Anyone who has ever visited Kalk Bay Theatre knows that it is a unique space, not only because it is a deconsecrated church, but also because this beautiful, intimate theatre space is owned and managed by a couple that live and breathe all things entertainment. Vanessa Harris and Ashley Searle, who also own the Follow Spot Productions company, have made the Kalk Bay Theatre and Restaurant an extension of their vibrant personalities.
Sitting down to talk with Harris about their journey and the inspiration behind Kalk Bay Theatre, she smiles from ear-to-ear as she shares memories about how it all came to be that she can now call this much-loved theatre home. The word serendipitous comes to mind as I listen.
“It wasn’t our vision”, Harris reveals. “We were approached by Simon Cooper [the previous owner]. He came to us after we had moved down to Cape Town. Ash and I had done a couple of nights of our first show, Love at First Fight, here – and we did a couple of nights of Big Girls too – to kind of just test it out. I didn’t think Simon knew us, but after we did a couple of shows I think he liked our vibe … He called us and said, ‘I want to have breakfast with you’, and we thought, well maybe he wants us to do a run of a show. We sat down at what was C'est la vie at the time, munching on scrambled eggs, and he said to us, ‘So, I’ve been thinking, I really want you to have the theatre’. Of course my scrambled eggs came out of my mouth, both our hearts dropped, and we thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is an amazing opportunity, but terrifying’. So, we thought about it: do we take the opportunity and see what happens, or do we run in fear and stick with getting jobs in musical theatre… ‘No bugger that', we said, 'Let’s do this! Let’s take on a project of our own!’ So we did, and this is where we are now.”
Harris admits that, similar to them becoming theatre owners by fate in a very unplanned manner, so too their ever-evolving theatre vision has revealed itself in a very instinctive, unplanned fashion. “The vision just kind of emerged,” she laughs, “as an unnatural, natural progression. But it’s fun!”
A lot of that what makes this unexpected, natural progression of becoming theatre-owners work, is the dynamic that characterises their relationship, as well as the way their personalities complement each other, both as a couple and as creatives.
“The thing is for me, I’ve always been the kind of person that if I’m sitting still and there is nothing really going on, I’m bored. That’s not my happy place. Ashley always jokes that I’m the kind of person who once we get in the car from the Grahamstown Festival – literally as we slam the door, getting onto the N2 – starts planning the next Grahamstown, the next show, the next thing. I never stop thinking. [Ashley] is the one who wants to sit back and relax. But it’s good, a nice combo. We balance each other, a little bit of yin and yang there. So we run it all 50/50, but I’m the sort of overactive one and he’s in the background being my shadow going, ‘Vanessa, don’t go too wild, Vanessa, relax’”, Harris shares with a glint in her eye.
“I had plans for a broken grand piano to be hanging from the ceiling! So, that never emerged because they were worried about it landing on someone…. the ideas are endless, I promise you, and he is the reinner-inner, the ‘Vanessa you need to be able to pay for these things’. So it’s a good balance, although I do want to knock him out sometimes and just steal the bank card and do it!”
That quirky, balanced, middle ground where the Risk-taker and the Vanessa-whisperer meet is then also where the inspiration for the shows they create and choose for their theatre line-up come from? The magic that draws people to their Kalk Bay Theatre offerings?
Harris pauses, “We were actually just discussing this. What we’ve realised is that people, for our theatre specifically, want comedy, they want music, they want fun, they want escapism, they want razzle-dazzle… I was actually trying to figure it out: was it chicken or egg? Was it because we started providing more of that stuff therefore we’ve knocked out all the people who wanted some serious meaty plays?”
Although you may then not find Hamlet at Kalk Bay Theatre any time soon, if ever, you can be assured that Harris and Searle are always mixing it up, testing the waters, and giving the theatre community of Cape Town something different in their vibey space.
“So, what we’ve created is a space where people can bring their family and they are all going to have a great time and walk out sort-of on a little cloud, you know, on a little bubble: you’ve had a glass of wine, you’ve had a great meal, you’ve seen a fabulous show. Yeah, we’ve created a space that is much more about entertainment in the glitzy, glamour kind of way… And I’m ok with that”, Harris introspectively reveals. “That’s really what we are. I think it would be untrue to us to go and start doing sort of serious theatre.”
Thinking back to her days as a young creative in training at the Waterfront Theatre School, this approach to entertainment seems to be what Harris was always naturally drawn to. “I remember back in the days I said to Delia Sainsbury, ‘I’m going to create a show’ – I’m sure it was terrible, I don’t even remember – and I called it Loudly South African... It was just a variety show of different dancing and different singing and acting, but razzle-dazzle fun stuff. It was vibey and energetic, and that’s been my stamp. That’s what I’ve done always and that’s what I like. I suppose when you have a passion for something, you make it work.”
That high-energy approach to living their theatre passion is a big part of why Harris and Searle are making such a success of Kalk Bay Theatre. After all, theatre needs life and they make sure that a lively atmosphere is always rippling through the building, and their patrons love it!
“We have such a loyal crowd”, Harris admits. “We have a lot of elder guests who love the energy, the buzz and the vibe – it’s amazing – and also the youngsters, who are starting to come in now, which is great. It is nice to introduce the younger generation to theatre that’s fun and accessible, instead of them just going to the movies. Our Tuesdays and Thursdays specials are nuts! Why would you not take advantage of the fact that you can get two tickets for the price of one? It is way, way cheaper than going to a movie and you are seeing a live production where stuff can go wrong – that’s the fun part! But, yeah, I think theatre is a special space, well it always has been for me.”
It is because Harris and Searle embrace theatre as such a special space that they have also invested much of their time and energy in establishing Follow Spot Productions as a trusted brand people feel they can invest in when buying a theatre ticket.
“When it comes to creating a show, you need to ask, ‘What do they want?’, not ‘What do I want to give?’ If you’re not giving the people what they want, they’re not going to come. Once you’ve won their trust, then you can start being a little more arty-farty… and I suppose that’s what we do and we build up our audience in that way.”
Along with respecting what audiences want from their theatre performances, they also value the relationships they establish with their loyal supporters. “We are out there straight out of the show. Instead of walking backstage and into the wings, we walk downstage, through the audience and stand in the foyer, and as people are leaving we are taking photos with them, shaking their hands and giving them hugs. That feeling that they know me and that I know them and that there is this relationship, that is so much more than them just coming to see our shows… And that’s how we treat our theatre and restaurant patrons as well.”
It truly feels like you are visiting with friends when you come to a Kalk Bay Theatre, because as Harris explains, “this is the extension of our home. It is a personality, and look it doesn’t always work”, she honestly admits, “but you’ve got to keep trying. I actually love it when there is someone who is ruffled [because technical glitches happen in the theatre, it is unavoidable], then I can try and turn them around. And then when they do turn around that’s lovely, lovely!”
With that level of honesty Harris exhibits the humility that feeds into the passion that holds Kalk Bay Theatre together. “You know, we are only just doing our best, but you’ve got to try, you’ve got show people, ‘This is just me, and this is my theatre, and I love my little space'. When it goes well and people love you, it’s beautiful and it makes it all worthwhile, and its lovely, but there are also nights when you have an irate man who bangs his fist on the bar, and those things happen.”
Before Harris bid me adieu to go greet arriving guest at their lovely intimate theatre, the beautiful extension of her and Searle’s home, one more question simply had to be asked: What can theatre lovers expect for the rest of the 2017 Kalk Bay Theatre line-up?
And right there and then is when that glint in her eyes turned into an even brighter sparkle as with excitement she shared in her quintessential fun Kalk Bay Theatre way:
“We have two nights of Alan Committie, who we have begged and pleaded to come, so he is doing the Tuesday [15 Aug] and Friday [18 Aug]. The one is our specials night, so if anyone doesn’t book tickets they are crazy! And then the weekend, we’ve got James Grace back [19 Aug], he’s doing an album launch. He’s an incredible guitarist, amazing! He is phenomenal! After James Grace is the show that I’m in, His Master’s Voice [22 Aug – 9 Sep] – oh my gosh, that’s soon! We do three weeks of His Master’s Voice, which is – and don’t be fooled by the name, it’s not old stuff – a music compilation: fun, dancing, acting, comedy, you know our normal stuff. If you watched Elton & Friends, that kind of vibe, but different. And we’ve got Wesley Wolhuter in it... He’s brilliant, we’re going to go wild with him! It’s a five person cast: It’s myself, it’s Ash, it’s Wesley, Hannah Hishin (again from Elton & Friends), and Lucy Tops is back too! So that one is also going to be a stunning one, and it’s going to be vibey – one of those ones that you can get up and dance to; swing your hips. Then we’ve got Puppet Guy – Conrad Koch – here for a week, which is amazing. I also begged him to come. I know he is a little bit naughty with his comedy, but that’s okay. Just a little bit of an age restriction there. Then we’ve got State Fracture, the sequel to Pay Back the Curry… another Mike van Graan, again with Daniel Richards in it. It also won the Ovation Award in Grahamstown. Word on the street is it’s even better. So Pay Back the Curry was brilliant and it was packed out – I think we did about 5 weeks of that. We’re only doing 4 weeks of State Fracture, so buy now! After that, we have Mike McCully. He’s doing his ABBA tribute show [31 Oct - 11 Nov], which is fun. It’s going to be nice to have a little booty-shake to ABBA for two weeks. And then, then the end of year season show, Caliente [which opens 21 November]! I’m not going to say anything about it, you simply must just come see it!”
Well, I did a bit of snooping (which you can go fact check at www.kalkbaytheatre.co.za while you book your tickets for all these shows), and Caliente is all things Follow Spot, Van and Ash, and Kalk Bay Theatre, all rolled into one: dance, cirque, cabaret and comedy. Sheer fabulousness in the form of an enchanting show, with a slight age restriction, that is inspired by, what else, heat… just right for some end of year summer holiday theatre fun!
If you haven’t walked through Kalk Bay Theatre and Restaurant’s inviting doors yet, to indulge in their restaurant’s delights and embrace the escapism they offer when you take a theatre seat, I can promise you that once you have do, you will be back very often to visit with Harris, Searle, their friendly restaurant staff and the amazing performers who grace the stage of their home.