The Story of The Space

3/ A bigger photographic studio…

Sebba and Co

Yvonne, daughter, Melanie, and I arrived back in Cape Town. The run of Boesman and Lena in London had been nothing less than triumphant. 36 newspaper and magazine reviews (I counted…) – all of them raves. The opening night was an eye-opener for me. The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs is a small venue, seating approximately 70. The entire front row, encircling the stage (the production was done in the round), was inhabited by mostly men. They all knew each other and sat with notebooks poised on their knees. Throughout the performance they scribbled notes, often with their heads down for many seconds at a time. Later, when I became a director of sorts, I found that, if I dropped my head to make a note, I would miss an essential part of the performance. I can’t conceive of how they managed to actually ‘see’ a performance. That the actors coped with this scribbling front row was a tribute to their professionalism. The whole thing taught me a huge lesson about Theatre Reviewing. Of the 36 crits, only one had anything of value to say about the play. The rest concentrated on praising the acting (wonderful for the actors), the play (without saying anything of any relevance), and taking the moral high ground about South Africa and Apartheid. I was later to find out that this was the norm in London. I had come here as to Mecca. This was the Home of All Good Theatre. It didn’t take long to find out just how much dross is offered in London’s West End – mostly highly-praised by these same critics. It was – and remains – a constant disappointment.

No matter – the short run sold out quickly. The Young Vic offered a home for a three-week extension.

I had a ball in London, saw 54 productions – mainly on the hyperactive Fringe of that time, where you could choose from 20-30 lunchtime productions alone. These featured many high-grade actors and playwrights. I saw a Trevor Griffith’s one-act play – Apricots – at what was then called the Soho Poly.   Later we were to stage his Occupations – one of our best productions.   There were wildly experimental pieces at places like the King’s Head in Islington, where Bunty and I saw a production that featured women suspended naked upside down, a liver ripped, seemingly, out of a man’s body and splattered on the stage at our feet, and a spectacular vomit, some of which ended up on my shoes. Thankfully, I was able to identify it as mostly porridge. Later this was confirmed when director, Peter Stevenson, came to work at The Space. He had been stage manager for the play, responsible for getting the liver, mixing the vomit.   At the Round House we saw a version of Shakespeare’s bloody, violent Titus Andronicus. It was nowhere near as good as the electric version that had been staged some years earlier by the Afrikaans Company at CAPAB (KRUIK), directed by Dieter Reible, one of two German directors brought to Cape Town by Artistic Director, Pieter Fourie (the other was Peter Kleinschmidt). The Round House itself was another experience. You had to be careful of breathing too deeply when you walked through its entrance. This was 1971. Hippies were still all around. Many of them were in the foyer, which ran most of the way around the internal stage, selling their wares, many of which were probably illegal in Britain, definitely Forbidden in South Africa.

It was an exhilarating experience for a small-town boy.

The Young Vic run, in a bigger, 300-seat theatre, also sold-out quickly. We came back to Cape Town on a high – not an artificial one.

My letters to my mother and my lawyer/best friend, Malcolm Roup, arrived two weeks after I did.

I commenced the search for a ‘bigger photographic studio’.

I’m not really quite sure now when it was that the ‘studio’ morphed into something much, much larger.   I do know that I went to architect, Maciek Miszewski. Maciek was a close friend of director, Mavis Taylor, and one of the greatest enthusiasts you could ever meet. I had met him at many of the parties described earlier. I think we realized we were kindred spirits quite early on. I do remember that I went to his office to ask his advice about how such a studio space could be set-up. And then I remember, quite clearly, the two of us patrolling the streets of Cape Town during his lunch-hour, investigating the possibilities that I had winnowed out on many hunts on my own. He was a busy man – I didn’t take him to anything that I didn’t think was eminently possible. But, busy as he was, Maciek was also one of the most generous people on the planet. It’s quite extraordinary that, for someone with my deeply cynical view of the profession of Architecture, two of my closest and best friends have been architects. Not only that, but both of them have designed theatres for me; both without ever getting any recompense from me, beyond my eternal gratitude. Later, in London, Harry Osborne – another of Humanity’s finest – was to design the Arts Threshold Theatre in Paddington, with equal enthusiasm and generosity.

Each time we found a likely space, Maciek would rush back to his office and design something. Something that, quite soon, began to resemble more a theatre than an expanded photographic studio.

I’m not quite sure in quite what order these came. Possibly the first was a large space in a building at the top of Wale Street.

The first possibility for The Space:  the top two floors of this building in Wale Street.  Now resplendent in red, then it was ramshackle and neglected.

The first possibility for The Space: the top two floors of this building in Wale Street. Now resplendent in red, then it was ramshackle and neglected.

It was on the first and second floor I seem to remember. A perfect photographer’s lair, all wooden floors and bare walls. This only lasted as long as it took Maciek to confirm that there was no other way out of the space, so it couldn’t seat more than 20 people because of fire regulations. This was ok with me, but the rental was too high for this freelance photographer.

In no particular order we found a space on the corner of Bree and Dorp Streets. This was much bigger. Maciek was very excited. He designed the most gorgeous little 60-seat theatre. The rent was too high. Another space was in what is now the Cape Heritage Hotel. Then it was a broken-down old 18th century Cape building on the verge of being condemned. Its roof was in a bad way. In its courtyard was the oldest vine in South Africa. This had apparently been planted sometime in the 1770s, and, we were told, had survived a time when some form of vine disease had resulted in the deliberate destruction of all the vines in the Cape. Stuck away, as it was, in its little back yard, it had escaped being culled. The rooms behind it were about the size of a small theatre, but the expense of repairing the roof, problems with the fact that it was being considered as a National Monument, and a rental that was too high, drove us on to pastures new.

One of these was an old cinema in Rondebosch. It was perfect. There was seating, all the requisite fire escapes and loos. Why didn’t we take it? Well, back then all theatre and most cinema took place in the centre of Cape Town. I didn’t have the vision to see that this centre would shift out to the suburbs in the middle-70s, when the new Baxter Theatre complex was built at the University of Cape Town, barely half a mile away. There were also problems with parking. It would have seated about 300 people as I remember, and for that you needed, according to City regulations, to provide something like 60 parking spaces. This seemed not possible. In retrospect we could probably have argued the City Council into exempting us from this, but the first objection over-ruled all other consideration. Shortly after we opened, Norman Coates, Suzanne Brenner and Tony Osler took it over, and opened the Theatre Downstairs, which they received rent-free from Cape Town Uber-Restauranteur, Emiliano Sandri, as it was below his Rondebosch La Perla. Apparently he only set foot in the theatre when it was visited by the police, who alerted him to a performance (of Krapp’s Last Tapes) by Clive Keegan, banned at the time. Clive later appeared in several plays at The Space.

However, regrets aside, and unknown back then, we moved on. This time we found the most amazing space. It was on the outskirts of the City, on the way to Green Point. I don’t remember exactly, but it was in the Waterkant area, possibly in either Chiappini or Hudson Street. It was a very large old warehouse with an amazing, high-ceilinged area for a theatre and tons of other space for workshops, offices, rehearsal rooms, etc. We got wildly over-excited. The rental was way above anything I had even begun to contemplate. However, it belonged to a large company, for one of whose top bosses my sister, Brenda, worked. She enquired and it seemed that they were willing to consider us as some form of charity. Maciek designed a terrific and very flexible theatre. There was no parking. That area was really quite dangerous in those days. We approached the City Council. While they were considering our request the big firm had a rethink and set a rental far beyond our dreams. Back to the streets.

A fellow photographer, Peter John, told me of an unused building opposite the wonderful hotel-cum-brothel in Buiten Street off Long Street in which he rented a room. I went to see it. It was a huge two-storey building, which spanned the entire distance between Buiten and Bloem Streets. On one side in Buiten Street it was a modernish building from the 30s; on the other side in Bloem Street it was the ramshackle old wreck you see at the top of this chapter. It was the deserted headquarters of Sebba and Co. – specialists in chrome and electroplating work. I contacted the firm, and found another of the angels that were dispatched to aid the Birth of The Space. His name was Raymond Sebba and he was a theatre enthusiast. He came to show Maciek and myself over the building. By this time sheer lust had both of us firmly in its randy tentacles. Raymond was just as enthusiastic as we were. He offered us the top two floors of the building for a small rental, to be renegotiated when we were up and running. He even offered to supply the seating at close to cost price – they stayed with us until beyond the end, even surviving The Great Move.

Even though the rental was low – R600 a month (about £300 back in those days) – it was way above anything I had contemplated. Did I mention the sheer lust that was driving Maciek and myself?

It was now sometime in November, 1971. We asked whether we could move in on January 1. Raymond said yes. We were committed.

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