You might wonder why the ruins of a classical Greek amphitheatre appear to be situated on a river bank deep in rural South Africa. Get closer and you’ll discover these curved terraces of stone seating are not ancient but newly built. Soon they will be encased in a conical structure resembling a rondavel, the traditional circular dwelling-house of the Xhosa people.
This eye-catching structure will be known as the Archie Sibeko Roundhouse. The juxtaposition of European and African styles is not only architectural, but cultural. And it’s not just about the past, but the future – of the people in this part of the Eastern Cape and in north east England, too.
It was in the north east that Archie met Ozzie. Archie Sibeko is a former South African trade union leader and ANC freedom fighter. Better known by his nom de guerre, Zola, he retired with his wife Dr. Joyce Leeson to Tynemouth. This Victorian seaside town is also home to Ozzie Riley and Elaine Beard of the Dodgy Clutch Theatre Company.
Their show Elephant has been touring almost continuously in the UK, South Africa and North America since 2006. It mixes contemporary and traditional African dance, music, song and storytelling in a high energy style which had impressed them on an earlier visit to South Africa’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Elephant grew from a collaboration with artists they met there.
“We found the Eastern Cape to be one of the most creative places we have worked,” says Ozzie. “It has a rich and deeply rooted popular culture living side by side with a modern industrial society. There’s a reservoir of raw talent there. To help develop it would be a legacy of the success of Elephant.”
Zola advised them to look in the countryside, in particular the Tyhume Valley where he grew up. “The children love singing, dancing and acting and quickly pick up new skills, but they need help. I’ve always said that as far as arts and culture are concerned, the people of South Africa are like dry grass: given a spark, they will catch fire.”
The opportunity came with funding by the Eastern Cape Ministry of Culture for a programme of events, residential courses and exchanges to engage teachers, children and parents linking Tyneside and Tyhume-side. Dodgy Clutch worked with Tyhume schools and teachers on themes from Elephant – captivity, freedom and redemption. The result was a performance which the schools took to an arts festival at Hogsback, a mountain resort nearby. It took the sophisticated audience by storm.
Peter Buchan, chief executive of Ryder Architecture in Newcastle, was out there, too, as a member of the Dodgy Clutch advisory board. “I wasn’t thinking in terms of buildings,” he recalls “but as I went with Ozzie around different villages the notion of amphitheatres arose in our minds. We reached a place called Gqumahashe and I thought this is the one spot. It looks along the bend in the river with a distant view of hills – a magical sort of place.”
Zola confirmed this was indeed a sacred spot. Students from Fort Hare University, two miles away at Alice, cross the Tyhume River as part of their graduation ritual. But why build a theatre in a village of straggling corrugated iron and breeze block huts whose only buildings of substance are the primary and secondary schools?
“Children are educated. They’re sent out in smart uniforms by mothers who do the washing in a bucket outside the hut,” observes Peter Buchan. “But when they leave school there’s nothing. There are relatively few men around. Those that can, go to away to towns to work. Apartheid robbed them of a sense of purpose. The amphitheatre can help them get back their cultural roots, develop self-esteem, recognise the natural talent they take for granted.”
The vision is that Roundhouse will provide a focus to bring the innately talented people of the area together with creative practitioners and communities from elsewhere in South Africa and beyond. It will not only generate memorable performances, but income from people attending workshops and shows. An infrastructure of hospitality will evolve, creating a symbiosis between Tyhume and established tourist destinations nearby.
The model for culture becoming a force for regeneration is Gateshead, as Peter and Ozzie know from first-hand involvement. In the 1980’s the town was on its knees following the decline of heavy industry, mining and shipbuilding on Tyneside. The vacuum is now filled by the Sage Gateshead, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the Angel of the North. Together they have given a global image to place few could have previously pictured, attracting tourism, conferences and new business and creating employment in the wider region.
Will the Roundhouse also be iconic in its own way? The rondavel design by Ryder has a beautiful logic. Inside, the sense of space will be breathtaking. The all-wood canopy is self-supporting with no central pillars. This gives an audience seated around three-quarters of the stage area an uninterrupted view. On the fourth side the roof peels away to reveal the natural backdrop of the river valley and distant hills. The slats of the canopy allow natural ventilation and light into the theatre and deflect rain water away.
The concept is simple. Achieving it has thrown up challenges. But the unexpected is all part of the big idea. The site became a training ground for people from Ryder Architecture and Cundall Engineering to get involved with architectural and building basics once construction started in 2009.
“They were confronted with the on-site consequences of decisions taken in front of a computer screen,” says Peter Buchan, “what it’s like to have to drill through a half inch steel base plate, to stand in the mud trying to mould villagers into a construction workforce. It’s a humbling experience that’s never going to leave them.”
“It allows interaction with the community and other members of the design team,” adds Jonathan Hayes, a structural engineer at Cundall. “with everyone sharing a common passion to deliver a truly sustainable solution.” This dictates that building materials, techniques and workforce should be sourced locally. Hence the seating tiers were specified to be composed of ‘gabion baskets’, wire mesh cages filled with stones from the neighbourhood. Local trees were earmarked for the support beams. Once up and running the building is designed to require minimal maintenance.
Sustainability is fine in principle, can be problematic in practice, as Vicky Riley of Dodgy Clutch discovered when she went out in 2010 to get the seating finished, ready for the roof to be built. There were not nearly enough stones lying around to fill 207 gabion baskets hungry for 380 tonnes of material.
Local builder John Schenk had the answer. Son of a trading post family, water ski champion and native Xhosa speaker, he located a supply from a disused quarry. Confronted earlier with how to cut 10 tonnes of timber the right size for the main frame, he improvised a rotary saw. It was he who hired a team of villagers as a workforce. It was Vicky – covered in building site dust – who treated them to lunch of mutton, pork or chicken stew each Friday payday at the Super Spar store in Alice.
The children of the primary school in whose grounds the amphitheatre will nest can’t wait for it to be finished. Literally. They are already using the 200 square metre stage area for dance, song and improvisation. When this is capped by the curving wooden canopy, the Roundhouse will belong to the Eastern Cape Regional Government. It will become an outdoor classroom, community arts centre and venue for traditional gatherings and civic events. Here visiting artists and Dodgy Clutch will help develop local talents as well as deriving stimulus for their own work.
As its magnetic field radiates outwards, the Roundhouse will become a base for initiating and incubating cultural projects – regional, national and trans-national – financed by grants, sponsorship and sales. South African urban-based performing arts companies will hold residences here, enriching and drawing from rural culture. North east England dance, drama and folk companies will find a unique platform on which to build productions infused with the energy and originality of Xhosa culture.
The word “amphitheatre” is derived from the Greek meaning “theatre from both sides.” The Archie Sibeko Roundhouse represents more than the coming together of audiences around a stage. It will become the catalyst for creative partnerships from two hemispheres and cultures of the kind which has already born magnificent fruit.
“In this way we have already created an international hit with Elephant,” says Ozzie Riley. “The amphitheatre will provide a centre for further collaboration and more Elephants to be nurtured.”
(PS I have had confirmation that the full Elephant will be coming out to perform as one of the Invited main features at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on provisionally 2, 3 & 4 July 2011. Ozzie and I are discussing the possibilities of an ‘abbreviated’ performance at the Roundhouse after their run at the Festival, but this is all subject to finance availability. I would recommend that you try to get to the full show. — Fiona Lees)