Diary of a theatre addict: Is it all work and no play(s) in South Africa?

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“You can take the girl out of the chorus but you can’t take the chorus out of the girl,” Broadway legend Chita Rivera told me when I interviewed her recently that will run in the next copy of The Stage, out this Thursday, which is an issue focused on musical theatre.

And the same is true of me: you can take the boy away from the theatre, but you can’t take the theatre away from the boy. I’ve been in South Africa (my country of birth) since Tuesday after flying overnight Monday. Although it was in Johannesburg that I first discovered theatre, aged about 11 so I owe it a lot, I merely touched down in there when we landed there on Tuesday but didn’t go into town. I spent a few hours working in a business lounge at the airport terminal, before transferring to a domestic flight to East London — no, nothing to do with Hornchurch or Stratford East, where of course I would find theatres, but a town on the Eastern Cape coast, where there is none at all.

But that hasn’t stopped me having a busy week writing about it.addict (Yes, I’m a theatre addict; and yes, too, I am a work addict. I am an addict in many areas of my life — coffee and sugar also come to mind, amongst other things). It has actually been extremely useful to have a little time — if not an always reliable internet connection or power source — to catch up on the backlog. (Power-downs are a daily fact of life in South Africa — the electricity company calls it ‘load shedding’ — where power is cut for two to four hours a day).

One of the facts of my life is trying to balance the time spent seeing shows and meeting people for interviews and the time required to actually write it up. The first two parts of that equation — the seeing and meeting — is the fun part; but then you have to clear space, both in time and your head, for the creative part, namely writing.

I always work best against a deadline; fortunately I arrived in South Africa with quite a few pressing in on me that I hadn’t been able to clear before I left London, so I had to work almost immediately. So there I was in the business lounge — £20 including a shower, food, drinks and internet access, possibly the best £20 I’d ever spent — (not so) fresh off an 11 hour overnight flight from London,  already busily working on Tuesday.

liza-Minnelli-and-Chita-RiveraAs well as Chita Rivera for this week’s musical theatre issue, I am also providing a more extensive profile of Maria Friedman. Technology often defeats me, and it did on both of these. The interview with Chita (as she’s universally called — one of a select band of theatre people where only a single name is sufficient to know exactly who one is referring to) was conducted by FaceTime to her dressing room in New York before I left London, and the connection kept dropping so that I had to ring her back six or seven times in a 20 minute span. (I first saw her on Broadway in 1984 opposite Liza Minnelli in Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, photographed above; she’s now back there in another Kander and Ebb show, The Visit).

For Friedman, my digital recorder must have been inexplicably set to a low volume, so I could barely make out her words when it came to transcribing it; fortunately, my husband is a IT specialist and was able to find an application online that fixed it and increased the volume to a level that I could actually hear!

Technology, at least South African style, also played its part in trying to sabotage an interview I had to do from here this week with director/choreographer Rob Ashford (photographed below), who was back home in Chichester where he is directing the new musical Damsels in Distress. ASHFORD_RobAll was going swimmingly with no breakdowns in communications when the electricity company did one of their load sheddings and we were suddenly cut off in our prime. (Happily we’d virtually finished, and I was able to e-mail him the final questions for him to respond to that way). Funnily enough, this was the second time I’d spoken to Rob electronically in nearly as many months — just a few weeks ago, when Kenneth Branagh announced his Garrick season of which Rob is an associate, I had to do an interview by phone with Branagh, Ashford and their designer Christopher Oram as I was in New York at the time.

E-mail has, at least, been a trusty friend for another feature I had to write from here, a piece on the challenges of producing new musicals in the West End and how the fringe is being used to try out a whole series of them at the moment. I was able to e-mail the creators and/or producers of the fringe musicals, again from Johannesburg airport, and find the replies waiting from three of them when I got to East London.

So on my first full day here on Wednesday, I wrote and filed over 6,000 words: Maria Friedman (2,754), Chita Rivera (1,387), new musicals (1,300) and my regular Stage column (730) for Thursday, which contained my picks of the openings in the week ahead.

Of course, the latter was of picks that I would, of necessity, be missing. I’d already missed Tuesday’s concert performance of howtosucceedHow to Succeed in Business without Really Trying at the Royal Festival Hall with Jonathan Groff as J. Pierrepoint Finch (pictured left with Cynthia Erivo and Clive Rowe), another recent interviewee who I’d met to do it in New York at the beginning of April when he told me he’d first played the same role half his lifetime ago in a high school production when he was 15! I ran into him again, by chance, outside the Menier where they were rehearsing this concert last week and had to tell him that I was sorry to be missing it.

And now I’m going to also miss this Tuesday’s Jason Robert Brown concert, who I have again only recently interviewed in New York (both pieces ran in the current issue of The Stage). Both How to Succeed and the Jason Robert Brown event are also sharing one of my very favourite performers Cynthia Erivo – but fortunately I’ll be able to see her, at least, in Brown’s Songs for a New World that she’s been announced to feature in this July at the St James.

This coming week I’m also going to be missing the openings of The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National (with a cast of four of our very best younger actors, Samuel Barnett, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Susannah Fielding and Geoffrey Streatfeild), Temple at the Donmar (with one of our very best older actors Simon Russell Beale) and Jim Dale (another recent interviewee of mine for The Stage), but at least I’ll be able to catch up on all of those after I get back.

So now, at last, I’m starting to chill — or least warm up in the South African sun. In the week ahead, I’ve still got quite a lot of writing to do — I’ve got an interview to file on New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley, the aforementioned Rob Ashford one to write up, and a piece on the Tony Awards, plus a big five-part blog column series for The Stage on my Top Fifty Favourite Musicals. But I’m also taking time out from all of that later this coming week to spend two days at a game reserve here. So I can reassure you (and myself!) that being here isn’t all work and no play — or even no plays but all work!