2016: the year that was

Illa Thompson

Column 101

December 2016

2016 for me will be remembered for being a yo-yo year of polar opposites – moments of phenomenal joy side-by-side with moments of enormous sadness, anger and disappointment.

Initiatives have come and gone this year: we sadly lost the Catalina and Barnyard theatres, and also the KZN Chapter of the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA)  our industry’s longstanding lobbying and networking body.

Out of the ashes of PANSA rose the phoenix of Datnet (Dance and Theatre Network KZN) – a fledgling new body to service and support the performing arts in the city, and the politically astute  CCIFSA (Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of SA) – a new national body.  

Durban High School, through generous benefactor Chris Seabrookes,  opened a fabulous state-of-the-art,  fully-resourced music block;  theatre entrepreneur Themi Venturas and Catalina Unlimited are opening an intimate incubator theatre space in Clark Road, and Roland Stansell’s Rhumbehlow theatre concept has popped up a series of community theatre fringe venues around the province.

A pet favourite of mine, the Musho theatre festival of one and two hander theatre had its final festival in its current incarnation in January. With the closing of the Catalina and PANSA, Musho disintegrated. Another phoenix has arisen, this time in the form of the Fresha! Festival which will fill Musho’s shoes come January, taking place on the Durban beachfront and hosted by the ever-relevant Twist Theatre Projects.  

A huge disappointment and frustration was the distressingly-extravagant and somewhat- uninspired Essence Festival last month which gobbled up more than R40 million of civic funds. The festival promised job opportunities and tourists to the city, but I suspect failed to deliver both in any great numbers.

As a counter-point to the Essence Festival was the city-wide AIDS Conference in July which did the city proud and showcased the best of our creative industries – including the  brilliantly-curated and informative, South African Voices museum exhibit at KwaMuhle Museum (which is still on) and various art exhibitions including the inspired Through Positive Eyes at the Durban Art Gallery and the Butterfly Project at the Denis Hurley Centre.

Another disappointment this year were all the Centre for Creative Arts offerings – they were underwhelming and mal-nourished. Perhaps next year’s line up will be better once the new CCA team have found their feet.   

There has been some great research this year to help us prepare, define and navigate the creative industries – three separate projects, all equally evolved, non-partisan and informative. All of them included Durban in the findings and sharing of information: Business and Arts South Africa, the South African Cultural Observatory and Concerts SA.

Concerts SA need special mention – they are the beacons in helping to manage, streamline and facilitate an active national live-music industry by working with musicians, promoters, venue owners and audiences and creating a viable live-music circuit

Drama, in particular, has been a bit on-the-ground this year – with noticeably fewer shows on the boards than usual. However, there have been two stand-out productions for me this year – the masterful and moody Into the Woods, by American playwright Steven Sondheim. A pet project of multi-award winning Durban production company, KickstArt, the production followed on from their recent Sondheim spectacular,  Sweeney Todd, and was every bit as brilliant; predictably and deservedly cleaning up at the recent Durban Theatre Awards.

Probably my most profound theatre experience of this year though, was Ulwembu. A poignant, informative, honest and incisive original ensemble theatre production about street drug addiction by award-winning playwright and director Neil Coppen, top local actress Mpume Mtombeni, Kwa-Mashu based community-theatre group The Big Brotherhood and educational sociologist Dylan McGarry.It was supported by The Playhouse Company, Twist theatre projects and the Denis Hurley Centre. Ulwembu was proof that theatre can change  mindsets, prejudices and lives.

I was thrilled that the Ster Kinekor, through Cinema Nouveau, continued to screen National Theatre Live seasons. Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre were both astonishing. The Met Opera and Royal Ballet Season are also screened and well worth catching.

The year ends on a sad note as we bid farewell to a slew of media friends as part of Independent Media’s restructuring process.  I want to single out Billy Suter and Patrick Crompton for decades of passionate service to the arts. Your avid support, intelligent  coverage and engaging reviews will be sorely missed!

And finally – an invitation to readers to catch as many of the festive season fare on the boards currently. There is a wonderful selection this year: Sleeping Beauty at the Sneddon, Wickedly Odd in Botanic Gardens, Rumpelstiltskin and Criss Cross Christmas at the Rhumbelow, Redbeard and Jeff’s Great Christmas Adventure at the Riverside Grace Family Church, Dolphins by Starlight at uShaka and The Sound of Music at the Playhouse.