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‘It’s the audiences that keep me going’

Published on 1 June 2019

A true child of the Festival, Rob van Vuuren is celebrating 25 years at NAF this year with more than 20 performances in 11 amazing days. We asked this high-energy performer how it all began, what keeps him coming back – and what’s going to happen next…

You’re an incredibly versatile performer – from rolling-in-the aisles comedy to your award-winning and chilling performance in Louis Viljoen’s Dangled. What are your favourite roles to play?

Photo: Jan Potgieter
Photo: Jan Potgieter
Photo: Jan Potgieter

Honestly, I don’t have a favourite. I love that I get to do it all. I love that my day at the Festival starts with a kids’ show. It is a great way to start the day. The kids give me so much joy and energy and it puts me in the right frame of mind to go to all the places I need to go for the rest of the shows.
I love that DANGLED pushes me emotionally and tests my technique and precision as an actor, that ELECTRIC JUJU will make me sweat as I take audiences on a fantastical journey into another realm through just the use of my body and one very special prop, and that I get to wind it all down with belly laughs in AGAIN! I wouldn’t want it any other way.

You do much more than acting – you’re a writer, director and producer across various genres and media, from television to movies to books to the stage. Where do you feel most at home?

My first love will always be the stage but, ultimately, I consider myself a story teller. I love exploring different mediums, roles and genres that allow me to tell stories in different ways. I hope I have the good fortune to keep doing what I’m doing for as long as possible and to grow and improve in all the different spaces that I am lucky enough to work in.

This year is the 45th edition of the Festival – and your 25th! That’s quite a run. Why do you keep on coming back every year?

Insanity, probably.

I do, however, have a deep connection with this Festival and it has indelibly imprinted itself on my identity and in how it has shaped me as a person and an artist. This may be my 25th year at the Festival as a performer, but it is my 29th year coming to it. My first was when I was in Standard 8 and it changed my life. I got to see Andrew Buckland, Johannes Kerkorrel, Theatre for Africa and so much more in an environment that was overflowing with creativity and expression.

Having grown up in conservative and brutal Apartheid South Africa, the Festival made me feel like I could breathe again and maybe the world wasn’t mad. It blew my mind. So I had to keep coming back.

I decided to study at Rhodes under Andrew Buckland, Gary Gordon and a host of other brilliant teachers and wrote my first play, Squadron Marmite, with Bevan Cullinan in my second year. We presented it at the Festival that year. I also voted for the first time in the first democratic elections in Grahamstown. So it would be an understatement to say that Makhanda holds a special place in my heart.

The Festival became a home for me where I could premiere new work and explore new directions. I brought my trilogy of physical theatre one man shows — Mung, Tangkupa and Electric Juju — to the Festival before anywhere else.

NAF also became the birthplace for my most meaningful collaborative experiences — creating work like Lunar Spasm, Capgun, Bangalore Torpedo, Brother Number, The Most Amazing Show, Three Little Pigs, Pants on Fire, Three Blind Mice and more with a host of incredibly gifted artists who I am fortunate to call friends and colleagues.

When I decided to pursue a career as a stand-up comedian, instead of building material in 5-minute increments on the club circuit, I came to Makhanda with a full hour because it is where I felt most at home. So it would be difficult to overstate the importance of this Festival to my yearly calendar and my career as a whole.

What’s next? I think it’s time for me to take a step back and a deep breath and think about what I want from the next 25 years.

Much has changed since your first Festival in 1995. What are the most significant changes you’ve seen in that time?

It has sadly become increasingly difficult for artists to bring shows to the Festival. Ticket prices have stayed low, but accommodation and food costs have skyrocketed in a way that can be crippling for an independent Fringe artist. Add to that the economic downturn and its effect on ticket sales and one begins to understand what a huge commitment it is for artists to make the trek down to Makhanda.

I still love coming to the Festival and, as the biggest of very few predominately English language festivals in South Africa, it holds an invaluably important place in the country’s cultural psyche. The Festival has always been a place of artistic refuge and invention and a breeding ground for brave new voices and a treasure trove of South African talent. Long may it last!

What do you regard as your best moment at NAF? And one you’d sooner forget?

I have had so many unforgettable moments over the years but the defining one would have to be coming off stage after our very first performance of Squadron Marmite way back in 1995 and realising in that moment that my dream was attainable and that this could be a legitimate career option for me.

There are also so many moments that weren’t quite so pleasant (accidentally setting my bum on fire before a performance of Bangalore Torpedo springs to mind) but I’m keeping those as a surprise extra final performance I am hoping to do on the final Saturday night of the Fest this year. Adding that extra show will make it 25 performances in my 25th year, a kind of symmetry that’s hard to resist.

Can you tell us about the works you’re presenting this year?

I’m doing FLORENCE AND WATSON PRESENT THE GREAT PANGOLIN MYSTERY for the kiddies in the morning. We are also bringing an isiXhosa production, uFLORENCE noWATSON KUNYE neMPUKU yoMOBA.

I’m returning with my latest ‘stand-up’ comedy show, AGAIN!, which blurs the line between, stand-up, dance, poetry and character comedy in a show that explores repetition as a comedic device. It was inspired by my innate and inexplicable urge to relentlessly return to this Festival.

I’ll be doing a few shows of Louis Viljoen’s DANGLED, which is a multi-award winning powerhouse of a show both nationally and internationally. It is a brutal, disturbing and absolutely magnetic interpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. It is one of the most challenging acting experiences I have ever had and I am very proud of it. It does however come with a strict 16 age restriction and trigger warning.

I really wanted to do something this year that reflected the physical theatre work that formed such an important foundation for my career so I decided to revive ELECTRIC JUJU after more than seven years. It is one of my all-time favourite shows that seemed to connect with audiences in a way that is profound and extremely heartwarming for me. It is an epic one-person multi-character physical odyssey in one of my favourite genres, fantasy, which is not often seen on stage. I delight in the challenge of bringing this genre to life through the medium of physical storytelling and I love how audiences are able to lose themselves in a fantastical realm filled with giants and magic and creatures of fancy that I dreamed up in a homage to writers such as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and movies from my childhood like The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal,  Willow, Labyrinth and more.

What’s your Festival superpower and where do you fuel up in Makhanda?

I always get a fresh orange juice and green chicken curry at the Village Green. Every flippen year. Most of all, it’s the audiences that keep me going though.

All images: Rob van Vuuren in Again! / Photo: Jan Potgieter