The Flying Dutchman is coming in for Landing

A week from today about 2000 people are going to take their seats in the Artscape Opera house. The stage will be shrouded by an unlit scrim. It’ll all be very mysterious. The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra will be doing their last minute checks and tuning their strings and making that really interesting low level cacophony that gets made before you her some serious music. The lights will dim, the conductor, Kamal Khan will take his place before the musicians and then it’ll start. The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner. 20 seconds in and an invisible brush will pass across the scrim, creating a living illustration of the ocean.

I’m really glad we still have a week to go.

It’s probably almost a year ago that Lara first approached me for the Dutchman; Sanjin and I had done the multimedia for her previous opera with the Wagner Society, Rossini’s La Scala di Seta in 2009, and were very excited for another. It’s been 2 years since then and our techniques have developed considerably as well as our understanding of each other as artists. What can we do this time around? I took lead on design – first gathering samples and inspiration for the style and then working through the beats of the story and music with Lara to storyboard the footage. I worked with ink and brush to evoke my main design focus, a painted world. The sea is vital to the story so I wanted everything, from the clouds to the rocks to have a sense of flow and life to them.

The biggest contrast between Sanjin and I is in the realm of technology – he knows cameras and computers upstairs and downstairs while I am always trying to find a chunky, unpredictable analogue solution. But these 2 approaches complement each other well. I went about planning to capture footage in weird ways and he figured out how to make it look good. We ended up getting a glass drawing table built and then buying a fish tank for our effects. 2 weekends were spent dripping, smearing, brushing, stirring, pouring, seeping, folding, tearing, soaking, splattering ink, water, paper and glitter in a studio.

A lot of beautiful effects were found and filed but less than a quarter of the recorded footage will be used for the opera, the rest will be filed away for future reference on another project. The next phase was to create the drawings that would actually feature in the video – this was me sitting at a table with ink and brush churning out waves, masts, shorelines and brush strokes for animating.

The big delay, and the reason I’m glad there’s still sometime before we put on the show, was filming the principals. Gary Simpson and Nkosazana Dimande only arrived in South Africa this month, and we could only get them into a studio 10 days ago. That’s a tight schedule for any kind of video work. The last couple of nights have been late ones with Sanjin and me staying up way past our bedtimes and drinking coke ‘til our kidneys complained.

But it looks rad. Sanjin has been cooking with the editing and has really started to master After Effects (and my Photoshop skills have come in handy once or twice too). A couple more all nighters and then Tuesday night is the final dress rehearsal. We have 1 absurdly short section that we’re still really wrestling with. Absurdly short. 10 seconds. We wanted this to be the best thing we’ve ever done.

And I think it will be.

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,

JK

The Fugard Theatre

From the outside the Fugard looks like a church that the city has grown up around. The other buildings are tightly packed around it and loom a little over it, giving its stone façade an out of place feeling that captures the magic of the whole place. It feels like a old and trusted place, rather than the new kid on the block in the little theatre world of Cape Town.

On these grey winter days that feeling is even more powerful as you walk into the foyer. The yellow wood warms up the interior and sets off the exposed old brick and concrete. The designer perfectly balanced hard and soft, cold and warm to create a welcoming and stylish space.

But what really make this place special is that this quality, this style and care is everywhere. From the dressing rooms to the operating booth, the rehearsal room to the bath rooms. This is a theatre as much for the people who make theatre as the patrons. Mark and Manny have built a home. Everyone of the staff who I’ve met there is amazing, welcoming and energised. They have a family feeling about them.

Bringing London Road into such a space is such a pleasure. The play itself is so centred on connection and bonding that it feels like it just wouldn’t work in one of the dinosaur theatres squatting around Cape Town.

Technically the theatre is also top notch with an extensive rig and an advanced lighting board. All the conveniences and technological essentials have been built into the auditorium. Although I must confess that as an operator I love being out in the auditorium and working analogue sliders. That’s my style, hearing and seeing from the audience’s perspective and adjusting levels and timing to the little changes in performance.

I’m sorry that I’m only going to be here for the week, Tara Notcutt will take over from next week. But on the upside Lara Bye has been very understanding about my commitments. Next week Yawazzi opens Twofold at Tabula Rasa. This is a very exciting project for the team and everyone is nervous – it’s a big project with a lot of elements. But we’re ready to pull it out of the hat. Magically speaking, of course.