Open Door Collectives

Thoughts on artists, FTH:K and particle accelerators

The internet is a good place for ideas. It’s sort of like that Hadron Collider thingy, smashing bits together at high speed to see what does or doesn’t come out. Here’s an interesting sentence I tripped over in an article on New York theatre troupe Superhero Clubhouse:

“Superhero Clubhouse describes themselves an open door collective, embracing both the value of longstanding relationships as well as the transient nature of artists.”

I’ve seen a number of companies get formed and break up. This week I heard the official news that FTH:K was losing two more of its key people: Rob Murray and Liezl de Kock, who’ll be heading out to work with Ubom! in the Eastern Cape (their blog for more about this). The company is emphatically not breaking up, but it does put the question of its future into the scrum. But there definitely will be a future.

As captured in the quote, artists are transient. They like collaborating and creating, they don’t like repetition. After 6 years it’s probably time for a change – it’s good for the company and good for the artist. Much like the particles in that super collider thingy, artists need to move about and come into contact with new ideas and people at high speed if they’re going to change (I’d say grow, but that’d definitely be mixing up the analogy).

Like Superhero Clubhouse, our institutions need to understand artists and let them move, the problem being that for any company less than 10 years old it is a monthly, weekly, daily struggle to survive. Finding funding is hard. Even what we think of as established companies like Magnet and FTH:K aren’t immune. What will happen when the founders move on? Will there still be a company?

FTH:K has always emphasized the management side of its operations. It has everything in place to continue, having mentored and nurtured the next wave of its ranks to take over. Could this be the first South African ‘open door collective’ in a truly sustainable sense? The next couple of years will tell, but I have faith in the staying power of a good idea well executed.

Surviving the Festival

The truck, all locked and loaded. Photo: Amy Jephta

Survival. Supposedly it’s for the fittest. In that case I really didn’t expect to still be standing after the festival, but though I’m out of breath I am still breathing. I went up this year with London Road and the ladies conquered St Andrew’s Hall and the fest generally (I’m not sure of the final figures, but London Road looks to have taken the title of highest grossing production this year). But the real sweat had come before the festival began with the preproduction for the Cape Town Edge.

For a little back story: Tanya from FTH:K had approached Tara and me to run the Edge in 2011 at the end of last year; we accepted and set about planning, with Tara bringing fellow Pink Coucher Mat Lewis in.  We divided the project up as best we could; my portfolio was the budget and marketing materials. As Tara’s schedule began to fill up with amazing opportunities we brought in Fiona Gordon to be our Tara surrogate. But enough about them… back to me.

Marketing materials boils down to all the print and web media and making sure it could be accessed by the groups and by interested press people. So we started small with a revamp of the CTE logo and built up through posters, press kits, badges, flyers, facebook pages, a blog and then to the hardest part: the Booklet. I went a little mad. What I’m most proud of if kicking the ass of skeptics who believe that Photoshop is a bad choice to do a booklet in. Using my full knowledge of the program (and learning a couple of new tricks) I worked out a damn efficient method. I now know that anyone who tells you it can’t be done is just someone who can’t do it (put that on an inspirational poster).

During the fest itself I stepped back from the Edge and let Mat and Fiona handle things. Mat is an exceptional and imaginative techie, which is a shame considering how gifted he is as an actor, and got everything running smoothly inside while Fiona and Dani Le Chat made the outside fun and funky.

But all the hard work would have meant very little if it wasn’t for Mark from Fushin. He is a legend and saved the day, bringing in amazing tents, delicious hot food straight from a mobile kitchen and, best of all, a liquor license.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. On the drive up the Nic Danger team were in a car accident and had to cancel the show. There was a lot of confusion that first day and the feeling was that the slot was a loss. But as it became clearer what everyone’s injuries were a spirit of togetherness kicked in. Trent was the worst injured and he was flown back to Cape Town. The remaining ninjas banded together and decided to use all their contacts to put together a comedy variety show. Lots of comics and performers came to the party, giving their time to look silly on stage to help raise funds to pay for Trent’s hospital bills. It was really a moment of feeling that the theatre is a community, not an industry. Other artists and producers made donations direct to the hospital. So, a big thank you to all everyone and especially to the audiences. Thank you a thousand times.

So we survived. Now to start planning for next year…

Home safe from the KKNK

On the 31stof March at 6am I hit the N1 out of Cape Town with Gaetan Schmidt and Jason Ralph. Together we drove for 5 hours and at some point crossed over the mysterious “Boere Wors Curtain” and into the land of Die Taal. We arrived in Oudtshoorn just in time to get to work. What were we doing so far from our Soutie homes? We were taking part in FTH:K’s latest step towards global domination: Iets Anders.

This seems like a great way to transport set.And actors.

Built up on the same model as the Cape Town Edge, Iets Anders is a group of theatremakers making independent work but coming together to provide support and lower the costs of things like accommodation, transport and, most importantly, marketing. This is the first year Iets Anders has run and the lineup was: Rumpsteak, …miskien, London Road, Hats and Pictures of You. The marketing encouraged the title, that the venue was ‘something different’ from the rest of the festival, noting the English, Edgy, Physical and Visual theatre elements. In retrospect the KKNK isn’t the kind of festival that people come to for something different, let alone something English. Still, FTH:K worked hard and Next year they’ll be ready to knock the sokkies off for real. You can check their blog of the fest Here.

So we arrived and got straight to work. I’ll give the KKNK its due, the Techies are good. Better than NAF? They certainly think so. I still have my doubts. There were a lot of comparisons between the KKNK and NAF flying around – most of them not very flattering to the NAF. I’ll say this: Both had good and bad aspects, they both have great people working for them, they both are trying to run huge festivals with limited resources – sometimes you get faulty lights/dimmers/bulbs. It’s the nature of festivals in this country.

Despite 4 hours of get-in, I still hadn’t run the sound for London Road by the time we were kicked out by the next production. Still, despite one of the lamest rigs ever proposed, the Ladies were looking good on their island of carpet.

The next couple of days were pretty mixed up, trying to get into a rhythm and create a smooth running get-in and strike. Too many braais happening all the time. Too much Klippies. Finally a balance was struck and I could relax into a good daily ritual with the ladies. I even got to see some shows, despite ticket prices that were about 95% of my daily S&T.

First of these was Lot directed by Nicola Hanekom, which was the buzz of the festival (at least among those I was standing near to) and it was certainly an ambitious piece. A solitary security guard in a parking lot in the afterlife sits awaiting the arrival of those killed in car accidents. I wasn’t sold. Although there were moments of real magic it veered between pretentiously silly and pretentiously dull. Neels van Jaarsveld however stood out from the ensemble with his madcap pop star.

I had a better time with Wees (Orphan) directed by Hennie van Gruenen; I had seen the original production performed in Edinburgh in 2009. The text was fantastically gripping – perhaps more so in its new Afrikaans context, to which themes of Us versus Them are uncomfortably well suited. The piece was only let down by weak design – from set through sound and lighting, good ideas were just poorly executed. The performances were great from Nicola Hanekom, André Weideman and Gustav Gerdener.

Messe en Henne was a South African and Dutch collaboration from De Appel directed by David Geysen and performed by Albert Pretorious, Nadia Amin and Hugo Maerten. Here was something really exciting – the direction and performances were a daring interpretation of a monstrously intense text by David Harrower. I didn’t like all the choices, hated a couple even, but they were a muscular expansion on the South African directing vocabulary (the very same reason I love the work of Jaco Bouwer).

Overall the festival was great fun and I definitely want to come back and conquer it thoroughly.

Looking back at Grahamstown

5.30 am in Grahamstown – I collect Mat Lewis from the house he was staying at for the fest and together we pack up the truck and hit the road. The morning is cold, but not nearly as cold as it has been these last 18 days I’ve been here. We take the N2 South and West, and Grahamstown is a bowl of sparks that disappears behind us.

Both Mat and I had been working at Princess Alice Hall for Cape Town Edge productions. I was stage-managing London Road and teching Yawazzi’s Man Turn Life Up and Down while Mat was stage-managing Rump Steak and lighting …miskien. We’d both been at the whole festival and were looking forward to being in the Mother City again. But we enjoyed that festival to the last. Oh, yes. From the manic scramble of the first days, juggling schedules against stubbornly erratic technologies to the late-night, Klippies fuelled discussions we’d had about the good, the bad and the beautiful plays we’d seen in our free time.  Festival is a time between 2 extremes of work and play, the high pressure gets under your fingernails and the sudden concentration of people who understand what you’re all about is a heady mix.

I love working with the London Road team, Robyn and Ntombi are wonderful actresses and best of all – consummate professionals with no time for bullshit or ego. They know what it takes to get a big crowd, to hold its attention and they respect it. Really the Edge itself was a great place to be, and I loved the chats and banter with the different teams all working together (mostly). Cheers to the late night, post-I, Claudia comedy sessions, which evolved out of people helping out with Tara’s strike and Mat’s prep for the next day’s morning show. I’ll never forget Lara almost falling out of her chair laughing at Mat and my preview for Rump Steak 2: the Rumpening: This time the steaks are higher. All rather silly really. And the question: “Are you an animal lover?” will ever be more disturbing.

Picking people’s brains was invaluable; I will definitely take away from the festival Tanya’s 3 statements: “Not in a day. Not without discipline. Not without failure.” A grim, tough and ambitious mantra that some people might mistake as a bodybuilder’s rather than face the fact that in theatre that is what it takes.

I saw only about 10 shows, kind of pathetic really and not my proudest moment. The one that stood out most for me was Blood Orange. Craig Morris is kickass. The precision and unity of his vocal and physical work was astounding and humbling. The craft and beauty of the piece drove me to my feet for my first standing ovation in a long time. Definitely head, shoulders and torso above the rest.

I’ve never been in that town for so long before, and the festival itself has never been so long. The “15 days of Amazing” is a thing of some controversy – some artists supporting it and some condemning it. I can totally understand the thinking behind it, but I have some criticisms, top of the list is way the information on the festival’s performance is spun out. It’s essentially the problem with all statistics, not enough context and not enough analysis. My problem is that I feel it’s pretty deliberate.

Go here for the 2009 post mortem and here for the 2010 one released last week.

Most telling for me is the reported growth of attendance at 8% over last year. Think about that for a moment and then consider that the festival lasted 50% longer. That’s not real growth.

Overall, why is 2009 more detailed? The 2010 report seem to deliberately fudge the line between Fringe and Main. Why? Because there were fewer successes to report over all and rather than spread them thin the report pointedly notes that “About 35 productions had sold-out performances” – which includes Main, Fringe and Music. Meaning about 1 out of every 15 or so shows had at least 1 sold-out show. Is that really so many? Is that more than last year? How were sales in monetary terms?

But past the numbers is just the sense that I’m being bullshitted. The organizers of the festival did a good job under tough circumstances – they were ambitious and dedicated, but they aren’t being straight about it. Instead we’re hearing sound bites of optimism and defensiveness, more political than I can take seriously.

“Organisers this year extended the Festival to 15 days from its usual 10 days, a move which Lankester says paid off. We wanted to send a clear message that our artists, directors, writers and performers could rise to the challenge of producing great work that makes South Africa proud.”

Seriously, what does that even mean? It doesn’t tell you what I felt at the festival, which was a fun and mostly professional environment, a wide variety of work for a wide variety of people, good shows and hospitality. Some excellent policy shifts toward a better festival that encourages and supports new artists. Frustratingly thin spread audiences that are still divided sharply by race. Bad tech support but great and dedicated technicians.

So that’s my take on the 2010 National Arts Festival.

Peace and Love,