A Conversation with Barbara Mathers

Barbara Mathers is an arts administrator, performing arts producer and events coordinator. Since 1998 she has managed Third World Bunfight, producing most of their productions and tours locally and internationally. She has produced events including the Performing Arts Network of South Africa competition of One Act Plays, the Festival of White Light on the Spier Estate from 2009 to 2011 and Talking Heads for Infecting the City Festival. She managed The Spier Arts Festivals for 2008 including the Poetry Exchange on the Spier Estate and the Performing Arts & Music Festivals presented in inner city venues of Cape Town. We sat down to chat about her involvement in Third World Bunfight as well as their latest production, Samson, which is heading to US Woordfees 2019.

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

My mom was always involved in amateur dramatics throughout her life. At school, I wasn’t that academic and I wasn’t that sporty but I loved drama and being involved in the plays. I guess it’s a combination of growing up with theatre and then at school [experiencing] the real joy and fun of being involved in plays and drama. In high school, I wanted to be an actor. I had that dream so I went off to study acting but very soon I was the one doing the behind the scenes things. I’d be performing in the productions but then I’d be the one making the list for backstage and coordinating everybody. I think it was quite soon where I went more into the organising, managing, backstage kind of things but there was a time where I had a dream to act.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You ended up studying speech and drama. How do you feel like that training has lent itself to what you do now?

I think it’s good to have had some drama and performance training because you have an understanding from a performer’s point of view but I suppose it was also around the joy of theatre and being a creative. I definitely think it was good to have done that although strangely, I also did a few kind of more admin/ business courses at the time. Sometimes I think back and feel there’s always that little bit of concern coming from family around making a living so you sort of need to have that backup which is in teaching or the technical side of things which, for me, worked out well because I’m very happy with the path that I took but I sometimes think that if your drive and your passion is to be in performing, you shouldn’t feel like you have to have that backup. But as you know, to be able to jump between different roles and jobs within the industry is, of course, beneficial to finding work or continuing to work in the environment that you really want to be in.

Correct me if I’m wrong but my understanding is that you can’t really study arts management or producing per se. You can take courses but you can’t really qualify in it. 

There are institutions who are creating a few more courses like that but in my day, there definitely wasn’t. There was a technical theatre craft course at Natal Technikon and possibly I should have gone into that but on the other hand, I did really love the acting. I think somewhere along the way, I lost my nerve whether that is from not having enough experience or you just do lose your nerve for being on the stage. I enjoyed doing what I was doing more. But yes, I think now they are trying to include a bit of arts management but in our time, there wasn’t really much like that at all and as you say, it is hard to qualify as such with that. I think there’s the personality too. There are performers and actors who move into that and are very good at it but they probably also have something within their way of looking at things and doing things which lends itself to be more in that producer/administrator/arts management role.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

At what point did you decide to take on that title to describe what you do?

I suppose my story is funny in some ways in that after I studied, I went overseas for three years and backpacked around Europe, the way that one does, and spent time in Israel and Egypt and then worked in London making money and inevitably besides cleaning houses, you end up waitressing. Then I fell into the hospitality industry and when I came back to South Africa, I was working in hotels, believe it or not. I ended up at the Mount Nelson hotel and doing quite well and then Brett [Bailey], who I’ve known since I was 16, we met doing the school plays, he was starting a project in Grahamstown and he knew I wasn’t particularly happy with what I was doing. Funnily enough, I think that work that I did in front office management and in hotels really also helped in what I do now because I had to learn things like how to do spreadsheets and budgets and admin kind of things. I certainly think that assisted in what I do now. Brett said, “I need someone to help me. Come.” I said ok and everyone thought I was mad because I gave up this good job and pension and off I went to Grahamstown. It was the two of us and we did everything. We stage-managed, costumes, lights, driving buses. But [adopting that title] probably happened when we started working with big companies and big teams. Back in the day, it would just be the two of us running around like mad things which in a lot of ways I miss because it was very hands-on whereas now I often have to step back because of the nature of the work and I’m thinking ahead all the time as well around future funding and future tours. We started having big teams working with us and we also started working with international producers and agents and festival directors to put tours together and organise that way. That’s when I would have moved more into a) realising what I was doing and b) naming it.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

You’ve been with Third World Bunfight since almost the beginning of the organisation’s existence. What were the first few years like?

Brett had started in 1996 and then I joined him in 1998. The year before in Grahamstown was quite a phenomenon because that would have been iMumbo Jambo and then he was offered to come onto the main program. Then Standard Bank gave funding to run a training project and then from that, to present a work on the main programme that year and that’s actually when I joined. It was crazy those first few years but amazing. We stayed in tiny little rooms that we rented and like I said, ran around doing everything. It was a lot of fun and we toured a bit in the Eastern Cape. We translated Ipi Zombie into isiXhosa and we toured around and that was also amazing because of going into parts of South Africa I had never been to and kind of going back to almost an old way of touring theatre where we would be in a little town hall and there would be no audience so we’d send the performers out into the streets with their masks and call people in. We’d set up in the center of a little town at a crossroads outside and we’d pass a bucket around for people to put some money in because we were aware of people not paying for a ticket but also that there needs to be some acknowledgement and contribution towards it. People would put in a few cents. It was a big learning curve. It was very exciting and also a lot of fun and a bit crazy. In those early years, we also went to Zimbabwe to perform at HIFA. With Brett, we do mad things like we had to stay over at the great ruins and rehearse there but again, that’s what makes the work so special.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

For an organisation, especially a non-profit, to reach a milestone of  21 years is an incredible accomplishment. How has the organisation evolved during this time?

We moved away from being more of a training/development company. Initially, we were receiving funds to run projects like that but we continued to work a lot with the same performers and they were professional, they didn’t need [training]. We were no longer in that kind of development. We always had a big aspect of bringing in trainers and collaborators and mentors and all of us learning that way but we could no longer be a training [organisation] or we would need another side to do that because we were starting to tour and that was taking up time. The work has evolved. I think Brett comes back to a lot of themes and the work tries to be very socially conscious but I think with his growth, the company also grew. What’s interesting with Brett is that he could still do a production with very little and it could be phenomenal but of course it’s wonderful to be able to work with that kind of expertise and those sort of budgets for costumes and video and crew. I think there’s that side where the work and the themes and the kind of research that happens has evolved. Moving into the actual artistic side of it, moving into site-specific performance art, very design-orientated, that’s evolved as well. And then, as I said earlier, working with the bigger teams and I suppose in a way, my role as well evolving, so no longer being the stage manager as well as everything else. That’s been big too around managing teams and big budgets and coordinating tours and people from all over the world and I guess also evolving to work a lot in Europe which, on the one hand, has sometimes been a bit sad for us to not make so much work here but the funds and the commissions have come from overseas and also the experiences we’ve had touring and the people that we’ve worked with has been phenomenal. In the early days, we worked with not necessarily professional performers or experienced performers. We’ve done a bit of that in Europe with the productions of themes of migrations and refugees. We’ve worked with immigrants and refugees and activists who are not necessarily trained performers but then what’s interesting, on the one hand, we’ve stayed small as well with Brett and myself. 

What is an average day like for you?

An average day would also depend on what’s going on. I’ve also got children so they come in between within the day but at the moment where we are in quite a big production mode, I still spend a lot of time on my laptop in the office. It will be looking at emails and then it will be filling in forms and information for the National Arts Festival and then I’ll be talking on the phone to someone from Vrystaat and then I’ll email the Marseille festival director to check if he is going to come out and see the production now and then I will be checking on budget things and liaising with the stage manager about what’s been spent and then I’ll be looking at the production meetings to see a checklist of what needs to be followed up on and what we need to bring up at the next meeting with the team. Then there will be queries about someone needing this day off or a rehearsal off and checking with me. And then it might be that there’s a board meeting coming up so I’ll have to remember to prepare the agenda and minutes and remind people about that and then I might now in this time go in for a rehearsal and see how things are going. Most of the time I might be dealing with the organisers and the venue, so if there is a crisis around price or what they said they were going to provide but didn’t provide or there is a crisis with technical equipment, then I’d be putting out fires or trying to go to plans B or C with our team and the venue or the festival’s team but a lot of my days are sitting in front of a computer and answering emails and preparing contracts depending on where we are. If there are big tours coming up, there is also a lot around visas and that sort of thing. There’s a little bit of where I might assist with checking out some costumes and things or hassling the people who are making them and a lot of it is dealing with contracts on where you present and contracting people. Sometimes now, a lot of my work is before the rehearsals. There’s a lot that has to go on to make sure it all happens.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

Samson is going to Woordfees this year. What can you tell us about the show?

It’s based on the old testament story of Samson. There are 10 performers which includes four musicians and six performers with a narrator and Samson, the lead. One of the musicians goes across between being part of the ensemble as well as part of the band. Amazing electro music by Shane Cooper, incredible choreography by Vincent Mantsoe. It’s back video projection which is designed by Brett with Tanya Pixie Johnson and then we’ve had an animator, Kirsti Cummings, who has come in to put the animation for the video together. The story is around Samson who has this power but in a way meant to be the hero to rise up against the Philistines. This production is looking at Samson as rising up against a people with a lot of a rage and who have been oppressed. There’s that side of it. There is a ritual element, there’s even opera and some rap. It’s an experience and it’s looking incredible and it’s looking again at a lot of themes that we work with around capitalist policies coming in and people having enough and refugees and the clashes around that amongst people.

Photo credit: Sarafina Magazine

What advice would you have for anyone looking to enter into your profession?

I know that if I wanted to be a performer, I don’t think I would be able to do this. Maybe that isn’t the case for everybody but if I wanted to be on that side of the stage, I don’t think I would do what I do so well and in all those jobs and areas, it’s around being very supportive and believing in the work. I still think there is so much creativity in what we do because we are working in an environment that we are passionate about and love and supporting these creative people and being part of this process but it’s also around that everyday work that might involve emails and phone calls and running around and juggling a lot of balls and putting out fires and managing people. It’s very challenging and that, in itself, is also creative. The amazing thing about Brett and myself, as a team, is that we also laugh a lot. We’ve had a lot of stress and strain but in general, with our team, we have a laugh often as well. The advice is to try and have an understanding of different jobs and what everyone does and the terminology around that. We can’t be micromanaging and be in on everything but it’s good to have an overall sense and understanding of all those different jobs. I think looking into training, again not really knowing what’s out there around arts administration and management but I definitely think things around finance and business understanding is good to consider including and working with. I think the challenge with our jobs is that a lot of people don’t understand the work that goes into it or they never believe you when you say it isn’t in the budget but I think you need to always be thinking of the artist and the work and try not to compromise. I think it’s to always think about the integrity of the product and to treat artists really well.

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

There are people that I see a lot more, who are friends of mine, but because of that, they are inspiring because I’m more exposed to what they do and how they do it. That would be people like Lara Bye and Natalie Fisherwho is a choreographer, and Fiona du Plooy and Jaqueline Dommisse. I see them and we talk a lot and even in everyday life, they are very inspiring and motivating and supportive and that they have this belief in me and what I do, is wonderful. Then I would say Jennie Reznek, also for being so creative but running this organisation. There’s Laurence Estève from Zip Zap Circus school and I’m exposed to her because my eldest daughter is big with the circus school but again, [she’s] unbelievable. There are performers that I’ve worked with over the years like Zoleka Helesi. She is with Zabalaza now and performed with us back in the day. Chuma Sopotela and Faniswa Yisa, they were really amazing to work with and inspiring.

Samson will run at Woordfees from March 8th-10th. For tickets, click here.

For more information on Third World Bunfight, please visit their website.

Special thanks to Allison Foat.

All photos were taken on February 25th 2019 at Artscape.

Sarafina Magazine maintains copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.


One thought on “A Conversation with Barbara Mathers

  1. Pingback: A Conversation with Lara Bye – Sarafina Magazine

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