Standing still for money and a South African theatre dynasty

Wherever you go in Grahamstown on the corners of the streets are little township lads frozen still. A few years ago apparently it was gum boot dancing but last year they got a look at a decent statue artist and so this year they’ve found what costumes they can and they’re standing as still as they can manage.
My favourite was a dude who had borrowed a donkey and was sitting on him. The donkey was excellent. I was laughing too hard to take a picture but here is my second favourite. A karate scream.

Street_kid_theatre

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There’s a family in South African theatre called the Bucklands. There’s the mother, Janet, who runs U-Boum (a graduate, community combined company- more of these later); the son Daniel a director and actor fast making his name for exceptional physical performances; and the father, Andrew- head of acting at the Drama course at Rhodes University and a celebrated actor of 30 years.
Daniel and Andrew spent all of last year playing the story tellers for Cirque du Soleil in Los Angeles. So they play at that level. Which is pretty impressive wherever you come from.
Anyway I mention all this because last night I went to see Breed, the latest show from U-Boum.

The Story
Breed is the heart wrenching story of a white man whose daughter was murdered in township violence where she taught the violin to kids. He’s losing his marbles, still talking to his daughter, retreating into racism and the comfort of his vicious dog who is called Meat. A homeless mother and daughter have secretly moved in to his barn and he discovers, whilst catching them stealing his water, that the mother was a cleaner at the school his daughter taught at (the reveal being when the mother hums the piece of Bach his daughter used to teach her more talented kids). In the excitement of wanting his daughter to come and see this extraordinary piece of serendipity, the reality of her death reveals itself to him and destroyed by grief, he throws the mother out in to the yard. Forgetting he left the dog out there, Meat kills the mother before the man can shoot it. Leaving- in the most depressing of cycles- the daughter to beat the tied up dog to death with a stick. The story ends with the homeless daughter taking up residence with the man and learning the violin. But in such a way as to make it clear that this is not a resolution, just the start of another revolution.
In the end it reminded me of Bond’s Saved.

U-Boum is a company that takes graduates of Rhodes Uni, combines them with members of township programmes and experienced perfomers that then creates professional (and crucially paid) performance. Breed was an example of this process raising the bar and creating practical- and possible- opportunities for experience.

Breed is one of the very best pieces of theatre I have seen in quite some time. In the style of what is called here the Buckland’s unique ‘action theatre’- inherently physical but with a grounding in mime and character rather than dance (a little like Gecko I suppose in UK terms, with a bit of Frantic too, but then nothing like that really)- I can’t remember the last time I was so gripped by a story, genuinely desperate to find out what happens.
Andrew Buckland (the Dad of this South African Attenborough-esque clan) was the lead. It has been some time since I have seen a performance like it. An absolute master class in physical skill combined with making a character that is utterly on the wrong side of the argument not necessarily sympathetic but completely human.

I’ve been thinking alot about the fact that Andrew is a pretty big star, he’s known, he’s spent a year with the Circus in LA for goodness sake. And to see him in this show with the young performers around him- learning, practising and crucially holding their own- it made me think a great deal about the equivalent in the UK. It’s basically the likes of Adrian Lester doing a show with a youth company from Oldham- not for a gala night- but for a fortnight- and in a 215 seater venue. In Edinburgh. On the Fringe.
I’ve avoided on my travels making comparisons between the UK industry and elsewhere- it’s too easy to set up a cheap slap against marketing managers of rep houses or the like- but in this instance I sat at the end of the show, heart broken by the play and rather in awe of this extraordinary performer: not just for his performance but for his commitment to it all.

There’s a scheme here at the Festival called ArtReach where groups who have signed up (certain youth theatres, township programmes, qualifying schools) can get free tickets. The companies have to agree to participate too and being as we came here for the audience, Extra-Ordinary has signed up. It’s a bit like A Night Less Ordinary but without the need to spend time as referee between 19 year old students and box office supervisors.
So far Extra-Ordinary’s audience has been roughly 50% comped in on this scheme.
It’s working.
This isn’t lost revenue. These people were never going to find the £5 for a ticket. This is the argument that art changes lives in practice. It’s a pretty impressive ratio. It’s a pretty inspiring thing. And it’s a bunch of seats that were going to sit empty otherwise. And I’ve had my fill of those this year.

I was thinking about this because I just got the show report from Slung Low’s show Small Worlds which is over at the Liverpool Playhouse this week. A large pre-booked group didn’t show which for a piece like Small Worlds means that the gang performed to 3 people and shut up shop for the night. It isn’t anyone’s fault and these two things aren’t connected in reality. But in my head they are. Somehow. If I can work out how. In a productive manner.

There’s a lot of inspiring things around at the moment, the Bucklands are just what I was thinking about today. I’m off to see Daniel Buckland later in the week in a show called Wombtide. I first saw him 5 or 6 years ago at Edinburgh in a fringe first winning show directed by his dad called Fuse. It was immense. I have great hopes for Wombtide. I’m glad they came back from the circus.

Nelson_mandela_stadium

This is a picture of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium from tonight. This is another inspiring thing.

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One thought on “Standing still for money and a South African theatre dynasty

  1. Alan Lane

    Daniel- a cynical man might say that’s because in his experience more often than not we use such outreach projects to plump our audiences for previews and press nights for our own outward facing purposes. I am taking no moral high ground- I’ve made that decision as Slung Low plenty of times. But try getting comps for such groups on a Friday/Saturday night when the tickets are more expensive but the seats are still empty. It’s because we understand the value of seats much more than we do the worth.There’s no need to jump in front of the argument in this way Dan. Small Worlds is an excellent show. I know because I made it with some exceptional people. And I have absolute confidence in the team taking it out whilst I am away. Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse are an excellent organisation. I know because I am excited to make 8 new shows with them this Autumn.These discussions get nowhere if we are not confident about our abilities and honest about our failings. Or a different way- if we are not sure, and honest, about our worth. And our value.Happy sailing to Small Worlds and the whole team.

    Reply

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