BILLY SUTER interviews Durban-born ANDREW WEBSTER, who is a part-owner, as well as the devisor and director of shows, at Sibaya Casino’s new Rockwood Theatre. He is also the host and star of its upcoming new production, Beautiful Noise, running from February 8 to April 1. Andrew chats about plans to make the Rockwood Theatre more than just a venue for tribute shows. He also looks back on his career, discusses his early days in Durban (where he has now returned) and talks about big shows in which he has starred. He also chats about recent health issues.
HOW AND WHEN DID THE OPPORTUNITY ARISE THAT YOU BECAME A SHOW DIRECTOR/DEVISOR AND PART OWNER IN THE ROCKWOOD THEATRE GROUP – AND DO YOU HAVE TOTALLY FREE REIN WITH SHOW?
Sibaya Casino had heard about The Rockwood Theatre in Pretoria via Carnival City – part of the Sun International group with whom we were staging our productions. When the opportunity arose, I convinced Rockwood owners Tom and Ann Muller that Durban was in need of a venue like what we envisaged.
I also convinced them that Sibaya was the right location and that Durban audiences were growing tired of the theatre formula at Gateway in Umhlanga, yet still had the desire to patronise that type of theatre.
We were rather daunted by what was to be a challenging timeline – Sibaya wanted the venue renovated and ready to open for year-end 2017 corporate and later holiday season. Tom, Ann and I put absolutely everything we had into the project.
It was also during the time of Tom and Ann being here to project-manage the build that we realised I would be best-suited to running Durban, alongside my wife, Cindy.
So, yes, I have free rein with shows. Cindy has major input in booking of outside artists and Tom and I meet often and discuss Rockwood productions. But there are plenty of shows outside of Rockwood productions that I will place at my discretion.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF DEVISING AND DIRECTING?
My greatest challenge is finding the creative time and space to devise shows. I am very consumed with the task of being “production manager”. The casting and management of talent is the biggest challenge.
Rockwood doesn’t have a production manager, so I do that as well as being producer and director. I have the assistance of Josh Thatcher to score and chart the music and Zia James to choreograph, but I am very fortunate to have the background of being a schooled musician, so I musically directed the first two productions.
But I soon realised I couldn’t be MD, producer and director!
WHEN – AND WHY – DID YOU MAKE THE DECISION TO RETURN TO DURBAN AS A HOME BASE?
I have always wanted to live in Durban again. I returned to Johannesburg as there was a lot of demand for me as a performer and I was battling to make ends meet in Durban. When the opportunity of a theatre in Sibaya arose I knew that between Tom, Ann, Cindy and myself – Cindy and I would be more suited to the move as I have a history here, as well as family.
It all happened so quickly. We had to find a home, a school (my twin girls, Daniella and Samantha, aged seven, started Grade 1 this year ) and cancel our planned move to Pretoria. We were living in Johannesburg and trekking to Pretoria some 70km from our house.
HOW IS THE DURBAN ROCKWOOD THEATRE DOING – ARE PEOPLE COMING AND RETURNING? WHAT FEEDBACK/COMPLAINTS/COMPLIMENTS?
The venue is averaging 200 people a night, which is extremely good considering we don’t have a data base or the backing of any print media.
I must say that when I mention Rockwood to anyone in Durban, many say: “Why don’t we know about it?”. So that is my greatest challenge – getting people to hear that there is a new supper theatre in Durban.
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive both for the show and, in particular, the venue.
Fortunately there haven’t been any major complaints. By the time I arrived (I had to finish performing in the musical Rock of Ages in Johannesburg), everything had settled in the kitchen and bar.
I facilitated the re-hanging and repositioning of the PA system and we have put up 16 sound traps and are mounting even more. This has massively improved the sound. I am aware there were massive sound problems when the venue first opened, but I think we are pretty much where we need to be in terms of sound now.
I also tweaked the current show, Knowing Me, Knowing You, quite a bit when I arrived. The Durban cast had to open without my direction or guidance due to my having to be in Johannesburg.
WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME COMPLAINTS (IF ANY) – AND HOW WILL THESE BE ADDRESSED? I, FOR ONE, HAVE A SMALL PROBLEM WITH THE GLARE OF LIGHTS FROM THE AUDITIORIUM’S SPIRAL STEPS DURING PERFORMANCES .
Sound has been right for some time now. The spiral stairs have been curtained off and we are to hang curtains by the side stairs. I want this done properly and not just be tacky draping.
Our contractor returned from his December holidayorecently and has had some important structural work to do. We have also now built an office on site, as up to now we have been using a space within the casino.
HOW ARE YOUR TRIBUTE SHOWS DIFFERENT TO THOSE AT THE OLD BARNYARD THEATRE IN UMHLANGA – WHAT ARE YOU AVOIDING AND WHAT ARE YOU HIGHLIGHTING?
Due to the demand the recipe will be similar – but the chef is different! Having said that, no corny characters or jokes in the shows. No questionable impersonations – and, hopefully, more noticeable attention to staging and direction.
We are not a circuit, so the show will always be fresh and artists will be regularly changed.
Most importantly I would like to align myself and the theatre to the mainstream theatre industry. The Barnyard was very insular. They only did their own productions, and weren’t keen to stage anything outside of the production house.
They have six theatres and sell their productions to themselves at cost, which makes it pretty difficult to compete with them. But I’m adamant to do so as they have had a monopoly for 15 years.
YOUR VISION FOR THE VENUE AND HOW YOU PLAN TO GROW IT?
There is still an overwhelming demand for tribute shows, which have been associated with this type of venue, so we will still be staging compilation shows as our core business. These shows will run from a Thursday to Sunday.
What I am trying to do is move away from the formula of corny characters hosTing the shows and will only touch on impersonations if the artist is impeccable at doing so – or it is part of their known repertoire. There is so much talent that has been forced to be over-shadowed by all that!
Wednesday’s audiences can look forward to some big names. In December we had Prime Circle which was so popular the bookings spilled over to a Tuesday, as have the bookings for The Parlotones. Dan Patlansky is launching his new CD in March, Arno Carstens will be entertaining us on Valentine;s Day and Barry Hilton is here in April.
On Sunday, April 1, The Reals will perform their Dire Straits tribute show in the evening. Hopefully it works and the Sunday night show can become a regular for the likes of The Reals, Durban’s Black Lapels and others..
I am now also in chats with singer-actress Liesl Coppin about a burlesque-themed show, and we also want to stage The Glitter Girls here, as well as many other local productions, in the week or two between me opening a production in Pretoria and one moving from Pretoria to Durban. I am also meeting with the likes of Aaron McIlory, Darren King and Bryan Hiles – so there is plenty to look forward to.
HOW FAR AHEAD HAVE SHOWS BEEN PLANNED FOR DURBAN – AND WHAT ARE SOME HIGHLIGHTS WE CAN ANTICIPATE?
I have planned all the Rockwood theatre productions for the year. After the current Knowing Me, Knowing You we are doing A Beautiful Noise (a tribute to acoustic rock and folk music associated with guitar, violin and pedal-steel guitars). Then we will have That ’80s Show, followed by Rocking Around the World, Jukebox Heroes and, finally, a Decades Hits show.
All of these are certain crowdpleasers which cast a wide net in terms of appeal, and are guaranteed to bring good exposure to the venue.
Other confirmed bookings for the year include The Parlotones, Barry Hilton, Dan Patlansky, an evening with Arno Carstens (Valentine’s) the super-funny YouTube sensation Radio Raps, and ’80s star Pierre de Charmoy. Also on the cards, but still to be confirmed, are Rubber Duc, GoldFish, Good Luck and Gangs of Ballet.
IS THERE A TIME PERIOD YOU HAVE TO SEE A GOOD TURNAROUND ON THIS THEATRE INVESTMENT?
We would like to see a profitable turn-around in the first 12 months and we are on track.
HOW SUPPORTIVE, FINANCIALLY AND OTHERWISE, IS SIBAYA CASINO MANAGEMENT IN THE LOCAL VENUE?
Sibaya have been extremely supportive and are working closely with us to market the shows.
YOU ARE PRODUCING ROCKWOOD THEATRE SHOWS IN DURBAN AND PRETORIA. HOW BUSY DOES THAT KEEP YOU – AND HOW OFTEN DO YOU HAVE TO TRAVEL BETWEEN THE VENUES?
I am extremely busy at the moment. As I mentioned earlier there is also a ton of artist management involved. Currently I have four casts (Beautiful Noise in Pretoria, Knowing Me, Knowing You in Durban, the upcoming cast of Beautiful Noise in Durban and the upcoming cast of That ‘80s Show in Pretoria )… with artists that have individual needs and demands, as they are all freelancers with their own careers outside of Rockwood.
I travel to Pretoria about twice a month at the moment – for anything from two days to a week at a time.
We wanted to turn around the producing of shows to Durban and have the shows start here and move on to Pretoria, but it’s impossible to schedule without disrupting the Pretoria calendar.
CAN YOU DISCUSS MORE ABOUT PLANS AND HOPES FOR ALTERNATIVE SHOWS YOU WISH TO ATTRACT?
This is an area where I am going to work closely with some of the Durban talent I mentioned earlier – Marion Loudon, Liesl Coppin, Shelley MacLean ( my contemporaries basically) and brainstorm ideas with them.
If the venue can profit and sustain itself with the tribute shows, it will be able to facilitate shows with a little more substance that might be slightly higher risk.
TELL ME ABOUT ‘BEAUTIFUL NOISE’ AND YOUR ROLE IN IT – YOUR FIRST STAGE PERFORMANCE IN DURBAN SINCE WHAT AND WHEN?
I have always had a passion for the guitar and stringed instruments in general. These are some of greatest folk, acoustic rock and country songs of all time
There has been a massive resurgence in popularity of this style of music – artists like The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, Ed Sheehan and Jason Mraz have made the guitar, banjo and fiddle cool again. So Beautiful Noise looks at this phenomenon: where it came from and where it is now.
I am trying to take a backseat from performing. I have been doing it non-stop for some 20-odd years now. Also, there are kids that need to get to school and family time is very important to me.
My role in Beautiful Noise is one I look forward to as I get to play guitar, sing and host the show. The music is also really to my taste so I’m looking forward to it.
Kieran Rennie who (brilliantly) hosts the show in Pretoria has a morning slot on Radio Today and is unable to come to Durban .
I last performed in Durban in 2016 in the Barnyard Theatre show, One Hit Wonders.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE TO ENCOURAGE THEM TO BOOK TO SEE “BEAUTIFUL NOISE”?
The songs and music sell the show. This is very possibly the best band of musicians I have been part of for quite some time, together with a near perfect repertoire.
The line-up has changed slightly as Pretoria guitar maestro Reghardt De Bruin can’t come to Durban. In his place I am thrilled to have John Ellis from Tree63.
Andy Turrell is on pedal-steel and second guitar, Anita Roscoe is on violin, Dylan van der Linde is on drums, Llewelyn Chetty is on bass and only Lifa Arosi on keyboards is not from Durban. I am very proud of that.
YOU RECENTLY APPEARED IN ‘ROCK OF AGES’, TELL ME ABOUT THAT EXPERIENCE…AND YOUR HAVING GOT SICK TOWARDS THE END OF THE RUN.
Tattoos, wild and long blond hair, being shirtless with girls draped all over my character … that was as far from my real life as one could imagine. Every performer loves to tackle characters that are very far removed from their reality – for me it makes the process easier. It also makes it so much more enjoyable.
Vocally, the show was terribly challenging. It is an extremely difficult show to sing, but again it’s the challenge that makes the process, and later the repetition of performing the same piece, all the more enjoyable.
Rock of Ages was great. It reminded me why I fell in love with theatre and why I still love theatre.
I was diagnosed with diabetes Last year and have been struggling with my health for almost a year now. I am super-fit and follow an extremely healthy diet – so this aspect of my health came as quite a shock.
During Rock of Ages there was a lot going on. I had a theatre opening without me in Durban, we had to move to a different city, find a school for the girlsw a house to live.
I had to cast the Durban show while managing the Pretoria one, and all while being immersed in a very demanding stage musical. Everything happened at once and my health took a dip.
I couldn’t get my sugar levels to stabilise and eventually ended up on a drip in the ER, with dangerously high blood sugar and extremely low blood pressure.
But after a couple of nights off from Rock of Ages, I managed to get on the mend and I’m doing much better now
OF ALL SHOWS YOU HAVE PERFORMED IN WHAT HAVE BEEN THREE HIGHLIGHTS AND WHY?
The Buddy Holly Story will forever be the highlight. That run sold 109 000 tickets. It was the best experience I have ever had and the greatest show I have been part of. I am so lucky to have enjoyed the stage in a time when it was still very awe-inspiring to audiences.
Another highlight was seeing in the new year as he head ine performer at a resort in Chang Mai, Thailand. It was breathtaking performing in front of an ancient temple in the Chinese border, with lanterns and fireworks. Cindy was there and it was simply magical!
WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN AND WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST PRO PERFORMANCES? AND FIRST SUPPER SHOW ENTERTAINMENT EXPERIENCES?
I was born in Durban (Parklands Hospital) in November 1973. My very first show was 60Something at the now-defunct O’Hagan’s Supper Stage in Durban North in April 1994. I was the resident guitarist.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST REWARDING MOMENT ON STAGE?
Besides The Buddy Holly Story, it was being in Return to the Forbidden Planet at the Playhouse in 1997. That was where my entire career turned around. It opened the door to what I have become and gave me the confidence to believe I was good enough to be more than just a guitarist.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT ON STAGE?
It was in a show called The Doowah Boys – the Zimbabwe tour of 1999. We had to strip down to G-strings! If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, I fell over and onto the table in front of the stage.
WHAT FIVE WORDS WOULD YOU SAY BEST DESCRIBE YOU?
Passionate, dedicated, driven, ambitious and blessed.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST FRIGHTENING THING YOU HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED?
I was run over by a car in Berea Road, Durban, when I was 12. I was severely badly injured and lucky to escape with my life. I was in hospital for eight weeks and took a full year to rehabilitate
WHAT PERFORMERS, LOCAL AND OVERSEAS, DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?
Locally, I still look up to Joseph Clare. He embodies everything I admire in a performer. Not only is he unbelievably talented, he is one of the nicest, genuine and gracious people I know.
We have such world-class talent in this country and I have been blessed to become friends and share the stage with many of my idols.
In terms of overseas performers, I admire Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars.
OF ALL THE PLACES YOU HAVE VISITED WHAT HAS MOST SPECIAL FOR YOU – AND WHY?
Whilse rehearsing Return to the Forbidden Planet in the UK I lived in Bath in England. It is still one of my favourite towns. Bruge in Brussels is also pretty unforgettable!
I love Europe – the galleries, art, the architecture, cafes and high street shopping, theatres that are hundreds of years old and steeped in tradition. It’s the Briton in me (my dad was born in Cheshire, England).
But as a Durbanite, I love the ocean and the beach. So Mauritius and Seychelles have definitely been welcome tours.
WHAT FIVE THINGS WOULD YOU LIST UNDER ‘VASTLY OVER-RATED”?
The Kardashians. Materialism. TV talent shows. TV talent show judges. Beauty pagaents.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE ODDEST THING SOMEONE HAS SAID OF YOU? AND THE MOST COMPLIMENTARY THING?
Once, in between shows at The Joburg Theatre, whilst playing the prince in a Janice Honeyman panto, two elderly woman who were no doubt hard of hearing saw me ordering a coffee and remarked rather loudly: “Yes, it is him. You know, he’s much better looking from further away”.
I have also often been asked if I am Kurt Darren.
Complimentary? I often get compared to handsome Hollywood actors, but usually only by people viewing me from a distance
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF, HOWEVER TRIVIAL, THAT THE GENERAL PUBLIC IS NOT LIKELY TO KNOW?
I am a committed Christian. I have asthma and diabetes. I am obsessed with cricket. I make the best coffee. I draw very well
IF YOU COULD BE INVISIBLE FOR A DAY WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
It would be such a busy day! I would swim with Great White sharks, after which I’d ‘borrow’ money from corrupt people’s wallets and give it to car guards. iI there was time left I would clothe homeless people from Sandton’s designer stores and feed them from Woolies.
WHAT INSTRUMENTS CAN YOU PLAY – AND WHAT WOULD YOU STILL LIKE TO LEARN TO PLAY?
I play the guitar, bass , banjo and drums. I learned to play the piano for an Elton John show in 2000, but don’t ask me to play those songs now. I would love to learn how to play the piano properly.
WHAT IS YOUR DREAM ROLE – AND WHO IS YOUR DREAM STAGE PARTNER?
I have never been in Grease, and almost every male lead has been in a production of that timeless, fun show. In terms of new productions, I would like to do American Idiot. Dream stage partner? I have great stage chemistry with Samantha Peo, so that would work.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
We all have a purpose and a plan.