Venturas into the unknown

2008-10-02 08:05

Durban theatre personality, performer and producer Themi Venturas has his own “tale of two theatres”.

“I'm not in this business to become a theatre mogul,” he explains over a cappuccino. But he is clearly passionate about both of the Durban venues he now heads - the Catalina on Wilson's Warf and the KwaSuka in Greyville, which he recently rescued from ruin.

That sounds melodramatic, but its true. Greg King and Steven Stead had handed the little church theatre's lease back and the Durban theatre community was “in panic mode”. Both as a theatre lover and as chairman of the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (Pansa), Venturas stepped in - the end of act one.

Act two saw the church unexpectedly move to claim back the building. After protracted negotiations, the theatre could stay but not without some challenges. The building stood empty for six months and had four break-ins.

The final act will see a happy ending with the reinvention of the KwaSuka, according to Venturas. At the end of the successful second Musho International Festival of One and Two Person Productions earlier this year, many festival participants offered their skills and visions to this quaint little landmark.

Venturas “gathered up the young guns in Durban” and informed them that they not only had to inspire what he now believes will be a new-age theatre but also run it. As he explains, the theatre needs a buzz and a management team that understands the nitty gritty issues. Pansa stepped in to fund “a learning and working” management team of 10 young people “living, working and running this place”.

The effervescent, yet grounded, Venturas has much to share. His life in the theatre has allowed him to realise a dream via what he describes as a longer and less high profile route. His creative vision has birthed some of the city's most memorable productions. His level-headedness has kept theatres afloat.

All this is hinges on core beliefs and values. Everyone should plan their careers to be famous when they are 50 and have both wisdom and insight, he laughs. Many of theatre's biggest characters are tragic figures without support structures, he points out. That's why, for the internationally recognised and locally lauded Venturas, family and friends (outside of the theatre business) take centre stage.

He turns to two of the performing greats that have influenced his career - Elvis Presley and Bob Marley.

He came from a musical family and “experienced the magic of the theatre” at a very young age. He won his first talent contest at the age of five doing a rendition of Elvis's Teddy Bear complete with the hip gyrations.

Last year, en route to Amsterdam, he decided to restage Jamaican Jam, a quirky tribute to Marley and all things Jamaican, at the Catalina. Two intrepid South African rastas go on a pilgrimage to Marley's home country and ultimately pay homage to the great body of Jamaican music that has had a profound influence on world music. The musical moves from the Calypso sounds made famous by Belafonte, to reggae, ragga, limbo and the pop sounds of Billy Ocean and Bobby McFerrin. It runs until March 11.

While completing a role in the Playhouse's year-end production of My Fair Lady, he began reading about these two lives all over again. “Once they were famous, their lives were taken over. Elvis was dead in spirit 10 years before he died. Marley was similar. I have decided on a different road - a longer and less high profile road. In our industry at least 80% of performers are working to support being actors and just 20% are on again, off again stars. But I have constantly worked.”

Venturas believes that being an only child drew him into the theatre. His parents were Greek café owners and displayed posters of all the shows and competitions in Port Elizabeth. His mother took him to every show that came to town. Growing up in a corner café may have put paid to much of his family life, but it certainly raised the curtain on the colourful characters who drifted through the door.

Venturas directed his first major production at 16 and was part of the Young Uns, the youth wing of the Port Elizabeth Shakespeare Festival. He said that Port Elizabeth, with its extremely high standard of amateur performers provided a valuable grounding.

Nevertheless, he intended becoming a quantity surveyor - until a lecturer who happened to be a trained opera singer stopped him in his tracks. “She called me to her office and sat me down. Then she asked me why I was doing quantity. She told me: I don't want you to go through what I have. Don't do this to yourself.”

He dropped out, went to the army and learnt some valuable lessons as part of the entertainment corps in what he had, up until then, believed were fictional locations such as Pofadder and Hot As Hell. In one production, there was no lighting and he ended up with troops on stage armed with cadac burners. “That time kind of gave me a life lesson on a boer maak a plan! I came to belong to a school where one makes things happen anywhere, anytime!”

During his army service, he visited the University of Natal and returned to complete his drama degree with honours cum laude.

He began his career as the manager and head producer with the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre Company and from there, he joined the Playhouse. He took voluntary retrenchment in 1993 and began Themi Venturas Productions, concentrating on corporate theatre for the next 13 years.

Five years ago, he opened the Catalina on Wilson's Warf. The space was available, the rent affordable and he set out to achieve what many have not - to create a commercially successful Durban theatre that regularly reaches towards the more avante gaurde.

Throughout his theatre career, he recalls being directed by influential professionals. One of the best bits of advice came from British director Lesley French. “If you get three quarters of the way through a production and you aren't wondering how you got in this mess, you're not doing something right. This has stuck. Theatre often feels chaotic because there are so many balls in the air at the same time. I guess I have become a bit of a juggler.”

This thought regularly goes through Venturas's mind as he looks out from the Catalina each evening as Durban's harbour lights reflect across the water. The same will probably happen at the KwaSuka.

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