Thursday, December 28, 2017

AN ACTING ELECTRICIAN


Building a theatre, or rather three theatres, out of an old fruit and vegetable market, that was obviously not designed for theatrical productions, is a challenging task.

I was involved in such a venture way back in the nineteen seventies.

I'd been a resident in the Republic of South Africa for a few years when I found myself in the employ of "The Company".

It comprised of a manager/founder an artistic director and about 9 renegade actors, who'd turned their backs on the apartheid run State theatre, where they'd had good salaried jobs, and decided to join a Mr Mannie Mamin,
 and create a fully racial theatrical company that would play to mixed audiences.

This was a very brave move and they knew they would be always under the watchful eye of the state security system.

At the time BOSS, the bureau of state security, was in full swing, mounting excursions into neighboring states to kill dissenters who who'd fled, imprison journalists who wrote against the apartheid regime, and tracking down young white males who had refused to join the mandatory 2-year army service.

I was asked by Mr Manim if I would meet the artist director of their group, a Mr Barney Simon. Of course, I said yes, and a meeting was arranged for the coming Monday morning.
In intervening three days I was given a copy of a play called "Fortune and men's Eyes". I was to read it but not told as to which part Barney wanted me to play.

"Fortune and Men's Eyes" is about 4 imprisoned juvenile inmates and the set is their 4-bunked cell. There is a 5th member of the cast, their warder.

I was immediately in love with the play and when I met Barney on Monday I agreed to play the young transvestite, Queenie.

Two reasons, my mother's Christian name was Queenie, and I'd never played a transvestite before.


The production was a huge box office success and I was immediately invited to join the Company and play Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelth Night. This was also both a critical and box office success.

Both these productions were in venues that the Company had to rent as they did not have a permanent base.

That was to change when the chairman of Anglo Amercian mining house took an interest in the future of the group.

The old vegetable market at the east end of Juta street in central Johannesburg was to be demolished or put up for tender for conversion into another use.
Mr Manim and Barney Simon with their new-found friend at Anglo American immediately put a proposition to the city council.

I have no idea what political or financial strings were pulled, but what I did know was that the 12 or so young actors suddenly became carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, painters, and electricians. We accomplished these deeds at the same time as being "Actors!"

Several of the group went into rehearsal for Chekhov's play the Seagull, which was to open in the newly created "Upstairs at the Market" theatre, later to be re-named “The Barney Simon” after his death.

But the first ever performance in the old fruit &veg market was a fund raiser.

I was asked if I'd join Barney and legendary South African actress Janet Suzman in this event called "Love and Repentance". This performance was to be held amongst the rubble and cement mixers of the "To-be-Built" new theatre.

I of course accepted the offer and along with actor Michael McCabe, musician, folk singer Keith Blundell, and Janet Suzman, we did the first ever performance in the to-be-built Market Theatre!!



It was performed around a cement mixer over which a lectern was assembled. Keith was permanently ensconced on a bar stool, with a microphone for his voice and guitar. Janet was on-stage, a 4-meter square raised rostrum, all the time and Micheal and I, in turn performed excerpts from both Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.






These duologues were joined together by Keith's dexterous plucking finger and soulful voice as he sang some of Shakespeare's songs and some of his own.

Within a week of our performance a quarter of a million Rand was raised, and the company began rehearsals for its first production to be mounted in the newly built theatre, " Upstairs at the Market".

Although the major construction was done by hired contractors the more menial tasks were tackled by us young eager thespians.

Names that I can drag from my ageing grey matter are, Vanessa Cooke, Alleta Bezuitenhout, Danny Keogh, Sue Keil, David & Di Eppel, Peter Piccolo, Michelle Maxwell, Janice Honeyman, Leone Hofmeyr, Lesley Nott and Jacquie Singer.

Refurbishing of two converted rooms into dressing rooms for the actors working in The Upstairs Theatre, was left totally in our hands, plus redecorating an area adjacent to the foyer that was to become an art gallery.

We had to do this in three weeks before the opening of Chekhov's "The Seagull" directed by Barney.

While the girls sat precariously high on scaffolding painting walls and ceilings, Danny, David, Peter and I rigged up the theatre's lighting bars and wired the dressing rooms so that every actor would have his own private make-up station.

This last action was left to me as my grandfather had been an electrician and had me help him rewire houses when I was eight years old.

We worked sixteen-hour days, those who were in rehearsal for The Seagull, were excused evening sessions.

I worked non-stop one Saturday and Sunday until I had eight stations in each of the two dressing rooms rigged with eight 60-watt globes, each with their own switch.

The opening night of The Seagull was a resounding and critical success. Four months later Marat Sade again directed by Barney opened in the main theatre. It was a momentous occasion and ran for six weeks to full houses and standing ovations.

I was in that production, in a straight-jacket and tied to a wooden bench, portraying Jacques de Roux, a paranoid serial killer. It remains one of my most enjoyable theatrical experiences.


From 1976 till the late eighties I am told that I have been in almost two hundred productions in all three of the venues at the Market Theatre.

Some of these I can't even remember as they were late-night or "Mid-night" performances.

These shows were either banned plays or plays written by people who ordinarily did not allow their works to be mounted in South Africa's apartheid state.

However, with Janet Suzman's help, Mannie & Barney managed to get permission from the playwrights.

One such production in what was called The Market Theatre Cafe, was of Stephen Berkoff's play "East" in which Marcel van Heerden and I had the first male to male French kiss on a South African stage. Lesley Knot and David Eppel, anther two painting and decorating actors, were also in the production again directed by one of my favorite directors, Mr Barney Simon.

We were scheduled to have three performances over a weekend but the queue for the tickets stretched around the newly converted building.

On the final night of the three-night performances we had people watching through small cottage pane windows that backed onto an old train loading platform that was used for deliveries to the old market.

So, it was decided to run for another two weekends until a visit from BOSS closed us down.

Although I and all the productions I was involved in over twenty-five years received great applause and critical reviews, to this day NO-ONE has ever thanked me for wiring the dressing rooms Upstairs!

2 comments:

Adrian Galley said...

Sitting at those dressing-room mirrors I often found myself pondering, "From whence this radiant luminosity that bathes my visage in such honeyed hues?" At last, I know who to thank!

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, Ron!

I have a clear memory of you practicing your lines in Frederick Street (summer 1969 around the time of the first moon landing) while I muddled and stumbled along, trying to read the other parts in my thick teuchter accent, and all the time amazed at how you managed to remember so much dialog in such a short time, and then articulate it in such a well-modulated, orotund RADA voice.

Best wishes from Trumpistan,

Angus of Frederick Street