As the creator of Theatre Scene Cape Town, Barbara Loots has managed to take her passion for theatre and turn it into a digital initiative sharing what the thriving Cape Town theatre industry has to offer, all in the name of getting “bums on seats.” In five short years she has managed to transform Theatre Scene Cape Town into a thriving online resource. She is also a director of Cape Town Angels, an NPC that believes in spreading the magic of compassion. In addition, she also makes up half of the dynamic duo known as Loots Digital. Barbara has managed to effortlessly achieve all of this while balancing her full-time career in law.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
It’s a long-term relationship. My parents took me to the theatre when I was very young. My mom was a music teacher. My dad helped make props for ballet concerts. They started me off in ballet the year that I turned five. Theatre was a big thing. I remember sitting in the now Artscape, it was then the Nico Malan, very much front row and watching a musical totally besotted. When I started piano lessons, my mom actually passed on her original Sound of Music sheet music to me. I still have that. The Sound of Music became almost this beacon for me as well. Theatre was just who we, as family, identified ourselves as. Then I went into law, became an academic and got stuck in that, lectured a little bit, went from that to do research at The High Court for the judges and then went to Parliament first as a committee clerk and then a legal advisor. In that, I realized I needed theatre again to ground myself and to balance my life. You can become very disillusioned and very depressed because there are always problems and issues…even in law. In court there is always someone who has a problem. You become a fixer. To move away from the idea that I am just “a fixer,” I immersed myself in theatre again. I realized that the big productions got a lot of publicity because they have the money, but I was sitting in fabulous productions with an audience of 5 or 6 people and [realized], “Oh this is an independent group. They don’t have a lot of money. They don’t have a lot of press but people need to know.” Also, there weren’t a lot of people my age in the audience group. I started thinking, “Ok how do I reach people of my age group?” That was how Theatre Scene started. From being brought up with awareness of theatre and that you should talk about it and that you should share it.
When did Theatre Scene start?
6th of January 2012.
How have things changed now compared to when you initially started?
It started with me just not really knowing what I was doing and just sharing stuff on a blog. I was very scared initially. I spoke to my friend Jaco [Brill] who started Cape Town Music Scene, about how to structure it. The idea was there but I was very insecure so I always wanted a security blanket. I dragged in one of my school friends who also really likes theatre and I got him to kind of be my support and that we would do it together. I started off just designing the image. On the 6th of January 2012, after I spoke to Jaco, I registered the Twitter account. I started playing with the design and every time I designed something I would send it to my friend and go, “What do you think?” and he would say, “That’s cool, put it on.” That started out as a blog. I can’t remember what we called it but it was a “Dear Somebody” letter saying what we saw. Eventually I just started reading more about theatre, educating myself, studying digital marketing and social media to empower myself. Because my brother is a computer programmer, I got to the stage where I was like, “Right, this needs to go from a blog to something more legit.” From there it became a website. My friend moved on to his own PR career and I got another friend who was in PR to come in and help me and eventually I was like, “Right. I need to own what I’ve created and I need to own my passion project.” Running it alone was daunting. It has now been two and a half years of running it without a sounding board/ support system of someone to hold my hand which is kind of scary.
Do you remember the first thing you ever posted?
As time has progressed do you feel like you’ve gotten into more of a groove with your reviews?
I’ve become more confident in actually giving my opinion. I try to justify everything I say. If I say something is good, from my perspective, then I try and say why. If there is something that bugs me or that felt a little bit off or that I didn’t connect with in a show, then I try and justify why. I recently was part of an initiative for young journalists called Kritiek and we had two mentors, Evelyne Coussens from Belgium and Diane de Beer who has been in theatre and a theatre critic for years in South Africa. Both of them said that as a theatre reviewer and a theatre critic, you need to understand that it is always your subjective voice and you should not be afraid to use that because as soon as your name is at the top saying that Barbara Loots wrote this, then the person knows it is Barbara’s voice. You are allowed to have a subjective opinion.
How do you feel your law career lends itself to Theatre Scene?
In law you have to be very logical and everything is a strategy. I think that helps me in how I think about how I promote things. If somebody sends me a press release, from that [law] perspective and from a social media perspective, I would think about the logical steps; What do I want? What is the end result? What is the gain? Not necessarily the gain for me but the gain for the show. From an analytical perspective, it has helped me to dissect. I can unpack what I have seen. It’s taught me how to almost unpack the element, like you’d have the elements of a crime or any element in law, it helps you to unpack the elements and look at it from an analytical perspective which also gave me a little bit of a confidence boost [now] that I’ve started to see things.
If you had to choose one piece that you’ve ever done, to define Theatre Scene, what would it be?
It’s not necessarily a well-written piece because I think my writing has changed and has evolved but there is one piece that I wrote and it wasn’t a review, it was a comment on the standing ovation. I came to a point [during] opening nights where I thought a standing ovation was losing its meaning and its purpose. I wrote a piece and I did a bit of research on that and the meaning of a standing ovation. That is a standout piece to me. I liked writing it. I think that is also where I want to go with Theatre Scene. With my reviews and with the social media content, I really want to congregate theatre as a lifestyle, that people understand that there are different elements to it, there is no obligation for them to act a certain way. You are allowed to feel what you feel. You are allowed to connect with this play and not with that play. It’s an ever-evolving situation. I would like to write more about theatre etiquette and stuff like that. The actual nuances of theatre as a lifestyle and not just the “goes to see the play and writes a review.”
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Theatre Scene or about critic culture in South Africa?
Misconception is a tricky word because it can be so easily misconstrued. I think initially people didn’t really understand why Theatre Scene was there. Even now, still, maybe some people wonder what the deal is. The listings are free, the reviews are free. Why? It doesn’t fit into the category of labels people are accustomed to in the industry, and I think that’s partly because it is based on a lifestyle. The slogan of Theatre Scene is A Life Without Theatre Is A Life Half Lived. Within that lifestyle there is a misconception when people can’t distinguish me as ‘lawyer-me’, ‘digital promoter-me’ and ‘reviewer-me’ for example. Maybe that is the thing that law has allowed, I can box and unbox myself as I want. It has taught me that a label only has as much power as one gives it. I can put on another hat and go, “Now if you want digital marketing help I can guide you on that but then I am not Barbara the reviewer.” If I look at something from a legal perspective then I am not Theatre Scene nor a digital promoter. Add Cape Town Angels into the mix and it all gets properly confusing. I think the fact that while running Theatre Scene, I switch between those personas that others would generally regard as static labels, without me really thinking about ‘who’ I am when, is maybe partly at the root of the misconception. People kind of struggle to mush me together because they think and want me to be just Theatre Scene, just a lawyer or just something else. That is the part of the misconception that I don’t really like. I think there are different aspects. Perhaps the biggest cause of the confusion is that people sometimes totally forget that Theatre Scene in essence is a free platform, and not really a person.
Any misconceptions about critic culture?
I actually think we are losing critic culture a little bit because [the] people who I look up to, if I read their earlier reviews and I read what they do now, it is sometimes softer. Then I read what is happening in London and New York and people are very specific. I actually think we are losing a bit of critic culture. I don’t know if maybe that is my misconception but everything is lovely and fluffy and fun. When you write that you don’t like something, it’s almost a gasp that you hear, “How can somebody say that?” I think we are losing some authenticity maybe in voice. There is a lot of generic. I don’t know how that fits in but I would like to see real criticism and not just reviews. Actual criticism [and] real reviews from critics I can look up to because I aspire to one day be a real critic. There needs to be some sort of an element of research and understanding and nuance and just detail and respect. If you say something that you don’t agree with, you can still be respectful in saying it. I think of three reviewers at the moment where I would go, “They are critics.”
What differentiates a critic from a reviewer?
I’m just going from what I was taught, especially in our recent sessions with Diane and Evelyne. It’s the actual detail in knowing the craft. They also say that you should not project onto a director what [they] should have done. You can say what you think was wrong without saying, “But [they] should have done it this way.” A reviewer will go, “I didn’t like this because…” or, “I like this because…” A critic also knows the boundaries. A critic knows where the line is but a critic also does an analysis. There is something more in-depth. There is something that you go, “This person knows what they are talking about.” You don’t necessarily have to agree with them. There are a lot of movie reviewers where they review something and I know they know their cinematography, I know that they are brilliant critics but I also know that their taste is not my taste. If they review it and 5 star it, I’m not going to see it. If they say it is horrible I go, “Oh I’m going to enjoy this.” From a critic perspective, when you start knowing your favourite critics and you start identifying with their voices, because they analyze and because they respect what they analyze and because they bring balance to their pieces, you associate with them and you buy into what they are saying.
What is your process like when it comes to writing a review? Do you immediately go home and start writing or do you need to take some time?
It depends on the play. There is always a notebook and a pen in my hand. Sometimes I sit and I am so immersed in the play that I don’t need to take notes. Other times there is so much detail and so much that I want to remember and that I want to share, I’ll take out my book and I write. It also depends on the emotional impact of the play. If it is fun and it is a happy situation or it is a comedy, sometimes it is easy. If it is a really hard-hitting, emotive, dark play, sometimes you need to simmer a little bit and lull and develop a voice and almost conceptualize what you have seen into an idea. Then it takes a little bit longer. Also, when I have read a play and I am very invested in a play then I will let it lie a little bit so that I can distance myself and bring just a little bit of a check to my subjectivity. It depends on the actual play. Sometimes it just happens. Sometimes I drive home and I put my voice-notes on and I just talk to myself. Other times I have to wait.
Let’s chat about Loots Digital.
I’m very much backseat in that. My brother, Abrie, is the boss there. He does the web designing and the programming and the mobile app development because that is very much what Loots Digital is. I advise from a social media and digital perspective because I have a job but that is his job. It is very much a collaboration. I think it is nice that two siblings can support one another. Eventually one day when I maybe leave the legal arena, I will go into that fully. I did short courses in graphic design and digital marketing so when he needs graphics, it is fun for me to play and bounce ideas. There are no set hours for me. I am merely the consulting voice. It allows me some flexibility and creativity.
Theatre Scene has been around for so long but yet you, personally, can kind of be anonymous. Do you prefer that anonymity?
You can tell from my ramblings I am nervous because I kind of see myself as background. I love the idea of the masks [as the logo], not just because it is theatre but because I could hide behind it. There was no face and there were no associations, especially during the beginning stages where I learned a lot more. My learning curve has been gradual. You make mistakes and sometimes you feel like a fool and sometimes it is nice to hide behind something that is anonymous. The anonymity kind of helped to create some mystery and that helped promote the platform because nobody knew where Theatre Scene was going to pop up. All of a sudden, Theatre Scene was at more and more events. During certain phases I had some partners in theatrical crime. Sometimes we were at two events and tweeted from two different events on the same platform. It was fun.
What are you hopes for the next five years for Theatre Scene?
I actually just want it to grow in the original intention of getting bums on seats. I really want to see that people buy into the content on the site to such an extent that they go, “Oh, I need to be at Alexander Upstairs tonight. Oh I need to be at The Fugard or Kalk Bay.” I want people to embrace theatre as a lifestyle. I want that culture for Cape Town. There are a few people who actually said it but I recall Christo Davids saying it in one of the interviews that I did with him, “Cape Town has the potential to become the West End of Africa.” I would like Theatre Scene to be a small part, if possible, in helping to create the buzz so that they invest and [would] rather go to the theatre than to the cinema. I’m not saying don’t go to the cinema but don’t go necessarily every week. Mix it up a little bit. See something that is real 3D and not just with glasses.
Who are something South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Because of her support in the Theatre Scene dream: Suzann Keyter. She has been a friend and a supporter and a confidant from the beginning. Christine Skinner as well. She bought into the concept from the get-go. She’s fantastic. Both of them have become great friends. I think those two are who my heart tells me to say. There is a long list of people who inspire me just from their creative sides and the type of productions that they do. Penny Youngleson [and] Tara Notcutt create theatre that excites me and that I can see a voice and the power of theatre.
Barbara can be found on Twitter.