PROLOGUE- It can only happen by either evolution or revolution. Far-removed from the glitz and glamour of South Africa’s traditional suburbia setting, where cinemas, museums, big libraries, art galleries and theatres paint the landscape arty, White River is rather the only town in the country’s abandoned countryside to boast all of the above and more. But most of all it is home to history in the making, The Barnyard Theatre. It is often said that giving birth to a revolution is painful. Arguable? Yes, because giving birth to anything is painful, but that increases the pleasure of watching it grow. SCENE ONE- EXTEROR- THE BARNYARD: DAY (12h35)
Rain is pouring hard as the theatre offers a proud first impression amid its competitive surrounding. It is soaking wet and releasing some of the downpour down its two storey high roofing, which does not enjoy the support of water gutters. I maneuver past the downpour released by the roof, past the concrete paving, with no umbrella or raincoat I’m about to get pneumonia as I seek refuge in the theatre office, where I only know that I have a 13h00 interview appointment with a character named Steve, who I only spoke to on the phone barely twenty hours earlier.
Cut to…. SCENE TWO- INTERIOR- THE BARNYARD (Reception): DAY
Formalities with staff aside, I ogle the beautiful wooden finish office that also quadruples as a bar, restaurant, and a coffee shop. There are promo flyers pasted and pinned everywhere. The wall looks as if it’s a collage walk of fame for who’s who of South Africa’s stage performance. Everyone from Nataniel, Marc Lottering, Little Sister, Eddie Ecksteen etcetera have graced this platform. Every poster has words of gratitude and appreciation to Steve for having made everybody’s day/night. Steve comes across like a bundu legend of sorts. It seems you can’t talk about The Barnyard without mentioning Steve. One patron signature for a show about The Vagina Mologues reads, "Thank you Steve for the most extraordinary weekend- who would have believed that White River was so vagina friendly. I can’t wait for next time- love Lara" (2&3 June 2000) The intriguing one is from Marc Lottering, "To stunning Steve + all at the Barnyard- what a fab experience for a Cape Flats boy!! Darlings, I’ll be back" (24 February 2001). There are tens of posters with such messages and that makes me die to meet Steve.
Cut to… SCENE THREE- INTERIOR- THE BARNYARD (Auditorium): DAY
Two floors which can easily pass off as three if the production booth is considered to be on another floor, everything is furnished in wood. Tens of lanterns stage a farm vigil. An assistant takes me around, explaining to me that not only do they stage shows here but also weddings, matric dances, all different kinds of parties too. She swears that the state of the art barn theatre fills to capacity on good days. I’m cynical since she doesn’t look the PR type and doesn’t fit my idea of theatre literati. The production booth is equipped with some of the latest lighting control equipment and sound system, with a scenic view to all the seats and the majestic stage.
Cut to… SCENE FOUR- INTERIOR- THE BARNYARD (Stage): DAY
A black grand piano stands lonely. The dressing rooms behind the purple curtains are all – to borrow a word from Marc Lottering- fab. The two floors look intimidating from the stage, with the seats and tables below and above. I feel for performers here. I sit on the chair next to the piano and punch in some keys, playing my original spec of the moment compositions. My sound is intoxicating as the assistant comes to see the maestro behind the tunes.
Cut to… DIALOGUE- Steve arrives minutes after one o’clock and is apologetic. Over hot chicken and pap lunch he says that he personally built the 250 seater theatre four years ago after he obtained the first franchise in South Africa from the founder, Mr. Louis Moller who now lives in Pretoria. "The concept started in Plettenberg Bay in the East Coast about ten years ago. I understand that Moller just took an empty barn on his farm, removed the tractor and all other tools then converted it into a theatre. That’s how it got its name" Steve Ryan says. He also says that the attendance of the shows differs on whether it is a commercial or non-commercial show. "A commercial show is that which has received its fair share of publicity but a non-commercial show is a new one altogether" he explains. Steve is not happy about the benefits he reaps out of running the theatre. Even though he owns five other theatres across the country, with another one opening in Fourways (Johannesburg) soon, he says he sometimes wonders why he ever started it. "I don’t get much support from local people. I don’t get sold out every weekend, if a show is original they don’t come, even though we provide a nice picnic environment and a warm surrounding". The question is, why don’t the people come? "The difference between this theatre and others in regard to attendance is that it’s in the countryside. It is difficult here to run it in a way that it makes money. Enough money to pay artists and book shows. Some people in South Africa don’t support theatre". Why? "Theatre doesn’t receive massive sponsorships like sports, theatre is not our culture". But being one of only two theatres in Mpumalanga Province it is safe to argue that he is entitled to some support from government. "We (The Barnyard) don’t receive any support from the Department of Arts, Sports and Culture here. I have spoken to all of them. We only get good support from business and we got regular clients". It is surprising that they haven’t attracted any government subsidies, bearing in mind that one of the framed letters on the wooden display, which I read while Steve left to fetch us both coffee and a chocolate cake is for thanking The Barnyard Theatre for its donation of R7896, 35 to the Greater Nelspruit Rape Intervention Project Group (GRIP). "The geographical location is a huge disadvantage since most of the people we get as tourists are those from Mozambique and Swaziland" he discloses. His biggest stumbling block remains that of lack of enthusiasm in his theatre from people who can make a bigger difference. He says that if there was support they could have comedy shows, but now there is no funding available for comedians. He urges government to be involved in helping The Barnyard expose theatre to rural communities, schools and promote groups and plays. "Otherwise nobody can say we are under any obligation to transform theatre in this country" Steve, who can be real mean, says with intimidating defiance. He swears that theatre has never flourished in this country, "The Market Theatre shows are mostly subsidized by government, where is the culture of theatre?" He finally invites me to come and witness for myself the undoing of his theatre and why he "does it only because there’s nothing else to do since I have invested a lot of money" in it. I get token tickets for the ride. Three days later@SCENE ONE- EXTERIOR- THE BARNYARD: NIGHT
Hordes of art people are mingling as two braai fires and a jolly patronage sips liquor and socializes. I maneoure past the happy enthusiasts to meet Steve and pose my questions.
Cut to… SCENE TWO- INTERIOR- THE BARNYARD (Reception): NIGHT
The area is packed as Steve allocates the patrons their seats, all patrons are white. Men with their women, fathers with their families. The show looks sold out as I and my friend get allocated seats number 37 and 38 on the second floor with a priceless view to the stage below. The theatre is filled, and at R95 per person and a R55 three course meal I start to wonder why Steve said he was regretting the venture. THE SHOW- A Handful of Keys – Starring: Ian von Memerty & Roelof Colyn & Two Grand Pianos. The performance by the two piano geniuses draws applause from the packed auditorium as they take us through the history of music, from Mozart to Billy Joel. Their comic antics are superbly funny and their show hilarious. It’s my first time in a musical and I’m left astounded. Ian and Roelof play so well together you can’ help but wonder what will happen if one of them died. All through this madness Steve is sipping beer by the production cubicle, not amused. EPILOGUE- At 22h30 I walk out and find The Barnyard Theatre’s birth giver sitting all alone by the exit, as if he’s sad to see everybody go. In my head I’m thinking about what he said three days earlier about theatre not being our culture as South Africans. We need a revolution. As everybody packs their picnic bags and leaves I’m thinking, maybe it’s true, there might not be a culture. But it’s disputable because The Barnyard Theatre is a culture in itself and Steve is its legend. The theatre will host Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Lottering again soon. Curtain out.