Grotesque and glamourless: Gritty work of the Fest

When I see South African comedian and ventriloquist, Conrad Koch lying, back on the pavement with a puppet propped on his stomach, it hits me: theatre is a beautiful deception.

The lights go down and we are transfixed – clay in the hands of the performer – and when we leave the theatre we remain impossibly star-struck. But here on the sidewalk there is nothing remotely glamourous about being a performer. Here, Koch is just another hawker, shamelessly selling his wares streetside.

I’m learning to appreciate the labour of the performer. Here at the festival it’s a day-in, day-out, blue-collar effort. Simply raising my hand for a minute during the question and answer session following the sophisticated puppet monologue I Love You When You’re Breathing gave me an appreciation for the burning muscular effort required to coordinate the movements of three puppeteers.

Though not billed as physical theatre, The Three Little Pigs was a cardiovascular exercise of note. In the Animal Farm meets NYPD take on the classic children’s story, famous funny man Rob van Vuuren teams up with Albert Pretorius and James Cairns.

The outcome is a high-energy, split-personality (or animality) feat of endurance. They huffed and they puffed and, well, they were drenched in sweat by the end of the show.

Exceptional transformations
But whether it’s a big bad wolf or a decrepit old woman, the work of inhabiting a character requires no less than all of an actor. Robyn Scott, playing the part of Rosie Kaplowitz in the 2010 Ovation Award winning drama London Road, undergoes an exceptional transformation that borders on grotesque. Scott possesses all the ungainly physical neuroses of an 80-year-old woman – rattling voice, shrill cackle, palsied limp and all. Scott embodies her character exceptionally.

Perhaps the festival should be seen less like a carnival of various talents and more like the Olympics. I think athletics serve as an apt comparison – it’s still a long way to the finish, but each day is its own sprint. Like an athlete, the work of a performer on stage is to stretch the limits of their physical bodies, but the performer must also transcend their body.

What artists do while they’re here is not glamourous, they will tell you, but we’re duped anyway. And that’s the beauty of it.

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