Book Review: Theatre On The Bay – The First 25 Years by Suzaan Keyter and Evan Milton

August 6, 2014




The title of this celebration of a quarter of a century of Cape Town theatre provides an encouraging start – a statement of intent in an industry in which it’s impossible to guarantee success and very difficult to make a decent living.

That several people have, and entertained thousands of theatre fans in the process, is at the core of this attractive, glossy coffee table volume. It covers the development of Pieter Torien’s Theatre On The Bay in Camps Bay from the time the building, a cinema back in the 1940s, was renovated in 1988 to the hosting of a successful run of Sunset Boulevard in late 2013.

In that time, the venue hosted 300 shows across a range of genres and featuring a bewildering collective cast, and it is those productions and the personalities who created and starred in them that are at the centre of the narrative here.

The book is separated into five-year periods, with each section packed with news clippings, profiles of the major stars (local and international) and short examinations of trends and phenomena that occurred during those time periods, including the rise of the “bonsai musical” – a Pieter Torien specialty – and the need to be aware of and react to audience tastes, whether they be in the mood for something a little risqué or another farce in the same vein as the one that did good business the season before.

It’s inevitable that the articles collected here will highlight the glamour and the food times that come with being involved with a successful theatre. But there is plenty of perspective, too, and readers are made well aware of the challenges involved in remaining invested – financially, professionally and emotionally – in an enterprise with such small margins for error.

What shines through, though, and what makes this book more than just a thick, square-bound pamphlet, is the passion that has driven the acquisition and writing of new work and the return of audiences over the last two-and-a-half decades.

Pieter Torien is a man who values his privacy and readers won’t learn much more about him than is suggested in the blurbs in his show programmes, but the fact that the Theatre On The Bay exists at all is down to his deciding to follow through on a dream that most investment advisors would have told him was an awful idea.

That would still have been a wonderful thing if the theatre had been a short-lived but glorious blow-out, but the publishing of this book is an acknowledgement that that was not the case as well as a tribute to the sweat and tears (the actors may have bled occasionally; major producers leave that sort of thing to the staff) involved in curating a programme that’s lasted through parts of four different decades, surviving the vagaries of taste, economic fluctuations, municipal and in-house politics and Cape Town audiences’ tendency to wait until the last week of a run before booking a ticket for a show that’s been running for three months.

If you’re either a fan of theatre or involved in the business professionally in some way, try and get your hands on a copy of this book. Apart from the thrill of reliving some special times and shows and becoming acquainted – albeit vicariously – with some memorable personalities, it will provide a measure of comfort during a period in which the business model successfully utilised at the Theatre On The Bay is becoming ever more difficult to replicate elsewhere.

It’s an incredibly tough time to be in theatre in 2014 – at any level, from producers of Pieter Torien’s calibre to lighting assistants and from award-winning playwrights to arts journalists – but Theatre On The Bay: The First 25 Years – confirms that sustainability is not necessarily a pipe dream.

There’s a story in the book about a neighbour who was less than pleased with the arrival of the theatre trying to run Pieter down in the street, but looking back now, the impresario would likely choose to contend with such physical fervour than with the twin challenges – an ironic pairing – of over-stimulation (there are more options for entertainment in the digital age, and no ticket prices to pay) and apathy (popular culture favours the superficial).

It’s not only the residents of Cape Town who should be hoping that there will be second and third volumes of this book to come in future decades. As mentioned, the title of this commemorative effort bodes well for the future, but it’s going to take more than fighting words to keep theatre flourishing.