Masque Theatre gets steered through crisis

Coleen van Staden and Celia Musikanth.

The mask of tragedy seems to be the only one that fits Muizenberg’s Masque Theatre right now as the Covid-19 crisis takes its toll on the arts.

The 61-year-theatre’s doors are closed until lockdown eases to level 1, but a crowd-funding drive and creative adaptation are helping to steer it through the crisis.

Erica Schofield has theatre in her blood. She is a trustee for Fish Hoek Dramatic Society and a Masque Theatre board member.

“When we closed our doors,” she says, “we knew we were facing two separate challenges: the very real and uncomfortable reality of being a small, hand-to-mouth NGO suddenly facing months of zero income, and the second: a community of loyal and active members whom we wanted to help and keep in touch with.”

The choice to close was made to protect audiences and actors alike. Nevertheless, it was a sad moment for the cast of the show running at the time.

The MADS (Muizenberg Amateur Dramatic Society) production of Aknaton by Agatha Christie never did make it to stage.

Director Philippe Pringiers and other cast members drove a circular four hours drive daily from Gordon’s Bay to rehearse and perform in the show that never was.

Ms Schofield says all the theatre folk are following this process: breathe; then: adapt and evolve.

“In one way, performers and freelance artists are slightly luckier than more traditional industries due to our mental resilience.”

Artists and freelancers, she says, are prepared for rejection, inaction and “resting periods” and they also have a knack for creating new things when other things fall apart. For the Masque, that new thing is the online evolution of performance art and digital theatre.

“We have made an active choice to see where we could use this crisis to improve and grow,” she says.

More than a building, the Masque Theatre is its people. In 1957, attorney Bertie Stern bought a dilapidated bowling alley next to the railway station in Muizenberg and together with his family, transformed it into a thriving community theatre.

When the Masque opened in 1959 it and the Old Space Theatre were the only multi-racial theatres in Cape Town. Since then, the Masque has served a vibrant smorgasbord of amateur dramatic societies of the Cape.

Many of South Africa’s professional actors have trodden the boards of the Masque in their time.

In October 1997, a devastating fire gutted the community theatre and with the insurance payout of R400 000 not enough to rebuild, a massive fund-raising project was put together by the amateur theatre community to raise the balance of the funds needed to see the theatre rise from the ashes. The Masque reopened in 1999.

And five weeks ago, the theatre launched Bertie’s Ghost Light’s. Named after Bertie Stern, the online programme creates live in-the-moment experiences for theatre makers and the Masque Theatre community.

To date, the Bertie’s Ghost Lights programme has had over ten online events with more than 100 attendees across four continents. The programme includes a mentorship offering and life coaching for members of the theatre community needing support while theatres are closed.

“For any company to survive over 60 years is quite some feat — for a theatre to do so, is phenomenal. This building shows that fires come and go, even global pandemics will one day pass, yet the legacy created by a community’s shared passion remains,” Ms Schofield says.

Theatre is a matter of connection, she says, and in a small way with Bertie’s they are experimenting with ways to create similar shared experiences online.

Celia Musikanth has been involved with the Masque since the 1960s. “It has been my home since then,” she says. “It was an addictive place in the nicest possible way, lifetime friendships were forged – that is how Coleen van Staden and I met. It’s all about team playing, collaboration, and shared love.”

She says new talents were discovered and growth took place from there with many going on to a professional career. Coleen and Celia started their own theatre production, Circle Production, and offered the popular Actor for a Day experience which was a fun crash course in theatre life.

“The joy this in-theatre experience at the Masque Theatre has given us is immeasurable. We want to thank all who came to play with us, who conquered their fears with us and who were inspired by us. Inspired to get involved or return to theatre, inspired to use their new-found voices, confidence and skills in whichever way they chose.”

Undefeated by the loss of theatre as they knew it, they too are shape shifting.

“Directing one-person shows remotely is very do-able, presenting dramatic monologues online, and doing bite-size snippets from our drama enrichment programme is also something we are looking at. These will keep our artistic juices flowing,” Celia says.

Meanwhile Bertie Stern’s children and great-grandchildren have supported the Masque BackaBuddy campaign, and contributed to a scholarship that the Masque has taken responsibility for.

For details of the campaign or the online Masque experience, visit: www.masquetheatre.co.za