Today’s conversation is with one of South Africa’s most prolific theatre-makers: Lara Foot. Ms. Foot is a multi-hyphenate, she is an acclaimed writer, director and producer and currently holds the position of being the first female artistic director and CEO of The Baxter. Sarafina Magazine had the privilege of sitting down with Ms. Foot and hearing about her groundbreaking career.
How did you get started in theatre?
I went to see a play at The Market Theatre when I was in standard 9 and it was Born in the RSA by Barney Simon about censorship. It was a protest play, an anti-apartheid play and it completely changed my life. I had no idea up until that point about what was really happening in this country. I had a little bit of a sense but I didn’t know any of the details. That was the moment where I went ‘whatever those guys are doing I want to do.’ It was very much a sense of truth and justice and I wanted to be a part of that.
I read somewhere that you thought you would be an actress and then decided that it wasn’t for you.
When I watched that play I thought that’s what I would have to be, to be involved in and do what they were doing. I thought I would have to be an actress. I didn’t come from a theatrical background. I hadn’t been to theatre as a child. I was quite introverted. I was never particularly theatrical on any level. So I went to Wits (University) and worked hard as an actress. I tried hard but was never particularly good. I was sort of okay, mediocre, which is the worst kind of actress and then luckily discovered that I could at that stage direct, I didn’t know so much about writing yet but I had a sense of being a storyteller.
Did you then switch over to study directing?
No, you could do two majors. I majored in acting and directing till the end.
Your bio says that your passion is mainly indigenous new work and works by new young writers and directors. I wanted to know if maybe you could talk a little about that because, I’m sure it needs to be updated but, out of the 40 productions you have done, 29 have been new South African work.
It’s probably more than that now.
I wanted to ask you how you keep that alive? Why does that speak to you more than published work, whether that be South African or international?
I enjoy both and I am inspired by published work. I read a lot and I’ve been influenced by a lot of great writers but I’m passionately South African and believe very much in storytelling as a means to healing, as a means to integration and I suppose some sense of a healthy society in the future. I went through a stage when I was in university where I didn’t want to emulate someone else’s culture or think that the way they were doing theatre in America or in London or in Europe was any better than the way we were doing theatre. I was very passionate and still am about telling our own stories and creating work for artists here which is uniquely South African work. That doesn’t mean to say that the standard of the work is any different. I was vehement about supporting our own arts and you can see that in terms of how I program The Baxter Theatre. That’s not to say that we don’t often do classics, and we do but there is a fine line. My influences at the Market Theatre at the time, Barney Simon was my mentor and there was always a question from him of ‘what story do you want to tell? What are you curious about at the moment?’ Not which play you want to direct but rather which story you want to tell.
You founded the Barney Simon young writers and directors festivals…
That’s very old on my biography. We called it that when I was a resident director at The Market many years ago but what we’ve got now is the Zabalaza theatre festival. That’s where they are nurtured here at The Baxter. It’s a similar concept of finding young talent and nurturing them.
That is obviously a big priority for you, giving young people the opportunity.
Huge. That’s my major priority I would say. Not just giving young people opportunity because I’m not a philanthropist. I’m not a ‘do-gooder’. I hope I do good but I’m not a ‘do-gooder’. I am a producer and I want to make my theatre interesting and exciting and therefore I am looking for talent so that we can nurture it, so that we can get full houses, so that we can tour internationally. It’s not ‘oh well I want to give young people opportunity.’ I want good work.
I think it’s amazing that you think that but with the way the economy is right now obviously you want to produce great work but you also need to fill seats. You also have to let this theatre company thrive so essentially it is a very big risk and to take on something like that with the way the world is right now, especially with theatre, is ‘doing good.’
I’ve been in this position for seven years and before that I was resident director here. We are getting to a point now where our new work, and I’ll use two examples that have been in the last two months, my new work called The Inconvenience of Wings sold every seat. It was a commercial success and Karoo Moose, now back for the third time at The Baxter, is selling out. Once you start to instill in the public the value of good new theatre, good South African theatre, then they do start buying tickets, and they are and that’s exactly what I’ve been living for, for the past 20-30 years. So it’s starting to pay off which is very rewarding.
Personally I wanted to ask you and I don’t want to butcher the name of this play you wrote…
I watched your Tedx Talk and the little clip from the movie and was very affected by it to the point that I knew as someone writing this piece that I wanted to ask you about it but as a South African and as a woman I struggled. I found it difficult to watch but it’s so necessary and you’ve spoken about how you are able to find healing from our history…
Not from our history, from our engagement.
From our engagement and it’s essentially turning a piece that we are not proud of to a sort of artwork that gets people thinking and informed about what is going on but in a different way.
I would never say turning a tragedy into an artwork. I would never do that. You can’t change a tragedy. You can’t change a trauma. It will remain a tragedy and it will remain a trauma. What I try to do is to reflect on the tragedy in such a way that I ask the audience to become involved as a society, to engage through the public and somehow through engagement make a difference in the collective, by taking collective responsibility. That is my aim in terms of representing or presenting stories of tragedy. But one must be very careful of saying you are turning a tragedy into an artwork because you can never do that.
You are taking stories that are difficult for people to hear, let alone watch and start a conversation which is a very powerful thing and this play keeps coming back and Karoo Moose keeps coming back. Why do you think these works are able to transcend these different time periods?
Well I mean look Athol Fugard’s work has been done for 40 years. How many times has Hello and Goodbye come back? How many times has Boesman and Lena come back? Road to Mecca, People are living there. Let’s go to Woza Albert!, Sizewe Banzi is Dead. If a play does particularly well, it is absolutely expect that in the next 10 years it will come back, and those two plays, and I’m not putting it on the same level as anyone else, Tshepang and Karoo Moose, have done well enough to bring them back and they will possibly come back in 10 years time with another cast because they are written, because they are published and because kids are studying them, more than likely there will be another production of those plays, there already has been. When it is a story that affects people and it is well presented by a very strong cast, there will always be a new audience to watch it. If it comes back and a lot of people missed it the first time they can finally see it. There is a thing with those particular plays that are intense and deal with social injustice and abuse, where the audience, you can as a public member be shocked by something, and if you are shocked, you often retreat and when you retreat you can say ‘this has got nothing to do with me. I am so shocked that this is not part of my vocabulary or my life or my world or my society.’ That’s what shock does but shock isn’t helpful in the sense that you become more and more alienated from your surrounds and isolated. If you are engaged and you sit as an audience and come together in the theatre, only the theatre can pull an audience together in that way, then you bear testimony and you bear witness and you discuss and you get involved, then you no longer fain shock. Then you are part of the thinking and healing because you are engaged. Just by doing that people are relieved to be engaged and that is why they come to theatre like this.
Not only are you the artistic director here, you write, you direct, you produce. What are your processes like for each one and is there one that you prefer above the others?
I’m the CEO here and the artistic director. Those are two very different brains that you are using. The one is managerial and the other is artistic. It’s very different and fluid.
From my understanding those positions are usually split between two people.
Usually but The Baxter has one. I was thinking about it the other day because this year I have done a lot of directing. Some years I don’t do any directing because I just concentrate on my CEO position but directing a play and managing a complex is not that different. When you are directing a play you are trying to get the best out of the people who you are working with. That is really a good director, if you can really draw out the bits from everyone who is in that room. As a manager or CEO, you are doing exactly the same. You are trying to get the best out of the people around you. It’s not that different, managing people and thinking of ways to inspire the team, that’s pretty much the same as directing a play.
And with writing? Do you feel like that’s completely different?
That’s completely different and extremely insular. It’s the complete opposite and it’s scary.
Do you prefer that process or is it a case of what you prefer in the moment?
Writing is more difficult. That isolation and that reflecting on yourself it’s very self and it’s scary. I would say the easier is managing, directing but there is something wonderful about that insular space of writing. I’d like to say I prefer writing but I can’t imagine just writing all the time. I think I would go crazy. It’s a difficult thing. Maybe I’m not a writer like other writers. I don’t write as much. I only write a new play every 2-3 years. I suppose it’s very much left brain/right brain and all of that stuff. Most importantly I’m a mother so my major priority is my children.
As the first female artistic director and CEO of The Baxter, what do you want to leave behind as your legacy?
I’ve worked very hard at integrating the theatre. When I say integrating, developing particularly young black voices, not only as artists but as managers, as leaders. I suppose I would like to leave a legacy of an integrated cutting-edge, brave, courageous, inspiring, educational, entertaining venue where anything is possible.The new work side of that would be always for The Baxter to contribute to the cannon of literature, of playwrighting in terms of publications and to be part of the academic library archive of UCT. We are linked to UCT but we aren’t really a part of UCT in the sense that we operate independently but there is a pride in me that we are connected to the university. There is some intellectual capacity that shows good governance.
Who are some South African women in the arts who inspire you?
I’m very inspired by Sibongile Khumalo and Thembi Mtshali and Thoko Ntshinga. I’m trying to think of some of the writers as well but I’m inspired by all the actress I have worked with at the moment, Jennifer Steyn, Chuma Sopotela, Zoleka Helesi. I’m inspired by how brilliant they are and what good people they are. The older ones I mentioned first, what they have achieved under difficult circumstances. I mean what strength and leadership they’ve shown. There are a number of women who are very inspiring but then I’m inspired by people on the street. Not just famous artists. You have guys selling their craft on the side of the road and some of their work is amazing. I’m always inspired by people’s kindness and there is a lot of kindness from just very ordinary women.
I started this because I couldn’t find anything like it online and so I wanted to ask you as more publications come out, what do you wish you were asked more about?
I suppose the nitty-gritty of funding. The department of Arts and Culture and their vision or lack thereof. I would like to know, and I don’t know how you’d ask me this, I would like to know why audiences and I don’t know if it is particularly South African audiences, lack curiosity for other culture’s work? Once a person has decided that they like, for instance standup comedy, they don’t want to come and see a musical. If they like a musical they don’t want to see serious drama. Certainly white audiences generally support white casts. Black audiences support black casts and in Cape Town coloured people support coloured casts. I find that so strange because you go to another country and you want to see, if you travel say to India or China or Australia, you want to see what they are doing but in our own country you don’t want to see what each other is doing. I work very hard to try to break that here. Just because people are missing out. Not because its politically or morally correct. People are missing out. I’d like to be informed why they think so and how much of that comes up from how we are brought up through apartheid or is it a world thing?
I was going through the brochure of what is coming up at The Baxter and I noticed that majority of the work is under R200. Some of the things were R40. Is that a conscious choice on your part to bring in new audience members?
Yes. 100% conscious and problematic because we are not subsidised by the government and only partly by the university, but we have to. You just have to. The discrepancy of what people earn and the difference in earnings if you want to reach new audiences then you have to keep your tickets as low as possible. Of course there are those who can afford to pay triple. I’ve always wanted some sort of select button, which I’m aiming to get, where when you book your ticket you can actually select the more expensive, hoping that there will be some people who understand what we are trying to do.
I’ve gone to performances in New York which are ‘pay what you can’ and for me and my friends it was a couple of dollars but there are other people who want to come out and support the arts who pay way more.
There’s a culture of sponsorship in New York of individuals. Most of the theatre is run through individual sponsorship and we don’t have that at all. People don’t understand that culture and its something I would love to talk about and try to get going.
I think if anybody can you are the person for it. Thank you so much for this.
It was a pleasure. Thank you for coming.
Karoo Moose, written and directed by Ms. Foot and featuring the original cast, runs at The Baxter through September 24th. More information on it can be found here.
Special thanks to Lara Foot, Andiswa Gumbi, Fahiem Stellenboom, Jesse Kramer and Sharone Halevy.