Having known Gary Naidoo and Rafiek Mammon for years, I have always been aware of the trials and tribulations involved in being a freelance theatremaker. The boots of their cars are almost always filled to the brim with the accoutrements of their craft – costumes; props; boxes of reading materials to be handed out – never truly emptied, because they are almost always at the ready to hit the road for whatever job comes their way. To hear them talk about the graft behind their craft, there is a whole lot of hustle involved; but none of it matters if you don’t have that passion for entertaining others; an almost obsessive love of theatre; and especially in Naidoo and Mammon’s case, a devotion to cultivating new theatregoers.
Although both artists have made notable contributions in what they would no doubt designate with air quotes as “serious theatre”, Naidoo and Mammon through their production company Ganarama Productions have perhaps become most synonymous with the tribute show genre, specifically their year-end ‘Boogie’ shows that sell out a large scale venue like the Artscape Opera House. They somewhat resent that tribute shows are thought of as “lesser theatre” by some members of their industry. “Our tribute shows have brought people to the theatre that might not have come otherwise. I’m talking about people who come from way out of town and pack the proverbial station wagon on what might be their only trek of the year outside of their communal hubs to absorb some culture,” says Mammon. “These people make up what I think of as the forgotten theatregoer: people who one needs to make that extra effort for them to be introduced to theatre, and then hopefully they develop a taste for it.”
This dedication to cultivating new audiences sits especially near and dear to the duo’s heart. Naidoo sites their constant exposure to and participation in theatre festivals as one of the reasons they are so gung ho about the prospective theatre lover. “Festivals are a real hub of enthusiasm; where word of mouth truly is the thing that gets the buzz going, which is always an important lesson to us. It reminds one that the theatregoing experience is still very much an organic thing, despite some people’s preoccupation with social media as an advertising tool,” he mentions. “The festivals are the driver for changing the way people get introduced to and end up becoming long-time theatregoers,” adds Naidoo.
The duo’s work will be on show again this weekend at Cape Town’s very own mini arts festival, the annual Suidoosterfees. “The Suidoosterfees turns 15 this year so we decided to do an SA songbook our way. We’re calling it ‘15 van die bestes/15 of the Best: A Focus on SA Music’,” explains Mammon.
The duo doesn’t want to divulge too much about the show, for fear of ruining surprises for prospective audiences, but I did manage to coax a mention of at least two songs that reflect their vision for this homage. “A ‘Paradise Road’ must be there,” says Mammon, “but we also decided to include a ‘Call Me Al’ by Paul Simon – not a strictly South African song, but rather a collaboration between an international artist and local stars, Ladysmith Black Mambazo but it all adds to the vibe.”
According to Naidoo, the art of the successful tribute show is to know your audience. “It means knowing what will satisfy them, but having that knowledge also allows you to challenge them in subtle ways and hopefully broaden their horizons in the process.”
“How we do it is probably a ratio of half of what we like, and half what we know they’d like, Mammon chips in. “That way we keep it fun for ourselves, which is important, because we have all seen tribute shows with dead eyed performers going through the motions. We definitely don’t want that. It also ensures surprises along the way (while operating within the relative comfort zone of a mainstream audience), which keeps things pleasurable for everyone.”
Apart from simply ensuring people have a good time this weekend, Naidoo and Mammon have another aim, which ties right back to their core concern of audience development. “The hope is always that those people who might come with the explicit intent of seeing our show will also be enticed to see something else; maybe even something outside of their comfort zones, and end up loving it and end up staying the entire day at the Suidoosterfees, perhaps even come back for a second day, and voila – you have a new theatre lover,” laughs Naidoo.
* ‘15 Of The Best’ is in the Artscape Opera House at 4.30pm on Sunday. Book for Suidoosterfees shows at Computicket.