The young school boy looked around the new Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre. He bounced on his seat. Yeah, the seats were great. His mother gave him a warning look. The lights dimmed as the orchestra began to play the overture to the musical Anne of Green Gables. One day, he thought, he would work in this theatre. On musicals. He loved musicals. His attention was caught by the entrance of a young girl in plaits singing on the back of a milk cart:
Once I thought I’d like to be a blossom growing on a tree
White and pink and lazy as can be
But I’d be King just in the spring
So now I think it over
Gee, I’m glad I’m no one else but me!
Steven snuggled down with a contented sigh. He was where he loved to be – in the theatre.
Steven Stead recently said: “I adored the almost ritualistic, transportive experience of being an audience member. The eager anticipation of the journey to the theatre, the thrill as the lights went down, and then how my own being seemed to fuse with the rest of the audience and the actors on stage. It created a thrilling, magical almost transcendental experience. It is something that has never quite left me, no matter how experienced I have become. Very rarely do I get transported these days. I am too jaded. And yet, it happened just recently in Slava’s Snow Show and at Clybourne Park. They were both mesmerising in their wild exhilaration. I found them stimulating intellectually and spiritually. No other art form delivers quite the same rush of adrenalin and empathy. Or as the ancients said: pity and terror.”
In April, I watched Steven Stead collect his two Naledi Theatre Awards – Best Director for the musical Sweeney Todd and the Joan Brickhill Award for the best production of a musical. The golden mopped man smiled broadly as he stepped forward to say thank you.
He told me: “I have a very unhealthy relationship with awards. While I know they are there to give the industry traction and status, I think they can be so incredibly destructive to individuals, and divisive within our artistic community. You can’t compare apples with oranges, can you? Our artistic merit is incredibly subjective. The best thing is to take them with a massive pinch of salt. One has to treat the whole thing with a bit of healthy disdain. Which means that when one wins, one has to be consistent and treat it very lightly too. I was delighted that our work and our team got the recognition of nominations. It is great to be recognised and validated on a national level. The awards I revelled in were the lifetime achievement awards given to stalwarts within our industry. Your Spirit of Courage Award was breathtaking. Those were all very meaningful.”
My memory took me back to the 1987 Christmas pantomime of Cinderella that Steven and I had performed in. He was a young varsity student, eager to learn and always asking questions. I thought I was bad as far as asking questions went. I paled in comparison to Steven! Due to my accident, I left the theatre world shortly afterwards and as a result our paths didn’t cross for many years.
Our friendship was renewed when the KickstArt Theatre Company decided to put on my show Gaynor Rising in Durban in 2005. Greg King and Steven had formed this theatre company that has just gone from strength to strength.
“We actually just want to put on the sort of shows that we ourselves are desperate to see. That has been a strong motivating force for us both.”
Billy Suter, Arts Editor for The Mercury newspaper wrote:
Durban loves them, they’re perfect…and let’s hope they never change cities, because Greg King and Steven Stead’s award-winning KickstArt Theatre Company is as much an essential and cherished part of Surf City as dips in the ocean, slides at uShaka and gliding up the Moses Madiba Stadium arch.
Actress, Lisa Bobbert says: “When you work in a KickstArt production, you know it is going to be excellent. The sets, costumes, music, lighting, acting, you name it – it’s always world class, something you could easily see on the West End or Broadway. Friends who have seen shows like Annie and Cabaret on Broadway have told me that they far preferred KickstArt’s productions. Steven Stead and Greg King have made a significant and indispensable contribution to the South African Theatre industry.”
“What is it that captures you when you direct shows?” I asked Steven.
“I direct because I feel a deep connection to the theatre. It moves through me freely and powerfully. I want more than anything else to see it well served, with integrity, not ego. And so I serve it. As best I can. And find a deep and lasting satisfaction in doing so.
Basically, I have always been passionate about story-telling. The director is there to tell a story as clearly and as powerfully as possible. I find the process of working out how best to tell the story immensely satisfying and endlessly absorbing.”
Steven finished by saying: “It’s so hard to discuss this stuff without sounding like a cross between Stanislavsky and Donald Trump!”
Many of the shows that Steven directs are for children. I love children’s theatre. In fact Steven recalls as a child going to watch Pieter Scholtz’s Tambootie the Puppet. I played Pizzi the puppet whose twin was Cato. I will never forget the children’s faces as they sang along and shouted out suggestions to us characters onstage.
The renowned theatre critic Lyn Gardner says: “We worry endlessly about exam results and yet squeeze the arts from the curriculum. The opportunities to learn an instrument or go to the theatre are not an entitlement for every child, but activities that are only within the reach of the privileged few. As one of the characters in Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters says: ‘Art is the place where you understand your whole life from.’
If one single child is excluded from art, we are all the poorer for it.”
I applaud Steven and Greg for providing children with these incredible productions – Puss in Boots, Snoopy the musical, Shrek the musical, Sleeping Beauty, Winnie the Pooh………
What a treasure trove for children to discover.
He and Greg have kept theatre alive and flourishing in Durban. They are also maintaining the imagination and creativity of younger minds.
“We’ve carved a name for ourselves here. And we are valued. Does Cape Town or Jo’burg need another theatre company? Not really. There is a reciprocal loyalty that is important to us in Durban. We have loyal artists and audiences here, and we in turn are loyal to them.
Steven has fulfilled that young schoolboy’s prophesy: He has put on musicals at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in Durban, at Cape Town’s, Theatre On The Bay and at the Montecasino in Johannesburg. But he has done more.
So much more.
Steven laughs and says:
“It’s really just been a case of loving theatre immoderately and as Dory says in Finding Nemo:
‘Just keep swimming!’