Samantha de Romijn is the co-founder of The Imbewu Trust, a non-profit organisation which was established to promote the development of contemporary South African theatre and arts. She has also worked as a producer, agent, arts manager, performer, stage manager and director. Now in it’s seventh year, the SCrIBE Scriptwriting Competition, a flagship project of the Imbewu Trust, was recently awarded a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Innovation in Theatre. SCrIBE is an opportunity for South African playwrights to further develop their work. A staged reading is held for each of the finalist’s scripts, providing the chance for feedback from the industry and members of the public. An overall winner is announced at the end of the week, with one of the prizes being having the play professionally mounted for a run at a Cape Town theatre. Another writer has the chance to win The Scribblers Dream, a prize which enables a writer the opportunity to work alongside a mentor to develop their script and another writer has the chance to further workshop his or her play.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I would have to say probably Pieter-Dirk Uys, going back to National Arts Festivals when I was in high school. Lara Foot’s version of Waiting for Godot at the National Arts Festival. That freedom of creativity, that magic moment two minutes before the curtain goes up, that tension that is in the room. I think that would have been it. I have to add Andrew Buckland for his writing style and just his sense of creativity and imagination and just absolute magic. I think between the three of them, just real South African theatre-makers.
It sounds like you were inspired by theatre quite early on but then went on to study PR first and then Drama before ending up at The Waterfront Theatre College. What was the decision process around choosing to study PR?
At the end of high school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to study Drama. I didn’t know if university was the right thing for me. My mom had also passed away so I didn’t know if I was coming or going. I think Public Relations was always something that I was good at and that I was interested in. I’m a people person, so it just made sense for me to study Marketing and PR. It’s something that I’ve continued to use. I think in producing theatre work, you always need to understand your market and how to engage with people. From there, I went to varsity and did a year there. I did an amazing class with Paul Dutland who taught me physical theatre and I absolutely loved it. It was my favourite and totally inspiring but I wasn’t in that space yet to really buckle down and know what I wanted to do. I left there after a year and I moved to the Waterfront Theatre School. I started there [and] realised that I was never made for musical theatre. I like to sing in my car but the dancing and stuff, after having studied with Paul and the style of theatre that I was partial to, it just wasn’t going to be the right fit but I finished the course and then I actually went back later and completed my teachers and then worked with them for a while. College was great and I got to meet lots of people but I think if I had been in the right space, UCT would have been a better fit for me but it was serendipitous that I met loads of people who worked at UCT or had graduated from UCT and we ended up working together. It kind of just fell into place naturally.
You’ve had such a diverse career. Professionally, how do you choose to define yourself?
I think my move into working with a casting agency or looking after actors… I think the mothering side of me is a big part of me. I like to look after actors which is why, as a producer, that is the part that I like. I like to make sure that things are looked after and taken care of. Professionally if I could, my dream job would be an international producer. I would love to produce South African theatre overseas, particularly in an American market because I think that South African theatre would work really well in that environment. Professionally, I would also like to go further into the film industry and maybe work more in the casting sector, so more as a creative as opposed to just administrative.
I wanted to touch on what you mentioned about producing South African work in America because you actually did produce a show in New York. What was that experience like?
When we originally launched the Imbewu Arts Foundation Trust, the project in mind was to produce four or five shows at a small Off-Off-Broadway theatre in New York and get enough funding to take those shows. Those shows were Karoo Moose, Tin Bucket Drum [and] Pictures of You. There might have been something else. The plan was to host a mini South African theatre festival. We didn’t get the funding and I spent a week in my pajamas on the couch which freaked my husband out immensely but we got over it. The following year we worked out that if we just took one show, being Neil’s [Coppen] show which was the smallest in terms of cast and logistics, we could actually just run the project. I went over first and I met with the embassy and I met with some other kind of key stakeholders. It’s a very difficult road to run. We eventually got the money together and we took Neil’s show and we were at a small theatre in the East Village. We had an amazing time and the experience was incredible. The problem is with New York, there is so much happening in that city that you have to be there for at least two or three weeks in order for the word to spread around the village that you are there. We only did ten days. It was a very costly exercise. I think in the long run, like the Baxter saw massive success with taking Mies Julie, you can if you have the financial backing and if you have the right theatre’s involved and if you have all of that support in place, then I think that you can have an incredible run of it. Our show did very well. It was just an amazing experience for everybody. We all loved it. I just wish that it could have gotten more longevity. It’s something I wish I could do every year because it is just fantastic. The highlight for me was having Mpume [Mthombeni] and Wake [Mahlobo] walk into Grand Central Station and their eyes lit up and we were all carrying South African flags. We made this amazing video of it and it was just an awesome time for everyone. The show did phenomenally, the audience reactions were fantastic and people’s revelling in the magic of that story was just awesome. As far as a career goes, that was definitely one of the highlights.
Everything you’ve done so far has lead you to creating the Imbewu Trust. What was the process like in forming it?
Trying to get those shows there broke my heart because I have a lot of respect for Lara and for Rob [Murray]. I love their shows. When I went to New York last, I watched a lot of theatre and I really do think that our level in South Africa is just as good, if not better. I do believe there is a platform for a festival of that nature in New York but you’ve got to have some funding or someone to look after you financially because it’s very expensive. In terms of putting the Trust together, I was very lucky. I had a lady in Durban who helped me put it all together. The non-profit application was also quite seamless and then it all came together. So then the journey went from trying to host this festival to just taking the one show. Then we also had the bursary which was good but we realised with the allocation of funding, it was never enough for the students to take to the National Arts Festival, so we thought rather keep the allocated funding for the SCrIBE Scriptwriting Competition which then became what the trust was going to focus on. Because of the allocation of funding that we do get, we can still make something happen without having to go through massive funding processes which are gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and very time-consuming. I don’t have the time to go through the process anymore. If I had the time, even then, there’s a lot of things to compete with in terms of the theatre community and also in terms of the charity organisations. It’s a tough slog to get people to give you money over everybody else who needs that money as well. For us, the Scriptwriting Contest is a great way to still be able to produce fantastic writers work and to give writers that platform and that voice. The more platforms that you have for writers to let their work grow and let it happen, the better. The more support the arts industry and the theatre industry gets, the better.
Lack of funding tends to come up in quite a lot of interviews.
Funding is a big deal in South Africa and there are not a lot of ways to get it unless you find the secret benefactor that is going to love you for forever and a day and just love every piece of theatre that you do and then, do you make your work specifically to suit somebody? It becomes very tricky. The big brands are not really interested because there isn’t enough marketing value for them so you are competing with the jazz festival and the cricket. You are competing with sports and with comedians so the pool becomes less and less but there is still as many people, if not more who are looking for the same amount of money. It just becomes a very difficult things to do whereas [with] the Scriptwriting Competition, we have a small budget, the production budget stays very small and it is amazing working with Paul Griffiths because if you say, “That is the budget,” he sticks within that budget. Other people I know have presented me with other bills that come on the side going, “Oh sorry, that maybe just cost a little bit more.” In hindsight, it is all about learning.
What is the process around applying for the SCrIBE Scriptwriting Competition?
People can go onto the website, they have to write a script no longer than 40 pages because it works out to about two minutes per page, so 80 minutes for a show. Predominantly English, any vernacular can be used. No more than five characters. That is in terms of producing. It just makes it easier if the cast is smaller. Again, the whole purpose was to find these shows that could be produced internationally. A small cast is easier to travel. They submit the scripts before the end of July and that’s it. We read through them and we select between three and five of the top scripts and then we host the readings evening, which is my favourite part of the competition. I think they are fantastic. I wish there wasn’t a winner or a loser. We have the finals evening and the awards and that’s how it runs.
I love that one of the benefits of winning the Scribblers Dream prize is the opportunity to work alongside a mentor. Why was that something that was important for you to include?
I think part of the time, other artists get exposed to different levels of work. Everyone is trying to create their own work but they have people that they admire and I think sometimes if you can link those two people up then it just works really well. The mentoring that we tried to do, it didn’t actually work out in terms of time. We need to try revisit that and I think now that I have more time to try to organise that, it’s better. I just think that you can learn from people. I think the community is very small and I think if we all look after each other, then I think we can all help each other out.
As of two weeks ago, you’ve become a Fleur du Cap winner for Innovation in Theatre. What was it like to have seven years of hard work recognised?
It was really great. I’ve worked in the theatre industry since about 2002 and so I know a lot of people in the room. I’ve worked with most of the people. It’s just great when your peers and a council of judges that you’ve also known for a long time, recognise your work and they go, “Fantastic. Congratulations.” It’s awesome and the recognition from the award afterwards has been fantastic. We are super stoked. It’s been great and we had a super fun evening and the money, obviously, helps towards this year’s projects.
I read that one of your goals for the Trust is to be able to ensure a sustainable tertiary education bursary. I was wondering if maybe you could chat a little bit about that as well as your other future hopes?
The tertiary education bursary was the Fly Free Bursary which is what we had. I think we closed it in 2014 or 2015. That is when we allocated the funding, because what we allocated for there was R15 000 towards artist’s taking a show to the National Arts Festival but artists just found it was never enough to cover their costs. I think everybody understands that Grahamstown ends up costing. I wish we could still do it but I just find that its too much money. It just works out to be way too much that you are looking at in the year. I wish we could have kept it but it just didn’t work out I’m afraid.
Is that still something that you want in the future?
I think, for me, focusing on SCrIBE and then producing the show at the end of it takes up a huge amount of time. I think effectively and with the finances that we are given, that is really the only place we can put that money into because for the readings, we pay all the actors and directors. It’s also obviously the rental of the space, the marketing and then the awards evening and the production that comes next which is also costly. If we had a greater amount of money to work with, I would love to run other projects. I think Children Theatre projects would be amazing. I think that is something I would like to focus more on. We did our amazing show Scoop and after seeing Jon Keevy recently receive his award at the Fleur du Cap’s, Children’s Theatre has always been a thing for me. I think having three of your own, you just know the benefit and that is kind of where my interest peaked. I think there are a lot of kids who love theatre and the drama world. It’s something that is so special and that needs to be nurtured and loved. To support ASSITEJ, to work with them, to do all of those things, I think that is where my focus would go more.
What words of encouragement or advice would you have for anyone who is thinking of entering the Scriptwriting Contest?
Go and watch a play. We get a lot of scripts that are more Television style so it becomes quite difficult because we know that stylistically it wouldn’t work in a theatre. Go watch a play, read a play. Just understanding that format for people is very difficult because they don’t know how to structure it in such a way. Otherwise, tell a great story. Be honest. Be open. Use your imagination. Our winner this year, Darrel Bristow-Bovey, his play is crazy, its wild, it’s stunning, it’s truthful, it’s sad, it’s compassionate. It’s just a really lovely script. I know that show is going to be great. I think just support local theatre and have fun. Don’t ever make anything too serious.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
There are quite a lot. I would say Marlene le Roux, Lara Foot, Faniswa Yisa, Ukhona Mlandu, I love Ukhona’s work. She is amazing. Primrose Mrwebi, Tracey Saunders, Caroline Calburn, Nikki Froneman, Lara Bye, Tara Notcutt, Penny Youngleson, Iman Isaacs, Amy Jephta, Koleka Putuma. If you follow all of those ladies, you are constantly in awe and mesmerised by the amazingness that they do. I mean the list can go on and on. There is a lot of them. The stage managers, all the women that work in these spaces. Nicolette Moses at the Baxter. I have to say Delia Sainsbury. I could rattle them all off.
All photos were taken by Chanel Katz on March 27th 2018.