Guest Blog: Putting South Africa back on the international touring map

Complicite producer Judith Dimant describes the company’s recent tour to Cape Town of ”Lionboy”

Roaring success: A scene from Lionboy
Roaring success: A scene from Lionboy
© Mark Douet

I'm sitting in the foyer of the Baxter Theatre in a southern suburb of Cape Town. It's an iconic theatre which was built in the mid 1970s and is attached to the University of Cape Town. On this particular Friday morning in late March, I'm surrounded by 700 noisy children of varying ages, in a variety of school uniforms.

It's 'Take a Child to the Theatre' day, and all of them have been bussed in from Cape Town's townships to see Lionboy – Complicite's first family show, and Complicite's first visit to Africa. In the 22 years that I've worked with the company, I have often wondered why it is that we've performed in every continent in the world, but have never managed to get to Africa – and now I think I understand a little more.

While there is a vibrant theatre community in Cape Town and a fair amount of theatrical export – Yael Farber's visceral Mies Julie has been garlanded all over the world, Eric Abraham's Fugard Theatre is thriving, the Baxter Theatre's Lara Foot's production of Solomon and Marion was highly acclaimed in London and Birmingham at the end of last year and of course Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company are Cape Town residents – the city receives very little visiting theatre from abroad. South Africa seems to have been left off the international touring circuit.

Complicite's first family show – Lionboy – adapted from the books by Zizou Corder – has at its heart a mixed race boy who has to rescue his parents from the evil 'Corporacy'. During his adventure, he mistakenly joins a circus ship where he meets a pride of captive lions. On his quest to save his parents – and to return to his own home – he frees the lions and brings them to their home in Africa. It seemed fitting that we should bring our show here.

However, when we started booking our international tour from our London office at the end of 2013, we realised there was no financial support for touring to South Africa. And it was hard to make contact with the theatre because they have their own funding battles. Being funded by the University of Cape Town isn't as comfortable as it might appear as it means the theatre is ineligible for many other funding strands. The Baxter survives because of the commitment and dedication of some extraordinary people who will do everything they can to bring theatre, poetry and music to their community.

Back at home, we managed to raise £20,000 through The Big Give at Christmas 2013. But making the connection with the theatre from afar was proving impossible – there was no history of similar collaborations, no formula to fall back on.

Students enjoying Take a Child to the Theatre Day at the Baxter
Students enjoying Take a Child to the Theatre Day at the Baxter
© Complicite

Ultimately the connection only happened last November when I was on holiday in Cape Town. I decided to pop in on my way back to the airport. Retrospectively, I realise that the theatre's Director and Head of Planning must have thought I was crazy to try and pull this off at such short notice. But for some reason, they went with it. They moved schedules, pulled in favours, changed their own festival dates to accommodate us. We applied to the British Council for financial help and wrote numerous begging letters. All were unsuccessful but we forged ahead anyhow.

And now we are here, and it's the World Day of Theatre for Children – a day celebrated in nearly 100 countries and supported by the International Association for Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ). In Cape Town we have collaborated with them and the Baxter to bring 2,000 children to see Lionboy.

For many of these children, this is their first time in a theatre. They refer to the show as a 'movie'. They shout, wave, laugh, stand and shout some more. They side with the Goodies and hiss and boo at the Baddies. As young people growing up in a post-conflict society, they know about 'Good' and 'Bad'. The noise is deafening and the mood exhilarating and overwhelming.

We play five shows in total to capacity houses. The UK High Commissioner comes, the Consul General comes, Desmond Tutu's family comes and these are possibly the most magical shows of the entire international tour. The actors cry at the final performance and don't want to leave.

I know that we will we be back whatever it takes. We've made incredible friends and met many South African theatre practitioners who we want to work with. Maybe next time we'll make a show over there with them and bring it back to London.

I suppose we should start fundraising…