New theatre opens its doors in Cape Town

Posted: October 26, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
Tags: , ,
New Cape Town theatre opens its doors.
First published in the Sunday Independent, 21 October ‘09
By Astrid Stark

Cape Town’s theatre industry appears to be thriving despite the economic downturn.  The New Africa Theatre Association NATA, in partnership with the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden, has lifted the curtains on The New Africa Theatre in Sybrand Park with award-winning Ian Bruce’s new play, Transit.

Ian Bruce, who is also the Managing Director of NATA, has won among others, the Fleur du Cap award for his most recent work, Groundswell, which has travelled to New York and Stockholm.  Bruce, a keen anti-apartheid campaigner, has been with NATA since 1998.  Here he works with marginalised communities and, together with his wife, he has written several educational and industrial theatre pieces.

The New Africa Theatre is situated along the Klipfontein corridor which borders Athlone and Rondebosch. This makes the venue accessible to Cape Town audiences from the flats’ side as well as Southern Suburb audiences. Bruce explains the thinking behind the theatre’s location. “We have great potential to reach audiences from both sides of the apartheid created dividing line,” says Bruce. “We need this in Cape Town as theatres closer to the central business district are still inaccessible to most Capetonians.  Attracting new audiences to the city theatres, no matter what effort you make, is always restricted by distances, transport and the cost of tickets. We have to still find out how successful we will be, but we believe we are in a much better position to reach marginalised audiences.” Bruce says their vision is to be able to offer good shows while keeping the costs down.

The New Africa Theatre, which used to be a supermarket, is an 80-seater box theatre which Bruce says has the potential to grow a lot bigger. “We actually have architect’s plans to renovate and re-appoint the whole building so that both the academy and the theatre can expand,” says Bruce.  

Sybrand Park is a quiet, little known, suburb with a culturally diverse middle class population which is starting to ignite the imagination of home-buyers and small businesses. “Transit is set in a small space although the story has vast resonances across two continents,” he explains, “I think our little box theatre is like that.  It’s a small space, in a historically resonant area, where we expect to tell many and far-reaching stories.”

Clare Stopford directs Transit which tells the tale of an ill-fated flight from Cape Town to Stockholm.  The plane is detoured by a storm and is forced to make an unscheduled stop in a North African country; which has been destabilised by rebels.  An assortment of Europeans and Africans are forced to wait in the claustrophobic transit area of a military airport. The passengers engage with each other in opportunistic, manipulative, and even physical ways that has sweeping consequences. “My script accommodates a descriptive clash of African and European aspirations and anxieties,” says Bruce, “But it also becomes, more importantly for our times, a cross-continental drama of human need, resilience and possibility.” 

NEW AFRICA THEATRE - TRANSIT Peshang Rad (Sweden) & music maker Ladji Kánte - photo Andrew Brown

For Bruce, writing about the relationship between two continents was difficult, “I didn’t really get the concept right until we had the mixed cast together,” he says, “What we did have was the situation, the metaphor, a kind of suspension somewhere that was neither Europe nor Africa. This became an airport, and the airport became smaller and smaller until it was an all but abandoned military aerodrome in a North African country. That made it uncomfortable and intense enough to ensure that the characters could not avoid interfering with each other or revealing things about themselves.”Pernilla Luttropp of The Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden (Dramaten) is also the project leader of NATA. She will be collaborating with Bruce for three months before returning to Sweden. She says she’s enjoying working with the students at The New Africa Theatre. “Teaching them how they can contribute to the future of the new venue by doing outreach programmes,” says Luttropp.  “My vision for NATA is that it will be an institution where young people can start on a new journey in life that could end up in one of all the professions within and around the theatre industry. I hope they will be able to form a theatre company for the new venue and that students will get the possibility to learn all the different skills of theatre.”

True to Bruce’s script, the cast of Transit consists of a mixture of African and European actors.   The established and upcoming actors include Mbulelo Grootboom who graduated at New Africa Theatre in 1998, Bulelewa Sylvia Ntlantlu from Delft that graduated at NATA in 2008, and Melinda Kinnaman, Peshang Rad and Christina Samson from Sweden.   They are joined by a West African Griot, a travelling musician, Aboubacar Ladji Kánte.  Bruce says Kánte was discovered on Facebook by a group of local musicians who asked him to teach them more about the Djambe. “In Transit Kánte plays himself, a griot,” says Bruce, “Even though he says very little, his music is very much a part of the play’s narrative, and his character is central to at least one of the play’s plot lines.”

 Bruce is positive about Cape Town’s theatre industry, “It’s expanding, growing stronger.  New theatre companies are emerging, launching new work and the current theatre venues are booked up far in advance. The voices of playwrights and directors seem to me to be growing stronger, clearer; more resonant. This has to grow; there are so many stories and there is so much talent in this city. Every week I meet young people with ideas. There’s exciting work coming out of the universities.”
Transit runs until 7 November at The New Africa Theatre in Sybrand Park, Cape Town.

The End.

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