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Kurt Egelhof: ‘I had to become a hard-arse to make it in this neck of the woods’

Kurt Egelhof. Photo: Ference Isaacs
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In 2014, Kurt Egelhof spotted a piece of graffiti written on a toilet wall at the Grahamstown Settlers National Monument building during the South African town’s National Arts Festival. It spelt out, in poorly constructed but incisive English: “Fuck festival is for rich.”

It proved something of a moment for Egelhof: “The fact that it was picked up by the local press, with much public discourse for and against this unofficial piece of festival public ‘art’, made me realise that the division along fault lines that plagues our creative sector is directly aligned to the class struggle that South Africa has denied post-Second World War to the present day.”

What may seem an OTT political reaction to us in the UK comes naturally to South Africa’s creative classes. And South African actor, writer, director and producer Egelhof has a lot more to say about how the country’s theatrical output is tied to its social and political fortunes.

“Given that apartheid was/is officially supposed to have been vanquished in 1994, nothing has changed in respect of the class structures that continue to restrict and even oppress creativity, save for the chanting of a handful of carefully chosen black middle and upper-class buffer icons,” he says. “It is assumed as a given, that ‘festival (art) is for rich’ and ‘suffering is for poor’.”

Egelhof was born the son of a working-class dad and a union secretary/teacher mum – “I’m convinced we were ‘poor middle class’.” He was also born a person of colour who, instead of chasing his dream of becoming a lawyer, fell into a BA majoring in speech and drama at the University of Natal in his hometown Durban.

“I proceeded to scratch out a career in 1981 at the height of apartheid South Africa, a time when people of colour were being asked to become artisans and emigrate to Australia to sell their labour in order to have a half-decent life. I had to become a bit of a hard-arse if I was to succeed in any way as a professional actor in this neck of the woods.

Kurt Egelhof with staff and trainees representing the disciplines taught at Cape Town’s Applauz Arts Theatre Studio – acting, dance, singing and film.

“All the ropes I learned in the industry came largely from an actor community made up of successful role models who were mostly white while being offered work that was mostly black. The roles of servitude, poorly written and seriously prejudiced, were mostly what was available, while having middle-class aspirations and a dark skin meant I was something of an anomaly from the start, and it shut more doors than it opened for me. Today, though, I can safely say that there is no other person of colour in South Africa who can boast the two credentials of a degree in drama and a 36-year unbroken career in theatre, TV and film.”

No surprise then to find he’s active on the industry organisational sector. Aside from representing South Africa’s International Theatre Institute centre since 2014, Egelhof is also national coordinator for the Performing Arts Network of South Africa.

“PANSA came into being after the ‘state-funded performing arts councils’ [Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal, Natal Performing Arts Council, the Cape Performing Arts Board and the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State] all collapsed due to ineptitude by the heirs of cultural institutions in the new South Africa,” says Egelhof. “Their response was to fire all their contracted actors and shut down the concept of a state-contracted, full-time theatre company.

“In a flash, about 300 or so actors were out of work and in the market competing with about 3,000 more for jobs. So a mass meeting was organised in 2000, attended by some 1,500 actors – out of which came the commitment to build a civilian organisation that represented actor interests to the state and others in the sector. But historically South Africa has never had a successful actor union of any substantial capacity. Still doesn’t.”

The aim of the new organisation was to address advocacy issues, opportunities and job creation through projects. In the beginning there was some success in this direction, but, with grim inevitability, the organisation suffered splintering, non-subscription and eventual collapse into a “mish-mash of bad management and an almost invisible profile”.

Enter Egelhof, in 2013. “It’s been a hard slog, and to date I have raised substantial funding for admin and projects, but the model is wrong: as soon as the funding dries up, so does the passion for participation. I’m not sure how much longer PANSA can survive in a climate of state capture – even Johannesburg’s Market Theatre has become an agent of the Department of Arts and Culture, as are those state venues still functioning as receiving houses. Additionally, the first world now deems South Africa to be a first-world economy, LOL, and so donor funding has rapidly dried up.”


Q&A: Kurt Egelhof

What was your first non-theatre job?  Packing groceries at the first supermarket in my town on weekends and after school at age 13.

What was your first professional theatre job?  Playing Man Friday in 1981 in a play of the same name written by Adrian Mitchell.

What’s your next job? I’m trying to complete the development of a one-man-musical about a mixed-race couple in the 1980s when that was illegal in apartheid South Africa. I’ve been wrestling with it for five years now.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?  “What do you hope to achieve with this acting shit?” I’m still not sure. Maybe I would have thought about it earlier and made a more informed decision. 

Who or what was your biggest influence?  John Cleese and the late South African actor Bill Flynn [original member of Cape Town theatre the Space]. And generally edgy work that upsets the apple cart.

If you hadn’t gone into theatre, what would you have done?  Probably crime – or criminal defence. There was a time when I thought lawyers were the most noble people on earth. I even registered for one year of introductory legal studies at varsity.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?  Not a single one. Sorry. I show up, I warm up, and I give it all up, till the curtain call. End of story. 

As an artistic response, Egelhof set out in 2007 to create an autobiographical dramatic narrative. His solo play For Generations views South Africa through Egelhof’s own past, present and future. The story starts around the build-up to the Second World War, when his first-generation, anglicised, German South African grandfather faced the onset of the Great Depression as a jazz musician on the south-east coast in an area settled by his own father and grandfather at the turn of the 19th century. It then moves generation by generation to the present day.

“What For Generations reflects in contemporary South Africa is the shrouded history of systemic degradation of a populace trying to survive the growth of an exploitative economy – the struggle for survival from generation to generation, regardless of race or class – and as such invites its audience to acknowledge the truth of their own personal histories and the public lies that got built into their personal experiences along the way. And vice versa. So in part, the play offers its audience the opportunity to right those personal and public wrongs and start again, free of the baggage of apartheid history and the family history we all fight so hard to uphold, right or wrong. A purging, so to speak.”

The production came to life at the National Arts Festival in 2008. The response was overwhelming as audiences warmed to the confessional aspect, encouraging Egelhof to tour the play. Having lost his job as head of the creative department at TV production company Endemol SA, he sold his prized 1976 Valiant Barracuda car to pay the bills. The gamble paid off.

Egelhof performing For Generations.

“I had no choice really. For Generations represented my departure from the matrix of auditions and the begging-bowl approach to a career. The big break came in 2013 when it was commissioned by two local banks to participate in their cultural diversity staff training programmes. Suddenly I was performing the piece twice a month, then twice a week, then four times a week. Outside of South Africa, I was able to travel to Zimbabwe, the UK and Germany, which provided more fuel for the fire to keep the dream of creative and economic independence alive.”

A solo play may not raise many eyebrows in the UK, but in South Africa the torpor is such that there exists little independent cultural analysis and content generation able to trigger or sustain a wave of meaningful new work coming out of the country. This explains the piles of tourist-friendly content that keeps the mill grinding. “But it is grinding,” Egelhof states bluntly, “to an eventual halt. And I’m not sure what the vacuum will be filled with. Chaos, I think.”

Since there is no assisted middle ground between South Africa’s state monoliths and the commercial machines, where propaganda and profits respectively are the priority, emerging talent and vision have basically nowhere to go. Egelhof hopes that independent creative studios such as Applauz Arts Theatre Studio, which he has just started up in Cape Town, are the answer to that national vacuum in between.

Egelhof simply took the plunge and rented an empty space with his own money. And it didn’t stop there. “I built the auditorium rake and the control box with my own hands. I bought the lights and the PA system with my own money. It’s a space that works. I have a private and independently financed venue and a play and a growing audience. How many artists do you know who can say that? In South Africa, none.”

Applauz Arts Theatre Studio is adaptable for multi-purpose usage – as a 40-seater the only limit is that of size – designed to create platforms for the development, rehearsal and performance of new and independent work. In September, Egelhof will create a new international monodrama festival at the Artscape Theatre Centre, also in Cape Town. The festival will link Applauz and Artscape by holding masterclasses and seminars at Applauz, and also offer studio space to train practitioners of local monodrama, still in its infancy, in preparation for the festival itself.

“To date, the conservative approach in South Africa has gotten independent operators absolutely nowhere. We have to be bold and take a leap of faith, since we are already dying from not trying. If you build it, they might come. But if you don’t, they definitely won’t. That’s what makes me an artist and not a banker.

“So it’s yes to partners, yes to funders, yes to performers. And distance is no obstacle for all you in the rest of the world to come to South Africa, it’s a challenge. Mobility funding becomes the first priority. And also the shape of the product, which is why solo theatre is of such interest at the moment. The fact that the genre travels lightly is a good thing. And with the right content, we can make it travel deeply, too.”

CV: Kurt Egelhof

Born: 1959, Durban, South Africa
Training: BA speech and drama 1980, University of Natal
Career highlights: 1981-1988: Actor in the following productions: Man Friday (1981), Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1981); The Island (1983); Black Dog/Inj’emnyama (1984); The Native Who Caused All The Trouble (1986); Just Like Home (1988)
1990-2006: independent TV drama production, including series This Life (Fremantle Media) and Generations (Morula Pictures)
1997-2002: Endemol SA, becoming head of the creative department and manager of programme development
2008-present: For Generations (author)
2012-present: national chair then national coordinator, PANSA
2014: Brothers in Blood, Just Business (as actor)
2014-15: national chair of Arterial Network South Africa
2014-present: head of the International Theatre Institute’s South Africa centre
2015: joint steering committee (arts and culture), Culture, Art, Tourism, Hospitality, and Sport Sector Education and Training Authority (CATHSSETA)
2016: founds Applauz Arts Theatre Studio, Cape Town
Agent: Contact directly: kurtegelhof@gmail.com
Applauz Facebook: Applauz-Theatre-Club