A Conversation with Caroline Calburn

Last year we introduced you to Ameera Conrad and Wynne Bredenkamp, two recipients of the 2016 Theatre Arts Admin Collective Emerging Theatre Directors Bursary. Today’s conversation is with the woman at the helm of this wonderful organisation, director and educator Caroline Calburn. Armed with genuine passion, Caroline has been unapologetic in her pursuit to better the artistic landscape of this country. The Theatre Arts Admin Collective is a much needed space and has become an incredible resource for young artists.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I realised when I was about six that I experienced an internal joy that I didn’t experience in any aspect of life when I was in a play. It wasn’t even in the play actually because I got demoted. I was in Grade 1 and we were doing How the Animals got their Tails and I had been cast as a little pig. I remember that moment in the classroom when everybody was sitting and I remember discovering myself as a pig with a tail and the sense of being in the presence and being liberated and feeling like suddenly there are no boundaries. There is just you in this kind of light. Everything just dissolves. I remember experiencing that. I don’t know why I got demoted but I ended up as another animal. I think it was probably because I had never been very good at remembering words. I ended up as the little letter ‘L’ in ‘Welcome.’ Constrained in a dress, holding a letter, and being completely miserable, I think part of me just thought, “This is never going to happen to me again. I am never going to be that letter L in Welcome. I want to be running around snorting.” I remember when I was in Standard 6 we did house plays and the house that I was in was doing a farce and I remember watching the auditions and I was reading the script and I could feel within me this voice and character just emerging. Getting onto stage and becoming this character and having no control of it and being given the role and the joy of being in it. I think that’s what I held onto. I think it all goes back to it being a calling. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing what I do, which is actually a good question. What exactly am I doing? I seem to be facilitating other people’s processes in some way. My real love is directing and that’s how the space came about because when I wanted to be a director you had to be ambitious and nobody was there to support you.

Obviously, funding comes up a lot in these discussions…

I was really fascinated by the Olympic Games and just following how many medals Britain picked up. Britain came in under America and above China. They changed their policy in terms of funding sportsmen and woman. Basically, one pound of every person’s tax per month went into supporting the training and development of sports people going to the Olympics. I don’t know what the tax-paying population of Britain is but something as simple as that can reap unimagined rewards. I think the talent in this country is superb. You just look at any field, even in fields that South Africa should be out of the running for. Look at Elon Musk. He is at the top of the field in terms of space travel. Where was he educated? Pretoria Boys High School. You look at the top 10 financial people in New York and there are at least two South African’s up there. In sports, we dominate in terms of cricket and rugby. We might not be doing too particularly well at the moment but it is right up there at the top in terms of track and field. I think the theatre happening in this country in the last 20 years, particularly in the last 5 years, has been exciting, although it does feel like a pattern that is repeating itself. I think the young generation feels as though they are the first generation to be independent companies but that was all happening in the ’80s and in the ’90s. After ’94 when suddenly the funding situation opened up there was an explosion of young theatre companies that were all making work out of nothing, petered out a little bit, and then came back. It’s this constant rollercoaster wave that is happening. I think this country is where it’s at actually. TAAC.jpg

I think in today’s world there isn’t any other choice for young theatre-makers. You have to find like-minded people and put the work out there yourself.

I just remember in 2012 when Christiaan Olwagen was doing Ubu en die Secrecy Bill. They used to rehearse from 5-10pm every night. The hall was absolutely empty when they came in. At 5pm they moved in. They were welding outside, they were sewing in there, all the music was set up there, the actors were set up there. There was one young woman stage-manager who was managing 3000 props. They were making and designing and it was like that for three weeks. When we came in the morning it was all gone. The young Afrikaans directors and theatre-makers have come out of a sense of family, of being trained as theatre is family and everybody supports each other by playing their role. It’s very exciting to see. 

I’m very intrigued by the Afrikaans theatre, film and TV industry because they just seem to be killing it on every front. They are just excelling and they seamlessly move into the English speaking market. 

Because they are completely bilingual. The problem with our English speaking audience is that they are unilingual. They make no effort to learn Afrikaans and they make no effort to learn Xhosa. So all they want to watch is English work. The Afrikaans audience and the Afrikaans performer is moving, as you said, seamlessly through both. 

Something along these lines came up in my conversation with Lara Foot where she mentioned that we have a serious problem with audience integration. No one seems to want to see other work. And she mentioned that it’s a huge problem that we haven’t seemed to figure out yet how to solve it. 

I think in Cape Town people only go see productions where they know the person. “Oh, my friend is acting in it!” They won’t go see anything else. I see it all the time. I think there is no cross-pollination between the regions. When I bring Joburg directors down or give the bursary to Joburg directors who Cape Town has never heard of, nobody comes to watch the work. 

When I was researching for this I came across an article where you discussed your opinions on the first Cape Town Fringe Festival. It’s interesting to me that some of the shows during the 2016 festival were quite poorly attended but the ones that seemed to do well were the ones that had more established names behind them. 

We are very good at supporting our own. What I found really fascinating was that the shows that picked up the awards were the shows that sat with two or three audience members. In a funny sort of way, people are not interested in quality. They are interested in who they know. It’s so depressing. 

I think what makes it even more depressing is that theatre here tries to be quite affordable. There really isn’t that much of an excuse not to be seeing this work. I know that the Baxter tries to keep their tickets under R200. 

See that’s too much for me. Anything more than R90 is not affordable. It depends on what people are affording and what people are living on. I don’t know what the answer is. Obviously, if more money were pumped into the arts it would be so much easier. I really feel that the arts have been absolutely betrayed by society. I’ve often thought that if every single business, every single corporate, just supported one artist or one company, and it wouldn’t be a lot of money because it’s nothing in terms of their budgets, it would make such a phenomenal difference to the landscape of the arts. It is entirely possible. It’s just that there is no willingness.

People tend to say things and just don’t act on it. It’s easy for someone to put their opinion out on social media but not as easy for them to actually step out and do something. 

I think that’s what I mean. It’s hard. I think it’s one of the things that has been a struggle for me here. I’ve enjoyed that struggle because it’s been quite freeing in a sense and allows me to try to think outside the box. When I moved in here there was nothing and I had no money. Whatever is here has been built up over eight years. I’ve really liked that. I really do believe in slow organic growth. It’s sustainable. It’s allowed me to really be very clear about what I want to do and how do I implement that through every strata of what we do. In the beginning, people would ask, “Well, what is it? What does it do?” And for me, I wanted to create a space that has got to be affordable to artists. I look at myself and I am a privileged white person. What is affordable to me? R120 theatre ticket is not affordable for me. It means that I will probably go and see theatre once a month. Is the answer for theatre to make the tickets cheap? Is there a sliding scale? How do you put strategies into place to ensure people who can’t afford R120 can still come and see theatre? Because I think it’s more important that the place is full rather than three people paying the full-price ticket. But I don’t believe in giving away comps. We don’t have any comps here. We always reserve 5 tickets a night for pay-as-you-can. There is no judgment attached to the pay-as-you-can. Interestingly enough not many people use it but it is there for people to use. Opening nights are not free. It’s by donation. One just has to experiment and play with different strategies and see what works and what doesn’t.

The exterior of The Theatre Arts Admin Collective

Are you familiar with The Public Theater?

Yes. Joe Papp

They try to keep tickets as affordable as possible and every year they have free Shakespeare in the Park. Although, that primarily works because they are given millions of dollars every year by corporations and individuals. 

I have no problem with free theatre in a country where the arts are funded because that is people’s tax money going into that.  I’ve always dreamed of having a box office, it’s not manned and people come in and it’s built on an honesty principle. You know what to do. Why do I have to sit there and tick your name off and check that you’ve given money? You can come and put your money in and cross yourself off the list. You can come in, there is tea and coffee, you can help yourself, and put R.50c into a cup. The kind of constant policing of people and taking away their empowerment… I kind of feel, how brilliant would it be to come into a theatre and just know what’s expected of you?

Was it a conscious choice with the bursaries this year to give two to men and two to women?

I take a lot, and it’s not just me because I have a selection panel, into consideration. The first time that the bursary was given out in 2010 was to three women. The second year was four men. I like to know that in the broader version of everything that its 50% men, 50% women, 50% black, 50% white. Or sometimes 60% black, 40% white because I look at who needs the opportunity. I could have given this bursary to 10 people given the level of quality of the applications. It always comes down to who needs it. That doesn’t mean to say that they are any less than other people but there are some people who stand out for some reason and often it’s not about their directing skills. There was one particular person that I would have loved to give the bursary to, but I could already see the trajectory of their year and that was opportunity after opportunity and it has been absolutely that for her. I like this bursary. It is a little bit like a ladder. You see that this is where a director is at the moment and you know where they have to go. Is the bursary just going to take them up one rung? Or is it going to take them up five rungs? I want the bursary to take them up five rungs in the consciousness of other people. It has to short-circuit the journey from the bottom to the top. 

How do you feel about the opportunities for female directors currently?

I think that the industry is dominated by women who are doing the work but there is virtually no recognition for that. I think it’s harder for women to be a lot more productive than men, for a whole lot of reasons. Possibly the most productive woman director in the country is Janice Honeyman because she doesn’t have children. If you look at the majority of women directors, they often have children and they are often single parents. That immediately just cuts through your productivity level. You just hope that your children are happy and healthy and leading uncomplicated lives. The moment there is a complication you are pulled out of your work. Somehow men are freed up of that opportunity so men are a lot more productive. I can’t talk for women in general but I know for myself it was very easy to feel invisible. I’ve never been a particularly ambitious person. I just want to know that what I have done, I have done well and to the best of my capacity and that it’s fulfilled its aims. I think people have different outputs. You get someone like Amy Jephta who has written 40 plays by the time she is 25 and then you get somebody by the time they are 30 or 40 have done two plays and they have been extraordinary. We all have different output levels that are kind of shaped by our socioeconomic restraints or choices that we have made in our lives. When I look at the theatre industry, I see the powerful foundation of directing is women. Only a few of them are getting to spark at the top whereas men are all there floating doing their thing. That is the way it feels to me. It feels like the women put in the graft. 

What are your hopes for the future for the Theatre Arts Admin Collective?

Every year I feel that it shifts and changes based on what I perceive the needs of the industry to be. What I would like to see this place as being is a pumping, thriving centre for theatre practitioners. That they use the reading room, they engage with each other, they come to me and say, “I really want to do this.” It needs to be seen as a place where people who want to contribute, who feel invisible, who find it hard to knock on the door of institutions, can actually come and be and make work. It needs to be all of that. I hope it becomes a place where young and established can engage with each other in ways that are beneficial to both. It needs to feel like a space that remains full of potential. That it can be anything. That it can do anything. That you can experiment and fail dismally if you need to. That it cuts through perceptions of what theatre is and who theatre is for.

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Lara Foot for me is completely inspirational because she has managed to hold onto a generosity which is extraordinary. Jaqueline Dommisse, Liz Mills, Lara Bye. Yvette Hardie is also just extraordinary in terms of the amount of work that she produces. I am not just talking about productions. I have never met somebody who can churn out proposals. She is extraordinary. The list is actually too long. I have immense respect for Chuma Sopotela. It’s like all the standard names in theatre. You can’t put one on top of the other. What for me has been absolutely extraordinary, and I never expected it, was the level of support that I received from women in the theatre industry. When I started this, my younger daughter was two and I had been out of the theatre industry for seven years. When I started the space in 2008, I was considered an absolute nobody. I had to build everything up from nothing because I had been out for so long and the level of support from particularly women in the industry, established people like Janice [Honeyman] through to young emerging people like Chuma [Sopotela] was just mind-blowing. I am completely inspired by young black women theatre artists; writers, directors, actors because I have some sense of what they have to do to break through and it’s f*cking mind-blowing that they are still here, still doing it, still sane and that it hasn’t broken them. They are still in the game and they are still challenging and finding joy and are still functional. It’s remarkable. 

More information about The Theatre Arts Admin Collective can be found here. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Special thanks to Caroline Calburn, Jessica Hewson and Hannah Baker.



10 thoughts on “A Conversation with Caroline Calburn

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