Theatre interview: Clare Stopford talks about Covid Moons, premiering at Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre (RATA),Riebeek KasteelNovember 2020

What: Covid Moons Director: Clare Stopford Featuring: Sipumziwe Licwaba and Nicol Steyn When: Tuesday November 17 (preview); Wednesday 18 until Saturday November 21, 2020 Where: 33 Main St, Riebeek Kasteel Tickets: R120 Booking: Website: 8.15pm – 9.30 pm CAT (Central African Time) Info: Theatre and accommodation packages:  Shawn at Riebeek Valley Tours 082 528 6785 or e-mail Distance from Cape Town: 80km

Clare Stopford is directing, Covid Moons, the launch production of the summer 2020/21 season of the Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre (RATA), which is on the grounds of The Royal Hotel, Riebeek Kasteel. She describes Covid Moons as “a character-driven play with the focus on the psychic journeys of the characters and the bond that is formed between them.” The two hander pivots around Magda (played by Nicol Steyn) and Lufuno (Sipumziwe Licwaba). They are two people flung together in lockdown. Magda is “a white (Afrikaans) UCT art student from Somerset West who repurposes soft materials for sculpturing and who is being trained in the Wicca arts online for which she dances naked at full moon.” Lufuno is a copywriter; a “golden boy” and “a member of the Venda diamond elite”. 

TheCapeRobyn: How did this play come about – a response to Covid?

Clare Stopford: I wrote the play to cheer myself up and stop myself going mad. When the first lockdown – level 5 lockdown -was announced -I was caught in a high security block where the trustees took their jobs of policing the no visitors rule very seriously. I was flat sitting. I knew no one. I was incredibly isolated and disoriented. I began to imagine what it must me for young people who are only starting out their lives; to have them put on hold. I imagined two young people from very different backgrounds, trapped like me alone side by side in a high end block. I wanted to explore how a new relationship could be navigated inside the restrictions of lockdown. And I also wanted to test my characters with the pressures of the impact of the pandemic bringing sometimes unbearable pressure on them. And then my empathy with young people and their vulnerability and resilience was a driving force. But in essence I was using them to give myself hope.

TheCapeRobyn: The play is being staged in an outdoor theatre setting, during lockdown level 1, during the pandemic. Did you write the play with the setting in mind? Could this play be staged indoors in a theatre or is it site responsive to RATA?

Clare Stopford: I did not write the play with RATA in mind at all. I imagined an indoor staging. The timing of Mark’s initiative coincided with the completion of the play. So yes it seemed highly fortuitous especially since the play is set on two balconies separated by a wall and much of it happens at night with the moon featuring quite a lot. The outdoor setting is very challenging to set up a theatre in and to mount a play because of the elements, but once the play is up and running it brings the magic of real breezes enlivening the costumes with movement and sway. And the visual effects are amplified by the darkness surrounding the stage. There is the problem of only being able to light at night, so time is an issue when you are performing outdoors. So no, not site specific, it could be staged in an indoor theatre.

TheCapeRobyn: Sipumziwe Licwaba was exposed to the virus at the end of the first week of rehearsals in Cape Town and tested positive. That pushed the opening to another date. Creating and staging theatre in the time of Covid is beyond challenging?

Clare Stopford: There have been several challenges of working in and around the pandemic. I had specifically imagined a scenario where the actors would not be near to each other or intimate in that they would be separated by a wall between their balconies with just a lower section of railing to see each other at the edge of the balconies. I wanted to be able to rehearse during a softer lockdown which is what we started to do. Sipumziwe getting Covid was bad luck but the good news was that myself and Nicol tested negative but as you say it was held up for two weeks. Not such a terrible thing. It is a new play and it needs gestation. So we worked for a few hours a day on Zoom. As a result I think the actors are well rooted in their characters. In a new play things can be rather slippy slidey as we chop and change things and that’s difficult if you don’t have enough time. So the pandemic takes but gives back. Then once we were back at rehearsal our rehearsal space was cancelled because the Dominee at the NG Kerk where we were rehearsing thought he had Covid so the place was shut down. There was challenge after challenge. And of course all of us have to be constantly aware of our movements and mask wearing. It’s very demanding.

TheCapeRobyn: Outdoor theatre is the ideal solution during Covid and the photos from rehearsal look absolutely magical?

Clare Stopford: It is a magnificent setting but the story behind it is that every piece of equipment has to be unpacked and packed away nightly. The set-up is huge. It’s not the same as the lighting operator swanning into a theatre and doing a light check! In the open air at 7pm you can’t see the lights. So quite honestly it takes much much more commitment and effort from everyone involved. It takes a gargantuan effort. What’s more the technical crew are trainees from a programme Mark initiated from the community and this being their first experience of real theatre they need constant training. The community of Riebeek Kasteel and Riebeek West have been incredibly supportive, donating furniture pieces, lights, scaffold, projector, speakers, accommodation for artists and all manner of materials necessary to set up a new venue and a first production. I think this is a model that will become more and more prevalent. It exists in America as ‘community theatre’ which operates on a professional basis but is entirely made possible by the community it takes place in. Perhaps ask Mark more about that, he achieved all this.

Mark Graham-Wilson (RATA’s artistic director) on making theatre during Covid, in a small town in South Africa and how the community has pulled together to make this season a reality

There are many wonderful people in the Valley who are community oriented; love the arts and who are determined to revive the local economy. Ever since I came to Riebeek and started the community performing arts initiative The Olive Branch Project, I have received a great deal of support, most notably from Nuwekloof (Roger Roman, Faiza Davids and Chales Botha). This organisation has done a great deal to raise awareness of the forced removals (from Oukloof) which took place here in the 60s and provides all kinds of community services to the local population. Local businesses have been very supportive and include: The Royal Hotel, Roes, Riebeek Valley Country Retreat, Lara Alicia Scott Photography, The Olive Boutique, Ancient Spirit, Rooi Tassie and Johan Viljoen of Die Courant – and there others. Many individuals have donated bits and pieces of equipment, sponsored tickets and cushions and offered their time and practical assistance. I am very grateful to all of them.

Clare Stopford is directing, Covid Moons, the launch production of the summer 2020/21 season of the Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre (RATA), which is on the grounds of The Royal Hotel, Riebeek Kasteel. She describes Covid Moons as “a character-driven play with the focus on the psychic journeys of the characters and the bond that is formed between them.” The two hander features Sipumziwe Licwaba and Nicol Steyn.

Image credits: Supplied