Christie Hollander is the founder of ReVel Entertainment, a Cape Town based production company focused on live conceptualization, production management and recruitment in the entertainment industry. Christie, also a performer, is passionate about the development and growth of the arts industry and has made a considerable contribution to the arts community by advocating for the importance of communication between all sectors of the arts.
How do you define yourself?
It’s very difficult for me to define myself because I’ve been doing so many different things over the last eight years of my career. I trained as a performer and theatre-maker and then started a business when I was in second year and moved into production and producing. I like to consider myself one of those jack of all trades. They say that it’s a master of none but I do consider juggling to be quite masterful. I think that’s what makes me really happy is being able to focus on many different things at the same time. Producer, entrepreneur, performer probably the last of the three.
What was that journey like going from one thing to the next? Was it just a natural extension of who you are or did you feel like you needed to keep challenging yourself?
I think it was definitely out of a deep desire to be challenged in ways that I wasn’t being offered. I felt that my training was excellent but the opportunities weren’t good enough for me to really continue my growth and journey professionally. I’ve always had a love for business coming from a family owned agency. That seemed like the most logical step for me to create those opportunities for myself and for other people especially performers who seem to graduate and then just go into waitering jobs. That really came out of a desire to create that opportunity for myself as well as for other people. It’s pretty much kept rolling from there into different areas. People have approached me with an opportunity and I’ll decide, “Ok, is this within my scope? Or is it not?” I’m always looking to choose something that is going to stimulate me in a new way.
It’s come up in quite a few interviews that a lot of creative people in Cape Town, specifically in the theatre industry, who say that you can’t just be one thing. Do you feel that statement to be true?
I think so. I think especially when you are starting out. We often have an idea of what we want to be when we start studying. You graduate and you realise what the world has to offer is something quite different. You have to adapt and mold yourself to the demand. Sometimes that means maybe parking that initial ambition and dream for a little bit so that it can percolate and you can mature and grow into that. I think diversity is part of survival. I think it’s a very important part of our industry.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I actually went to a schools festival when I was in grade 10. I went to Grahamstown and we were just exposed to a wide variety of performances and artists that were doing workshops and I think that really did ignite my passion for the arts but I’ve been doing it since very young. I’ve just had a flair for performance and really enjoyed the artfulness and the power behind it as well to be able to captivate people and to hold them in your hand. That really was something that kept me stimulated throughout my youth and going into formalised study.
I wanted to ask about your involvement in The Cape Town Fringe.
They were one of our biggest clients this year and essentially we provided all of their staff for them. I consider Cape Town Fringe one of our milestone events that we cover at ReVel and have been there since the beginning so I hope to grow alongside the festival.
How did ReVel come about?
I started the company in second year and I decided against insurmountable odds to produce my first show which wasn’t like a little fringe show in an Alexander Bar size. It was at The German Club and it was a three course meal and a two hour cabaret. That experience was so exhilarating for me and it was pretty much where my vision is as a producer. To do it in second year was probably the most challenging thing I have yet to do because it took every ounce of me and I didn’t eat for about a month. I had a very supportive boyfriend at the time, Daniel Richards, and we kind of worked together as a team to get us on the mark in terms of a producing company. It all started there and evolves and changes to adapt to where it needs to go. That’s where it started.
Your job is so unique. What is a typical day like if there is such a thing?
There is not a typical day. It ranges dealing with staff challenges. I think that is probably the most difficult part of my job is dealing with a lot of people from various backgrounds, dealing with everything from a high-end performer who is really demanding in terms of what they need and the support they need to a stagehand who has just been robbed and his entire life is falling to pieces so that is why he isn’t coming to work and everything in between. Over and above all of that, dealing with clients who are demanding like extra normal delivery but they only want to pay a certain amount. It’s a real juggle every day of different kinds of touch-points and I have to keep changing my persona almost to meet the different needs. Something definitely for the future is that I need to have more people who are dealing in specific areas and I think that is where I can start honing in on the more specialised skills that I have. That is part of the growth and maturity that I was speaking about earlier. You have to be multi-focused in the beginning to be seen on a broad-scope of the entertainment industry and all the different facets and once you find out where you resonate and where you add the most value in terms of your skill set and then finding the team to support you in the 80% of things you not focused on so that 20% is where you are at your optimum and where you can be the best that you can be.
You have gotten to witness the evolution of South African theatre. What has your perception of that change been and how do you feel you have contributed to it?
I think the change has become a lot more ‘theatre in your boot’ story. So having a flexible show, one that is easily travelable, doesn’t cost a lot to put up or take down, and that is very compact. In terms of my contribution to that, I think we have provided the support that people need in terms of production to make that possible because the evolution of theatre has had a benefit and a downfall. The benefit obviously being that more people can see the work because it can travel and it can be a little bit more plug and play but in the same sense you do lose out on quite a lot of production value, the lighting and the sound and the heavy aesthetic elements of performance. I think it’s even more important that the production team is able to support artists in a way that they are still able to create powerful and moving theatre but with a very simple and minimalised approach. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be less, but you do have to have the right people around you to make that possible. A really cool example of that is Infecting the City. My team worked in producing that festival in 2015 and that was probably one of the most demanding festivals that we have handled. It is largely site-specific so that is really an example. Site-specific work is an aspect of theatre that is becoming more and more prevalent and people are getting used to the idea of experiencing an activation in a place and a time that is not a conventional theatre box. There, having the kind of guerilla tactic on the ground, we had literally a bakkie full of speakers and lights and ziplock cables and duct tape. A crew that is willing to hit the ground and set up a show and then strike it before we get into trouble basically. Having that support that artists wouldn’t necessarily do that on their own unless they were a one man show. I think that is really where we’ve been able to add a lot of value and where I consider we re-imagine new ways of people experiencing entertainment in theatre as opposed to the conventional format.
What have you found to be your biggest challenge?
There have been many. Probably the most difficult one is finding people that I can grow with on the same kind of level, finding a team of people that I can grow professionally along with. I’ve brought on people who have been just really challenging in the sense that you get to the point where it is like a breakup and you are like, “Ok to go forward now, to lose the momentum that we have gained over the last two or three years.” That has been challenging and also the preconception of being a woman and being young as well. An entrepreneur is building trust and reputation because people are so stuck on their own conversional understanding of what we can do in the arts. It is constantly pushing back and saying, “You know what? You have got a very small scope of what we are actually able to do as artists.” It’s pushing back that misconception as a woman and as an entrepreneur.
I wanted to touch on that. I was wondering if you could speak to the specific challenges you have faced as a woman in the industry. Is it a very male-dominated sphere that you are working in?
Definitely. The production and technical side is mostly male. I have had an incredible mentor in Nicci Spalding who is the technical director of The National Arts Festival and she is a powerhouse. She drives a team of almost 350 people in Grahamstown. I’ve been able to witness a woman in that kind of role so I’ve been quite fortunate, but at the same time, when you are working on the ground, you have to deal with a lot of pushback in terms of physical, the production aspect is largely quite physical and tactile. It is about plugging and lifting and making things look a certain way. It takes a lot of physical strength and energy. In that sense it has been quite challenging but also in terms of authority and management, we often get overlooked I think as really valuable assets in that regard. I think it is something that is definitely changing. I’ve seen quite a dramatic change where women voices and black women voices as well are really coming out in a way that is productive and really changing the face of the backend of the theatre industry. Nosipho Bopela in Joburg, she is a really superstar technician who has moved up the ranks. Recently we’ve pushed back on the department of Arts and Culture white paper because they didn’t recognise the livelihood of live events technical side of it as a valuable contributor to the industry. They recognise artists and writers and various different performance-based disciplines but not actually recognise the technical and production staff behind the industry as a valuable contributor to the white paper. She took that white paper and literally just blasted it, listed out all the different areas that they need to include, and in so doing make room for our side of the industry to be acknowledged. To really have that kind of support that we need from government to regulate and control the industry.
You mentioned that it is changing with more female technicians growing within the industry. What do you think can be done to proactively ensure that it keeps growing?
I think there is always such a fine line between the artist and the behind the scenes staff. A lot of artists don’t realise that behind one performer can be eight people to make it possible for them to stand in that light and to look as amazing as they do. There is a lot of skillsets that really come together and work in the way that is a team. Everyone is involved but the performer is obviously front and center and the face of that work. I think it is a bit of acknowledgment from either side to just say, “Hey, these are valuable contributors to my industry.” That will give us some good PR. Basically it is just awareness that these are important parts of the industry that we need to nourish and protect just as much as the performer. And the women involved will immediately benefit from that because it is first and foremost just awareness and the equality is a natural progression after that. We can’t make massive change unless people actually acknowledge the whole sector of production.
What is something you are most proud of?
I think being able to manage my time more effectively. One of the biggest lies that I believed when I came out of varsity was that I had to work myself to death. That really impacted on my personal life and my ability to enjoy and be nourished as an individual. I think what I am really proud of going forward is that I don’t have to be a slave to my work and that I can have a really great balance between things that I am passionate about and things that I put my heart and soul into and then the things that make me who I am which are not necessarily only my career. That is definitely something that I think I have worked hard to achieve and can very easily be thrown out the window when things get moving quickly as they do.
What are your hopes for 2017?
I think consistency is something I am really looking forward to, just having enough strong projects that we can build on and really grow with. I am wanting to produce a show this year. I’ve been keeping one in my back pocket. Last year came to an abysmal close when our venue pulled out in the last minute. I am really looking forward to producing a show this year.
How do you pick the projects that ReVel takes on? Do you take on whoever approaches you or do you have a selection process?
That is definitely something that has evolved. Initially you grab whatever you can because you are in that position. For me there are three things that I always chose that are our core values as a business which are: communication, presentation, and integrity. Because the people that I work with, those are the people that I chose, and our client need to have those same values. If somebody is offering me a million bucks to do a project but [he or she] actually has no integrity as a client and they have a bad reputation, for me I already step back and say, “Whoa, what’s the catch here?” It is project by project. If it is something I see has potential for growth that is exciting for me then I’ll take it, but as I said integrity and communication and presentation is very important to my company and to the brand and it has been quite damaging in the past where we have just turned a blind eye. I think it’s the same for an actor, if you work with people who are cutting corners in a way that can be really harmful to your career. You have to be a bit selective.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Definitely I want to say Nicci Spalding. She’s an amazing superstar that I think has just shown me her commitment to work and how much effort and time and planning goes into making the magic that is theatre. She is the technical director of the National Arts Festival. Leigh Bishop has been quite an amazing role model for me. She is a costume designer at UCT and she has been somewhat of a mentor to me during my growth just encouraging me in moments of despair about being like, “its ok.” And then she’ll rehash a horrific tale of her last adventure somewhere. Helen Surgeson. She is a sponsorship manager for Gearhouse South Africa. She has just been so incredible in supporting the visions of artists by jumping on board in terms of production. As a producer that is the biggest relief because your production expenses far outweigh anything. I think the budget is serious this year. I think its 70% goes on production and 30% goes on the actual performers so to have somebody come on board to buy into a creative vision in technical capacity is incredible. That generosity is something that is really inspiring. I hope to keep that with me.
More information about ReVel Entertainment can be found on their official Facebook page.
Special thanks to Christie Hollander and Hannah Baker.