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Valley also a cultural destination

Taking a creative approach to ensuring social distancing, Arts Town Riebeek Valley officially launched The Stone Circle Project last week in the run up to the Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre summer season, which starts in November.

In recent years agritourism has experienced some competition from the visual arts for its position as the most famous industry in the Valley.

As more and more artists have moved in (around 40 at the last count) the area has become a fine arts destination of choice due also in no small measure to the annual Solo Studios Intimate Art Encounters event. It invites the public into normally private spaces to witness the creative processes of drawing, painting, sculpture and conceptual art.

Klaus Piprek, creator and director of Solo Studios, had a vision for the area to become synonymous with excellence in all the arts and recognised as a year-round cultural tourism destination, and the concept of Arts Town Riebeek Valley was born. Under this umbrella the performing arts have entered a process of nurturing and development which they believe will see them drawing both local and visiting audiences to the magic of theatre in the shadow of the Kasteelberg.

Covid-19 challenges to live performance

Current scientific evidence suggests that the coronavirus spreads most effectively among large groups of people who remain together for an extended period of time in an enclosed space with poor ventilation. This means that, despite being permitted to reopen its beloved performance spaces, they are not easily going to safely attract audiences or artists into them any time soon.

The other major challenge to its industry is a financial one. Theatres which carry venue, maintenance, running and production costs are not going to be turning profits, or even breaking even, while bums on seats are limited by social distancing and capped public assembly numbers. The reality is that, for many of these theatre buildings, as well as for many artists, the outlook for the future remains bleak.

So why is Arts Town Riebeek Valley making its first foray into establishing itself as a live performance destination during this challenging time?

Science suggests that meeting in the open air with the recognised health protocols in place is currently the safest way for people to assemble publicly for events. Some governments, in opening up their country’s lockdowns, are insisting all live performances take place at outdoor venues until such time as the virus becomes manageable.

Riebeek Kasteel boasts at least one such venue, a spectacularly situated open-air amphitheatre with plenty of space for social distancing. Owing to the generosity of one of the village’s businessmen, the venue will attract none of the usual costs associated with running a theatre to Arts Town Riebeek Valley. Because they can operate cost-effectively in the safest possible environment the Valley will be one of the first places in the country to open up a space where performers will once again be treading the boards.

The Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre

The main hub of the village of Riebeek Kasteel is home to the iconic Royal Hotel reputed to have the longest veranda in Africa. At the end of the hotel’s rolling lawns, with the magnificent Kasteelberg as the backdrop to its stage, is the Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre (Rata). Designed and built by the hotel’s owner and Rata’s benefactor, Robert Brendel, the theatre can accommodate up to one hundred audience members with more than adequate social distancing measures in place.

Sadly, audiences are not going to be seeing productions with large casts on stages in the near future.

“However, we know that the power of theatre lies not in size and numbers,” says director of Rata Mark Graham-Wilson, “but in the strength of writing, directing and performance, even – and frequently especially – when there is only a single artist telling us the story. We cannot afford to place our precious performers at risk so, for now, one person shows will make up the majority of our productions, while those with two cast members will be considered under certain circumstances.”

While the focus of productions will be on the artist and performance the technical aspects will not be forgotten. “One of South Africa’s top lighting designers and theatre technicians, Kobus Rossouw, is our technical coordinator and advisor,” Graham-Wilson points out. “The venue is being simply but imaginatively equipped under his expert guidance. Kobus is also in charge of our training programme which is being run under the auspices of The Olive Branch Project and which will see several members of the local community being trained as technicians and designers who will staff the productions.”

The Stone Circle Project

According to Graham-Wilson, the group is acutely aware of the lament that playing to socially distanced audiences is tough. “When theatre is functioning at its best, it melds individuals into a collective which receives from and feeds back to the performer. Fewer people in the auditorium with spaces between them means that the collective energy is not easily created. Performers are expressing that they feel like they are playing into vacuums.”

Through an Arts Town Riebeek Valley initiative the group has come up with an creative strategy to at least partially alleviate this problem. Under the guidance of one of its leading conceptual artists, Emma Willemse, a collective of young people called The Arteri have created installation art pieces that inhabit the gaps in the auditorium.

The site-specific sculptural installations were conceived by Willemse in the last week of June while she was self-isolating due to being infected with Covid-19. She relates her intense focus on conceptualising the project as a time of potential hope for renewal, and ultimately a revival of the arts in the community of the Riebeek Valley, where she lives and works.

The Stone Circle Project consists of two components – a sculptural installation called The Boat Circle as well as a community collaborative called The Amphi Circle.

The Boat Circle entails a labyrinth constructed with white pebbles, leading to a found boat filled with stones and is situated adjacent to the amphitheatre. Viewers can participate to this work by walking the path and placing their own stones into the boat as a symbolic memorial act. This ritual could be a unique remembrance performed individually yet is visually part of a collective mass of stones.

The Amphi Circle consists of 16 temporary stone circles created with stones collected from Kasteelberg mountain, Voëlvlei Dam, Bainskloof and other various sites in the Riebeek Valley.

The function of these pieces is to separate individuals physically while, paradoxically, binding them emotionally through their experiences of the works in order to help create the unified energy which is so vital to the live theatre experience.

Through a series of intense workshops, Willemse guided members of the Arteri, a collective of multi-cultural young creatives in the Riebeek Valley, through the stone collection process and provided training in design, construction and maintenance of the circles.

The sizes vary from 80 cm to 1,5 m in diameter.

Willemse says: “As ancient markers of gathering, stone circles transcend time. The amphitheatre itself is a semi-circle and will be used for theatre productions that transcend the audience. The symbolism of stones centres on ideas of endurance, stability, and permanence.

“They represent the ability to be grounded and connected with the earth. Stones are strong, versatile, and easily accessible. In addition, the stones used in this project will reference the mountain that we view while watching performances. In this time of Covid-19, in which nothing is sure, the use of stones in this project suggest resilience, survival and, ultimately, hope.”

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