BILLY SUTER chats to award-winning actor and director STEVEN STEAD about four new productions that Durban’s KickstArt theatre company is planning this year. Stead also talks about shows he would love to stage, alternative career plans, embarrassing moments in the spotlight – and the possibility of his superb production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods touring to Johannesburg and Cape Town next year.
HOW DID RECENT DURBAN AUDITIONS FOR “CAMELOT” AND “CINDERELLA” GO – AND CAN YOU TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUDITIONS THAT GOT YOU DOWN, REGARDING HOW ILL-PREPARED SOME WERE?
We saw 45 young ladies for Cinderella, and we were blown away by the young talent that is incubating in Durban.
Several of the girls who had been in Annie for us four years ago as children, but who are now 16 and over, came in to audition, and they were incredibly exciting, as were many other of the artists. We saw some lovely new talent from Maritzburg varsity as well.
But it was dispiriting that we had six or seven girls, who made appointments with us for auditions, and just didn’t pitch up. That made me upset, because we occasionally get accused of not giving new actors opportunities and then when we do, as in this example, they do not have the courtesy to phone and cancel, let alone pitch up at auditions. Well, they will not get far in this industry with that attitude.
The other thing that worried me was that we got some actresses arriving with inappropriate monologues or songs… I mean, if you are auditioning for Cinderella, maybe Greek tragedy isn’t really going to showcase your wholesome, heart-warming qualities.
HAVE YOU GOT YOUR CINDERELLA NOW – AND WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT HER?
We have found our perfect Cinderella! Her name is Roshanda Lewis, and she is a second-year music student at Afda. She is from the Bluff, which makes me very happy, since that’s my suburb too, and was a Grosvenor Girls’ High pupil. She has the most beautiful voice, and is intelligent, sensitive, funny and pretty as a picture.
WHAT OTHER CASTING IS CONFIRMED FOR THE PANTO?
It is all cast: Bryan Hiles and Darren King are playing Ugly Sisters, with Mthoikizisi Zulu as Buttons. Nathan Kruger plays the dashing Prince, with Lyle Buxton as his wise-cracking valet, Dandini. Anne Marie Clulow is booked to play the kooky Fairy Godmother, and dancers Kirsty Ndawo, Katherine Anderson, Sanele Mzinyane and Tshedido Kabulo make up the experienced cast, with choreography by Evashnee Pillay.
Cinderella will be at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from December 7 to January 6.
IS CASTING NOW FINALISED FOR “CAMELOT” AND WHAT ROLES WERE YOU SEEKING FOR THAT MUSICAL AT THE RECENT AUDITIONS?
Yes, we have a very strong cast for Camelot (if I may say so myself – aherm): Queen Guinevere is being played by the ravishing and talented Jessica Sole, and golden-voiced, handsome Lyle Buxton is Sir Lancelot.
I am going back on stage again in one of my rare appearances to play King Arthur, because it is a role I have always longed to play, and am now the perfect age to do so. If I wait any longer I will be too old!
Peter Court is playing Merlin and King Pellinor, Nathan Kruger is the wicked Mordred, and Anne Marie Clulow is playing the forest nymph, Nimue. The knights of Camelot are being played by Bandile Hlope (just returned from The Lion King in Spain), Cameron Botha (our Anthony in Sweeney Todd in Joburg/Cape Town) and Byron McNeil (a new artist we met at auditions).
The rest of the fabulous ensemble is comprised of Anthony Stonier, Schoemann Smit, Marion Loudon, Leigh Meyer, Slindo Zondi and Camilla Rogers.
So you can see, we have a terrific vocal line-up, all under the masterful musical direction of Shelley McLean and Jason Bird.
The musical runs at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from May 18 to June 3.
ANY OTHER SHOWS PLANNED THIS YEAR? AND ANY KICKSTART SHOWS LIKELY TO VISIT OTHER CITIES?
We are producing our own production of the hit farce, The Play That Goes Wrong, in April, and an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG from June 21 to July 8.
We don’t have any touring plans this year, but are in current negotiations to try to get Into the Woods to Joburg and Cape Town early next year. But we are still in the nursery stages of negotiating.
WHY THE CHOICE OF “CAMELOT” THIS YEAR FROM YOU AND PARTNER GREG KING?
Greg and I made a promise to ourselves a while ago that we would only do musicals that have resonance for us; shows that move us, and excite us personally, the magic of which we want to share with our audiences.
It is this promise that has seen us take risks on shows like Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Little Shop of Horrors, Chicago and Snoopy!
Camelot fits in rather neatly. It is top of my bucket-list. It is a musical I have loved passionately since I saw the film when I was about 10 years old.
The way most people (including Greg) feel about The Sound of Music is the way I feel about Camelot. It has glorious music, a rich, powerful book, and wonderful, human characters. Add to this all the mystery and magic of Celtic mythology, and a heart-breaking, heart-warming ending, and you have a powerful theatre experience.
I cannot wait for audiences to feel something of the excitement I feel for this fabulous musical.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR PLANS AND VISION FOR “CAMELOT”? THE SETS AND COSTUMES ETC… ANYTHING UNUSUAL OR DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS MUSICAL THAT WE CAN EXPECT?
The show is set in mythical medieval England. So I have been very careful in design discussions and planning with Terrence Bray, who is doing the fabulous costumes, and Greg King, who is doing some stunning set designs, not to make it look like a panto.
It could all be a bit “hey-nonny-nonny” and naff. I want an elemental feel. A more darkly mythical atmosphere, more reminiscent of Game of Thrones than Robin Hood. So we are looking at stone and wood, and steel, and using a very organic palette in the design and texture. I think it will be beautiful.
WHAT IS LIKELY TO BE THE MOST CHALLENGING THING FOR YOU, AS BOTH ACTOR AND DIRECTOR, WITH “CAMELOT”?
Arthur is a massive role. He has a lot of text and songs, and hardly leaves the stage. It will be a massive challenge trying to stay focused on the role and all it demands, while simultaneously watching everyone else and shaping their performances.
Which is why I am extremely glad that I have Charon Williams-Ros coming back from the UK to help me as associate director. She will make sure that my vision is being realised, and that I don’t suck. I can trust her about things like that!
ANY IDEA WHERE AND WHEN “CAMELOT” WAS LAST STAGED IN DURBAN?
It was done as part of a SACPAC tour in 1989, with Michael Richard as Arthur, American actress Kim Breeden as Guinevere, and Robert Finlayson as Lancelot. Directed by Francois Swart, it was a big, monumental opera-house production. Ours is going to be much more intimate and focus on the relationships between the characters rather than the pageantry.
ANY CHANCE OF THIS PRODUCTION TOURING ELSEWHERE?
No. It’s unlikely. The demands from the scenery will be too big for most theatres in the country which are of the appropriate scale.
WHY THE CHOICE OF”CINDERELLA” THIS YEAR? ALSO, HOW MANY TIMES HAS KICKSTART STAGED THIS PANTO NOW, AND HOW IS THIS YEAR’S PRODUCTION LIKELY TO BE DIFFERENT OR MORE SPECIAL THAT YOUR PREVIOUS ‘CINDERELLAS”?
In having done 13 pantomimes, we have done Cinderella twice. This will be the third time. It was our first panto in 2004 at the tiny Kwasuka Theatre, our “postage stamp panto”. Then we did it again in 2008 to celebrate John Moss’s life, as it was his first pantomime and the first one I ever saw as a child. This is now 10 years later!
There are 10-year-olds then who are now 20. So it is definitely time to revisit this hugely popular title. It is also time for a gentler, more romantic story, following the rollicking romp that was last year’s Sinbad The Sailor.
By casting lads as the prince and Dandini I think we will be spicing the show up, with a bit of testosterone and some exciting male vocals. And having Bryan Hiles bow out of his Buttons role into that of an Ugly Sister, and hand the baton to adorable newcomer Mthokozisi Zulu, is going to make this version feel very fresh and different.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR PLAN TO STAGE “THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG”? AND IS ANY CASTING FINALISED FOR IT?
This hilarious, anarchic and down-right dangerous show about a bunch of bumbling amateur actors putting on an ill-fated murder mystery has had a sold-out, two-year run in London, and just opened in New York. It also had sold-out seasons in Joburg and Cape Town for Pieter Toerien.
It’s the kind of thing that I like to do as a challenge, and we haven’t done a play for some time, so we felt like this was a good one to tackle with a broad public appeal.
We have a splendid cast: James Cuningham joins us from Johannesburg, with Iain Robinson, Michael Gritten, Bryan Hiles, Liesl Coppin, Mthokozisi Zulu, Daisy Spencer and Adam Dore all bringing their huge amount of personal ‘funny’ to the farm! It’s going to be a riot!
The production runs at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from April 6 to 29.
WHY “THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG”?
Well, last year Pieter Toerien’s production toured to Joburg and Cape Town, but missed Durban. Again. And Durban deserves it! It is box–office gold! Such a great, silly night out at the theatre.
ANY CHANCE OF KICKSTART CONSIDERING STAGING “GLORIOUS” AFTER THE SUCCESS OF THE MERYL STREEP FILM VERSION, “FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS”?
The play doesn’t have enough appeal, and there are other plays I would do before it. It is also very difficult to cast locally.
WHAT ARE SOME MUSICALS KICKSTART WOULD LOVE TO STAGE LOCALLY SOON?
Wow…we can dream, can’t we? I want to do The Man of La Mancha, another classic that I have loved for most of my life. Then A Little Night Music, and Company from the Sondheim songbook. We fantasise about doing Mame as well. But they are all big shows… It’s an expensive undertaking, producing a musical.
KICKSTART HAD PLANNED TO STAGE “RABBIT HOLE” LAST YEAR, A DRAMA WITH LIESL COPPIN AND BRYAN HILES. THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN. WHY?
We couldn’t cast the show satisfactorily, and then the Hilton Arts Festival was not interested in hosting it, so it became financially unwieldy. It was a pity. But it’s on the backburner. It’s a beautiful play.
WHEN LAST DID KICKSTART STAGE A DRAMA – AND WHEN CAN WE EXPECT ANOTHER?
The last ‘drama’, I suppose, was Venus in Fur, four years ago. We are doing The Play That Goes Wrong from April 6 to 29, but further than that, find us an appropriate, affordable theatre, and a co-producing festival that wants to work with us, and we’ll do another play in a heartbeat!
OF ALL THE MANY PRODUCTIONS YOU HAVE STAGED IN DURBAN WHICH ARE CLEAR STANDOUTS FOR YOU – AND WHY?
I love them all when I am working on them. (Mostly!) You have to love them in order to give them the attention that will make them detailed and therefore special. (A bit like kids!) But I suppose Wit, Venus in Fur, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods have a big part of my heart. But so does Beauty and the Beast and Cabaret. And God of Carnage. And Shirley Valentine…
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING, OR OTHERWISE UNMEMORABLE, MOMENT ON STAGE AS A PERFORMER?
I hate laughing on stage. I mean involuntarily laughing on stage. Unfortunately, I have two dear colleagues who are big-time corpsers… Lisa Bobbert and Belinda Henwood you are unmasked!
When a wig was the wrong way round in a performance of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, a quartet of which I was a member, I fell apart horribly. In Annie, as a menacing baddie, I flicked open my knife to say I’d finish the little orphan, and it malfunctioned. Not cool. Really not cool. Did I receive support from my carefully chosen support team? Nah…it was snorts and swimming eyes and some more dodgy singing from all three of us.
It is involuntary and one can’t help it, and it feels delicious and so dangerous, but afterwards I am always wracked with remorse.
WHAT PERFORMERS, LOCAL AND/ OR FROM OVERSEAS, DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?
Opera: Cecelia Bartoli, Sonya Yoncheva, Sarah Connelly.
Musicals: Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, Chita Rivera, Audra McDonald.
Theatre: Mark Rylance, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen.
Film: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon.
AWAY FROM THE WORLD OF SHOWBIZ HOW DO YOU RELAX AND UNWIND ?
Nature. The bush. The Berg. The beach. And booze. Good booze helps.
WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF, HOWEVER TRIVIAL, THAT THE GENERAL PUBLIC IS NOT LIKELY TO KNOW?
I am a binge-watcher of good series. I have stopped eating sugar. I adore my two cats. I like my feet being rubbed. I only have blue, black and white in my wardrobe (and not by design… it just happened).
WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST TIME EVER ON A STAGE – AND WHAT DO YOU RECALL OF THAT EXPERIENCE?
I played the Wolf in Peter and the Wolf in Class 1. And the weirdest thing was, I went to the teacher, aged what, 8?, And said “I want to play the Wolf”. And she let me.
It should worry anyone that a small child actually wants to play the cruel, scary, vicious character who gets shot by the hunters. I loved it!
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR DREAM ROLE AND DREAM CO-STAR? AND WHAT IS ONE MUSICAL YOU WILL NEVER STAGE – AND FOR WHAT REASON OR REASONS?
I am about to have this experience: playing Arthur opposite Jess Sole’s Guinevere. I am VERY excited!
I will never do Cats. Because it is a truly TERRIBLE show.
WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON THE STATE OF THEATRE IN DURBAN AND WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE BEING DONE DIFFERENTLY TO TRY TO IMPROVE THE SITUATION.
It’s pretty dire, isn’t it? But we are really battling with venues. And all the funding in the area goes to The Playhouse. So we all exist on the margins from hand to mouth.
Don’t get me started… but fundamentally, I wish that more teachers and parents and other shepherds would bring their kids to the theatre, to our shows. And kids from all race groups and social groups. If we don’t get traction in young minds, and nurture a regard and love for theatre across the board, it is doomed.
But people have been moaning about this for 200 years in one way or another. Somehow it always finds a way…
OF THE MANY AWARDS YOU HAVE WON, WHICH IS MOST PRECIOUS TO YOU – AND WHY?
Awards don’t mean very much to me, I am afraid. They are nice to get at the time, but the pleasure is fleeting. Certainly none of them is “precious” to me. But it was quite affirming when Sweeney Todd won Best Musical at the Naledi Awards two years ago. That was a bit of a shot in the arm!
WERE YOU NOT IN THE THEATRE PROFESSION WHAT CAREER MIGHT YOU HAVE FOLLOWED – AND WHY?
I would be a game ranger. Because I love the bush. And like to share its magic with others. Heck… I still might do that.
WHAT MOTTO DO YOU TRY TO LIVE BY – AND WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU EVER RECEIVED?
A motto I hold very dear is Keats’s famous lines from Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”
The best advice I ever got was from an old friend, Ian von Memerty, who said that “the only thing we can be sure of, is change”.