Taryn Bennett. Picture: CONTAGIOUS
Taryn Bennett. Picture: CONTAGIOUS

Making theatre is hard work. It involves pretty much all the art forms: you need a fresh concept; you’re working with visual imagery, as well as with words and dialogue; you need to build your set; and you need to be physically in shape to perform. This is before considering the administrative side of managing a production and marketing it.

When you need to do all of these things yourself, it’s tough. Making ends meet can involve doubling as stage hand, actor, driver, secretary, publicist, costume sewer, prompt, techie, tent pitcher and busker.

If you’re lucky enough to get onto the Main Programme at the National Arts Festival, you have a team of people looking after you. You’re ensured comprehensive national marketing and subsidised ticket prices. Even if you don’t get audiences, you’ll still walk away with a salary.

But to stage a show on the Fringe, you need to do everything yourself. Not only do you have to take a chance on creating a new product you hope other people might be interested in seeing, but you need to organise your own marketing, transport and accommodation.

Stage stalwarts: Tarryn Bennett in Jenine Collocott's production Silkworm; and (right)
Stage stalwarts: Tarryn Bennett in Jenine Collocott's production Silkworm; and (right)

You have a relatively short tech time (compared to the Main Programme) and you’re subject to the vagaries of Fringe scheduling, so you might end up having one show at 9.30am and another one at 10.30pm.

And yet there’s a steady flow of theatre makers who keep hitting the Fringe decade after decade. Whereas the names of those appearing on the Main Programme seem to come and go, the mainstay of the festival remains a dedicated cohort of Fringe artists who make their own costumes and put up their own posters. They create small companies with family and friends and lug props from Cape Town and Durban and Johannesburg. They are the lifeblood of the South African stage and they’ve dedicated their lives to making theatre.

The festival’s Fringe is the only one in the country that accepts everybody who applies. There is no selection process (as with other Fringe festivals in the country), so the only person to judge if your show is worth doing is yourself.

Many new arrivals try to break into the Fringe each year. They come with high hopes, thinking all they need is a great idea and good intentions, but it can be a tough gig. They don’t always realise the many hours of work it takes to float a production and that it can take years to build a following. And yet, some producers and performers manage to make a living on the Fringe and return each year, often working several shows to make it viable.

Inkling: Tara Notcutt's tattoo Picture: TARA NOTCUTT
Inkling: Tara Notcutt's tattoo Picture: TARA NOTCUTT

"You wouldn’t make theatre if you didn’t have to," says Jenine Collocott (involved with five productions), and Andrew Simpson (six shows) laughs in agreement. These theatre makers share the sort of devotion to their craft that had Tara Notcutt (five shows) tattoo the name of her breakthrough show (…miskien) onto her skin.

Talking to these theatre makers, I realise they’re aware of one another as producers, but are also in competition with one another. When they’re between their many shows they’re handing out flyers and doing interviews, so they rarely see one another’s work, which can make them, ironically, quite isolated in the midst of a hectic festival.

"The Fringe is a really competitive place," says Notcutt, "and it can get lonely."

This is one of the reasons she is passionate about collective venues such as the Cape Town Edge, which she has helped run for the past eight years. Shows are selected to share a venue and resources, ensuring quality and creating a hub for festival goers, almost like a mini-festival within the larger festival.

Similarly, regular Fringe favourites James Cairns, Tarryn Bennett and Collocott have teamed up with Simon and Helen Cooper to create the company Contagious, in order to pool talents and resources.

For Collocott, theatre is about community, and the festival itself creates one to which they return each year. Kirsten Harris (three shows) also defies the role of lone entrepreneur, saying: "It takes a village to make a play. You need support, you need back-up, you need people looking out for you."

Simpson appears to be more of a one-man band, flying all over the country and producing shows in three different cities to bring to the Fringe. He’s unapologetically commercially minded, saying that "you have to make something people want to see". He wants to please audiences, but he also wants to convey a message that means something to him, incorporating themes such as forgiveness, reconciliation, and fostering the ability to laugh at oneself.

Simpson has found his niche in parody (such as his perennial favourite, Lord of the Flings) and his shows regularly rank with the highest grossing in ticket sales.

On the other hand, Collocott has made peace with the fact that "you can’t please everybody", and the Contagious motto is: "Make the work you want to see." She wants to create work that balances comedy and pathos, and strives to find a delicate, intimate truth from each performer. Many of her award-winning shows have been based on classics, such as The Snow Goose and The Old Man and the Sea — stories told in a lyrical and deeply moving style.

One of Harris’s new shows, Taking Flight, was nominated for three Naledi awards in 2017, but when I ask her if she’d rather have awards or ticket sales, she unhesitatingly exclaims: "Sales! We have to eat."

Like the other ambidextrous Fringe producers, she usually brings a variety of shows to the festival, including children’s theatre, comedy and drama.

Whether you’re making theatre for love or profit, the Fringe is a wild ride.

Bennett describes how a patron gave them six bottles of Champagne after a show of The Snow Goose, while Simpson had an audience member throwing lettuce at him.

For the upcoming festival, Bennett has to rush from Silkworm to Hamlet in half an hour, transforming her age and gender as she goes. With more than 20 productions being staged by the few Fringe fanatics I spoke to, the range and diversity of our theatre seems in good hands.

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