Simon Cooper, who along with his wife Helen owns and manages Kalk Bay Theatre and KBT Productions, clearly has a passion for the stage and all things theatrical. Speaking to him in the charming confines of his intimate little theatre, I gained insight into the man behind the superb productions that we in the Scenic South Peninsula have the privilege of enjoying.
Simon grew up in St James, enjoying a carefree childhood hanging out at the Kalk Bay harbour with his friends from the fishing village. After starting his schooling at Star of the Sea he completed his primary schooling at Western Province Preparatory School before attending St Andrews College in Grahamstown as a boarder. He studied law through UCT and once qualified he was offered a job in a commercial and tax department of the law firm where he later became a partner.
It was an accident of fate that he became a maritime laywer in 1973. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time. When an I & J fishing vessel collided with a Cuban one, I was drawn into the field. I really enjoyed maritime law. It was an incredible job and I met incredible people,” remarks Simon.
“In 1998 I left the law firm and started up a consultancy for two years. Then I broke my ribs. The resultant internal bleeding kept me from working for four months and it was then that I decided to give up law altogether. This all happened just after I had married Helen.”
“It’s all Glenda Jackson’s fault that I got into theatre,” he says with a smile. “I saw her on stage in ‘Rose’ in London at the end of the 70s. I could not believe how powerful a performance it was. I was transfixed by the power of live performance. Over the next decade I started to see more and more theatre. In 1989 or 1990 I went to the Grahamstown Festival for the first time and have been going just about every year since. We mainly attend the fringe shows.
It was at the Grahamstown Festival that I go to know Nick and Liz Ellenborgen. I really enjoyed their work and went to a lot of their shows at Grahamstown with the result that they started to recognise me as one of their good supporters. At the 2003 Festival Liz [I think] mentioned that they were about to lose a small [40 seater] theatre they used at the Olympia Bakery. Almost jokingly I suggested that we do something together in Kalk Bay. Helen and I had been talking about a dinner/theatre venue for quite a long time but had not actually done anything concrete by then.
After the Festival I ran into Nic & Liz again and they asked if we were seriously interested in looking at opening a venue together and we said “yes”. Later that year the church which now house Kalk Bay Theatre came on the market and we were able to buy it. In late Nov 2003 we started transforming the old church building into a theatre, stripping it to the bare walls. The original bare stone may be seen behind the stage.
Kalk Bay Theatre is housed in what was the old Dutch Reformed Church. Built in 1876, it was deconsecrated in 1951 as the local congregation had shrunk. Since its deconsecration the church has served as the piano shop of Sylvester and Sons, a dance studio, a karate studio and an art gallery.
Asked about his childhood in St James, Simon said, “Fate dealt me a father who was fishing mad. His best friend was a Malay fisherman from Kalk Bay, Bebeis Cozyn. When my dad bought a boat Bebeis became the skipper. From a very young age I would be allowed to go out on the boat three to four times a month. And when I was older I would fish during the week with Bebeis, who also owned a traditional Kalk Bay fishing boat together with his brothers-in-law. I learned hard lessons from them. Bebeis had four children , two of whom, Ishmael and Dullah, were close in age to me. We would fish in the evenings from a dinghy and then sell the fish to pay for movie tickets. We had fun trying to smuggle the Cozyns into the Empire Cinema in Muizenberg – in those days of course cinemas were for whites only. I am grateful that my mother allowed me to run around the harbour and the neighbourhood. It was not unusual for us to be on the harbour wall at 2am, fishing! It was not an unusual childhood for children growing up in Kalk Bay.”
Schooling in Grahamstown brought with it a different set of life’s lessons. St Andrews was a very traditional English boarding school where the prefects could smoke in the common room and where the young new boys acted as their fags.”I was bullied as a new boy but I had a strong group of friends and by the time we reached matric we had managed to bring about a change of behaviour through our opposition to bullying.”
At school Simon showed no interest in acting or the arts. “I was a reasonably good at cricket and rugby and showed a flare for languages. I am an avid reader. My parents started me reading at a very young age. I love thrillers and detective stories. Fiction is an escape. I have read all the John le Carres, but have not read enough of the classics!”
Getting back to the theatre, Simon says that he loves the performances where one is completely drawn into the character’s world. “The creative process leaves me filled with awe and jealousy! How the hell does the director get from a page of script to the drama on stage. I love watching the actors working their parts. It is a process that attracts me. I wish I could do it!”
“South Africa has unbelievable talent – James Cairns, James Cunningham, Sandra Prinsloo, Rob van Vuuren, Paul Slabolepszy, Anthea Thompson, Robyn Scott, Ntombi Makhutshi, Adrian Galley, Janice Honeyman … just to mention a few. They take dry words and turn them into magnificent performances.”
Asked how he chooses the productions for Kalk Bay Theatre, Simon responded that he relied on his instinctive response to the shows that he sees at the Grahamstown Festival. “I usually go for the one- or two-man pieces with simple sets because that is what fits best into KBT.”
Commenting on the theatre in Cape Town, Simon remarked that it is unfortunate that the pool of people attending theatre in Cape Town is not very big. “Of the people in this pool, most go to tribute shows and stand-up comedy. Quite frankly I would like to see more media exposure for theatre.”
If you have not yet attended a performance at Kalk Bay Theatre then you have missed out on a wonderful experience! Keep an eye on our Events calendar for information about the shows.
Copyright Viv von der Heyden
KBT Productions has produced Rob van Vuuren (Rob van Vuuren is Rob van Vuuren): a run of Jutro at the Baxter; Kaput and Sie Weiss Alles, which won a Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival 2011. KBT Productions also presented the première of award-winning London Road in March 2010 (winner of 3 Fleur du Cap Awards and a Standard Bank Golden Ovation Award for Theatre and nominated for two Kanna awards and five Fleur du Cap and 2 Naledi Theatre awards, with Robyn Scott, Ntombi Makhutshi and Nic Spagnoletti wining Fleur du Caps [Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress & Best Script] and Robyn winning a Naledi as Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role (play). London Road was the top grossing theatre production on the Fringe at the National Arts Festival for three years. Currently KBT Productions produces Godfrey Johnson, 2 Megan Furniss pieces and 3 other plays sourced by KBT Productions & in one instance with Dowling Sisters Productions
As a producer, Simon has also been involved in other theatre productions, including collaborating with Megan Choritz and Graham Weir for Uncomfortable Productions, which presented the world-premiere of the Fleur du Cap award nominated, full-length a cappella musical, Noah of Cape Town. (This info was sent to me by Christine. I would like to include it but whom should I credit for it?)
(Above info provided by Kalk Bay Theatre)
The Kalk Bay Theatre
The Kalk Bay Theatre (KBT) is a 78-seater theatre situated in the old Kalk Bay Dutch Reformed Church. Built in 1876, it is a heritage protected building which has been lovingly converted into an intimate theatre with a bar area serving dinner and drinks on the upper floor. KBT offers a unique night of entertainment – top-class dinner and theatre, and quality time with friends all under the same roof.
Patrons arrive from 18h30 and, after reserving their theatre seats, are directed upstairs to the bar area. The menu is vegetarian friendly and other specific dietary requirements will, wherever possible, be catered for provided advance warning is given. KBT is licensed and corkage is charged at R30 per bottle.
Patrons make their way down to the theatre when the show is due to start – drinks may be taken into the theatre but there is no service in the theatre during the show. The ground floor theatre has 78 spacious seats crafted out of beech wood and modelled around the comfortable Morris chair. The theatre is a thrust stage with the audience on three sides, making for a very intimate theatrical experience. The Kalk Bay Theatre caters for special occasions, birthdays, office parties, corporate functions and tour groups.
(Above info provided by Kalk Bay Theatre)