at the National Arts Festival 2012

The Grahamstown festival costs a lot. It takes up money and time and it soaks up your passion like a wonder-mop. I’m going to run with the mop analogy I think; it has potential. For instance what you get back out depends on how hard and desperately you wring it. I’m not sure how the planning fits in, that might be an aspect that’s important in managing a project like presenting Owl at the NAF but not so much in mopping. There’s a law of diminishing returns that applies to planning for mopping, after an hour of preparation there isn’t much more you can do. Not so with planning a production. The more thought and planning you put in, the better the production will do at festival. I know people with five year plans. Yes, like Stalin – except not, you know, bastardy. I don’t have a five year plan. This time last year I had a one year plan and right now I have two year plan. I’m working my way up.

My plan for Owl was to do a two week run at the Intimate Theatre in February / March and then do it at the NAF as part of the Cape Town Edge and follow that with a run at the Schools Fest. From there we’d get exciting offers to go tour or do a run in Joburg. What I wanted to get out of each phase was different. The Intimate run I wanted to road test the material and get press coverage. This we achieved and we even made a modest profit; it’s easy to make a modest profit when your costs are so low. All this I covered here, in my report on Owl.

But now we get to the new stuff; how did Owl fare at the National Arts Festival? The critical success at the Intimate and the brief run at Kalk Bay Theatre shifted my expectations for Grahamstown. I thought Owl would have some buzz and pick up audiences from word-of-mouth. After all, we had loads of awesome quotes from press folk. But here’s only truth I’ve found in the theatre industry: talent, praise, charm and hard work guarantee nothing. They are necessary – no one gets anywhere without them – but there are no guarantees and you will always wish you had more of those qualities, believing that you could tip the scales just enough.

As it was, Owl was not a success at the festival in one, crucial way: very few people came to see it. It was a success in other ways though; the few people who did see it were the right people, the people who you want to connect with, and consequently Owl was invited to two overseas festivals, Brighton and Prague. Obligatory fist pump, just to show I’m excited. OK, celebrations aside, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of what went wrong and what went right.

First of all, I’m going to repeat that Grahamstown costs quite a bit. It’s not that any, single charge is unreasonable – it’s that there are so many of them to many different organisations. There are your festival costs (registration and venue hire), then there are your travel costs (petrol, accommodation and meal allowances – multiply this by the size of your team), your actual production costs (still mercifully low for Owl) and then your marketing costs (Labelled here as CTE contribution, since that covers the publicist, the posters, etc.) – an area where most people try to save money. By a strange bit of fortune my spending on the Festival, Marketing and Travel areas was more or less evenly divided, which isn’t actually a good thing. There is a rough correlation between the amount of effort and money you spend on marketing so you should always be throwing more into it. Your production values have less of a connection than most people would care to admit and the amount you spend on fringe registration and accommodation don’t connect to your income at all. In fact, since we already had the set and costumes for Owl there was no spending on this area.

Here’s a pie chart. My total costs were just under R15 000 while my income from an average of 22 people per show was just under R10 000. So we made a loss of around R5 000.

But we were saved financially by the Schools Festival, which runs for 5 days directly after the NAF. We applied with all that good press we’d gotten and so were included. The Schools Festival straight out buys the show, pays for your accommodation and S&T, and fills the auditorium with touring school groups. The additional performances increased our costs by only R500 but tripled our income. So, tip for the NAF: try your hardest to get on to the Schools Festival. That means having your press kit up to date and planning so you have some damn good clippings in it.

Where I think I failed was that I didn’t work hard enough to sell Owl to the festival punters. I was stage managing London Road and trying to run the Edge in general (more on the Edge later) as well as popping in on Godfrey Johnson’s two shows – Stories of Crime and Passion and Shadow of Brel. Owl certainly suffered for this. Another oversight is that festivals work differently to runs in Cape Town. The audiences you’re trying to coax in have travelled 800km, they have over 400 shows to choose from and they are away from their social networks – both real and virtual. In their home towns these people are the first wave of audiences, they have their ear to the ground and see a play almost every week. They are the ones who tweet and post on facebook about the must-see shows and they are the ones who listen to the buzz. It’s a situation of the semi-starved going on a binge. You can’t entice them the way you do back home and when they rave they don’t rave to their buddies who don’t often go see shows but might just if the week is looking a bit stagnant. Oh no, they’re raving to other festinos, other theatre-lovers. And most of them already have a pack of tickets booked. The raving has to be so good that they will squeeze in a sixth show on that day or even drop a show they have already paid for.

Your marketing has to be better. You’re competing against local theatre legends. You’re competing against a main programme with amazing international artists. You’re competing against music, beer and a decimated forest of flyers and posters.

My marketing was not good enough. Fortunately Owl didn’t get completely lost and the right people came to see it. Fortunately we were on the Schools Fest. These things aren’t chance, they happened because I worked to make them happen, just as a low audience turn out wasn’t chance either, it was the result of an area where I didn’t work hard enough. Not a mistake I’m going to repeat.

Reviews for Owl

Owl was invited to the Brighton Fringe Festival (UK) where it was one of three shows nominated for Latest’s Best International Performance.

Reviews are arranged from the most recent backward.

“Some shows are easy to fall in love with; this is one of them. A Girl Called Owl is a sweet, poignant coming-of-age story.”

5 stars – Darren Taffinder, Fringe Guru

“In this powerful one-woman play, Briony Horwitz portrays Olivia, the new girl in town, who we meet firstly aged ten and later aged 16. With just an armchair for a prop, Horwitz athletically climbs and stretches with all the agility of the child she is playing.”

– Tania Deaville, The Argus (Brighton, UK)

“Here is a lovely, rich sense of the physical environment conveyed through the writing and the telling. Briony Horowitz’s portrayals are vivid and her edits clean. She has great skill and obviously feels a real affinity with Jon Keevy’s material”

– R. Blackman, Fringe Review

“This is an absolutely charming monologue, performed by a brilliant actress with well-honed skills in multiple characterisation and in leading her audience on a beautifully-crafted narrative arc. The utter simplicity in set and costume design focus our attention in on the essential element of the theatrical experience – the pure art of storytelling.”

 5 starsLove Fringe

“A Girl Called Owl makes skilful use of the power of storytelling… It is simply a pleasure to watch.”
– Ellen Carr, A Younger Theatre
.
“This powerful one-woman play, was performed wonderfully as Briony Horwitz delivered a vivid storytelling experience. As she slipped from one character into another, bringing each one alive through accents, gestures and mannerisms, she recounted the story of a 10 year old girl, Olivia aka Owl.”
– Dade Freeman, Krysalis
.

“Horwitz delivers an enchanting performance. Her versatility as an actress is astonishing and her effortless handling of so many characters is to be applauded…. moving and evocative”

 – Tracey Saunders, Cape Times

“Owl doesn’t let you escape. Instead it draws you in and hypnotizes you with its apparent simplicity. Briony plays a slew of characters with a seamless breathless ease that had our eyes transfixed to her every movement. The stage is bare apart from a battered sofa which she uses and abuses as she lives through her characters. Fiona Du Plooy’ choreography is uncanny, a little distressing, but mostly mesmerizing as she directs Briony’s slender body through her agonizing and exhilarating moments.”

 – Astrid Stark

“Sy is ewe tuis in kinderlike onskuld en uitdagende tienergedrag. En alles word met empatie gedoen…..Die vertolkings en teks is selfloos.”

 – Mariana Malan, Die Burger

“Briony handles numerous characters with clarity and depth. Her vibrant imagination and deft handling of the image-laden text is enchanting.

“Keevy’s writing is delightful. It is full of punch and flow and sparkle. It is insightful and universal and touching and smart.”

 – 3Way Stop, The PonyRoach Review

“Beautifully observed writing makes this piece totally delicious. I usually hate grown-up actors pretending to be children, but here, Briony is strong, and unusual, and has an innocent integrity that manages to pull it off.”

 – Megan’s Head

“For all its beauty, Owl is a play that pulls no punches. Its themes are both innocent and brutal simultaneously. Coming of age is never easy, never idealistic. Keevy explores this without fear or prejudice, and with a great deal of honesty.”

 – Clifford Graham, the Monday Missile

“The skill and talent partnership of writer/director Keevy and actress Horwitz elevates Owl to more than just a mere coming of age story. It invites you in, to such an extent that you unknowingly laugh and cry along with Owl and Kay as they grow both closer and apart. You find yourself holding your breath as Owl utters the powerful final words … that you must go hear/feel for yourself.”

Theatre Scene Cape Town

“Owl a feather in Horwitz’s cap….4 stars”

 – Theresa Smith, The Cape Argus

And Some interviews with Briony and/or I: Daniel Derckson for Bizcommunity,

Owl

Olivia arrived in the town with her Dad; she was the new girl, the quiet girl, the weird girl. Then she met Kay, the girl with the scar.

Told in two parts, Owl begins with a new friendship in the heat of the Overberg summer between two ten-year-old girls, and finds them again six years later. It’s an honest picture of growing up different in the middle of nowhere; a story about climbing trees, punching boys and kissing girls. A story about growing up where nothing grows.

Briony Horwitz performs Jon Keevy’s script under his direction with choreography by Fiona Du Plooy and music by Brydon Bolton.

The début run of Owl was from the 21st February to the 2nd March at the Intimate Theatre. It then ran from the 30th April to 5th May at the Kalk Bay Theatre. At the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown it ran from the 28th June to the 7th July as part of the Cape Town Edge. Immediately following this it was part of the Schools Festival from the 10th to the 13th July.

Owl will next be performed as part of the Arts Alive Festival in Joburg from the 6th to the 8th of September and then at the Nieu Bethesda Fest from the 21st to the 23rd September.

For more information call 084 24 98 532 or email owl@jonkeevy.com

Jon Keevy has trouble remembering what sort of bio he should be writing – a writer? A designer? A director? A production manager? Like many people hustling in the theatre industry he has to be more than one of these at any given time and especially for this, his most personal play so far.

So, general facts first: He graduated from UCT in 2007 for the 3rd time with an MA in theatre-making and started making theatre with Bosnian-born director Sanjin Muftic, a long time collaborator on many ill-advised schemes. Together they’ve produced four plays at the National Arts Festival, toured to Rwanda and Knysna, ran an underground theatre until the cops shut it down, created projections for operas directed by Lara Bye and generally kept themselves busy.

Jon fits his writing schedule and his crazy collaborations with people like Jason Potgieter, Kim Kerfoot and Sanjin around pretending to be a stage manager so he can watch firsthand how great directors and writers work. In this way he’s managed to steal ideas and techniques from Lara Bye, Chris Weare, Geoff Hyland, Alan Committie, Peter Krummeck, Mike van Graan and Lara Foot-Newton.

He possesses many strange skills like swordfighting, aikido, latex casting, puppet building and origami.

Briony Horwitz is an incredible and versatile actress. Her theatre experience includes extensive South African tours with children’s theatre productions Rapunzel, Princess and the Pea and Charlotte’s Web. In 2009 she played Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet Unplugged, directed by Anthea Thompson. As a theatre-maker, Briony’s offerings include Spice: Feast and Fable and the Rock Tribute Woman of Rock. She has also been involved in the creation of educational theatre pieces like The Marvelous Adventures of Lex and has facilitated teenagers in developing their own work, notably the Western Cape Department of Sports and Culture funded The Clock is Tikking.

Briony graduated from UCT with a BA in Theatre and Performance in 2006 and was nominated in the Fleur du Cap’s ‘Most Promising Student’ category. She and went straight into co-running the Cape Town collaborative theatre company, The Chameleon Collective for two years. They created imaginative and challenging children’s theatre as well as avant-garde physical pieces. Her film credits include leads in Karoo (Winner of the 2011 SAFTA for ‘Best Short Film’) and Wounded (due to be released in 2012) and plays Zoe Harris in the M-Net soap opera The Wild.

Briony has diverse interests and training in singing, dancing, puppetry and martial arts.

Brydon Bolton has magic. His music is visceral and intricate, driven by an open and giving passion for art. He is a musician, composer and educator, while regularly performing at local and international festivals. He started playing double bass in a small industrial coastal town called Port Elizabeth. He learnt classical technique at an academy from a Yugoslavian cellist and jazz improvisation from the jazz players in the black and coloured townships surrounding PE.

Brydon has performed and recorded with many renowned South African musicians, such as Alex van Heerden, Derek Gripper, Robbie Jansen, Tony Cox and Frank Mallows. He is a regular performer on the Cape Town music scene with various groups, notably Benguela.

Brydon is also a music educator, sound artist, curator of music and sound events, composer of contemporary classical music, and a sound designer for dance and theatre performances. Over the years, he has collaborated with various individuals, including poets, playwrights, dancers and artists.

His work focuses on developing music and sound forms that challenge idiomatic or conventional expressions. This is the third play that he and Jon have worked on together creatively.

Fiona Du Plooy is a choreographer whose evocative visual style, comprehensive movement vocabulary and extensive knowledge of ballet and contemporary dance has been seen in work created for both theatre and television. As well as conceptualising her own work, she has an intuitive ability to respond to the artistic vision of others in a range of disciplines and media; and has collaborated with experimental visual theatre makers as well as mainstream television producers.

Fiona has an incisive wit and an ability to express comic timing and irony in movement, delighting audiences with her choreography in Angels on Horseback, Not the Midnight Mass and I Am Here. This light touch is in sharp contrast to the intellectual rigour and gravitas of her more serious work. Fiona is a UCT Drama Gradate with an Advanced Ballet Diploma and a National Pilates Qualification: she has spent 2 years assisting renowned international choreographer professor Jay Pather, coordinated and taught Movement Studies for 4 years at CAP (Community Arts Project ) and worked as contemporary Dance Teacher in Zama Dance School, Gugulethu.

She now teaches Physical Theatre Movement Technique for performance students at the UCT Drama Department. Fiona operates as a freelance performer and choreographer within the local film, television and corporate theatre industry – a highlight was choreographing the 2010 Castle Lite Ice Ice Baby campaign with Plank Productions.

Currently Fiona is choreographing Viva la Mama , directed by Lara bye, and in March, will be working on BABBEL, the third in Nicola Hanekom ‘ s acclaimed trilogy of site specific Afrikaans works

Gabriella Pinto  is the mighty stage manager of the show. She graduated from UCT in 2011 with a theatre-making degree. This is her first year out in the real world and together with Iman Isaacs she has already put together a company. They’re off to Grahamstown festival with their first professional offering, Eden.

She describes herself in short statements: A Theatre-Maker. A Bibliophile. An Aesthetic Addict. A Chocoholic.

Poster for Owl – the first draft

So. First draft of the poster for Owl (which is the play I spent 2011 writing and is my first directing experience in 5 years).

Shot on Friday by Boniswa who was standing on a chair snugly fitted over Briony (you can still the legs on the right, I’ll have to sort that out).

I’m going for what in my mind is a slightly retro feel, balancing warm wood and desaturation. Briony was very patient and fun during the during shoot (and just looks amazing too) – rehearsals have also been suspiciously easy. Maybe we’re just not working hard enough.

We had a good get together with the entire team and got profile shots and Sanjin took video and interviewed us (once again I proved that I can say any number of reasonably intelligent things until there is a record device pointed at me).

The email address is real but totally changeable. What do you think, fun or forgettable?

I’ll be working on it more this week and should have a beautiful and completely different one in a couple of days.

Cheerio,

JK