Interview:  Amber Fox-Martin talks about her feature documentary, A Feast in Time of Plague

A Feast in Time of Plague premiered at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival 2020. The film was Fox-Martin’s thesis film for her honours degree at Stellenbosch University. Impeccably researched and edited, the film combines archival material with interviews by Fox-Martin. This film makes an important contribution to the documenting of theatre in South Africa. Beyond being a “record” of SA theatre history, the film is a compelling intersection of live performance through the medium of narrative documentary film.

Fox-Martin brings multiple disciplines to A Feast in Time of Plague – her interests in live performance, theatre and the importance of witnessing historical moments in that trajectory. A Feast in Time of Plague pivots on research and history but it is accessible and entertaining to watch this 38 minute film. An impressive achievement by this talented new director on the documentary scene. Link to review of the film, follows interview. Fox-Martin (23- yes, she is only 23!) is currently a masters student at the Stellenbosch University History Department. Looking forward to seeing more films by this interdisciplinary creative.

TheCapeRobyn:  A Feast in Time of Plague was your honours thesis film at Stellenbosch [2019] and you received a cum laude grading for it?

Amber Fox-Martin: Yes, last yearI completed my honours degree. This whole process has taken me on quite a journey. I began with my research proposal in January and submitted by November. I was thrilled to see the end result, which was a cum laude. What was more important to me was the reception of the film. Historians, theatre academics and interviewees attended a private screening of A Feast in Time of Plague, and seemed to have a good response. This inspired me to give the film a longer life.

TheCapeRobyn: The film was selected for Encounters. Any other festivals that it has been selected for or are you still waiting to hear?

Amber Fox-Martin: We’re still in the waiting period to hear from other festivals. I really hope to see it on a cinema screen in the future.

TheCapeRobyn:   You studied at Stellenbosch University, and graduated cum laude in 2018 with a bachelor of arts in drama- majoring in stage management, theatre studies and history. Here we have a documentary – A Feast in Time of Plague– a film. Can you talk about what made you transition from the mode of physical theatre into documentary filmmaking? Theoretically, you could have written a thesis, documenting the work of these Afrikaans theatre makers?

Amber Fox-Martin: This is a fun question to answer. I think that a lot of art forms are interdisciplinary in nature. I like theatre because it has so many different components; sound, lighting, costumes, text, design, performance, etc. Ultimately, I needed a medium to capture and present this story. Theatre is transient and only exists for the duration of a show. After that, it lives on in the form of stories, memories, news clippings, programs and photographs.  This is where documentary filmmaking came in. By using film, more specifically documentary, I could visually present all of these elements in one sequence. I could bring these transient moments back to life. A written thesis would have had less of an impact. The combination of these visual elements is what really illustrates some of the points in this thesis.

TheCapeRobyn: You were amazingly prescient as now theatres are essentially shuttered and the digital stage is where it is happening. I see your film as a kind of master class – as practitioners can watch luminaries like Marthinus Basson and Pieter-Dirk Uys and gain insights into their work and approaches. Comment on the digital stage and the fact that you as theatre maker have shifted your practice into documentary film?

Amber Fox-Martin: Firstly, I think that my generation of artists and technicians are extremely versatile. Our practice adapts, and I have seen many of my peers work on both film and theatre. I happened to meet A Feast in Time of Plague’s co-director, Philip Theron, while stage managing! When it comes to the shifting of my own practice, it came naturally. I was studying history while working in theatre. It was never one or the other. The two always went hand in hand. For this research, I wanted to capture a slice of history and present it in a way that best told this story. 

TheCapeRobyn:  In the course of your studies, you came across stories by Marthinus  Basson and others. You wanted to interview these artists and also locate the archival stage from the past- their work. Can you talk about that process- birthing the film?

Amber Fox-Martin: The birthing process of this film happened in different phases. It all started when the History Department assigned a phenomenal professor, Vivian Bickford-Smith, to supervise my research. Professor Bickford-Smith advocated for me to use the medium of documentary film. At the exact same time, I was preparing for the KKNK festival. While I was in a rehearsal space with Marthinus, I recognized the need to capture these stories about the past. In all honesty, the way that I was taught about this time period didn’t accurately reflect the lived experience of this time. The past is so nuanced, and I wanted to show this. Initially, I thought that I was going to look at CAPAB as a whole. I went on a journey to conduct archival research and interviews. The approach then focussed on themes of censorship, subversion and race-relations. The group that I focused on does not reflect the full story of CAPAB, nor does it intend to. During the final phases of this research, a lot of the interviews had to be cut down and assembled. Our cut went from two hours to 38 minutes. Rough cuts were reviewed by my supervisor, and then the project was submitted. When we found out that the film was selected for Encounters, we decided to send it for a proper post-production sound mix. 

TheCapeRobyn:  You are currently teaching sound and stage management at Stellenbosch University Drama Department. A challenge during Covid, I can imagine? 

Amber Fox-Martin: Oh yes. I began teaching a month before Covid hit. After that, everything went on pause. The university later switched to online teaching. In some ways, I am grateful for this change. I had time to rethink some of the coursework. I used this as an opportunity to create new resources like video tutorials. Just over a month ago, the SU Drama Department brought staff back. Like most spaces, the health and safety protocol is quite intense, but it’s worth it. Any time in a theatre nowadays is a blessing. I’ll take the challenges! 

TheCapeRobyn:  As a result of the pandemic, many theatre makers are exploring making recordings of their productions – and they will need people to make quality films – either as recordings and/or documentaries? 

Amber Fox-Martin: During lockdown, recording/broadcasts of theatre made by the National Theatre and other companies, opened up a new world for a lot of audiences. I think that there’s definitely a need for good quality recordings of productions. This also poses challenges, because a lot of money then has to go into gear and manpower. One of the shows that I worked on will soon be collaborating with a Cape Town media company to film the production. We’re even going to film in a Cape Town theatre. I can’t disclose much more about the project, but thought that it would be good to mention. Both a film and theatre crew will work together to create this. So, there are definitely new ways of creating work, however, this kind of work needs to be done with the right collaborations. It’s difficult to just pick up a camera and film a play. Theatre and film are very different worlds that can converge, if treated properly. 

TheCapeRobyn:  The landscape of theatre is going to probably involve a hybrid model for a while – some physical and some digital video on demand. You have worked with Marthinus Basson and Janice Honeyman. In 2019 – last year – you were employed by the Adam Small Theatre Complex to work as a stage manager and administrative assistant. That complex is closed for now? 

Amber Fox-Martin: COVID-19 has really affected the theatre industry. On the last day of Woordfees, most of the industry gathered in the Adam Small Theatre. We were supposed to have an awards ceremony, but there was nothing to celebrate. Hugo Theart announced that KKNK would be cancelled, and in that moment, we knew that the storm had begun. Most large theatres rely on large audiences and can’t reopen yet. This is a perfect opportunity for smaller theatres to experiment with hybrid theatre. By recording the live performance, and making it available after the time, the theatre space has become accessible to those who can’t be there in person. Even before Covid, I remember experimenting with hybrid-broadcasting for the SU Premierefees. At this point, the Adam Small Theatre Complex is still closed. Due to operating costs and University protocol, I don’t think that it will open anytime soon. This makes me quite sad because the theatre was booming last year. 

TheCapeRobyn:  Back to the film –A Feast in Time of Plague. Was it your intention – to mash up history and convey a sense of craft and share the legacy of the artistry?

Amber Fox-Martin: My initial intention was to capture the zeitgeist, ‘spirit of the age’. In looking at this history, and hearing these stories first-hand, I realized that this story had to be told with the same sense of craft and playfulness that the productions had. The reason why I used the medium of documentary film was to bring these transient moments in theatre back to life. When I first saw production photographs, it all fell into place. I had read newspapers and heard the stories, but the visual impact of these productions was profound. I wanted the legacy of this craft and of these plays to be remembered, which in turn became a bit of a master class. There’s so much more to the time that what initially meets the eye, and I hope that people feel inspired by what they see.

TheCapeRobyn:  Do you come from a theatre/film family? Did you grow up in Cape Town? What led you to theatre, history and film?

Amber Fox-Martin: I grew up in Pretoria, and Afrikaans was rather foreign to me. My family isn’t a theatre/ film family, but they’ve always supported me. I can’t remember a time when theatre wasn’t part of my life. Growing up, I was part of a youth theatre company. One of my fondest memories was when my tiny-self was invited to have a cameo role on stage with the ‘senior’ company; waiting in the wings, feeling the lights change and walking on the stage, it was amazing! I was ultimately drawn to everything that happened behind the scenes, for both theatre and film. I studied an undergraduate course that equipped me with the skills to work on both. While all of this was happening, I also fell in love with history. My mother would show me history programs on TV. She also presented me with an amazing collection of history books. I held on to this passion and took it further in my postgraduate studies. I had a feeling that all these interests would be useful one day, and here we are.

TheCapeRobyn: Anything else to add about this film, future projects? 

Amber Fox-Martin: Working on this story has opened up the need to tell so many others. I am now busy with my history master’s, and I hope to pick up on where A Feast in Time of Plague left off. I definitely have a few future projects lined up. I plan on finishing my studies, capturing more stories, and working on theatre when we’re allowed back. 

A Feast in Time of Plague – credits

✅ Country: South Africa [2020]

Language: English, Afrikaans with subtitles

✅ Age advisory: The film has a PG13 (LN) age advisory

✅ Contact info: Amber Fox-Martin by e-mail

✅ Film media release info:

Image credit: Amber Fox-Martin interviewing Pieter-Dirk Uys, Artscape Theatre Centre, 2019. Photo by Philip Theron.