Tribute: Brian Astbury – teacher, director, founder of South Africa’s renowned Space Theatre, author of the book on acting method, Trusting the Actor

Brian Astbury: November 14, 1941 to March 5, 2020

Brian Astbury passed away in London on March 5, 2020.

According to a comment by Allan Leas on Facebook, on Brian van Rheede’s post, Brian Astbury had a heart attack on the London underground. He was “revived to an extent” and taken to a hospital, where he was put into an induced coma. Friends – including past students visited him. He was apparently brought out of his induced coma but then passed away. Unable to verify this futher.

Please let me know if you have additional information and I will add to this tribute.

I came into contact last year [2019] with Brian Astbury when I wrote a review of the film, The Space: Theatre Of Survival – a documentary of the ground breaking theatre which he founded in 1972, in Cape Town. The feature length film premiered in South Africa at The Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival [June, 2019]. It was the world premiere of the documentary.

Others were part of the establishment of The Space but from the documentary, it is clear that Brian Astbury was the driving force. He made it happen. His famous late wife, Yvonne Bryceland was also very much involved but Brian Astbury was the person who made the theatre of survival, a reality. He was pivotal in its creation and its daily existence – finding the money to pay rent, salaries and so on.

We corresponded about my review. He thanked me for the review and gave me some extra details about his book, which I did not have. I regret not asking him more. I was focussed on reviewing the film.

I salute Brian Astbury. His legacy to the theatre world is incalculable. He was a modest man who did not grandstand about his achievements – establishing the first non-racial theatre in South Africa.

After he left South Africa and settled in the UK, he worked as a drama teacher and educator and wrote a book about acting methodology. Two of his students in the UK, Mark Street and Dan Poole, were enthralled by this man who had started The Space. They set about raising money to make the documentary which stands now as tribute to this extraordinary man who created a theatre in the dark days of Apartheid which provided a safe sanctuary for theatre makers – particularly for artists of colour – who had very little access to the industry. They were locked out by legislated racism. Brian Astbury assisted them in walking through a door, into The Space. He dodged the draconian laws of The Group Areas Act by creating The Space Club. The theatre became a private club and this meant that people of all “colours” could attend shows. Well, sometimes the police raided The Space but for a lot of the time, they defied the laws.

The Space was the home of John Kani, Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, Fatima Dike, Denise Newman, Thoko Ntshinga, Pieter-Dirk Uys and many others.

When I was approached by The Encounters Festival to review the film, I was amazed to find out that two British filmmakers had made this film. I had no idea that Brian Astbury was still alive. Why hadn’t we been celebrating his contribution to theatre in this country? I had no idea about the extent of his work in physically making The Space a reality. To top that, here was a man who became a mentor to theatre makers in the UK and who had written a highly regarded book on acting methodology and practice. He was very much alive and living in London – but ‘forgotten’ in his home country.

Here follows an edited version of review of the film, which I posted on TheCapeRobyn Facebook page. This was before TheCapeRobyn magazine website was launched.

Image credit: Brian Astbury. Pic supplied by The Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival

The Space-documentary – creative credits

The Space: Theatre Of Survival (UK, 2019)

Directors/producers: Mark Street and Dan Poole (UK)

Narration: James Earl Jones

Featuring interviews: With John Kani, Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, Fatima Dike, Brian Astbury, Thoko Ntshinga, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Richard E Grant, Denise Newman, Vincent Ebrahim and others

The first non-racial, non-segregated theatre in South Africa

The Space Theatre is regarded as the first non-racial, non-segregated theatre in South Africa. It pre-dates the Market Theatre in Johannesburg [opened 1976] and the Baxter Theatre [1977].

The format of the documentary

About thirty interviews are included in this illuminating narrative documentary – or rather fragments of interviews. I would love to see each interview in full- the entire John Kani interview; the entire Athol Fugard and Fatima Dike.

The Space Club

A preview screening of The Space: Theatre Of Survival was held in 2019, at The Fugard Theatre – to an invited audience – people who were associated with The Space. Many belonged to The Space Club. This was a means of circumventing the race laws in Apartheid South Africa which legislated against mixing across the colour bar in force. As a member of a private club, legalities were ducked – sometimes.

The Space was literally a space for theatre makers to tell stories of what was going on around them in the era of the draconian laws of Apartheid. This was the home of Struggle Theatre. Artists and audiences hunted for loopholes to get around the Apartheid laws. Sometimes, they succeeded. Often they did not. Artists faced banning orders. There were arrests.

Making the film

Making the film, The Space presented its own challenges.

Film makers Mark Street and Dan Poole are British and raising funds for a theatre in South Africa – from the past – was not plain sailing. When they made this film, Brian Astbury was alive. They could interview him and archive his memories. Now, he is no longer with us. Others can talk about their connection and experiences to The Space but the man is no longer here. Bravo to Mark Street and Dan Poole for seeing the project through- and finding the money for post-production. It is not cheap to make a feature length documentary.

Hope and despair but ultimately inspiring

The Space is a film which reverberates with hope and despair. Ultimately, the film makers hope that it stands as a story of inspiration. They hope that people will reflect on The Space as an incubator of creativity and cultural activism and that it may encourage others to establish their own spaces for cultural expression and activism- to tell their own stories.

The Space – legacy documentary

The Space: Theatre Of Survival is an important film – a legacy film- paying homage to artists like John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Athol Fugard, Yvonne Bryceland, and Brian Astbury who were integral to the journey of The Space.

As I say hope and despair is for me the leitmotif that runs through this film. One of my mantras as an arts writer is that theatre is a safe and creative space to generate dialogue, conversation.

In South Africa 1972-1979, theatre at The Space was not safe. It was theatre of disruption; theatre of intense engagement in Apartheid South Africa- bringing together people -who would have been unlikely to have met during that time, under the race laws. Transcending theatre, it became a community.

The Space ignited the international gaze on Apartheid South Africa

Beyond The Space as community; as a space for artistic disruption and expression; the theatre ignited the international gaze on what was going on in Apartheid South Africa. This is conveyed vividly in the film. John Kani and Winston Ntshona won dual Tony awards for The Island/Sizwe Banzi is Dead – plays which were commissioned by The Space. When they were harassed and arrested in South Africa, there was outrage abroad, with protests and pressure for their release.

Some might say that it was a bunch of mostly white liberals dissenting against politics in a theatre in Cape Town who operated the Space but Kani and Ntshona would not have been invited to tour abroad if the plays had not been staged at The Space. As Kani says in the film, they had not envisaged a career in theatre. They had been part of community drama in Port Elizabeth and then came The Space. The plays that they devised with Athol Fugard spoke about what was going on in the country – atrocities leashed on black people – unvarnished, immediate, chilling – to an integrated audience. They were staging plays that were “playing with the pain of the people”, says Kani, in the film, reflecting on Sizwe Banzi is Dead.

The Space: theatre of witness

The Space was theatre of witness. Ntshona says that they weren’t doing shows to win awards but to “inform the world of the atrocities at home”. Sizwe Banzi and The Island toured internationally. That probably would not have happened without The Space.

The Space provided the first opportunity for “work to filter out”, says Athol Fugard, in the film.

“Many, many people in London and in New York, in Europe and Japan have an interest in South Africa because of those Space plays”, reflects Pieter-Dirk Uys.

Vincent Ibrahim says that The Space gave him hope that as a person of colour, a career in theatre was possible, attainable.

Brian Astbury met Yvonne Bryceland at UCT

I grew up in Johannesburg and my knowledge of The Space has come through my interactions with artists that I have interviewed. References to The Space in SA theatre books – tend to be sketchy. It is as if the details have become erased. I knew that Yvonne Bryceland and her husband, Brian Astbury, Athol Fugard and others were part of the wave of artists who were integral The Space. I was interested to learn from the film that Astbury was the person who made it happen. Others had dreams and ideas. He was the man who made it a reality. A photographer at the time, he had studied to become a librarian at UCT. According to director/producers Mark Street and Dan Poole, he met Bryceland at UCT. She was older than him, divorced with kids. He was drawn into her circle.

After watching Fugard and Bryceland, Val Donald and Winston Dunster rehearsing Fugard’s adaption of Orestes, he set in motion the process of finding a space for artists to tell their stories. Incidentally, the rehearsals for Orestes took place at The Labia Theatre/Cinema– in what is now Screen 4.

The genesis of the documentary – started by Percy Sieff in 1996

The journey of the Space – the film – began over twenty years ago when actor Percy Sieff filmed interviews with Space alumni [filming started in 1996]. Sieff was assisted with camera work, by his son-in-law David Fasano.

Interviews were conducted with Athol Fugard and others. Sieff was also captured on film. When Sieff died [June 2009], the project came to a halt. The footage, archival material was stashed away.

Fast forward two decades. In the UK, Brian Astbury was chatting to two of his former students – Mark Street and Dan Poole. They had been taught by him at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts (formerly Mountview Theatre School) – a prestigious arts school, situated in South London.

Brian Astbury – mentor and drama teacher in the UK

Before continuing with the Space film journey, allow us a jump-cut into the remarkable life of Brian Astbury. Many people still perceive him as “the photographer” married to Bryceland and of course his involvement with The Space. Astbury in his own right went on to become much more than a photographer- a revered teacher in theatre.

In the 80s, he relocated to London, after Bryceland joined the National Theatre Company. Astbury taught drama and in the 1990s, he was employed at Mountview and became Head of Acting, Directing and Musical Theatre Courses. He was- and remains in his retirement – passionate – facilitating theatre makers in devising their own work and writing scripts- rather than just using existing scripts. This was what he had learned on the boards at The Space. It was about creating one’s own work – processing biography, life, story- and dramatizing it in a theatrical context. Astbury book, Trusting the Actor (2012…/…/1466374969) – outlines his approach and vison of making theatre.

The Space documentary became a reality with two Brit directors at the helm

Flicking back to The Space film- after teaching them at Mountview, Astbury asked Mark Street and Dan Poole if they would be interested in finishing the film. They were. They went about assembling footage filmed over twenty years ago by Sieff and his team and archival footage that had been collected. They also conducted interviews with people who were actively involved in The Space but had not been interviewed. There were interviews which needed to be extended and they picked up and filled in gaps.

Watching some of the interviews in the film can be disconcerting. For instance, the footage of Athol Fugard is from when Sieff began the project. We are watching Fugard who was in his 60s at the time. The filmmakers were unable to revisit follow up interviews with Fugard and some of the others who were filmed at the start of the film making process that Sieff began.

I loved the interviews with Fatima Dike. I knew about her tenure at The Space but did realise how integral she was to the journey of the theatre. There is stirring footage of her narrating a poem by Barney Simon- Madame, please – at a fundraiser for The Space, held in Contantia. Stunning footage. Could be taking place now; the words in Madame, please – reverberate loudly.

The Space was Fatima Dike’s university

Dike became stage manager at The Space. Dike remarks on camera, that she didn’t go to university and that the Space was her university. The ebullient John Kani is as always fabulous to watch. His interviews in the film are a delight. Pieter-Dirk Uys is as animated and fabulously subversive as ever– priceless footage.

We watch a very emotional Brian Astbury talking about the growth – and demise – of the theatre. He talks about those who were there pulling with him – finding money for salaries; dodging the censors and security police. He doesn’t talk about himself. This is the story of a theatre- not his story.

Dan Poole and Mark Street came out to SA to film Astbury, looking back at the journey of The Space and revisiting the locations of theatre. [The theatre initially occupied premises in Bloem Street -1972. In 1976, the theatre moved to 44 Long St which had previously housed the YMCA].

Making a niche film about a little theatre in Africa

Poole and Street told me about raising funding for this film. Here they were two white men from the UK making a film about a little theatre in Africa. They were cognisant that it was a “niche film”, reflected Poole. Street added how the teaching of the arts has waned in the UK. Drama is not considered optimum. It is still taught in private schools but not a given at schools which are underfunded. Street: “The UK has decimated arts training. One doesn’t have to offer it in schools.”

The film became and is a “passion project”. With minimal funding, they essentially self-produced the film. Mirroring the spirit of volunteerism at The Space and giving of one’s time- without payment-people pitched in and provide them with sound mixing, colour grading, poster design. Street said: “Paul Massey and Tim Cavagin along with Twickenham Film Studios supported the film completing all sound-post for gratis, over a two week period, a gesture that sat alongside much of the generous support we received on the film that allowed us to complete it.”

In addition to finishing the film, they wanted a narrative link – to bring the film into focus for 2019. They have inserted interviews with young theatre makers who comment on the legacy of The Space and what that means to them in the democratic South Africa. One youngster talks about knowing about The Island but not knowing that the play was commissioned by The Space.

Poole and Street would like to get the film out on the international film festival circuit – so that the story of this trailblazing theatre will become known to a global audience.

Film advisory: The Space: Theatre Of Survival (UK, 2019)