BILLY SUTER chats to young Durban director, producer and playwright JAMES JOOSTE, of the fledgling Blank Canvas Productions, who has penned a new play, Saving Grace, a comedy-drama that will run from September 7 to 17 at the quaint Seabrooke’s Theatre at Durban High School. The play has performances at 7.30pm with 3pm matinees on September 10 and 17. Tickets cost R100 (R80 for pensioners and students). Book at WebTickets. For block bookings of 10 or more seats email James@blankcanvasproductions.co.za
YOU ARE PERSERVERING WITH INDEPENDENT THEATRE AT A TIME WHEN IT IS INCREASINGLY HARD TO PUT BUMS ON SEATS – WHY?
I am aware it’s something that isn’t easy. We’re in a tough situation as a country and as a world, but I don’t think we should be throwing in the towel. With every show we try out new strategies. Some pay off and some don’t, and I hope Durban comes out to support, I truly do, because theatre isn’t cheap to create and it’s something that deserves to be kept alive.
TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT “SAVING GRACE” AND WHAT INSPIRED IT.
Saving Grace follows four characters who are all in a way “beyond saving”, or so they think. The play follows Zoe Lawrence, a girl who lost her mother at the age of seven and now loses her guardian and grandmother, Harriet.
Harriet’s dying wish was for Grace, her best friend, to take care of Zoe. Neither are thrilled about the option and they don’t get along at first… but the connection they form over the things that have happened in their pasts does bind them a certain way.
The story and I don’t have any form of experience attached to it. I met this girl called Grace, I loved the name and it made me think of the title Saving Grace, which I’m aware isn’t groundbreaking.
The story was many things before becoming what it is now. It’s a little funny that this play came simply from meeting someone, loving their name and also wanting to create a project to work with Jill Sysum again.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE THIS PLAY – AND HOW MANY OTHER PLAYS HAVE YOU WRITTEN?
This play took me two months to write and a further two months to doctor and iron out the kinks. It is easily the quickest play I’ve written.
I’ve written five plays, including Saving Grace. One has been scrapped after it was completed; It’s Not Your Fault and Love were staged; and another, called A Dash of Poison, is being saved for a later date when I believe we’re ready to deliver.
IS THERE ANY MESSAGE OR SURPRISE THAT “SAVING GRACE” OFFERS?
I believe there are a lot of messages and surprises this play offers. When developing any script I cling to an idea, a tagline or a song. I build a story around something that, for me, connects to the material.
This play has a strong connection with The Wizard of Oz song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which is referenced a few times. I’ll let you decide why when you see it…
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE TO ENCOURAGE THEM TO SEE THIS PLAY?
Come to the play to be sucked in by the humour of the first half and the shock value of the second. I believe the ending is enough to sell it. Since I can’t spoil it, you’ll just need to come see for yourself.
TELL ME ABOUT BLANK CANVAS PRODUCTIONS, WHERE AND WHEN IT BEGAN, WHAT SUCCESSES, AS WELL AS PLANS AND GOALS FOR THE GROUP.
Blank Canvas began in January, 2015. I was approached by a former actor in a defunct web-series I’d created with another ex-student. He asked me to write a play based on that for their school. I wrote the play but it was declined due to its central character being female.
I refused to change anything in terms of gender or focus and we (the person who approached me and I) instead decided to stage the play ourselves.
I did later decide I didn’t believe the play was meant to be a stage show and have since scrapped it.
I believe Love to be a success in its own right. The level of quality we achieved really set us on a good path. I hope to expand the team a little and be able to bring in new creative to the company.
TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT EACH OF THE THREE “SAVING GRACE” CAST MEMBERS.
Lerato Xaba is an incredibly talented young actress who started with us last year in Love. She stole the show, playing a sassy waitress called Kathryn, a character who had many layers… but we never really got to explore them. I wanted to take that talent that Lerato has and really test it. I believe it’s paid off.
Jill Sysum previously worked with us on It’s Not Your Fault and I have been looking for any excuse to work with her again, and now I have it. She’s beyond committed and she’s also so talented. She has, by far, been one of my favourite actresses to work with.
Daniel Levi is a first-timer for BCP. I’ve seen him act before in school productions but have never worked with him. The way Daniel plays his character is what really sells some scenes. He creates the energy between the three of them and it’s truly great to experience.
SOUND AND LIGHTING BY DYLAN JOOSTE – ARE YOU BROTHERS?
Yes. Dylan joined a little later, officially joining the company in April, 2016. It’s both a joy and a pain to work with your family. I know I can lean on him when things get a little overwhelming. However, at the same time, my level of expectation is very high and sometimes we both disagree on things. At the end of the day we’re both intent on getting the job done.
TELL ME ABOUT THE SHOW’S SET, PROPS, ETC.
Seabrooke’s isn’t a large theatre, by any means. I’ve learned to make the most of what we have. The main stage acts as Grace’s common area, a diningroom table, some chairs etc. It’s a very simplistic lifestyle she lives and we’re trying to capture that. The props include cards, alcohol, a weapon or two….
HOW OLD ARE YOU, WHERE DID/DO YOU STUDY, AND WHAT IS YOUR FULLTIME JOB? IS BLANK CANVAS PRODUCTIONS A SIDELINE DIVERSION?
I am 21. I have not yet studied but do plan to. I work for a restaurant as a manager. It’s a full-time job that takes up most of my time.
BCP is not a sideline diversion. If anything, I’d say my other job is, but I put the same amount of effort and energy into both and give BCP as much more as I can. In a perfect world this would be my life 100% but I know with hard work that can be a thing one day. Without my full-time, job Blank Canvas wouldn’t have progressed in any way, so I owe a lot to it.
WHAT MOVED YOU TO BECOME PASSIONATE ABOUT THEATRE AND AT WHAT AGE DID IT START? ALSO, WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO BE DOING IN YEARS TO COME?
It was rather late in my life that I started taking an interest in theatre. When I started BCP I wasn’t even that invested. When I watched my own work on stage in its messy glory, I fell in love with theatre. It’s there… and what happens happens; the mistakes, the delays, the technical issues, it’s all there and it’s very real. It’s hard to not fall for it all.
WHY THE LONG GAP BETWEEN THIS NEW PLAY AND “LOVE” – AND WHEN DID YOU STAGE “LOVE”?
We staged Love in August of 2016. This year was intended to be a year of development. I wanted us to take a break and find ways to improve. Work on building finances to use for a new show.
I’d just finished writing A Dash of Posion when I officially started toying with Saving Grace, and in one night I’d written 58 pages. For me, it was a sign. I made the decision to take a leap of faith and just go for it.
WHAT SORT OF BUDGET DO YOU HAVE FOR THE NEW PLAY – AND WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
We attempt to keep things as minimalistic as possible. We percentage the budget to mark the important areas and make sure they’re covered. Due to our small budget it’s hard for us to do certain things that we’d love to do for brand exposure and show awareness. but we do make an effort to get the word out there.
WHAT PLANS GOING FORWARD – AND IN THE LONGER TERM?
I’m in early stages deciding what will be next year’s shows but it’s never set in stone. Longterm is my hope for BCP to become more than theatre. I’d also love to write and stage a big original musical one day.
ANY OTHER PLAYS BEING PLANNED, WRITTEN OR IN THE PIPELINE FOR PRODUCTION?
I’m in early stages of trying to click with a new project I’m writing called Tyrant. It focuses on two guys who move into a new apartment together as roommates. It follows them as they fight the body corporate run by a power-hungry trustee who is intent on getting them kicked out.
It also follows how their friendship is tested by a friend’s girlfriend, money struggles and co-habitation.
WHO DO YOU LOOK UP TO IN THE WORLD OF PROFESSIONAL THEATRE – AND WHY?
Greg King and Steven Stead have my admiration for the empire they’ve created with KickstArt. They’ve done an immaculate job of maintaining their standards for years. I constantly seek advice from them in batch sessions (to avoid being irritating).
But anyone who is brave enough to do this has my respect and admiration. Theatre isn’t always an easy road to travel down, but we suffer for art as art suffers for us.