BILLY SUTER chats to multi-award-winning Durban theatre personality STEVEN STEAD about plans for his and partner Greg King’s KickstArt theatre company in coming months. Steven discusses a new acting venture, his passion for directing opera, excitement over a new panto he has written – and the possibility of KickstArt touring shows overseas.
THERE IS A CHANGE OF PLAN FOR KICKSTART THIS YEAR – I HEAR YOUR SCHEDULED PRODUCTION OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S “COMPANY”, SET FOR SEPTEMBER AT DURBAN’S ELIZABETH SNEDDON THEATRE, IS NOT HAPPENING NOW?
Due to casting issues and budget constraints we have decided to indefinitely postpone our long-hoped-for production of Company. We may well do it, as it has been on our wish-list for decades, but it will not happen in the immediate future.
There is a reason that this rather brilliant musical has never been professionally staged in South Africa. It has a very large cast of soloists, which makes it very expensive, and is a very challenging show for audience and performers.
It is very sophisticated and the danger of it costing far more than it will bring in is very real. So until we are more financially stable, or we have a sponsor, we need to be sensible and pull back.
TO REPLACE “COMPANY” YOU WILL BE STARRING ALONGSIDE CLARE MORTIMER IN “PRIVATE LIVES”. TELL US MORE ABOUT THAT PRODUCTION, WHEN IT WILL RUN – AND WHY YOU CHOSE THAT SHOW.
Clare and I last acted opposite each other in 2004… that’s 15 years ago… in Dangerous Liaisons at Durban’s Kwasuka Theatre in Greyville. The sparks flew between us and we really enjoyed the chemistry.
There just hasn’t been an opportunity to repeat the experience until Greg King suggested that we do Private Lives.
He had produced a small production 17 years ago at Durban’s Kwasuka Theatre and for the Hilton Arts Festival, but it was before I joined him as part of KickstArt, and I never even saw it.
I have loved the play my whole life, being a Noel Coward devotee from a very young age (thanks to my mama, who idolises him), so I leaped at the opportunity, as did Clare.
I envisage a very elegant and stylish production, with gorgeous sets by Greg King and glamorous ’30s period costumes by Terrence Bray, but with a lot more real human behaviour than is usually seen in productions of this comedy classic.
It will have 11 performances at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from October 24 to November 3. The Sneddon is the perfect space for it because it allows us to be quite grand with the design, but remain intimate for the character interaction.
DO YOU PREFER ACTING TO DIRECTING, AND WHAT HAVE BEEN THREE FAVOURITE ROLES YOU HAVE PLAYED?
I actually prefer directing, although I trained as an actor. But if the role is right, I relish performing. And every so often I do get an itch that needs scratching!
I am very lucky in so far as I have been able to play most of the roles that I have always wanted to.
My favourite role to date has been King Arthur in Camelot… that really was a dream come true. I have passionately loved the musical since I was a child, and as an ageing adult it is so rich and full of sad beauty.
I love roles with complex language, and lots of light and shade, so Arthur was an ideal part for me. He also represents how I feel about what I do, hopefully igniting a spark or two that will illuminate the dark long after I have left the stage.
I have also loved playing the lead in Hamlet, and have done so twice (for the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival in the UK, and in Durban). Again, complex language, ideas and a huge range of light and shade make this a very special part for me.
Then there is Peter Pan in Peter Pan, with whom I have a strange and powerful affinity, and which I have played twice as well (in Durban 1992, and Cape Town 1994). His defiant spirit and detachment from the normal world resonate with me profoundly.
All three of these roles have deep spiritual and emotional connections with me. And the other special roles in my career have all been wild spirit-faeries Ariel, Puck, Oberon… although I did love playing the totally amoral Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons.
YOU ARE REVIVING KICKSTART’S ‘SHIRLEY VALENTINE” FOR THE SA WOMEN’S ARTS FESTIVAL AT DURBAN’S PLAYHOUSE. THE PLAY RUNS AT THE DRAMA THEATRE THERE, FROM AUGUST 8 TO 10. TELL US MORE ABOUT THAT.
Lisa Bobbert, our wonderful star of Shirley Valentine, was approached by The Playhouse Company for a production that would suit the SA Women’s Arts Festival in August.
She proposed reviving our production because it really is ideal, given the context: it’s all about a middle-aged woman who emancipates herself from convention and drudgery, and gets to explore her sexuality and self in a life-changing way.
It was written in the 1980s, but sadly it still has so much relevance. Particularly with regard to ageism in our society; women over 40 are still considered irrelevant and sexually invisible, despite contributing massive amounts to the world in so many ways.
It’s going to be fun revisiting this show; Lisa and I formed such a bond whilst working on it. And she has such a big, warm heart as an actress that you can’t help falling a bit in love with her Shirley V.
I HEAR YOU ARE EXCITED ABOUT THIS YEAR’S KICKSTART PANTO, “ALICE IN WONDERLAND,” WHICH RUNS AT DURBAN’S ELIZABETH SNEDDON THEATRE FROM NOVEMBER 29 TO JANUARY 5. TELL US MORE.
I am actually immensely excited about Alice in Wonderland. I really love the books by Lewis Carol, but have always felt that they were a bit wasted on children. They seem to be far more satirical about society and its absurdities than children’s literature generally is.
And so I was very nervous about adapting it for a pantomime. Also, it isn’t a straightforward narrative, like most fairy tales are, and its episodic nature posed quite a few challenges to writing it. But I wrestled with it over the past six months, and finally came up with a script which I really like.
It has wonderful characters, thanks to Mr Carol, and I have created an adventure story that is not anything like the plot of the book, but still keeps the topsy-turvy tone of the original.
It’s certainly a visually exciting project, with its worlds of playing-card castles, chess-piece palaces and enchanted gardens. Whimsical to the point of being downright loopy!
The costume designs are exquisite, and our costumier, Shanthi Naidoo, is already cutting and planning. Which is just as well, because there are 45 costumes for our cast of 13!
Although the principal cast generally have one costume each, plus a ‘walk down” frock (one of traditional pantomime’s more expensive excesses, where the entire company gets new outfits for the curtain call), the four dancers get six costumes each, as they play village children, humanoid flowers, chess pieces, rabbits,and the Queen of Hearts’ courtiers.
WHEN AND WHERE DID YOU WRITE THIS YEAR’S PANTOMIME AND IS IT LIKELY TO COST MORE THAN PREVIOUS PANTOS?
I wrote the panto at home this year, when I got back after most of the year away in Cape Town, directing first a tour of our Into the Woods, and then an opera for Cape Town Opera.
I just had to knuckle down and commit to it, because we couldn’t move forward with the set and costume design or creation, nor the song list and backing tracks, without a script.
So I worked solidly for two weeks in early June while Greg was literally bringing home the bacon by handling Charlotte’s Web all by himself.
Alice in Wonderland is going to be an expensive show. It has a large cast and a lot of costumes, and some very big puppets (think Caterpillars and Jabberwockies…).
It also has one set more than we usually do. Also, everything costs so much more than it used to: paint, fabric, labour. We really should be doing smaller shows if we want to make money. But where is the fun in that?!
HOW MANY PANTOS HAS KICKSTART DONE TO DATE AND WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL FAVOURITE?
This will be our 14th production of a pantomime, if you don’t count the Peter Pan I wrote in 2009 which was a musical rather than a panto.
I love them all equally, while I am working on them, and love pouring my energy and attention into each one.
Greg and I both feel very strongly that these shows are our most important of the year, because not only do they appeal to such a wide audience, but because these are the shows that will capture the imagination of theatre-goers of the future.
I fell in love with the theatre watching John Moss’s festive season pantos when I was a little boy. And now, look: I make them. Hopefully there will be a few Gregs and Stevens out there who will be similarly taken with our shows.
Although I love the pantos all equally, I suppose the ones I am most proud of have been the ones which I have had no blueprint for, in so far as I had never seen examples of them, so I was creating from a place of pure imagination.
Sinbad was like that. And Jack and the Beanstalk. I think those two have been the funniest scripts I have written. Also, they feature some of Greg’s most innovative designs. Although for sheer gorgeousness, the costumes for Aladdin in 2014 and Sleeping Beauty in 2016 make for handsome memories.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT KICKSTART’S TOUR NATIONALLY OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S “INTO THE WOODS” EARLIER THIS YEAR. A SUCCESS?
We were delighted with the way that critics received the show, and were very proud of the cast, who kept it fresh and honest for a long, four-month run.
I think that the theatre in Cape Town was far too small for the production, and I will not ever try to squeeze a Sneddon-sized show into a smaller venue. Kudos to the cast and crew who navigated a ridiculous labyrinth of scenery and lighting equipment to get on stage in a non-existent wing-space!
But it did work very well in Johannesburg, and I was totally thrilled with a definitive performance there on our opening night.
Sadly, it didn’t do the business we would have liked, and it lost quite a lot of money. But we are so glad that it was seen beyond Durban.
WHAT OTHER TOURING PLANS ARE IN THE PIPELINE? AND ANY KICKSTART REVIVALS PLANNED FOR DURBAN OR ELSEWHERE?
We are always open to touring and giving our work that extra mileage outside Durban, but touring has become extremely expensive, particularly when you factor in accommodation and travel. Costs that were negligible in the 1980s are astronomical now.
We are actually looking at possibly exporting some of our shows to Singapore and other places in the East. There is a market for quality productions that would be pretty cost-effective for the co-producers abroad, so watch this space…
But no. There are no plans to be going to Joburg or Cape Town again any time soon. Our shows use the Sneddon’s flying bars and wing-space, and sadly those elements are lacking in most of the theatres that are available to us.
YOU HAVE LONG DIRECTED OPERA AND RECENTLY HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO DIRECT ONE IN CAPE TOWN. TELL US MORE.
Here I am, a purveyor of pantomime and a maker of musicals, but what actually floats my boat the most is opera. I am passionate about directing it.
I have been interested in doing so ever since I was 13 and singing in the chorus of productions for Napac at Durban’s Alhambra theatre. They were I Pagliacci and Cavaleria Rusticana, two one-act verismo operas that are full of blood, guts and glory, and a good dollop of smouldering sexual tension. I was a goner! The intensity and emotional scale of opera grabbed me by the throat and has never let go.
My first opera directing assistant jobs were given to me by veteran Angelo Gobbato for Cape Town Opera in the 1990s, and when I moved to London, I was lucky enough to get opportunities assisting on a few productions for the English National Opera.
This led to me being signed on as a resident director in that marvellous Coliseum theatre for eight years. I finally got to direct revivals of splendid productions like Falstaff, La Traviata, Alcina and Cosi Fan Tutte myself.
The time I spent there working with singers, often against the clock as we toiled to get a complex opera staged in all its detail, in short rehearsal periods, taught me everything that makes running our company and managing time and people possible.
Since coming back to South Africa to work with Greg in 2004, I have directed operas for Cape Town Opera (Valley Song), Opera Africa (La Traviata and Rigoletto) and The Playhouse (Bravo).
But by far the most thrilling and fulfilling experience has been the recent production for Cape Town Opera and UCT Opera School, where I directed Bellini’s glorious but challenging take on Romeo and Juliet, I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Such wonderful young singers – and a great production team. I would do it again in a heartbeat!
WHAT IS ON YOUR WISH-LIST, SHOW-WISE, FOR THE NEAR AND DISTANT FUTURE?
I want to do some plays again. We just don’t seem to have a decent theatre space for drama at the moment. But I want to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream, possibly outdoors somewhere, if we can find a sponsor for the equipment and security.
Musicals I would like to take a crack at are a pair of old classics, Man of La Mancha and Fiddler on the Roof, both of which have terrific and complex characters, and some real heart and something to say.
And then Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is always lilting in the background of my imagination… and a beautiful show to do with South African actors is Once On This Island.
I would happily work on these shows. But I do worry about their appeal. Audiences are getting increasingly less sophisticated, and if there is a not a movie of the show and its name isn’t known, they won’t shift off their sofas in any numbers worth risking the investment.
If it’s not Mamma Mia or Rocky Horror, it’s very hard getting South Africans into a theatre these days.
WHAT COMMENTS ON THE STATE OF THEATRE IN SOUTH AFRICA AT THE MOMENT?
Up until 2016 I think that theatre in South Africa had been vibrant and pretty resilient. But the stresses on the economy over the past few years are definitely affecting theatre now.
People do not have the cash to spend on regular theatre visits, and are prioritising one or two shows a year, if that. We find it impossible to charge what we should be charging for a ticket because we know that people don’t have the disposable income any more.
Of course, it seems they can always feed themselves, but when it comes to feeding the soul… not so much.
I also think that we have lost a lot of audiences (and actors) to emigration, even if it’s not international and just to other cities. I think this is sad, but it is a reality of our times.
It will change. Theatre will roll with the punches and adapt, as it has always done, putting down roots in the cracks between the pavement stones, finding a niche, somewhere to take hold. It may not resemble the work we do, and I personally have no guarantee of relevance, but it will survive.
IF YOU HAD AN UNLIMITED BUDGET WHAT SHOWS WOULD YOU MOST LOVE TO STAGE?
Whew. To be honest, if money was no object, I would go back to my theatre roots and do a Greek play, The Trojan Women, Medea or Elektra. But as relevant as those plays are, they would play to the theatre mice and Caroline Smart.
So I guess, if money were really no object, Greg and I would stage our long-dreamed-of Jerry Herman trilogy, using the same cast of actors: Hello Dolly, Mame and La Cage Aux Folles.
Wouldn’t that be fun? Sponsors, anyone?