DEURnis/Uzwelo is One-On-One Theatre that Debuts at National Arts Festival


The Afrikaans Festivals have for a couple of years enjoyed the expansive embrace of performance the Theatrerocket way. The production company has found innovative ways of appealing to theatre audiences as well as making the more seasoned theatre followers pay attention to DEURnis. Now they have collaborated with Windybrow Art Centre for the National Arts Festival (June 27 to July 7). DIANE DE BEER explores the concept:

No one would have given much of a thumbs up to this first and probably edgy concept dubbed DEURnis. It just sounds silly – one-on-one theatre!

But Rudi Sadler and Johan van der Merwe who a few years back formed a production company Theatrerocket had an idea and they were determined. DEURnis is a one-on-one site-specific theatrical production with a very intimate yet cutting-edge and experimental approach. It involves a single audience member who views three separate dramatic pieces per package (there are four different ones to choose from at the National Arts Festival for the first time this year), with each of these having one performer and one audience member.

Each piece is approximately 20 minutes long and written for a particular room/space in a house/building, so as a viewer, you move from one room or even caravan to the next to see your three chosen plays.

It is the social issues that permeate the different works that affect individuals in different ways depending who you are. And for those who aren’t interested in gimmicky theatre, that’s exactly the trap they have avoided by aiming for excellence and substance in the texts. Some will suit specific individuals better than others.

Personally I’m not too excited by the more confrontational ones (there’s usually one that’s slightly more out there in a package), but then other audience members might feel differently. “We have been inundated by people interested in writing for this venture,” says Van der Merwe.

The duo are theatre fanatics of a kind, they know and understand the pitfalls and what audiences want.

Deurnis poster

Part of why DEURnis works so well is because it is such a well-executed concept. They understood from the beginning that the control had to be constant to see that everything works superbly. And as they have had many plays to choose from, they have managed to execute their strict code of excellence.

It’s a fascinating experience, being the only one in the room in situations with a stranger telling a story that is often inclusive rather than intrusive but affects you as the viewer in very specific ways. For many it might also be uncomfortable to be this intimate with someone you’re not familiar with. But that’s part of the experience.

This is not a financial venture for the company. With only single actors and audience members, the numbers simply don’t add up. But because of the way it has been done, the performance-experience the mostly young actors accumulate, can’t be calculated.

And chatting to a few of them in-between performances, they are thrilled by how much they are learning in the process. “Each performance is different because of the reaction of the individual viewing,” says one performer. Many of them are already in their second or third play and the growth is obvious in their performances as well as a play’s toughness, a second time round.

Deurnis Poster3

Prospective directors are also excited about the challenge and safety of testing their skills on such a small and intimate stage. “It’s a safe environment in which to experiment and push your own boundaries,” says Van der Merwe.

Having sat through two nights of 12 plays (even a dance with Ignatius van Heerden, Droom, with multi-media included), it doesn’t matter which package you choose. They’re all extremely well crafted and in sometimes scary ways, fun to experience. Following the earliest season, I was excited because of the great potential – and they keep delivering.

They keep on adding to the concept with interesting twists. The latest will be seen at the National Arts Festival later this week. It all began when the head of the Windybrow Arts Centre, Keituletse Gwanga, came to see the production in Tshwane a while back. Six Market Lab graduates, Kwasha! Theatre Company, who work with Windybrow as an introduction to the professional world, have joined Theatrerocket for DEURnis/Uzwelo (a Zulu translation of deurnis which means empathy/compassion) on this year’s main programme.

Deurnis poster2

It’s been an amazing learning curve explains Van der Merwe because they started with expanded workshops with Windybrow where they explained, explored and taught the concept, with end results that deliver a diverse and rich programme.

“The stories they came with are fascinating,” says Sadler which meant that both groups benefitted from this collaborative effort. Each programme has been put together to showcase the diversity with the first, for example, presenting Koud (Afrikaans: a schoolboy with a secret, forbidden love, that should be kept secret at all costs); Khogo/Chicken (Sesotho: a man sells chickens in the basement of his building and is at pains to prove his compassion to the SPCA) and Kwas (Afrikaans: Esther loves posing for artists but has problems staying still).

Other languages included are English, Sepedi, Greek, IsiXhosa and even Tsotsi taal. Because many of the pieces feature the actor’s first language, it has been constructed to be played for audiences who might not understand but should follow the story which is another interesting addition to this already exploratory work.

A work titled Womb, for example, places the audience member in the womb, the language (in this instance English) shouldn’t matter, while Gone by Renos Spanoudes deals with death which expands on the Becket quote: “We are born astride a grave”. Even though he includes some Greek, the meaning is never lost.

DEURnis has won many different theatre prizes, most of them national and there have been a few acting awards as well. Two years into this project, the growth has been impressive. And while this latest innovation can be seen at Makhanda from June 27 to July 1 (at 11am, 3pm and 4.30pm daily at PJ Olivier), they already have exciting new plans which they will pull from their theatrical hat at the right moment.



Theatre students from the UK and SA are saying it for themselves – on stage



It’s time to update this story which is moving into its immediate end phase. There will be more lasting benefits that linger. I first did this interview approximately a month ago in time for the local performances which I witnessed and now the South African students are on their way to Britain for the performance with ODDMANOUT theatre company, in Darlington, UK. I’ve added current details with impressions of the show as well as kept the relevant info on this amazing showcase for a group of young local storytellers. To hitch a ride with this savvy group, know that the theme focusing on young women and their particular problems and potential was chosen long before this current worldwide focus on #me too in the wake of the Weinstein scandal with others tumbling out at the rate of knots:

Picture: Craig Chitima

Darlington Khoza, Boikobo Masibi, Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, Ncumisa Ndimeni and Mathews Rantsoma

Walking into one of the Market Theatre’s new-ish rehearsal spaces in Newtown (more than a month ago), I’m confronted with one of the rehearsals for the latest Market Lab collaboration, Encountering the Other, with ODDMANOUT theatre company, in Darlington, UK.

Twelve young people, six from South Africa and six from North East England,  were in the process of coming together in a few days to create a production exploring the realities and possibilities of young women in the current moment in a global context.

But before they got there, the two groups worked separately in their respective countries  creating as much work as they could through their specific processes which in the Lab’s case was mostly improv. “I think where our processes are very much movement based, the UK works much more from a text based space,” explains The Head of the Market Theatre Laboratory, who is also a director on the project, Clara Vaughan. And she confirmed this once the two groups started working together to shape the final product.

Supported by British Council Connect ZA, it is a creative partnership involving both live and digital performance and a coming together of young actors from different countries who can learn from each other both socially and artistically.

And having watched a bit of what the South African Lab students were doing while rehearsing, I know that their enthusiasm, their particular skill sets and their improv abilities would bring extraordinary energy to the project. I did in fact have to check whether this really was improv while watching.

And in the final production, the two groups coming together is so fascinating because of their different approaches and where they come from. The universality of these youngsters’ world is what they worked with most strongly as they played off each others particular energy.

This project came from a strong sense of the shared values of the two organisations: The Market Theatre Lab describes themselves as a creative hub supporting the development and emergence of talented young theatre-makers and contemporary, socially engaged, experimental performing arts.  And having witnessed their work through the years and the graduates moving on to further enrich our theatre landscape, what they’re doing works brilliantly.
ODDMANOUT was established by North East England theatre-makers, Scott Young and Katy Weir to create work with a strong focus on stories of social change and theatre with story-telling at its heart.

And so the twain met.

In the selection of actors who auditioned, the South African contingent split into an equal gender mix, three men and three women: Ncumisa Ndimeni, Mathews Rantsoma, Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, Darlington Khoza, Tumeka Matintela and Boikobo Masibi.

Ncumisa Ndimeni, Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, Mathews Rantsoma , Boikobo Masibi, Darlington Khoza and Tumeka Matintela

“We simply selected them according to the best auditions,” notes Vaughan. But what that particular mix meant in the rehearsal context, is that both the women and the men benefited in particular ways while exploring issues. “The women for example were surprised that the men had as many body issues as they did,” she says. It also meant that the men were much more aware of sounding sexist. “But we’ve tried to create the safety of a playful environment which will encourage everyone to participate and learn,” explains Vaughan as she includes her fellow director Jacques De Silva.

Because the British contingent were all women it also meant that the three South African men added a distinct flavour to the piece representing both genders while focusing on female issues.

Following two performances of Encountering the Other locally last month, the South African team fly to the UK on Friday (November 17), to host a series of workshops on specifically South African theatre-making techniques with the budding actors from the North East of England. This will be followed by a one-off performance of Encountering the Other at the newly restored Darlington Hippodrome on 27 November.

And they should knock their audience’s socks off. They did ours!

And says Clara Vaughan, the shows with mainly young audiences went fantastically and the Q&A sessions afterwards were vibrant and exploratory.

When last we spoke, she was hoping to make a detour to London for these first-time travelers but she had to find funding. Contact her urgently at if you can help.