In the Limelight: Seeking gaps – in the smallest spaces -on the margins of established theatresJennie Reznek celebrates Magnet Theatre’s Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Innovation in Theatre for its Early Years Theatre Incubator Project- at the 57th FDC awards [Sunday March 27, 2022]

In 2014, Cape Town’s Magnet Theatre established its Early Years Theatre Incubator Project – creating theatre for babies and children up to the age of seven. The project involves seeking gaps – “in the smallest spaces -on the margins of the established theatres.” Ponder that for a moment and marvel at the vision of this project and the incredible impact that Magnet has had in engaging young theatre goers and their care givers- many from under-resourced communities.   In tandem with creating theatre for young audiences, core to the Early Years project “is providing employment and international opportunities and visibility for the young actors” who are making the work. The project has received international acclaim and many of its productions have toured abroad. It is wonderful that the project has received the recognition that it deserves – on home ground. The Early Years Theatre Incubator Project received the Fleur du Cap Theatre Award Innovation in Theatre at a glittering ceremony at Nederburg Wine Estate [Sunday March 27, 2022]. It was the 57th edition of the FDC awards -the first live event, since the pandemic. Magnet’s Jennie Reznek (artistic director and trustee), accepted the award and spoke poignantly about Magnet’s gratitude to the FDC- acknowledging the youngest theatre audience- who are often not visible. Jennie Reznek reflects about the FDC award and Magnet’s work in general:

Seeking gaps – in the smallest spaces -on the margins of the established theatres

You saluted Distell (sponsor of the FDC) for not only giving the nod to Magnet Theatre but for honouring Magnet’s Early Years Theatre Incubator Project- which is a vital platform. Jennie Reznek: “Magnet Theatre always looks for the gaps, where is theatre not happening. We look at who is last on the list in terms of delivery and resources. The Early Year Incubator project was originally designed to deliver highest quality Early Years theatre to the smallest and least resourced child-care centres and crèches in Cape Town. To have the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards recognise something that happens in the smallest spaces and on the margins of the established theatres, is of huge significance to us and to the work that we do.”

The genesis of Magnet’s Early Years Theatre Incubator Project

The Early Years Theatre Incubator Project was established in 2014. How did it come about? Was Magnet inspired by other projects around the world? Jennie Reznek: “I had been travelling internationally with Every Year Every Day I am Walking. I was often performing often at festivals for children. I watched a huge amount of inspirational work for little ones and was completely inspired by the range and originality of the work. I was keen to find a way of generating South African work – with South African sounds and textures for little ones- who would not easily have access to theatre experiences. I never thought that it would be possible to make work for under seven year olds and it seemed that it was in amongst this age group that there was the least amount happening. In the primary school system, it seems like there are more resources available but not before that.  I made a lot of contact with fabulous international companies –such as Helios from Germany, Replay Theatre Company from Ireland.  I thought that there was a real gap in South Africa for this type of work. I thought that it would be great to imbed the creation of the work into Magnet’s training programme so we could also train young people in the creation of this work. This would then be a possible income generating source for those involved, when graduating from Magnet. This has occurred: AHA! and Paired, productions made by Lwanda Sindaphi and Nwabisa Plaatjie in 2016, have travelled to Germany and China and have provided extended work opportunities for their casts.”

Keeping the Early Years Theatre Incubator Project on the boards during Covid

Were you able to continue with The Early Years Theatre Incubator Project during Covid – ie from 2020 to 2022? Did you manage to put together any seasons for babies/children and parents – to attend? Jennie Reznek: “The last series of works for Early Years were made late last year [2021], just in the gap when it was safe to come back to the theatre. We made four new works with the current cohort of trainees: Bounced with four male performers, dealing with masculinity and bullying, who’s in and who’s out; Ekwindla about autumn and the plant materials that we encounter in that season- a real engagement with the moment at the end of summer and before winter sets in, not quite the end of days but twilight. We did, Ripped – working with paper, explored the fragility of family relations and Izandla ze Xesha which is about time and the passing of time.

We performed the four shows to 450 children. For most of the children who came to watch, it was their very first time in the theatre. Thanks to our transport budget we were able to offer transport to remote child care centres and offer them an experience in a real theatre with lights and sets etc. Logistically, during Covid, it was too difficult to tour to the crèches and child care centres but at least we could host groups at Magnet Theatre. One of the performances of Bounced was invited to present performances at the Zabalaza Festival at the Baxter Theatre – in the Golden Arrow Studio. They performed to full houses. Four of our international tours were cancelled in 2020 and 2021. But two of them have been reinstated so I am writing this as we wait to board out flight to Brussels where we will be performing KNOCK! [May-June 2022] at Théâtre La montagne magique, in Brussels. It is about wood and the wonderful sounds and things one can make with it. Another production Stone Play, will have its premiere at the Schone Aussicht Festival in Stuttgart, Germany. Stone Play is Magnet Theatre’s latest work about stone- the origins of mark making, paint and colours.”

Magnet incubating work through the pandemic

In addition to its public shows, incubating “new uniquely South African and African work for staging locally and abroad”, Magnet hosts workshops – providing training in acting and stagecraft.Was Magnet able to continue with workshops, during the pandemic- the Incubator Project and training programmes? Jennie Reznek: “We were very proud of the fact that during the pandemic, we managed to continue pretty much all of our training. In 2020 we pivoted to training on the WhatsApp platform and later in the Google classroom. It was hard because of needing to provide data for everyone. Connectivity in the Cape Town townships makes learning online very challenging. Last year [2021], we were able to continue the Fulltime Training and Job Creation Programme face-to-face for all but six weeks when Covid numbers made it unsafe to come in to the theatre”.

Rhythmic play and song – without touching

Can you talk about how the pandemic has shifted how people behave (no hugs) and that little ones have been impacted by that and how this has been considered in creating theatre for little ones? Jennie Reznek: “We were very aware when we made these works that we could not include the usual contact play sessions that we like to have at the end of the shows where the children have an opportunity to encounter the material themselves explored in the show and have a more tactile connection with the cast. We had to pivot to include more rhythmic play and song without touching or the children touching the same objects. We also kept the cast two metres away from the children as the little ones are not masked. Only when the cast came close to children did they put on their masks. So at least the faces of the performers were fully visible to the children during the performance. It was sad for us to have to keep a distance but necessary.”

Listening to the stories-unpacking what it means to be human

Going forward, with the pandemic still with us, but hopefully moving into times when theatres can open up with increased audience capacity, it is even more important to reach the youngest audience members – who are as you have said- largely ignored and marginalised. Your thoughts? Jennie Reznek: “Theatre has been through a very dark and difficult time over these past two years and at a time when we really needed to be in the theatre, to be reminded of our sense of community and listen to the stories that unpack what it means to be human. I think the isolation must have been extremely hard for the little ones amongst us, so I am so happy to feel here on our first international tour in two years, that theatre for young audiences seems to be opening up again. I am inspired by the possibilities of sharing existing work and creating new experiences for Early Years audiences as we move more and more to opening up possibilities of being together. We are always on the look-out for opportunities and contacts that will allow the work to travel, providing employment and international opportunities and visibility for the young actors. We also are building on relationships that we have before Covid made the touring impossible.”

Glittering: Magnet Theatre received the Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Innovation in Theatre for its Early Years Theatre Incubator Project at The 57th Fleur du Cap Theatre Award Ceremony at Nederburg Wine Estate in Paarl, Sunday March 27, 2022. Pic: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

❇ Featured image of Jennie Reznek, supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn:

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