Retelling the forgotten story of the gallant Space Theatre
The Space — Theatre of Survival documentary premieres at the 21st Encounters Documentary Festival and is told through the eyes of some of the people who created it
Between 1972 and 1979 in Cape Town, The Space Theatre defied the then suffocating status quo and presented some of the cheekiest, up-yours theatre. Some of the country’s (and world’s) top thespians such as Pieter-Dirk Uys, John Kani and Richard E Grant, were shaped there.
The Space might be gone, many of its members dead, but its effect will forever form part of SA’s cultural history. Here is its story through the eyes of some of the dramatis personae and agitators who shaped it.
Brian Astbury, co-founder
We took over the building on January 1 1972. We opened to an invited, non-racial audience on Saturday March 27 and to the public on March 29.
We existed from the proceeds of the box office, which averaged about 80% of our needs for the year. The rest was made up by The Space Club, which , led by Moyra Fine, fund-raised in various ways.
Each year we had a “konsert” on a Sunday in which actors, dancers, musicians, celebrities (Chris and Marius Barnard were great favourites) made idiots of themselves to raise money for us. The initial money to set us up was collected by the Foundation for Art and Theatre, which we set up as a charity, and was chaired by the late Kate Jowell, then editor of Fair Lady.
Some of the plays that stood out were obviously Fugard’s three: Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island. But there were many others. If I had to choose one, it would probably be Imfuduso, done by the women of Crossroads. It saved me from the darkest depression in the last days of The Space. The full story is told in my book Trusting the Actor.
During my fourth year living in London as Peter Ace in 1972, I got a postcard from Brian and Yvonne: “We’re going to open a non-racial theatre in CT called the Space and get into fantastic kak. Come and join us.” I got on a boat.
I arrived with my first play Faces in the Wall. “Yes,” said Brian, “we’ll do it, but can you help us out with the play opening in four days? We need someone to play the teacher in Skywers/Jollers. I played it. That was my first taste of the magical Astbury Manoeuvres!
Our small weekly payment was irrelevant because, small as it was, we had no time to spend it. We as the Space Company did everything: wrote plays, directed plays, acted in plays, designed sets, built sets, swept floors and found furniture for the sets. I would hear my pa in the audience before an opening night say: “My hele donnerse huis is op hierdie verhoog!”[My whole damn house is on that stage!]
Most of what we did at the Space was illegal in the eyes of the NP [National Party] regime: the law said blacks and whites couldn’t sit together; we broke that law. The law said blacks and whites couldn’t act together on stage; we broke that law.
It was illegal to focus attention on forgotten places such as Robben Island and imprisoned “terrorists” like Nelson Mandela; we broke that law. It was illegal to be homosexual; some of us broke that law. It was against the law to be naked on stage; a few others broke that law.
The result of the stress, tensions and fears was HUMOUR. We laughed when the censors banned our work because it was so ridiculous. We knew when we had police spies working as stage-hands but pretended not to know because they were better stage-hands than spies. We had nothing to hide; everything ended up on stage for all to see.
Being at the Space was the best life-education I could have prayed for: the full alphabet of communication, the full spectrum of respect for human rights, the full glass of optimism and the discipline that no show gets cancelled even if there are only two people watching — my philosophies to this day.
I was fresh out of University of Cape Town drama school and studies at the Jacques le Coq theatre and Mime School in Paris when I started working at the Space Theatre. I appeared in many productions, but the one I enjoyed most was Occupations, with Yvonne Bryceland, Percy Sieff and Wilson Dunster.
The political climate in those days under apartheid seems unimaginable today. The security police were ever present and there was a lot of pressure on Brian Astbury to keep The Space afloat under impossible circumstances.
I was even in a banned play, Karnaval by Pieter- Dirk Uys, which seemed very exciting. I played a young prostitute from the platteland, working in a brothel in Long Street. Pieter based the play on the daily dramas at the brothel in Carnival Court in Long Street that we viewed from the balcony of the flat where I lived.
I think the play must have been banned because of the interracial portrayals of pimps, clients and prostitutes. It sounds quite absurd but that was the type of censorship we endured at the time.
Thinking back now, the example of the work of giants such as Athol Fugard and the Yvonne Bryceland must have been hugely inspiring to a young actress. What a privilege to work with Yvonne Bryceland and Percy Sieff.
We were paid very little but this was an apprenticeship you would probably pay for if it came around today. They were heady days of idealism, crazy vitality and innocence never to be recaptured.
David was a student in the UK when The Space opened. I was a student in Cape Town. He came back on holiday half way through his degree and I took him to The Space to see a couple of shows.
He wasn’t expecting to come back to Cape Town and be blown away by the honesty of South African stories being told on stage by local actors.
He was involved in one production at The Space when it moved to 44 Long Street. Nic Fine directed, Zapiro did the poster artwork, Soli Philander started the show by sweeping the stage floor and the audience thought he was the “cleaner”.
My first experience of The Space was in the early ’70s. I was at the early stages of my song-writing using my own voice, and seeing what was happening at The Space was very encouraging for me.
A few years later, I was able to present my own work in a show called Januarie Februarie March which helped me establish myself as a new South African song-writer.
I’m going to remember the afternoon before the first performance of The Island at The Space. During the afternoon rehearsal, John Kani, Winston Dunster, and I stood on boxes so that we could look through the windows and see Robben Island in the distance.
And it sort of grounded us, anchored us, reminded us that we were writing and acting about a real world and real events. Because we also knew that security police would be in the audience, and we didn’t know what to expect from them.
The Space grew out of the mandate I and so many actors had given ourselves in Serpent Players, Port Elizabeth. Yvonne Bryceland and Brian Astbury shared the vision of a space where there would be no political limitations.
It was never about money. I presented my first plays in a garage with three audience members, all domestic workers in Schoenmakerskop, one of whom never came back after interval.
It absolutely pioneered the free and open stages we now enjoy in SA . Yvonne [Bryceland ] would be so proud to know that her legacy was being recognised and honoured.
In the early ’80s , Mario Schiess and I brought my one-man show: Report to an Academy to The Space. Rob Amato invited us.
I remember the unique smells and sounds of Long Street as you entered, the staircase and then this very welcoming space. I felt so much at home, safe. Evette, my wife, stage managed for me and it was a very special time for us.
Then in 1981, Dieter Reible directed Mitzi Booysen, Trix Pienaar and myself in Fugard’s Dimetos. Two weeks into rehearsal Dieter and Mitzi were in a car accident, Mitzi bravely rehearsed, stiff and black and blue on her legs and arms and Dieter, well he directed us from his hospital bed.