Showbiz, Stead and Sinbad

Steven Stead on the set of KickstArt’s most recent musical, Chicago. The Durban theatre company is planning to present Camelot early in 2018.  The comedy, The Play That Goes Wrong, is also among 2018 plans. First up, though, is a new pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor. Picture by Nathan Kruger.

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BILLY SUTER chats to award-winning director STEVEN STEAD, who is preparing the 13th festive season production from Durban’s leading theatre production company, KickstArt. It is a lavish pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor, scheduled to run at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from December 1 to January 7. The cast will include Lyle Buxton (as Sinbad), Bryan Hiles, Belinda Henwood, Amanda Kunene, Darren King,
Marion Loudon, Nhlakanipho Manqele and Mothokozisi Zulu. Performances are scheduled for 2.30pm every Tuesday to Sunday and 7pm on Friday. No performances will be held on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. Booking is now open at Computicket outlets.
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WHAT WAS THE REASON FOR SELECTING “SINBAD THE SAILOR” AS THIS YEAR’S PANTO –AND WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE TO ENCOURAGE THEM TO SEE IT?

In doing a pantomime every year, and especially now that we have racked up a pretty substantial 13 festive season productions since 2004 (which saw our first ‘postage stamp’ Cinderella staged at the dinky Kwasuka Theatre in Greyville), the challenge is to keep the shows feeling fresh and original. This is as much for our sanity as our audience’s satisfaction.

Although pantomimes are, by their nature, formulaic, based as they are on a series of time-honoured traditions, we really try to provide contrasted and varied fare.

Greg King’s costume design for the title character in Sinbad the Sailor.

Last year saw us creating a romantic favourite, Sleeping Beauty, and setting it in an icy Nordic world of snowflakes, crystals and furs. By way of contrast, this year we have chosen to do a rollicking adventure story, set in the sultry and exotic Arab world. And it’s a subject that we have not presented previously, which is novel in itself.

There are not that many suitable fairytales for pantomime, and over 13 years we have used up most of the best known ones. Sinbad has the advantage of being one of the lesser performed but still very appealing titles, and also is quite open-ended so far as that the original tale in 1001 Nights is really the relating of seven voyages, and not a single narrative.

So as a writer and director it gives me carte blanche to weave my own story, threaded with the most iconic moments of the original tales.

Sinbad the Sailor is certainly going to be an exciting, exotic treat, full of surprises, with plenty for old and young to enjoy. There really is going to be as much appeal to adults as children, and even teenagers.

I think it has some great comic characters, and some really fun comedy scenes. The design is also utterly beautiful: Greg King (our designer) and Shanthi Naidoo (our costumiere) have outdone themselves!

WHEN DID YOU WRITE THE PANTOMIME? ALSO, WHAT ELEMENTS MAKE IT PARTICULARLY SPECIAL OR DIFFERENT?

I have been gestating the show since we opened last year’s panto. I chose the subject and the cast then, and have spent the rest of the year ruminating about how to weave all the elements together.

This mental process is very important and really does take many months. I sat down at my computer and unleashed the madness at the beginning of September, when I got back from a month’s holiday in Europe. It tumbled out in about 10 days. But it was very much due!

I am excited because there are quite a few shake-ups in our casting: for one thing, Bryan Hiles will be playing his first dame, Donna Kebab, Sinbad’s dotty mother. And for another, Belinda Henwood is playing her first villain, as the evil sultana, Morgiana the Magnificent. Opposite her is Darren King, who has traded in his usual high heels for a sword and a beard as the other baddy, Long John Slither, the pirate king. And if their recent film shoot was anything to go by, their chemistry is going to be electric.

Another of Greg King’s costume designs for Sinbad the Sailor.

WHAT ARE SOME HIGHLIGHTS OR SURPRISES AUDIENCES CAN EXPECT? TELL US ABOUT SETS AND PROPS.

You can expect sets ranging from Baghdad palaces to pirate sailing ships and mystical temples on far-flung islands, a valley of dancing diamonds, a giant roc (eagle), magical snakes, a genie, a gorilla and a dancing camel….

WHAT SORT OF QUANTITIES WILL GO INTO CREATING THIS PRODUCTION – HOW MANY METRES OF FABRIC, HOW MANY SEQUINS, HOW MUCH PAINT AND POLYSTYRENE  ETC?

I really don’t know about exact quantities, but there are six complete sets, 46 costumes, an onstage cast of 13 and a backstage team of 10. So it’s quite a big show. Sjoe!

HOW MANY KICKSTART PANTOS HAVE YOU CREATED AND STAGED NOW – AND WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE?

We’ve done CinderellaSnow WhiteAladdin and Sleeping Beauty twice each, and then Puss in BootsRobin Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, so that is 11 actual pantos (Peter Pan wasn’t a panto).

I love each one best while I am working on them. And each one has a different quality which appeals to me. But I think the one I had the most fun with was Jack and the Beanstalk. I do love my baddies!

WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME REMARKABLE MISHAPS OR WORRYING MOMENTS  IN KICKSTART PANTOS OVER THE YEARS?

Live theatre is never short of little surprises to keep one on one’s toes! Some of the worst have been the spatially challenged dragon that couldn’t quite seem to exit on the opening night of Sleeping Beauty last year.

Then there was the wig that a certain princess left at home one day, so she went on with a pair of black tights twined about her head, crowned with a sparkly tiara. That was special. But generally, it is a well-oiled machine that manages to stand up to a long run rather well.

WHAT IS THE APPEAL OF PANTO AND WHY DO YOU CONTINUE THE TRADITION OF STAGING IT EVERY FESTIVE SEASON?

I love theatre. I have done all my life. But I cut my teeth on pantomime. It hooked me in, and transported me.

One of the things I love about it is how inclusive it is: my entire family, including my rather dour fighter-pilot father, would clap and cheer and laugh, and we would all go home feeling giddy, and ‘together’, as though we had all shared something special.

A costume to be worn by Bryan Hiles, as dame Donna Kebab, in Sinbad the Sailor.

Panto has this particular power if done well: to appeal to all the age groups.And it is the only theatre form that just ignores the ‘fourth wall’, and talks directly and continuously to the audience. So the audience becomes a vital character in the whole exercise.

You can sit back at a musical or play and be disengaged and distant, but you just don’t get to do that in panto. It really is the most robust fun, and the perfect family entertainment. Just what we need at Christmas time!

YOU TOOK YOUR “PUSS IN BOOT” TO JOHANNESBURG’S LYRIC THEATRE AT GOLD REEF CITY THIS YEAR. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT AND WHAT WAS ITS SUCCESS?

Following the success of our Shrek The Musical up at Gold Reef City, management asked us to please come back with another family show, and asked for Puss. It was very well received, and we hope to go up again with some of our other pantos.

WHAT IS LIKELY TO BE YOUR PANTOMIME FOR 2018?

We have chosen to do Cinderella next year. It will be 10 years since we did it last, and it is a real crowd-pleaser with a big heart.

WHAT PRODUCTIONS ARE YOU CONSIDERING FOR KICKSTART IN 2018? AND WHAT ARE SOME ‘BUCKET  LIST’ SHOWS YOU WOULD LOVE TO STAGE?

We will be doing The Play that Goes Wrong in April, and The BFG in July. We are also trying to get Camelot on in the first half of the year. I am running out of ‘bucket list’ shows, but I still want to do Company, A Little Night Music, Man of La Manch, and a Shakespeare for grown-ups.

OF ALL THE SHOWS STAGED BY KICKSTART OVER THE YEARS WHAT DRAMA AND MUSICAL ARE YOUR FAVOURITES?

Impossible to answer, really. I love them all. Otherwise I would never have made them. I guess that of the dramas, highlights for me have been Wit and Venus in Fur. And musicals… Cabaret and Into the Woods.

WHEN AND HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO THEATRE – AND WHAT MARKED YOUR PROFESSIONAL DEBUT ON STAGE?

I don’t remember a time I was not doing a play or a puppet show or planning and organising some sort of performance. It was my major form of play as a child.

My mum took me to her school play rehearsals in a carry cot. I guess the bug bit there.

My first professional role was Christopher Robin in Napac’s Winnie the Pooh, in 1983.

A costume to be worn by Belinda Henwood – playing her first villain, as the evil sultana, Morgiana, in Sinbad the Sailor.

WHEN AND WHERE DID YOU STUDY AND WHAT WERE HIGHLIGHTS IN YOUR EARLY YEARS IN THE WORLD OF THEATRE?

I did a BA Hons at the University of Natal, and while at varsity did some very memorable and formative productions. Like Ghetto, directed by Mervyn McMurtry, and a Jacques Brel cabaret I devised.

After varsity, getting wonderful roles like Peter Pan (for Napac and then Capab), Ariel in The Tempest (at Maynardville), Hamlet (at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival) and Puck (for Napac), was heady stuff for an actor in his early 20s. I have been very lucky indeed.

WHEN AND WHY DID YOU HEAD FOR AND WORK IN LONDON – AND WHAT WERE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR TIME THERE AS A DIRECTOR?

I moved to Europe in 1995, having fallen in love with a beautiful Greek opera singer, Jenny Drivala, who I had met working on La Traviata, my first opera as a director (assistant!) in Cape Town.

Initially, we lived in Athens, but it was too difficult for me to work as my Greek is pretty rudimentary. So we made the move to London.

It was a very challenging time. She lost both her parents within four years, and I lost my father. London was not immediately welcoming, and life was very hard.

As an actor initially, I landed some great gigs: playing Joseph in The Dreamcoat and Hamlet in Cambridge, amongst other shows. But It was all through a haze of homesickness and loss, and a sense of not belonging.

It was only when I decided to focus on directing opera, and got a full-time job as a staff director at the English National Opera, that London started to seem a home to me, and I grew to love it.

Highlights include two very memorable productions I directed of Handel’s Rinaldo for Abbey Opera and for Envivo Opera. And a particularly fulfilling revival I directed of Matthew Warchus’ production of Falstaff.

And, of course, there was a production of The Marriage of Figaro at the English National Opera (ENO) which I was very proud of, and very honoured to be asked to do by that wonderful company.

WHAT BROUGHT YOU BACK TO DURBAN AND WHEN AND WHY DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH GREG KING AND  KICKSTART?

I came back to Durban because I wanted to do an acting project again, “off the radar”, as they say. Belinda Harward and I met up in London and decided to do the first English language version of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond as a creative exercise for one another.

Greg King’s costume design for dame Donna Kebab.

She was working in an office in London and I had just done six months as associate director of a West End musical… we were both desperate for some creative stimulation and a shake-up.

We asked Greg King to direct the play… I had no idea at the time how important that association was going to be.  Once again, I found myself moving from one hemisphere to another for love.

I found Greg’s quixotic creativity and love of the theatre utterly enthralling; and I still do. It was like meeting my best friend and soul mate, and there really wasn’t any option but to come home, roll up my sleeves and get to work. With him.

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE AS A DIRECTOR… AND AS A PERFORMER?

Getting the approval of my peers has been the most difficult thing about both roles. The brilliant thing about getting older is that I am ceasing to care what they think about me as long as I can keep creating and working and making a difference.

But when you work in the theatre, you are very exposed. And when you wear your heart on your sleeve, and it gets sniggered at or kicked, it is enormously hurtful.

And it isn’t a matter of developing a thicker skin to cope with it. That would poison the well of your creativity. It is about focusing on the work, and not on the self, and always, always, trying to keep the bigger picture in focus.

HOW MANY AWARDS HAVE YOU WON – AND WHICH IS MOST SPECIAL?

I try not to care about awards. They actually mean very little. In fact I think that in the theatre especially, they are very destructive. But it was very affirming to win the Naledi Award in Joburg for Sweeney Todd. I have to admit I was pleased and proud that night.

WHAT ONE PERFORMANCE YOU GAVE AS AN ACTOR STANDS OUT FOR YOU – AND WHY?

Hamlet lives close to my heart. I love playing him. And after my father died in 1998, I played Hamlet in Durban, and the loss opened up the text in an extraordinary way. He just possessed me, and released me, all at the same time.

I don’t think many people saw the performances, but I didn’t care. It was an immensely satisfying experience. And I met Belinda Henwood, who has become a dear friend and wonderful collaborator over the years since.

Lyle Buxton and Belinda Henwood in early publicity shots for Sinbad the Sailor.

WHAT ARE SIX THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF (HOWEVER TRIVIAL, EVEN) THAT THE GENERAL PUBLIC IS NOT LIKELY TO KNOW?

I don’t care about money very much at all. Personally. As a director of a company, I care about it very much.

I like animals far more than people, generally speaking, and think environmental issues should take precedence.

I am terrible at mathematics and arithmetic. (Which might explain my disinterest in money!)

I am a binge watcher when it comes to TV series, and like to own the box set so I can do it all at  my own pace and then again if I want to.

I love to cycle. It’s the best way to get around a city. (Not Durban…You’d be killed!)

I have the most insane, intense and weird dreams.

WHAT FIVE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOU?

Loyal. Responsible. Passionate. Impatient. Fair.

WHAT ARE YOUR PET HATES?

Pollution. Acronyms. Lack of integrity. Bad journalism/writing. Small mindedness.

WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE’?

A good dry vodka martini. A winning smile. A lingering kiss. Sun on my skin. Great singing, particularly the female operatic voice.

HOW WILL YOU BE SPENDING CHRISTMAS DAY AND NEW YEAR’S EVE THIS YEAR?

Christmas Day will be at home with my family, and New Year will be in Mkhuze Game Reserve with great pals from London. who I worked with at ENO and who are coming out to spend a few weeks with us.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION?

To keep on avoiding sugar. And calling racism and sexism when I encounter it.


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