In the limelight: Marlisa Doubell – founder of Sugar-daddy Theatre Company talks about the company’s milestone birthday and gives tips

Sugar-daddy Theatre Company was established in 2010 by Marlisa Doubell and colleagues. The driving principle was to gather in ‘sugar-daddies’ and ‘sugar-mommies’ to take care of the bottom line of theatre production: Actor salaries, rights of plays, venue hire, design etc. This model has facilitated the staging of 3-4 productions a year. In the era of Covid, as we edge forward into 2021, live theatre has been decimated. In order to make theatre viable, funding is going to be essential. Read on for insights on theatre production – from Doubell – as she looks back -and forward to navigating theatre in the age of Corona.

TheCapeRobyn: The year of Covid-19 – 2020- is a milestone year for Sugar-daddy, as the company celebrates its 10th birthday. Around 2-3 productions were staged each year? 


Marlisa Doubell: Yes, it’s our 10th Birthday- 10th. How crazy? Time flies when you’re having fun. Yes, we produced 2-3 productions per year which includes repeat runs in some years. For example, we did Blueberry Toast three times. In total we’ve done eleven plays and five of those plays have had two or three repeat production runs. In later years we had to change our production style to shorter production runs leaning towards a pop-up theatre model, as and when our sponsored venues became available.

TheCapeRobyn:  Just before Covid, Sugar-daddy staged a sold out season of The Vagina Monologues [February 2020] part of Eve Ensler’s annual V-Day campaign with proceeds as always, going to Rape Crisis, Cape Town. You had the foresight to make a recording of and that is available for viewing on SugarTube – free – but donations appreciated to Rape Crisis?

Marlisa Doubell: I had directed The Vagina Monologues in 2016 and many of our audience members wrote in requesting a come-back for our 2020 V-Day show. Our 2020 edition is much lighter in content and more humorous than our previous V-Day production (2018-2019): A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer. It was done in fringe theatre style at a trendy Cape Town bar, The Raptor Room. I highly recommend the venue but actors need to project voices and deliver lines over the crowded bar noises and the traffic outside. One may need to adjust the timing of one’s punch line while folks are being served their hamburgers! But, the restaurant/bar audience understands this. Our shows were sold out. All proceeds went to Rape Crisis. A live recording was made of the performance on the last night, and is online to view – until the end of 2020 – and then it will no longer be available.  It is free but viewers are requested to donate R60 to Rape Crisis. This was the cost of tickets at the live shows, this year [2020]. We urge people to watch: https://youtu.be/O81Da29RsXM and to please consider donating to Rape Crisis https://rapecrisis.org.za/

TheCapeRobyn:  Will Sugar-daddy stage V-Day in 2021 or too soon to call?

Marlisa Doubell: Lizanne Peters, who is taking over the operations of Sugar-daddy, is very keen to continue with V-day is keen to stage a V-Day 2021 – when theatre’s reopen and it is ‘safe’ to venture back into live performance.

TheCapeRobyn:  In 2015, you were moved by media campaign focussing on rape and that corresponded with you finding out that a member on your family had been brutally raped but it was hushed up – like something to be ashamed of – victim blaming?

Marlisa Doubell: That’s correct, Rape Crisis asked me to share what inspired me to host V-Day and to share my story for their blog. You can find it here: Marlisa Doubell inspired by Stories of Change – Rape Crisis: https://rapecrisis.org.za/marlisadoubellsxrapecrisis/

TheCapeRobyn:  You recently relocated to London – envisaged to be for the next five years – but will retain links with Sugar-daddy. Betrayal is on the boards for late next year [2021]?

Marlisa Doubell: Yes, I have relocated to London for five years with my family. I moved country in the middle of a global pandemic. I have handed over the operational reins, to Lizanne Peters and will offer support from here. Lizanne is a long standing member of Sugar-daddy and co-producer. We all have other jobs and careers but come together on a project by project basis depending on the production. Betrayal was the play we didn’t get to produce in May 2020, due to the national lockdown in South Africa and the closure of theatres.   Artscape offered us the choice to cancel or postpone. We chose the latter. They were professional and kind to us. We wrote to the Pinter Estate and asked if they’d allow the rights to be postponed and they agreed. People who had bought tickets, were refunded by Computicket. It’s an iconic play and we’re still excited about it. Artscape postponed the production to August 2021.  We remain hopeful that we will be able to stage the play, as scheduled. Theatre is one of the hardest hit industry’s and have the great task of creating a safe environment for audiences to return during these times- socially distanced seating and sanitization of seating areas and public spaces before and after every performance etc.

TheCapeRobyn: Let’s talk about you.You were born in South Africa but lived in London for a chunk of your adult life?

Marlisa Doubell: I was born and grew up in South Africa -and proudly so. I first moved to London at age 18 to live with my mother who was living in London at the time. My parents had divorced but I visited my father regularly back home [South Africa] at every opportunity. My mother is Spanish and my father is South African and I have dual nationality -South African and Spanish and British residency. My husband and son are British citizens and I am a resident.  I travelled lots and studied psychology part time; wrote all my exams at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square through UNISA. As an EU national I lived in London for a number of years.

TheCapeRobyn: Where did you train as a theatre maker?

Marlisa Doubell: I trained as an actor at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, London, graduating in 2000. To pay for drama school I worked part time jobs, in an estate agency and managing a small designer outlet at Harvey Nichols. I also worked as a model – editorial and TV commercials. After graduation, I helped to establish Billboard Personal Management, an agency for actors, in London and I worked as a professional actor in the industry. I then completed my teacher training qualifications at Southfields college, London from 2003-2005. This was all before moving back home to Cape Town in 2006.

TheCapeRobyn: Renowned director, Chris Weare has directed for Sugar-daddy. How did his association with Sugar-daddy come about?

Marlisa Doubell: Yes, Chris directed Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Hello and Goodbye for Sugar-daddy. I’ve known Chris for over 10 years. We met when I first started Sugar-daddy. We were looking for performance space and I came across the Intimate Theatre, at the end of 2009. I attended a play. It impressed me because it was of a standard that I had come to know from my time abroad. Immediately after, I went to introduce myself to the director – Chris -and that’s how we met. The next day I called up to book this professional theatre space [Intimate Theatre] for our group. Our first production there was The Blue Room by David Hare. We found a happy home at the Intimate Theatre from 2010 to 2014.

Mellissa Haiden approached me with the play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago in and she had persuaded Chris to direct [2012/13]. Chris also directed Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye for us. We were lucky to have him direct because he has the unique talent of being able to take classic texts and make them engaging and relevant in our time.  Hello and Goodbye had been on the top of my personal bucket list- like forever. It was an honour to have played Hester Smit. Stephen Jubber played Johnnie and he did a beautiful job. At first we struggled to get the rights but after some lengthy correspondence with Dalro the rights were secured. I thank my Afrikaans Aunt, Marie Doubell Moke- a recognized SA theatre actress in the 1950s and 60s and published poet- for putting in a good word with Athol Fugard. It was an intense production, gruellingly hard work with many tricky moments here and there. I credit Chris for its success. I credit Chris for suggesting new talent for us to consider, when casting. He always notices talent through his teaching work at UCT, AFDA and LAMTA. I found Skye Russell, Sive Gubangxa and Mikkie-Dene Le Roux through Chris. He cast Pierre Malherbe for us in Sexual Perversity in Chicago. I would recommend to any new independent theatre makers who are casting, to try asking Chris for suggestions. Another one to ask is Candice Poole, owner of Act Cape Town. I found enormous talent in Allistine Bo Grady, Lisa Kuhn and Evan Hengst through Act Cape Town. These days, with independent theatre, it is not enough to just be a good actor, you need to have other skills that contribute to the success of the production. These actors understand this.

TheCapeRobyn: Sugar-daddy is a potent example of theatre entrepreneurship. Many theatre companies start out with good intentions but don’t last because of the bottom line – no planning has gone into – money. Was there a ping moment that spurred you to establish the company and to state the objectives in the title –Sugar-daddy?

Marlisa Doubell: Yes. Both. The objective is in the title. We get sponsorship from local businesses to make independent theatre possible and we try to be a good ‘Sugar-daddy’ to independent artists. We ran subsidised workshops for actors and independent artists from 2012-2014. We hosted V-Day from 2016-2020 which allows actors the opportunity to showcase their talent for charity. And this year we hosted SugarSlam – a 1-minute monologue competition -during the SA lockdown to support other artists in lockdown.

What spurred me on initially in 2010, to start Sugar-daddy, was that my fellow actors and I wanted to create our own theatre work. The 2008 crash was still playing out in South Africa so there wasn’t much cash flying around and government funding was not available. We did not want a corporate sponsorship deal which would dictate the material. We just wanted sponsorship from our local businesses and we wanted them to leave us alone to get on with creating our art. At first we didn’t have a name, we just had a sponsor:  Hipzone- a WiFi company. They sponsored us from 2010 to 2013. They joked that they were our ‘theatrical sugar daddy’ and it stuck. I was inspired by Richard Branson. I met him in 2006, through my sister and worked briefly for his charity Virgin Unite, in Soweto, teaching at a girl’s high school. He mentioned that often a controversial name is more memorable. The name Sugar-daddy can be seen as controversial in that it’s a cheeky suggestion or a marketing ploy to try make theatre ‘sexy’ or at worst trying to sexualize the relationship with our sponsors. But it is of course in jest and not literal and hopefully a memorable name. Anyways, I’ve invested so much of my own resources into it, I should have called it ‘Sugar-Mommy’. Not that a Sugar-daddy can’t be a Sugar-Mommy… or vice versa…let’s not get gender-phobic here.

TheCapeRobyn:  In addition to Sugar-daddy, you have also pursued your own theatre interests?

Marlisa Doubell:  I’ve written two plays that have been professionally produced and self-published. I wrote and produced Relationshit! That was just after drama school in 2000/2001. We produced it at The Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court, an award winning independent theatre in London. Following that I got involved in my own acting career and specialist teacher training etc. However, when I had moved back to Cape Town and decided to start a theatre company years later in 2010, it felt a relevant and fun play to try again. It’s set in the 90s and I love the 90s.  It’s a comedy about relationships and how they can sometimes turn to.. well..sh*t really. I hope to do an update of the play again one day, I promised myself that I would. Lady Luck was the play I wrote for my friend Sabine Palfi in 2013. We wanted to create our own work at the time. It’s a story about a girl who gets mixed up in the shady underground nightclub culture of Cape Town and who falls in and out of love with the wrong guys. We had a number of issues during this production but made the most profit to date on it. We had an awesome sponsor, Black Bottle Whisky.

TheCapeRobyn: You have made two short films – Lonely Lights (2015) and Just a car (2017)?

Marlisa Doubell: I wanted to try writing for film and filmmaking- just to see if it was for me really. Basically, this is how I taught myself filmmaking- essentially by just doing it. My two short films that I’ve written and produced, are available online. Lonely Lights is a story about two children, one rich and one poor and how they connect despite their differences. Just a car is based on my own story and the loss of my father. It won three awards, of which one was for writing- Best Narrative -at LA Sofies Festival 2017. Lonely Lights was a challenge as it was my first film and I chose to do it as part of the 48 hours Film Festival and it was working with children. It was an incredible learning experience. I was lucky to secure sponsorship from Primi Piatti Pizza who fed us and City Varsity Film College who allowed us to use their facilities. I had a great team in fellow teacher friends – Riaz Solke, Neil Leachman and Mark Els. The film received many nominations which was a happy surprise for a first time filmmaker. It was requested for The Rapid Lion film festival in Johannesburg which I attended in 2017 and got to meet local and international filmmakers in the industry.

Just a car was a great deal easier to make as it was done in our own realistic time frame- not in 48 hours as the previous one. I had an incredible team with Bench film productions. Simon Antoneli and I had worked together before on his own film and I asked him to co-direct with me. I requested Monde Kawana as my line producer because she had experience and I really liked her positive energy. My cinematographer, Barret De Kock was phenomenal to work with and he delivered everything I had envisioned. I managed to secure genius editor Mark Els once again to edit which was not easy. Good luck to anyone trying to hire him. Nationally, the film was selected for the Bokeh Film Festival in Cape Town in 2017, The Rapid Lion Festival in Johannesburg and the S.A. International Film Festival in Cape Town in 2018. It was also accepted for thirteen official selections on Film Freeway, an international film festival circuit, mostly in America. It went on to win three awards; Best Short film at the LA Shorts Awards 2017, Best Narrative at The Sofies awards L.A. 2017 and Best Short Indie Film at The Olympus Film Festival in LA in 2019.

This year – 2020- I was due to co-produce on a feature film based in Manchester and a documentary based in Cape Town. I had already invested in both projects and was enthusiastic. Sadly, due to the pandemic, both were cancelled and I was refunded.

TheCapeRobyn: You are completing your “metaphysical practitioners certification”. This will no doubt, resonate with creatives- delving beyond the physical?

Marlisa Doubell:  I have been studying metaphysics part time for a number of years via MetaVarsity College, Cape Town. I completed my introduction during the year I was pregnant [2006]. It involved a lot of meditation and beautiful crystals and keeping a journal. I took a break from it, to get on with motherhood and acting/teaching work in Cape Town. I came back to it part time, in 2015 and am still going. I wanted to incorporate the beautiful learnings and awakenings into my drama teaching and directing. I’ve always had a feeling that drama therapy will be popular in the future. I believe drama and indeed theatre has the power to heal us. It is intricate, introspective work that asks you to face your inner truth. I worked on the practice, during my second London lockdown and it helped me begin a deeply inward and personal journey. I wrote a letter to support a fellow metaphysics student friend in London. She had work cancellations and was struggling during the second lockdown in London. The essence of what I relayed to her was that in a pandemic, we have no control and are not supposed to have control. We have the collective post-traumatic stress that we’ve all suffered- and now we go through the mourning process. We mourn the loss of what we had; what we knew. We face the uncertainty of our future. Finally, we reach acceptance. The word ‘surrender’ keeps coming to me in my meditation and that’s what we need to keep close. Humour heals and is important. We will survive this. As creatives, we are resilient. Until the live theatre industry opens, we have to carry on as best as we can and find new ways of doing things and new things to love.

TheCapeRobyn: Many people in the creative industry are reeling from Covid and realise that they will have to produce their own work. Would Sugar-daddy consider producing other peoples’ work?

Marlisa Doubell:  Creating your own work is a good solution right now. No, our model is still creating our own work- however – we will now be far more open to collaboration. There will be less actual cash around and more opportunities for trade exchange. Independent actors will need to be less competitive and more collaborative. This means pooling together all of the resources they have access too. You won’t make millions but if you do it properly you can turn a small profit. Hopefully, once theatre eventually opens back up again, we can look at collaborations.

TheCapeRobyn: Who would have envisaged a pandemic shutting one down? Tips for producing –in the era of the pandemic?

Marlisa Doubell:  I recommend recording performances. I recorded The Vagina Monologues on a whim for our own archives and I’m so glad we did because we are able to offer it online to viewers for donations to Rape Crisis. In future, we could get a professional film crew in to record or to live stream. I think live steaming and monetising performances is an option for us, definitely. However, we have mixed feelings about it. Nothing feels more real than live theatre. Theatre is about the whole experience! I subscribe to the hashtag #chooselive. In saying that, we need to consider all solutions and we need to be innovative and open to adapting to the newness of everything. There are many people that simply can’t get to the theatre and it’s a great opportunity for them to have access to it. Also, it opens up what otherwise would be a local performance to anyone, anywhere, in the whole world. That’s super exciting. Theatre really can go global in this sense. Maybe in future, they’ll do BOTH at the same time. Imagine if, from anywhere in the world, you could tune into a live performance in the West End or on Broadway? What an incredible privilege.

TheCapeRobyn: Now you are back in London –as a theatre maker and teacher?

Marlisa Doubell: Yes, now that I’m back here in London again, I am enjoying work as a freelance drama teacher. I am currently teaching both in person, where possible and online. I am represented in the UK, by actor’s agent, Felix de Wolfe and am inspired by Caroline de Wolfe. Her father, Felix, established the agency in London in 1947, making it the longest established agency in the UK. She is working remotely, but her agency is still open for business as usual and of course putting me forward for acting work and various productions for when London theatre’s reopen. In Cape Town, I continue to be represented by the fabulous Emma Ress [ERM]. 

TheCapeRobyn: SugarTube –Sugar-daddy’s YouTube channel is a wonderful and FREE resource for actors and was recently added to with self-taping tips by Melissa Haiden.

Yes, we used to run workshops for actors and I had asked Melissa, along with some other sugar babies then, to create video content for our YouTube channel Sugar Tube which they did in 2014. They all contributed brilliant tutorial style videos which we have kept up there ever since. Whilst interviewing Melissa for TheCapeRobyn, you asked her to give some updated tips self-taping, during Covid. She did that followed up with a new video: Tips for Self-Taping, by Melissa Haiden- uploaded December 2020. It couldn’t be more relevant for our times as most auditions are being conducted via self-tape. The video on SugarTube, will be a useful resource for many struggling actors. I’d also like to take this opportunity to invite any actors or artists or readers who feel they could create similar free content. Anything that’s helpful and relevant to actors or independent theatre practitioners and that is of a similar standard. Please send in your videos for us to review to: sugardaddytheatreco@gmail.com and we will consider it for our free channel, SugarTube. Sugar Tube link: https://youtube.com/user/SugardaddyZA


Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye, staged in 2014 by Sugar-daddy Theatre Productions, Cape Town. The production starred Marlisa Doubell and Stephen Jubber and was directed by Chris Weare. Supplied.

Tips for producing low budget productions – for independent theatre practitioners~for when theatre reopens – by Marlisa Doubell of Sugar-daddy Theatre Company

~Sponsorship~ 

Don’t be afraid or shy to ask for theatre investment. Ask for what you want directly. Be specific and transparent. Say what you need. Do not drop hints and hope for offers.  

~Theatre business plan~ 

Set up a meeting and make a professional proposal with a realistic budget plan. Be prepared to knock on a few doors before you find a sponsor that is a good fit for your company. Keep asking: What is the worst thing that can happen? They can say ‘no’ but they may say ‘yes’. Most actors know how to handle rejection when they don’t get cast in roles. The same goes with funding. Do not take it personally. And if the answer is ‘no’, be grateful for their time and advice given.  Learn from their feedback and keep going. Each time gets easier. Go in expecting success BUT be non-attached to the outcome.  

~Think beyond the industry~ 

One of the successes of Sugar-daddy has been in getting funders, outside of the theatre industry. Seek opportunities with local businesses outside of the theatre industry.  

~Freebies, trade exchanges and promotional opportunities~  

You don’t necessarily need a massive chunk of money. Break down everything on your budget plan and look at getting each individual item sponsored separately. For example, to acquire a venue or space for rehearsals, ask if a local business will loan you a canteen outside of work hours or a church hall etc Loan your items for set or props from local shops or schools. Ask for sponsorship from professional costume or film hire businesses etc. it’s worth asking. Purchase items in second hand shops. If you get stuff ‘for free’, give back by including logos to your social media platforms or offer free tickets to shows.  

~Marketing~  

Spend your money on marketing. Do not rely on word of mouth. Start advertising on social media at the very least three months before your opening night. Run a competition for free tickets to opening night. Invite reviewers to opening night or to a private rehearsal. Be sure to do your radio interviews a week before opening night. Every single person on the production team needs to be actively buzzing on their social media daily in the weeks running up to the play.   

~Teamwork~  

You’re only as good as your production team/cast and the people around you. Be sure to have everyone super focused and responsible for their task. Avoid negativity in the team in any way, shape or form. It’s unprofessional and unproductive. Aim to be supportive of each other and focused on the end goal, ie the success of the production. Welcome constructive feedback or ideas from each other. That’s how we learn and grow and get better.    

~Keep calm and carry on~

Things do go wrong and mistakes do happen. You can’t always control live theatre. That’s the nature of it. You can always fix things by keeping calm. No two shows are ever the same. This is the very beauty of it and thrill of it. There might be last minute load-shedding, sudden health issues with cast or audience members; front of house delays, technical issues…the list is endless.  Plan well, be prepared. Always expect a positive outcome but if it gets tricky or hairy, keep your wits about you and solve problems by keeping calm.    
Just a car (2017) – Written and co-directed by Marlisa Doubell. Watch online at Filmfreeway.

Marlisa Doubell – short films  

Just a car – https://filmfreeway.com/MarlisaDoubell  
Lonely Lights- https://filmfreeway.com/826619    

❇ Featured image of Marlisa Doubell by Ant Smythe. Supplied.

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