The production attracted full houses at the National Arts Festival (NAF) last month, which its creative team attributes partly to Mike van Graan’s reputation as a leading contemporary playwright and the strong festival following enjoyed by Pay Back the Curry! director Rob van Vuuren and producer Siv Ngesi. Judging from the audience response wherever they’ve performed, it’s safe to say that this multi-sketch production has put actor Daniel Richards on the map, too.
Just two-and-a-half years since he graduated from UCT with an honours degree in theatre and performance, Richards is working with Van Graan for the second time. The first was a production called Born Free, which Ngesi originally commissioned from Van Graan as a piece of stand-up comedy. An invitation to participate in the So You Think You Can Dance local television series meant Ngesi had to bow out and Richards took his place. So impressed was Van Graan by Richards’ range as a singer, dancer, musician and actor that he decided to write Pay Back the Curry! as a platform for these skills. "I love being versatile," says Richards. "It’s one of my most-loved tricks."
Meanwhile, Ngesi set about adding more strings to his bow as a producer on this and other plays for which he is now reaping rewards. Four of his shows featured in the top 30 grossing at this year’s NAF Fringe. "There’s something special about producing, being able to know that I’ve put the people together, and I’m the boss. It’s a better feeling than it is to get people clapping and laughing at your jokes," he says.
"Having Mike on board is awesome. I don’t have his patience, admin or writing skills. He’s relentless. Even now we’re going into rehearsals again, and still making changes. We like the old-school methods, the way (Athol) Fugard works," says Ngesi.
Pay Back the Curry! has invited public comment since the first draft was presented at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Audience feedback since then, and at subsequent performances at venues from Khayelitsha to Kenilworth, has informed the content and rhythm of the piece. "It’s a way of testing the sketches with your potential market without necessarily compromising what you’re saying," says Van Graan. "I think we’re still being provocative — some people comment about that reflex reaction because I actually did go there ... I tell them if it’s any consolation, even I cringe sometimes. I might believe a particular thing, but my character might believe something else. For the integrity of the character, I have to allow them to articulate positions that are important for them to say."
The piece currently requires Richards to play 24 characters in a commentary on what is happening in SA now, how power manifests not just in politics or economics but also in other areas such as gender relations. "One particular sketch, about Oscar (Pistorius), probably had the most negative responses from people. We threw it out, but brought it back in again because we felt it was something that had to be said," says Van Graan. "It’s making a very serious point about femicide in our country; how many people are killed by their intimate partners."
Asked how Richards is able to remember changes to a well-rehearsed script, Van Graan explains that’s where the director comes in. It’s Van Vuuren’s job to determine the rhythm of the piece and, through the development of the shows, to allow Richards to get a sense of the audience responses and how to keep the piece going.
"The flow and rhythm of the piece doesn’t allow me to ad lib, which is good," says Richards. "I know when the audience is sitting with me, when they’re going to feel uncomfortable, and when I’m going to take them out of that."
Wits Theatre director Gita Pather sums it up. "For an actor, it’s a supremely difficult task ... there is no place to improvise or ad lib or forget. The script is all about the sketch, the word, the phrase ... and Daniel Richards allows it to build, with his voice, his intonation, his body. Very few actors could pull this off."
For theatre makers and performers, audience appreciation is important but Van Graan believes standing ovations are overrated. "People should have the courage to stand up or sit down for what they believe to be right. Daniel makes me stand up." High praise indeed.
* Pay Back the Curry! (PG16) will run from August 15-27, Monday to Friday at 7.30pm and at 5pm and 7.30pm on Saturday at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio. Tickets are R100 via Computicket or 0861 915 8000. At the Kalk Bay Theatre the show runs from August 30 to September 3 at 8.30pm with tickets via www.kalkbaytheatre.co.za.