Sue Diepeveen is no stranger to the theatre world. She is the founder of The Drama Factory, but also a producer, director and actor herself. Her self-written solo show SO YOU WANT TO BE A TROPHY WIFE?, produced by F Creations, is on its way to entertain audiences at this year’s KKNK, so we thought we’d catch up with her in this latest interview.
Diepeveen’s love for the performing arts started at a very young age, one could say she was born to entertain, as her first ‘gig’ was amusing her family on long trips to Zimbabwe, “I think my Lenny the Leopard was a highlight for them”. Thereafter there was no stopping her. She discovered the allure of the stage when she got cast as the lizard in her primary school's production of Alice In Wonderland, for which she practiced her squeak for ages, “it was en pointe!”.
Anyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting Diepeveen and working with her can attest that the love and drive for theatre that young Sue embraced is still very much part of her charm today: she still stands in awe of the magic of theatre and brings that childlike excitement to any project she tackles. One has to have that particular form of boundless love for the arts to take on the project of establishing a theatre.
Balancing motherhood and her passion for entertainment initially saw her making some sacrifices when it came to creating work herself, but as her three youngsters got older and life became a bit more flexible, Darryl Spijkers offered her the opportunity to run The Playhouse Theatre, which she grabbed with both hands:
“I was both elated and terrified in equal measure. I was pleased also to show my children that one has to take opportunities when they come your way.”
The Universe was clearly pointing her in a certain direction as she then went on to establish The Drama Factory, which was born out of her dream to create an extra theatre space in Somerset West, as “a spot to produce work”. Diepeveen saw that potential in the factory in ASLA Business Park that she and her husband bought years ago to use for a business venture:
“Around the same time I annexed a few square meters to run workshops and classes and slowly but surely we took over the entire space! Grace Newton approached me to ask if she could do a show and The Drama Factory was born. I had thought to test the waters and see if the need was indeed there, and would people come to an industrial area? Well, the answer was a resounding yes.”
The Drama Factory only grew from there and was one of the few independent theatre spaces that survived the hard knock Covid dealt the industry. Lockdown limitations proved to be no match for Diepeveen’s motivation and drive, though it didn’t leave her without battle scars:
“Covid hit the entire sector so hard we are still feeling the aftermath of it. I had just moved into a new building with loads more space but loads more overheads too of course and shutting as we opened was traumatic. We sit here three years later still counting the costs of that. The upside of it all was I really got to grips with the lighting rig and as a team we got to know our space well. I think what motivated me was the sense that as an industry we were united in our mission to keep the sector alive. I got involved with The Theatre And Dance Alliance (TADA) and we went to work in order to be allowed to go to work… a process that only ended in June 2022.”
Part of the survival story of The Drama Factory is the community of patrons that it had nurtured until that devastating day in March 2020 when everything came to a standstill. Patrons would stop Diepeveen in the supermarket encouraging her to keep it going, because “The Drama Factory was a lifeline” for them, and in turn that sentiment was “a great motivator” for her.
“Above all, I was driven to help those artists who depended on live performance for a living and the realisation that even playing to an audience of twenty people would put some food on the table. I figured that, when all was said and done, people would need live theatre more than ever and that theatre had survived so long that we just needed to hang in and it would all be fine and we would be stronger.”
She acknowledges the contributions of TADA, along with SAGA, in the rebuilding of the industry, and appeals to the entertainment community to answer their call to action:
“We as performers have a duty to sign up to organisations that support us. We have taken this time out to draw up a Charter of Rights for the sector as a whole and it would be great if everyone can sign up and take care of their own futures within it. I think we need to continue the process of making sure that we care for one another.”
Although people may have come out of a lockdown a bit more cautious, Diepeveen has observed that they “are still hungry for live entertainment”. She sees this as “a fantastic opportunity for producers to present their very best work of a varied nature”.
Welcoming back wary audiences to see such works is her focus with The Drama Factory too, but she acknowledges that it is essential to keep developing “a wider range of audiences with varied offerings across the board”, as well as drawing in some sponsors to assist with the creation of new work.
This make-it-happen approach to independent theatre is at the heart of Diepeveen’s ultimate vision for the industry. She believes a breakthrough is on the horizon to realise this dream, and key to this realisation is a mutually supportive approach to revival and development of theatre. She has experienced this first hand as the The Drama Factory has established such relationships with Die Boer (and Margit Meyer-Rodenbeck) and Sandton On The Square (and Daphne Kuhn). They’ve developed a supportive approach by referring shows, taking shows to each other’s theatres, and also just communicating about the happenings in the industry.
This all feeds into her personal dream “that theatre makers will realise that the little theatres also have loyal patrons who want to see their work and that doing a tour of little spaces may not be as financially profitable as the large city theatres but the impact on the audiences in smaller town with less access to theatre is what made us want to do theatre in the first place.”
In addition to her work as a theatre owner and producer, she also embraced the calling to create her own shows, which saw her penning SO YOU WANT TO BE A TROPHY WIFE?. Diepeveen shares that the inspiration for the show is rooted in her fascination with the dynamics that surrounds people’s understanding of a trophy wife:
“I wondered if Helen of Troy ran away or was kidnapped as a trophy of war and how it is in war time that women are seen as the spoils thereof. The thought that women have always had to fear for their safety if they were not protected by a man, so I did a lot of research into this. The Blesser culture that is cultivated strongly in South Africa is very alarming, as is the idea of women being used as prizes in some very well-known games. So many themes disturbed me and I started to think about how we are also complicit in this ‘princess’ culture and how we nurture this in our daughters. I chatted to many women who were looked after by husbands, after being looked after by parents, and how this can be disempowering unless you take care to keep yourself educated and capable. I based the play on such an aunt of mine who had a very strong husband that made all the decisions without really taking her into account.”
Having created SO YOU WANT TO BE A TROPHY WIFE? in 2015 already, Diepeveen elaborates that it has grown much since it was initially created. At first she tried to put everything she was feeling onto the page and confesses that it "was rather bitty and messy". But she also appreciates the necessity of that developmental phase of a show and embraces it as “a preview for what it would finally become”.
She did shelve it for a while, but finally dusted if off and committed herself to the further treatment of the play. She called on Wynne Bredenkamp to assist her with direction. That process saw them pulling apart the script numerous times to get it into the right format:
"I loved having the input form a younger woman and every time I asked, ‘Do people really need this?’ Wynne would respond, ‘Who will speak for women if we don’t?’"
They did have additional hurdles to overcome as they worked to get SO YOU WANT TO BE A TROPHY WIFE? show ready, having to rehearse over zoom because of Covid restrictions, and eventually filming a version for NAF2020 after having only been able to rehearse in person once. A situation Diepeveen describes as “not ideal”. After that she also called on the directorial eye of Greg Karvellas as they slowly crafted the version of the show that was staged in Mtiza, Johannesburg, and is now on route to the KKNK.
As far as what KKNK audiences can expect, Diepeveen hopes that SO YOU WANT TO BE A TROPHY WIFE? “for starters [will be] a jolly good laugh and then a bit of a nugget to think on”. She recalls an audience member during the Johannesburg run reflecting that “she felt as though she was no longer alone in the world now that she had spent time with [Diepeveen’s character] Marie”. She hopes that with the KKNK run women can find that same sense of community, but also would like “particularly young women to see that they determine how people treat them and that it is in their own interests to take care of their financial health”. As for the men in the audience, she thinks the show will reveal “some titbits that educate them a bit".
Not to leave out the kid component of the family festival experience, Diepeveen reveals that they are also debuting their puppet show JAKKALSDRAAIE – DIE GEVEG at the KKNK this year. For this she is “delighted to be working with Anoecha Kruger and Marlize Viljoen”. She finds great joy in doing children’s theatre and inspiring a love for theatre with audiences from that young age already.
Diepeveen certainly is on a roll as far as the creation of new work, and she hints to many other projects on the horizon too:
“I am spending a lot of time finding good fits for The Drama Factory in terms of content and really want to make sure that our audiences always have the very best time. I am open to possibilities and look forward to what our year holds already – we have some of the very best of what South African theatre makers have to offer. I would like to get writing and have a few things I would like to get down on paper should I get the time to do so.”
And after the KKNK she will just keep moving as she again joins forces with F Creations to present the second Women’s Month Festival (for which she reminds us that applications are open). For her the first time F Creations and The Drama Factory staged the festival in 2022 was such a delightful experience, she can’t wait to do it all over again this year.
While Diepeveen is completely aware of the fact that independent theatres and production can’t compete with the big theatres, she sees value in all the projects that come from the independent side of the industry and she hopes that those contributions will just grow in future through mutual support and collaboration. She wants The Drama Factory to be “a safe space for the theatre journeys of many” still in the years to come.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A TROPHY WIFE?
KKNK Wesbank Theatre: 5 April 2023, 19:00; 6 April 2023, 13:00; 7 April 2023, 16:00; 8 April 2023, 19:00
Booking details: https://kknk.co.za/en/programme/so-you-want-to-be-a-trophy-wife/
Find out more about this F Creation produced show here: https://www.theatrescenecpt.co.za/post/presskknk23trophywife
JAKKALSDRAAIE – DIE GEVEG
KKNK Wesbank Theatre: April 2023, 09:30; 7 April 2023, 09:30
WOMEN’S MONTH FESTIVAL
Application details here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSem2wIbp2qFCR125m1UOvaYKjSitDHgwBGZxqH94y6nQx1nhg/viewform