Cape Town’s dynamic Baxter Theatre Centre has brought a provocative programme of shows to the Edinburgh Fringe. Artistic director Lara Foot tells Nick Awde how the company is an ambassador for South African theatre, while tapping into universal subjects that resonate with audiences worldwide.
Fixed firmly now on the world map as a destination of choice for foreign theatre showcases, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has evolved into a platform that London can’t practically offer, or simply doesn’t have. This year’s festivalgoers have a unique opportunity to encounter a season’s worth of work from a South African company whose work is consistently groundbreaking.
The Baxter Theatre Centre has brought over from Cape Town no fewer than six major productions for a full Edinburgh run. The August season ties in with the theatre company’s 40th anniversary and the selection of plays is a retrospective of its more contemporary work, at least one of which will be familiar to UK audiences.
“We’ve come back with Mies Julie, which we developed and produced,” says chief executive and artistic director Lara Foot. “That’s kind of our flagship show – it played at Assembly in 2012 and has gone on to tour 29 cities – and we have also had other plays that have toured internationally. We want to be out there – you can get lost in the tip of Africa – to be part of the conversation that’s happening in world theatres, and Edinburgh is the market for that.”
The plays reflect a back catalogue bursting with innovation, helped by the fact that Foot, in recognition of her work as writer and director, was invited to be the featured artist last year at South Africa’s Grahamstown National Arts Festival. She premiered The Inconvenience of Wings and restaged Tshepang: The Third Testament and Karoo Moose – No Fathers, laying the ground work for their Edinburgh appearances along with Mies Julie, Tobacco and The Fall.
The plays address a range of uncompromising topics such as colonialism, mental health, infant rape and life in the townships. The Fall in particular has attracted plaudits: it is a devised ensemble piece that was developed in 2016 in response to the #RhodesMustFall student movement the previous year, which led to the removal of the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.
It is packed with issues from a country noted for its volatile politics and turbulent past but, Foot explains: “Our Edinburgh programme brings shows that we believe reflect what the Baxter Theatre does. We’re not pretending to represent South Africa.
“The Baxter is a letting house: we do commercial work and pay the bills by renting out our spaces. But we also look at making and developing new work with complex content and cutting-edge style. We try to be the best at what we do and we’ve got a stable of actors that we draw from. They’re not a permanent company but they are actors we use time and again.”
The Baxter has never been subsidised by government. “This is ironic, because we were one of the first theatres to be integrated,” says Foot. In fact, the Baxter was purpose-built to be integrated when it was created as part of the University of Cape Town in 1977. Apartheid laws that could close down theatre productions anywhere else in the country at the time couldn’t be applied so easily to a venue protected by the university’s academic freedom. The theatre is part-funded by the university, with the remaining 60% self-generated.
Meeting the financial challenge of bringing the season to the UK took two years of fundraising, with support from Edinburgh’s Assembly. It was a major investment that raises the question of whether also going to London was ever an option.
“If you go to London, you have to have a London producer on board,” says Foot. “We have taken some plays to London over the years, but sporadically. We do want to build our name overseas but if you come every four or five years that’s not going to happen, even if you come with the product.
She continues: “An important part of what we want to achieve with this group of plays is to draw attention to the way that South Africans are often seen through the single lens of sociopolitical issues. But if you look at the six works we’ve brought over, they’re all very different and their content is varied – from Karoo Moose, which definitely fits that South African sociopolitical genre, to the universal subject of The Inconvenience of Wings.
1. When it opened in 1977, the Baxter was the only theatre to allow alternative voices to be heard, especially from the black communities and the Protest Theatre movement.
2. During the apartheid era, the Baxter presented multiracial, progressive work at a time when racial interactivity was banned or censored. The first interracial kiss on a South African stage was in its production of Miss Julie in 1985. When it transferred to Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, right-wing Afrikaners staged a walkout on the opening night and the actress faced death threats.
3. The theatre receives no funding from the national government or the National Lotteries Commission, but is 40% funded by the University of Cape Town, which meets the costs of the concert hall – a teaching and performance venue for the South African College of Music.
4. The Zabalaza outreach programme works towards developing community skills. It takes place across the year through mini-festivals in target communities, script readings, showcases and a full-scale festival in March.
5. The Baxter Dance Festival gives emerging and established dance companies and choreographers a chance to present their work. The 2017 edition runs from October 5 to 14.
“How the world sees us is always going to be in the context of apartheid oppression and protest theatre – and it’s quite frustrating for artists if that’s the only recognition you’re going to get. Hopefully this season will change that a little.”
Back in South Africa, the fringe sector is bustling thanks to Grahamstown (which is rapidly going down the comedy route) and newcomer the Cape Town Fringe Festival, which takes place from September 21 to October 8. But Foot points to the lack of a comparable international festival in South Africa. “Cape Town is a perfect place to hold an international festival and it’s not expensive if you consider the rand-pound situation.”
The economic climate, exacerbated by the country’s politics, means that this won’t be likely for quite a while. “It’s crisis time in South Africa, probably like never before. Our laws used to have some kind of moral philosophy or ideology, but over the last decade it’s been a very difficult time in terms of finding our boundaries and finding our passion and our ideology. The so-called rainbow nation is not there any more, so it’s an issue that plays such as The Fall now look at directly with a new, young voice.”
Appropriately, Foot, who was born in Pretoria, went into theatre because of politics. She joined the Baxter in 2009, taking over the helm from Mannie Manim – a recognition of her contribution to making theatre a force for change. She started early when, aged 17, she saw Born in the RSA, a protest play by Barney Simon at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1984. “It was one of those life-changing moments. I thought I had to be an actress to do that. I was a terrible actress but I went to drama school and started doing workshops. Then I worked at the Market Theatre under Barney for several years.”
At the Market, Foot was resident director and then associate artistic director. The theatre’s legacy is clear in her directing and writing. The Fall, for example, draws on the same techniques as Simon’s Black Dog/Inj’emnyama or Born in the RSA, and the cast members were not only students who worked on Black Dog at the same time the statue of Rhodes was being pulled down but they were also all active in the protest movement.
The critical accolades and full houses at Edinburgh have proved there’s an enthusiastic audience out there for the Baxter style. “But next time we will probably bring one piece,” says Foot. “I don’t know if it will be next year or the year after, but certainly we shouldn’t leave such a long gap.
“It’s also about getting our thoughts out there, to become part of a global thinking. South African theatre can be perceived as physical, spiritual but not necessarily intellectual – and that’s what we’re pushing with the written word.
“And, of course, we also have to have the product. It’s important to have really good stuff.”
Artistic director: Lara Foot
Location: Cape Town, South Africa
Capacity: Main theatre, 670; concert hall, 639; Flipside, 220; Masambe, 60
Productions (2017): 14 major; 34 small; three co-productions; 39 productions in Zabalaza Theatre Festival; four international tours and four national tours
Staff: 61 permanent, 58 part-time
Income (2015): earned income – 15.1 million rand (£886,000); sponsorship and grants – 10.1 million rand (£596,000)
Baxter Theatre Centre’s season at Edinburgh runs until August 27