By BRUCE DENNILL
The Oakfields College Faculty of Dance and Musical Theatre‘s annual production for 2018 is the Tony Award-winning musical A Chorus Line, running at the Joburg Fringe Theatre from 9 – 19 August.
Book tickets at joburgtheatre.com.
When choosing a production for students (as teachers) what considerations are taken into account in terms of themes? Professional performers will obviously be expected to do whatever it says in the script, but is the line in a slightly different place for students?
Jackie Rens (Head of Faculty): I wouldn’t say ‘the line is different’. Perhaps the rehearsal process might be somewhat more supportive but students are also expected to ‘do whatever it says in the script’. As a tertiary institution preparing students for the real world, the Oakfields College Faculty of Dance and Musical Theatre expects no more or no less from the students than what would generally be expected within the professional entertainment industry. It is important that students learn to respect the material and commit to remaining true to the vision of the creators and director. Learning to serve the production through their performance is an integral part of the training process, especially when it requires them to expand their comfort zones in terms of tackling certain themes and contentious subject matter.
That being said, while we are preparing our students for the professional industry we are fully cognisant of the fact that they are still in the learning process and thus put great emphasis on creating a fully supportive and nurturing environment in which they can work on expanding their own boundaries. A Chorus Line, for example, touches on themes such as sexual orientation, domestic conflict and physical insecurities –which require the performers to ‘dig deep’ and come head to head with some of their own shadows and uncertainties at times. This daunting process however is gently guided by the creative team with sensitivity and compassion, enabling the students to best serve the material.
What, in this context, are the duties of the professionals involved – the Oakfields staff, director Timothy Le Roux and others?
Jackie Rens: Oakfields College prides itself in employing the expertise of experienced and highly acclaimed industry professionals, not only as lecturers and workshop facilitators, but also to work with students on productions. This ensures that the students benefit from the hands-on experience and skills-sharing process with these practising professionals who are familiar with the current trends, demands and expectations of the performing arts industry. Over and above the responsibility of creating the production, these professionals are charged with the responsibility of nurturing and developing the talent throughout the production process as well as setting an example of true professionalism. Working with these creatives also assists the students with establishing professional and valuable industry connections while still studying.
A Chorus Line reveals – to inexperienced performers as well as to audiences – some of the real challenges of professional theatre life. How has the cast received that story? Has it given them some sort of sense of what they’re getting into in the long term?
Timothy Le Roux (Director): The young performers identified wholeheartedly with the subject and characters of A Chorus Line. There is also a high level of discipline surrounding the staging and structures of the show, and we believe it highlighted for the students just what it takes to become a true triple threat.
Jaco van Rensburg (Assistant Director): It does not get closer to home than A Chorus Line for musical theatre students anywhere in the world! The cast has most certainly realised that booking a job is not an easy task – you have to get a callback first! And before you get a callback, you have to make an impression on the creative team. And often your performance is only one part of your auditions. Directors and choreographers are seeking people with personalities, people with heart, people who are easy to work with and, probably most importantly, people who are passionate!
As such, how much of an educational (as opposed to “merely” practical) role does the annual production play for students?
Jackie Rens: The greatest priority of our annual productions is the educational experience of the students. While the shows are also valuable marketing tools that showcase the high level of training our students receive, our priority remains the learning experience of the students throughout the production process. For this reason there is much deliberation each year when deciding what production to mount. One of the main considerations is whether the production will provide the opportunity for students to be challenged beyond their usual classes and comfort zones and how the production will provide an opportunity for them to expand their skill sets.
Our aim is to assist with the development of diverse, multi-skilled performers. It is a proven fact that graduates, who are competent in various performing arts disciplines increase their job opportunities and employment prospects in the entertainment industry. A Chorus Line is a musical in which the singing, dancing and acting bear equal weighting and relies heavily on the full and complete integration of the various performing arts disciplines which is, of course, the ultimate requirement of a triple threat performer.
Strict discipline and work ethic is the backbone of our students’ ultimate success and development as a performer and we impress on them that attitude and commitment is the difference between landing a job and building a career. We do tend to set the bar quite high, with the belief that students will live up or down to one’s expectations depending on where those expectations are set. Working with a professional production and creative team sets a high level of expectation which the students inevitably live up to, even superseding their own perceived limitations. This also teaches students how to adjust and cope in high pressure situations which is a necessary requirement when working in the entertainment industry.
Students are also expected to be involved in all aspects of the production process which provides valuable experience in stage management, lighting, sound, costumes, marketing, event management and so on. This ensures that students understand, respect and appreciate all the various elements that go into theatre-making, enabling them to enter the work force and gain access to employment or self-employment opportunities in areas beyond just performance.
Music by Hamlisch; choreography by Bennett – A Chorus Line offers performers the work of some of the best in the business, along with associated challenges. Are there any concessions to experience in this production, or is the cast being thrown in and asked to swim – with a smile?
Jackie Rens: The job of any creative team is to remain true to the overall vision on the piece. That being said, in an educational environment, one also has to cleverly work with what is available, even if that means some small adaptations! This production most certainly draws on and is inspired by the original Michael Bennett production, but features a new staging and choreography by Timothy le Roux in the style of Mr Bennett, bringing the show into the present.
Jaco van Rensburg: Students have been challenged to grow and push themselves a little further than their comfort zones (as the main drive behind the production is educational) and they most certainly rose to the challenge in this gorgeous production.
This production – like a professional show – must entertain its audience; must (ideally) sell tickets; and must generate good word of mouth, in addition to providing a platform on which students can gain experience. What are your other goals for it?
Jackie Rens: Yes! All of the above. While the main priority is to engage student performers in practical learning processes, incorporating all aspects of theatre and production, an additional aim is not only to help cultivate and hone the skills of the students but also to assist them with launching their careers by providing a platform for them to showcase their skills and talents. We have firmly established a reputation for providing performing arts training of the highest level and thorough industry preparation. This has secured the support and interest from various industry professionals, who consistently attend our annual productions to scout new performers, thus increasing their exposure to various agents, producers, directors, choreographers and industry role-players and thereby improving their chances of employment.
Furthermore, through our productions we hope to attract the interest of potential bursars/sponsors. Oakfields College and the Anthony Farmer Trust have recently joined forces to establish a scholarship fund to assist financially needy and deserving students with their tuition fees. Being a small, private institution, Oakfields College receives no subsidy and it is our greatest wish to ensure that the enormous amount of mind-blowing talent in South Africa does not go untapped due to the financial restraints of students. Through the Anthony Farmer/Oakfields College Trust, it is our mission to ensure that passionate young performers have equal opportunity to achieve their dreams regardless of race, gender or economic positioning.
It is common knowledge that bursaries within the performing arts are extremely limited in South Africa but the launch of the Trust now makes it possible for stakeholders in the entertainment industry to invest in the development of young performers by affording them the opportunity to pursue formal, accredited, tertiary training of the highest standard. Sponsors will also receive a certificate and the necessary paperwork for a tax rebate on any donations made to the trust.
It’s an incredible opportunity for the cast and creatives, but also for self-declared theatre lovers of any kind – how can that be communicated, over and above the “next generation” narrative (which can sometimes be slightly condescending)?
Jackie Rens: We have established a solid reputation for setting the barre when it comes to quality productions and these annual productions have become a highlight for theatregoers and lovers of musical theatre and dance. Unfortunately, though, there is a lot of work to be done to break the stigma associated with ‘student’ productions being amateurish and sub-standard. To rectify this misconception, we take the greatest pride in ensuring that our student productions receive the same care and attention as any professional production.
All our shows are mounted at legitimate, fully-equipped theatre centres. Not only do we employ the expertise of award-winning directors, choreographers and musical directors to work with the students, we also ensure that the production quality is of an exceptional standard by collaborating with some of the finest technicians, designers and technical teams in the country.
Over the years, Oakfields College and Splitbeam (a division of Gearhouse) have solidified a highly valued relationship. While this company has worked on most of SA’s biggest theatre productions both locally and internationally (Evita, Annie, Singin’ In The Rain, Sound Of Music, Sister Act and others), they have also provided Oakfields College with service and technical support for our productions. Furthermore, while the technique and skills of the student performers are still being refined and honed, the level of raw talent and irrepressible passion could rival that of many professional performers.
In a production review of last year’s musical Edges, theatre critic Pinto Ferreira referred to the show as ‘a most professional presentation’ in the Pretoria News.
By consistently producing enjoyable, quality theatre experiences for audiences, we are steadily expanding our patron support beyond that of merely friends and family and appealing to theatre lovers at large through fresh, cutting-edge, quality productions. We have full faith that this year’s production of A Chorus Line will achieve exactly that!
For further details regarding the auditions for the Oakfields College Faculty of Dance and Musical Theatre 2019 intake, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.