In the words of Pieter Toerien,
"The theatre needs live wires - excited people who want to make theatre and will find a way. People who have been bitten by a terrible bug called theatre, which never lets you go: those are the people who will make it work."
I had the privilege to sit down to talk with one of these theatre live wires, Niall Griffin, who has taken the brave leap, along with Jaco van Rensburg, to launch the production company, VRG Theatrical.
Niall is by no means a newbie on the theatre scene. Having paid his dues as both actor and later designer, locally and internationally, he has definitely carved out a name for himself. Anyone who talks to him will immediately sense his passion for an industry that can be tough on those who are too scared to venture out of their comfort zone.
You may remember him for his amazing musical moments onstage in productions such as, ‘Jesus Christ Super Star’, ‘Evita’, ‘Hair’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, or maybe he grabbed your attention for his design vision in award-winning plays like ‘The Line’ by Gina Shmukler, which was recently picked up by Afrovibes 2015 for Amsterdam.
He clearly is very talented as a performer, so why the choice to switch from onstage performer to exclusively behind the scenes designer? And now, ultimately the move to large scale producing?
“My love, my passion, on a grand scale has always been theatre, but I always wanted to design. The design aspects has always been my big love. But when musical theatre started becoming a thing in South Africa, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder said to me ‘Please come and start auditioning for musicals, because we need tenors’. It was just a snowball, it ran down hill, and I just didn’t stop for 10 years until I went ‘Wait, hold on, I want to design! Why do I have a giant corkscrew on my back?’, as I was standing on stage in Beauty and the Beast.”
He admits that he tried to wear both hats, but found it very difficult to maintain the balance, because design is so time-consuming. With his heart clearly drawn more to the creative vision side of things, he bravely made the decision in 2012, along with co-star Talia Kodesh, to make the very emotional and bittersweet musical, ‘The Last Five Yeas’, their swan song as performers. It was a fitting end to his stage career, as Niall got to play Jamie, the Jewish author, which had always been a dream role for him.
After that break-up with his onstage persona, will Niall ever go back? Will we never again have the privilege of seeing him amaze audiences with his beautiful tenor voice?
“I’ve been asked that so often, and no, it is not a closed door. I don’t miss performing at all, but if somebody came back to me with a project that was a great project with a good bunch of people, and they were like ‘You’re right for this’, and not just because they desperately need a tenor, then I would be like ‘Ok, cool, let’s do it’. But also, performing, I don’t know. People underestimate it so much. It’s like going to the gym: muscle memory, vocal stamina, and physical stamina. So I actually don’t know if it would all work anymore.”
Having had exposure to all sides of theatre, and clearly having a good understanding of what it takes both from the on- and off-stage perspective, perhaps the speeding snowball was the Fates’ way of setting Niall on his ultimate path of bringing a fresh creative perspective to South Africa on a grander design scale, as part of a production company.
Niall is clearly happiest living out his vision in creating worlds on stage and then appreciating the performances that compliment the design, “I don’t have the need to be in the shows anymore, I am just very proud of everyone that is on stage when I sit back watching musicals now.”
Having just come back from Shanghai, China where he again did the amazing design work for the massive “40 piece orchestra, 4 headline stars, 10 piece London ensemble, 30 piece children’s choir, 40 piece local ensemble, 6 local Shanghai stars” musical extravaganza ‘Ultimate Broadway’ at The Shanghai Culture Square, there is no sign of him slowing down at all.
This February 2016 sees VRG Theatrical present their first show, kicking off their theatre adventure with a bang. They are bringing out international star Ceri Dupree to perform in South Africa, fresh off London’s West End.
“Ceri is unbelievably well known for his costumes”, says Niall, “that cost a fortune! Our biggest cost in bringing Ceri over is insurance on his costumes. What is also wonderful, is his show is not drag in that he is not lip syncing to a track. He sings everything live!”
The idea originally was to have Ceri perform in the Artscape's Theatre, but ultimately the Arena seemed more fitting a choice to host him and the divas he embodies in his show ‘The Fabulous Ceri Dupree Show’,
“He doesn’t like playing venues that remove him from the audience. It is all about his audience’s experience for him. So we decided on a more intimate venue”.
From there, the guys just keep running at full creative speed. 2016 is also the year VRG Theatrical will produce their first full scale musical, ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’. As one of Off Broadway's second longest running musical comedies, with book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro and music by Jimmy Roberts, it is bound to be a great theatre experience with 52 hilarious characters!
When it comes to bringing it all together “it will be fun,” Niall reveals, “but we are slightly petrified as we start to realise what actually goes into producing theatre”. Luckily there has been amazing support too, “Pieter [Toerien] has been remarkable, he has been Big Daddy Bear behind us. I think he is acutely aware of the fact that the next generation of producers, designers, creatives in general, especially in musical theatre, they don’t exist in this country. Nobody has really developed them… but the passion is there.”
As the next generation, following in the footsteps of theatre visionaries like Pieter Toerien and Janice Honeyman, Niall and Jaco are truly entering uncharted theatre territory with VRG Theatrical. Niall however clearly has a great understanding that for theatre to grow, creatives need to step up, not just wait for opportunities, but actually create the opportunities and develop the audience. Exciting times indeed!
Book your tickets today at Computicket to see the multi-award winning, world famous UK based comedy female impersonator Ceri, in the VRG Theatrical presented ‘The Fabulous Ceri Dupree Show’ at the Artscape Arena, 9 – 13 February 2016. Then keep an eye on the VRG Theatrical facebook page and website, for a front row seat to the rest of this theatre live wire story unfolding… because I just have a feeling, VRG Theatrical will make it work!