BILLY SUTER chats to Steven Stead, of Durban’s award-winning KickstArt theatre company, about four new shows his talented team is bringing to the city this year. He also discusses some exciting news – KickstArt has been asked to take its 2015 panto, Puss in Boots, to Johannesburg this year.
DURBAN’S KickstArt theatre company is as synonymous with (and precious to) KwaZulu-Natal as surf, sand, Sharks and Bunny Chows… and good news is that the team with the Midas touch has four new shows lined up for Durban this year.
Also – and this is a ‘first’ and exciting news – KickstArt will be taking a pantomime to Joburg this year: the 2015 Durban festive season hit, Puss in Boots.
The Durban shows and dates are as follows:
Chicago (Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre – April 7 to 30)
The fab Kander and Ebb musical, a sassy vaudevillian showcase for merry murderesses seeking fame for freedom. The cast includes Jessica Sole and Katy Moore as Roxy and Velma, Charon Williams-Ros as warden Mamma Morton and Jason (Sweeney Todd) Ralph as suave lawyer Billy Flynn. Stead will direct.
James and the Giant Peach (Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre – July 5 to 23)
Greg King directs this colourful Roald Dahl children’s tale about orphan James, who has a remarkable adventure involving a giant peach and five eccentric giant insects. The cast includes Bryan Hiles, Peter Court and Clare Mortimer.
Rabbit Hole (DHS’s Seabrookes Theatre from September 20 to October 1)
This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by David Lindsay-Abaire is a moving, often surprisingly amusing, examination of love and loss within a family. It will star Liesl Coppin and Bryan Hiles under Stead’s direction.
Sinbad the Sailor (Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre – December 1 to January 7)
Stead directs his spectacular original panto starring Lyle Buxton, Belinda Henwood, Bryan Hiles and Darren King.
I spoke to Steven Stead, award-winning director and producer with KickstArt, about the diverse Durban productions
Why the choice of “Chicago” as the KickstArt musical this year – and how long has it been on your to-do list?
We are in the habit of selecting shows to stage from our bucket list, and Chicago is certainly on that list! It has a fantastic score and great characters, and I fell in love with it way before seeing the slick contemporary Broadway version, or the 2010 movie version.
I fell in love with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon on the original 1975 cast recording with its blowsy, bawdy tone and wicked lyrics. It is a very thought-provoking, highly entertaining musical, which should also be popular with the public.
We are very attracted to the idea of doing cutting-edge shows with a potential to draw an audience (for obvious reasons). When it became possible to get these rights (and it really is a privilege to be able to do this show; it is incredibly difficult to secure rights for a non-replica production) there just wasn’t a better choice on our “to do” list. After Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, this makes the perfect follow through.
Tell me a little more about your Chicago – is it likely to be closer in style to the film or the Broadway version? Also, what surprises, if any?
We are going back to the original intention of creating a vaudeville entertainment with burlesque tones, so it will be a whole lot more textured than the austere and modern Broadway revival version. But obviously there are nods to the movie, and to Bob Fosse.
Surprises? Well, I have cast a woman (Anne-Marie Clulow) as Mary Sunshine, the ‘sob sister’ reporter. She has a surprise or two up her… sleeve. And for a change we will hear her song sung beautifully, in the style of Jeanette MacDonald, with a sequence to match, rather than the ear splitting caterwauling of a male falsetto. Other surprises…come and see!
How big a cast for each of the three 2017 shows?
Chicago has 15 cast members, James has six, Rabbit Hole has five and Sinbad has 13.
Choreographer Janine Bennewith mentioned on Facebook recently that she auditioned or required 20 male dancers for a show ? Is this for Chicago – and is that the most dancers you have hired for a musical?
We saw 20 dancers but we are only looking for two.
Why James and the Giant Peach – and this was a show, I believe, that you considered a year or two ago as well?
Roald Dahl is immensely popular in contemporary children’s literature, and any one of his titles has the possibility to draw an audience. James has delicious characters,and a quirky absurdism that appeals to us, and to our actors, and will also find a resonance with our audience, young and old.
It is the perfect July holidays project. It has been on our wish-list for some time, but we have taken this long to get around to doing it.
Ee are doing it with Greg (King) directing for the first time in ages, which is a wonderful thing, and with a cast of stalwarts who will really do it justice.
What are some of your and Greg’s ideas for James and the Giant Peach – and is it a musical?
It is not a musical, it is a play with a few songs, rather like our Winnie the Pooh was. But Greg has got involved with the funky gypsy band, South Jersey Pom Poms, and they are looking at creating a really quirky and interesting soundtrack for the show. It should be something like a Tim Burton movie with puppets and masks… and a giant peach!
This year’s festive season panto is Sinbad – tell me a bit more about your thoughts and ‘the look’ for that one.
I wanted to give the show a strong visual identity, and so choosing a subject from the Arabian Nights immediately gives one the glamour and mystery of the sultry, magical mythology of the Middle East.
On top of that, we are giving it a local kick by including references to Bollywood movies, and Indian textures and patterns. So in total contrast to last year’s Scandinavian snow and ice in Sleeping Beauty, we will be doing serving up an Arabian buffet with a hint of local spice.
Tell me more about the KickstArt drama, Rabbit Hole.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play is by David Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote the book for Shrek The Musical, incidentally. We are hoping that it will go to the Hilton Arts Festival, but it has a short run at Durban’s Seabrookes Theatre at DHS in September.
Tell me more about Puss in Boots going to Joburg.
It will be playing at Gold Reef City in July, with Darren King, Londiwe Dhlomo and Caitlin Kilburn from our Durban production. They will be joined by an all-star Gauteng cast including Michael Richard, Ilse Klink and Zak Hendrickz. Earl Gregory, who fills the title role in the current touring production of Joseph, will play Puss in Boots. Very exciting!
What comments on whispers of a Joburg call for you to stage a panto at Gold Reef City annually? And would it not be financially viable for KickstArt to stage a panto in Durban each festive season and then annually take it the following year to Joburg?
It’s complicated. I can’t spilt myself in half, and I need to be hands-on in both cities at once. We are still working on a formula. Hence, trying panto in winter in Joburg.
In the 17 years that KickstArt has been presenting shows in Durban, what have been the three most profitable productions?
Most profitable: Winnie the Pooh, Annie and Cinderella. They were all extremely well attended, and Winnie has been bought back three times, every time getting full houses, so it is our biggest grossing show.
But our most profitable show ever is probably Jeeves and Wooster, which only ran for 10 performances. But it was sold out, and the rehearsal and set-up costs were covered by the Johannesburg and Cape Town seasons with Pieter Toerien. So besides the actors’ salaries, transport and accommodation (and the theatre rental), we didn’t have many overheads. So it was a clear profit of about R300 000 which is very, very good.
A lot of people do not realise that making money from theatre is very difficult. We will spend a million on a production like Chicago and hope that it makes a couple of thousand profit. Or just break even.
And people also do not realise that we do not get all the box-office income. Of takings, 14% goes to VAT, 10% or 13% for royalties, 5% to the theatre and 10% to booking agents. That is 40% to 43% of the gross ticket price that doesn’t come to us at all.
Then we still have to pay artists, staff, theatre rental, sets, costumes, marketing… it is a blistering money-drainer. A bit like making one’s living from roulette.
Over the years, what KickstArt shows have been closest to your heart?
Into the Woods, Cabaret andWit… with Beauty and the Beast and Sweeney Todd close behind. All were total ‘bucket-list’ shows, and all had the most marvellous casts and creative teams. They were dreams come true.
I hear you are aching to direct an opera again. Tell me a bit about your background in opera, and what your dream opera would be as a director?
I have always been passionate about opera, since I sang in the children’s chorus for Napac in 1982, in productions of I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana. It began a life-long love affair with my favourite art form.
During five years of high school, I joined the municipal record library in town and every week took out two new operas and immersed myself in the music and ideas. I built up a considerable collection of music, and a strong sense of repertoire.
I got my first opera direction assisting job in Cape Town on a production of La Traviata, while I was 24 and acting for Capab. The artistic director of Capab Opera, the legendary Angelo Gobbato, obviously saw that I was passionate and knowledgeable, and wanted to give me a break.
This led to other assisting jobs, and laid the foundation of getting to be a resident staff director at the English National Opera from 1997 to 2004.
There I got to assist the most famous directors in the world, and ultimately to direct revivals of their productions myself, both at The ENO and in Europe, and even got to do my own production of Marriage of Figaro at the Coliseum. While I lived in London I also did a great deal of directing for the big music colleges and smaller opera companies, like Abby Opera and Opera Integra. I learned a massive amount… a lot of which has enabled me to run KickstArt effectively. But I do find that I miss the music and the singers very, very much.
The last opera I directed was Valley Song (based on Fugard’s play) for Cape Town Opera, and before that, Rigoletto for the now-defunct Opera Africa in Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
I would love to direct any Handel opera: they are gifts for a director, if one is prepared to do a bit of archaeology!
What would you say to people who might complain that ticket prices for theatre in Durban are too pricey, especially if one considers a family of four?
We do everything in our power to keep prices as low as possible, without compromising the quality of our shows. We really do produce on a shoe-string, and cut corners wherever possible.
Ticket prices in Durban are literally half of what they are for similar-scale productions in Joburg and Cape Town. And if you are taking a family of five to see our panto for R600 (because you can do that on our cheaper tickets), you will be spending the same amount on taking them to movies and a milkshake.
I like to think that the quality of their experience, watching a piece of hand-crafted live theatre, is far more memorable and educational than any other experience. And worth investing in.
What have been KickstArt’s three most costly shows to date – and how do budgets for this year’s shows compare?
Top of the list is Shrek The Musical. With an advance royalty of R250 000 before paying for a single actor (and we had dozens) or any of the elaborate costumes.
Then comes Beauty and The Beast, and third is probably Cabaret, because of the live band and the royalties in US dollars.
Chicago is going to cost about R1,2 million… which puts it right up there with them. God help us!