This is a story of a maritime lawyer who dropped his legal practice to turn a local church into a theatre and dinner space, armed only with passion and dedication. To some it was a move of maverick bravery, to others, it signalled serious trouble ahead. Welcome to the Kalk Bay Theatre, unrestrained and revelatory brainchild of Simon Cooper. By EMILY GAMBADE.
Simon Cooper swears by plays “that tell a story”. He runs an 78-seater theatre nested in an old Dutch Reformed Church built in 1876, drinks a glass of wine when things go wrong, doesn’t bother asking for public or private funding, still hopes to one day head a profit-making venue and wishes more stages would flourish in South Africa; and that’s pretty much how he introduces himself, an all-things-theatre lover, and the theatre owner of eight years.
It was in the '80s when his romance with theatre started; Cooper went “by chance” to the West End and saw Glenda Jackson on stage, in a play called Rose. “It absolutely blew my socks off; I walked out of there completely in love with theatre; I then discovered the Grahamstown festival and for a long time, I was just an audience.” A hungry audience, mind you; he lapped it all up, the stage, the premieres, the fringe festivals, the comedians and the stories. Blinking at the spotlights, he was a maritime lawyer swimming in theatre, ready for a change of costumes.
Born in Cape Town, Cooper studied and practiced maritime law for over a decade before getting involved in property acquisitions. In 1999, he married Helen Cooper and their conversations began to fly over the artistic side of life. While working in property development, the Coopers stumbled over the Church in Kalk Bay: “(It) hadn’t been a church since 1951; it was an art gallery when we took it over.” Friends with the Ellenbogens family, one of the last all-actors families in South Africa, the idea of opening a stage in Kalk Bay came up during a conversation they all shared at the National Arts Festival.
“The Ellenbogens were performing in a funny little venue at the other end of Kalk Bay, probably like 42-seater, it was about the size of the table, and they were getting kicked out of the premises; I made a comment to Liz Ellenbogen; something like, ‘Why don’t we do something together, here, in Kalk Bay?’ They picked me up on that; we went to look at buildings and then the church came on the market and… We did it. We stripped the building and we opened in March 2004.”
Photo: Robyn Scott and Ntombi Makhutshi in London Road at Kalk Bay Theatre (Christine Gouws)
Their project wasn’t hopeless; South Africa has over 100 active spaces across the country and almost twenty theatres in the Western Cape. With a pool of talented local comedians, actors, musicians, directors and artists, all jostling for a stage, there are always performers looking for a stage. He says, “One of the driving reasons for doing Kalk Bay was that we believe there wasn’t enough venues in Cape Town and in the whole of South Africa that catered for what you may call a fringe version at a festival; sure, physically I can’t do the Phantom of the Opera at the Kalk Bay; (but) I used to go to fringe versions of festivals and that’s what we feature at the Kalk Bay.”
The Coopers carved out an intimate setting, a thrust stage where the audience is seated on three sides, on comfortable chairs based on a 19th Century Morris’ design; not any chair, mind you, the one Marilyn Monroe praised in her remake of the song “You’d be surprised.” Patrons are not only luxuriously seated; they can dine and drink – the theatre’s trademark formula – and meet the artists once the show is over. Roland Perold, one of the two comedians from Coward & Cole that staged at the KBT in March, explains that the restaurant “provides a great spot to wind down after the show, especially for the performers.” It is a wannabe recipe for success that has unfortunately yet to yield a profit. Cooper sighs, “If the theatre breaks-even, I will open the Champagne.”
Perold and Godfrey Johnson, a musician, director, composer and all-round performer who faced Perold in Coward & Cole, claim in unison that Cooper is easy to work with. In Johnson’s words, “I have worked with him often and have always found him to be kind and accommodating; he trusts his performers every step of the way; he does not interfere, however, if we need advice he is always available.”
The theatre has now been running for eight years and the theatre manages to fill the seats almost every evening. The audience, mainly white, comes from as far as Somerset West to enjoy the shows. “The question of how to get more people of colour at the Kalk Bay theatre is a very complex one; I don’t know why the main part of our audience is white. Yes, there is a lot of criticism that theatre is too white; the truth of the matter is, we make huge efforts to advertise (our) shows; to some extent it is up to theatre management to get hold of the people and make sure they come and watch the shows; that said, outside of big musicals, dance shows, tribute shows and stand up comedy, the majority of performances that you see in Cape Town are performed by white people. So, it’s up to all of us to do more; I know there are a good number of very talented black comedians and actors; there is no lack of talent (but) a great amount of students graduate from UCT, go straight up to Jo’burg and go into television soapies because that’s where the money is.”
That indeed is where the money is. There might still be a long road to success and sustainability for theatre aficionados like Cooper but eight years down the line, the Kalk Bay Theatre is still proudly standing but with no private funding and no support from government, it looks like Cooper may have to wait a long while yet to crack open his bottle of bubbly. DM
Main photo: Roland Perold and Godfrey Johnson in Coward & Cole (Rob Kirsner)