By BRUCE DENNILL
Jaco van Rensburg is the Executive Producer with theatre production company VR Theatrical, and is one of the driving forces behind a number of exciting productions. And his shows no signs of lessening his output…
VR Theatrical is enjoying a wonderful patch at the moment, with Here’s To You and Aspoestertjie enjoying successful recent runs and The Dead Tinder Society getting great reviews at the moment. Momentum is well and truly rolling after a huge amount of work and a number of successful productions What’s involved – in a daily, monthly or annual sense – on keeping all these pots on the boil?
I saw my first theatre production in the early Eighties at the then Nico Malan Arena, (now Artscape Theatre), before I went to school. I must have been about five years old. My dad took me, probably on my mom’s insistence. The production was called Why Strilitzias Cannot Fly – a South African myth centred around how a bird was turned into our national flower. My life was changed after that show. Even at age five, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this magical space where anything was possible. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to have been able to maintain strong links with the theatre, despite being geographically challenged, growing up in the Namakwaland on the West Coast. I started out as a dancer, joined Debbie Turner [now CEO of Cape Town City Ballet] and the Cape (Youth) Dance Company, studied Musical Theatre at Pretoria Technikon, now Tshwane University of Technology, in its golden age and worked as musical theatre actor, dancer and singer in various productions locally and internationally for 15 years with some of the best creative talents around. I worked as dance captain on various productions before moving into providing choreography for shows. I soon acted as resident director and slowly but surely assimilated various skills, both on- and offstage, from experts. I also had the opportunity of working for different theatrical managements and got to understand how each organisation functioned. In 2016 I decided to make the shift from performer to producer and I absolutely love the ridiculousness of it all.
Now, to answer your question: VR Theatrical is a small two-man operation with big aspirations. Richard Branson once said: “If an amazing opportunity comes up, say yes immediately and then figure out how to make it happen!” We opened our doors in 2016 with two productions that year – it was all our cash flow would allow, being completely self-funded. In 2017, we doubled our output and presented four productions at various venues in Johannesburg and Cape Town. This year, we will be presenting eight productions in total.
Running a theatrical production house in South Africa is a unique endeavor. No two productions are the same and each production presents its own requirements and challenges. It is not a profession that you can study or read a book about. You only learn about making theatre by making theatre! We are constantly facing new challenges and are learning and problem-solving on an hourly basis – from finding cost-effective ways to transport big sets and masses of costumes – and where to store it all – to hiring the right sound and lighting equipment for each project. Quick punt – thank you Splitbeam for always helping us! The biggest lesson we have learned is that there is no such thing as a small show. We pour the same amount of love and care and energy into every production.
It takes us about a year of planning to realise a production from the initial idea to having it on stage. We are currently planning our productions up to September 2020. This means that we are always juggling various productions in different phases of development. We like to balance existing known musicals and plays with original South African content. We are constantly negotiating performance rights for plays and musicals, dealing with artists’ agencies to let them know what kind of actors we require, contracting directors, choreographers, musical directors, lighting-, sound-, wardrobe-, wig- and scenic designers, holding auditions and call-backs, negotiating salaries, contracting roleplayers, giving input to authors and designers, dealing with SARS, VAT and tax, hiring theatres and constantly coming up with new marketing campaigns and ideas to let people know about our shows.
It’s brilliant – and so important – to see a new generation of producers coming through. There must be expectations – from audiences and theatres – regarding the way things have been done to date by long-established names. How has that affected the way you plan and the projects you choose?
My business partner Wessel Odendaal and I make all decisions regarding what we want to produce together. If either party is not convinced that we should tackle a specific project for whatever reason, we don’t do it. We only produce projects that we believe in and would have liked to see. Having both worked in theatre for 15 years, we have a good understanding of what artists and creative teams need in order to create good work. At VRT, we strive to make the creative process as easy and fun as possible within a focused framework. We have seen how different managements approach the process and deal with curve balls and have learned a lot from them. We don’t try to reinvent the wheel, but when we feel the need to shake things up, we do. When making difficult decisions, we always ask ourselves what would be in the best interest of the production as a whole. When you make it about the work it simplifies the decision-making process.
Are there things you’d like to do significantly differently? For instance, is it necessary to continuously update funding models?
The biggest change we would like to be a part of is creating theatre that is relevant to a digital generation. We want to create strong digital campaigns with catchy key art in order to promote live theatre. Too often, theatre is made to look ‘cheap’ or ‘old fashioned’. If we want to attract bigger and younger audiences we need to spend more time and effort on cracking the marketing nut.
Audience development is something that every venue and every production company should invest in and pursue much more aggressively than what we are at the moment. If we don’t grow new audiences and develop young writers, directors, designers and technicians, the theatre will become stale and unsustainable. Theatre has to be relevant, funky and fresh, have production and entertainment value, and always tell good stories.
We are independent commercial theatre producers, meaning that we don’t rely on funding of any kind in order to produce our productions. Each project has to be commercially viable and sustainable. Too often, artists and theatre-makers expect money to be granted to them in order to make their work. In a South African context, this is wishful thinking. We believe strongly that you should back your own work. You can’t sit on your behind and wait for someone to offer you the financial support required for your dream project. You need to go out there and figure out a way to finance your dreams. Invest in yourself. We took out a massive loan at great risk to get started. When you are using your own money to fund your productions, it keeps you accountable for the decisions that you make creatively and in terms of promoting your production.
We also try to expose as many people as possible to the variety of career options in the theatre. The theatre does not only require people on stage as performers, but vast quantities of highly-skilled technicians, designers, directors, choreographers, administrators, marketing teams and many more behind the scenes. If you want to be involved in theatre, call us – we’ll put you to work before you can say “Supercalifragilistic…”!
VRT also has a focus on children’s theatre. Where does that fit into your greater vision, and how important is it for developing a love of theatre and, hopefully, future audiences?
Absolutely! While children’s theatre is not our only focus, we consider it a vital part of the theatrical ecosystem. If I think of how my entire world changed when I saw my first production, I wonder how many more children there are out there who will have that same experience. If we don’t create a platform for young audiences to experience the magic of live theatre, they will not grow up to become grown-up audience members. And that world will be a poorer place.
The theatre brings people together. It also possesses a superpower to let audiences peek inside the lives of other people. People who think differently than us. And it gives us a window into their situations, their struggles and their triumphs. It facilitates empathy and understanding – something that is too often lacking in society. Theatre makes us listen, really listen to what is being said. Oh – and it also entertains!
New, original South African scripts are so important. How did Ashleigh Harvey’s script for new play The Dead Tinder Society get to you?
We actually commissioned the piece. We knew that we wanted to produce an original homegrown script about dating in the online era. Ashleigh worked with us on Avenue Q and we struck up a conversation about her wanting to write for the stage. A couple of coffees later, Wessel and I asked her to create an original script for us. We gave her the title (one I stole from a friend of mine and that I thought would make a good title for a play) and Ashleigh did the rest! Incidentally both actors, Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Mpho Osei-Tutu, plus director Lesedi Job and Ashleigh Harvey who wrote the play, studied drama at Wits – so The Dead Tinder Society is somewhat of a Wits reunion!
Developing new plays as repertoire – to tour and for festivals, for instance: how does that work; and how much of a focus is that relative to making a big splash for openings or particularly big shows?
We have never actually produced anything at a festival. Generally our productions require intense technical periods in order to get the lighting and sound and other technical elements just right. Festivals don’t generally allow for extensive tech sessions unless you’re on the main festival in an equipped venue. We are tailoring The Dead Tinder Society for Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Studio Theatre, after which we hope to tour and get it seen all around the country next year. The text is very strong and the production does not rely on any technical tricks, which makes it the ideal production to take on tour to festivals. This will be a first for us. See? You never stop learning in this biz!
I love the fact that The Dead Tinder Society connects with people of a new generation. It is a current and universal theme. We all want to find that special someone and in the digital age, Tinder seems to be the go-to tool for meeting new people. The Dead Tinder Society is our first commissioned play and we loved the process of creating it alongside the author, director, cast and designers.
We don’t have any tours locked in as of yet, but would love to stage a second incarnation of the piece and then take it around the country next year.
Lesedi, Sharon and Mpho are such a great team. What did you like about each of them, and is there a different thought process involved when originating new roles rather than interpreting something that has been done many times?
The team behind The Dead Tinder Society is like a family. Everyone contributed something and we are very happy that the whole turned out greater than the sum of its parts. I think getting the right people involved in a specific production is 70% of the success of every show. You can have wonderful talent, but if the cast and director and designer and tech team are not on the same page, or if any of their egos or opinions are more important than the production as a whole, you get an average production.
We generally don’t interfere with the creative teams of any production until the final week of rehearsals during which we’ll flag things that we think could potentially become issues. We trust our creative teams and try to give them as much creative freedom as we can. It is very important for us to contract people who like each other, will have each other’s backs, who care for each other – and the work – and are team-players. Making theatre is hard enough, and making new theatre even more so, so put your ego in a brown-paper bag, bury it in the backyard and then come play with us and lets make pretty theatre and tell amazing stories together!