BWW Interview: Q&A with Jaco Van Rensburg of VR Theatrical
Executive producer Jaco van Rensburg is taking a break from running VR Theatrical amidst the nationwide lockdown, and chats to BroadwayWorld South Africa on the ever-changing world of entertainment, the impact of having to cancel four productions, and what he hopes for the future of theatre.
BWW: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you professionally and personally? What changes have you had to make?
Jaco: My business partner, Wessel Odendaal, and I decided very early on that we were not going to try to go the digital route during lockdown in order to keep content flowing. Hats off to those who were up for the challenge! Our business was forced to suspend operations while we had 4 different productions on the boiler and all were in different phases of their life cycle. We have had to postpone the productions indefinitely and the future is still uncertain.
As an indie producer and co-owner of VR Theatrical, producing theatre in SA has become a way of living. Personally, I have been able to take a 'holiday' for the first time in 2 years even though it is at home. I do read a lot - mostly about Broadway, producing, marketing and the like, but this is stuff I rarely have time for with our regular schedule. We have also been able to do some really good strategy sessions to plan the business' future and how to streamline and automate mundane tasks once we can operate safely again.
BWW: HERE'S TO YOU return season was cancelled due the current situation - was it easier because the show had already ran before or was it equally as difficult as cancelling other shows?
Jaco: HERE'S TO YOU was due to perform in Durban and the truck arrived at the Theatre in Durban on the Sunday night that President Ramaphosa declared a National Disaster and we were forced to turn around and pack everything into storage the following Monday. It was a sad moment indeed. It's never easy to cancel any production you really care for. We have been very fortunate in that we have a company of - not only extraordinary actors/musicians - but they are also extraordinary human beings. We have been able to stay in touch via Whatsapp as a group, sharing our frustrations and our joys.
BWW: What sort of toll has this cancellation taken on you and your company?
Jaco: As producers we are responsible for our actors' livelihoods. This responsibility weighs heavy on us and we will do our utmost to reschedule the tour once we get the all-clear, taking everyone's diaries into consideration somewhere in the future. Financially speaking, pre-production costs are high - for all productions. Thousands of Rands have been spent already on flights and accommodation, marketing and rental fees. There is no way of recouping if a show gets cancelled. And even if you reschedule, you need to spend that money again, so cancelling any show is never easy.
BWW: Do you plan on going back to work on the same projects once the pandemic passes?
Jaco: For the moment all four of our productions are cancelled, but we do hope that we can reschedule them somewhere down the line. Our diary is chockful with other projects for the rest of 2020, so we'll need to address the rescheduling for 2021 or 2022. Our actors/creative teams have all been incredibly supportive in assisting us and we will forever be grateful to them for their humanity and support. As producers, we will endeavor to support them in future where we can.
BWW: What steps has VR Theatrical taken to stay in touch with its patrons and supporters? Any places audiences can still get their theatrical fix?
Jaco: We have had a small social media campaign to create awareness of the situation, but we made it clear that we will be hibernating until such time as we can all gather together again. As a relatively young company, we felt that researching new ways of presenting and packaging our content was a fulltime endeavor that we are not currently equipped for. Instead, what we did have on hand was a cast album of HERE'S TO YOU which was recorded professionally before the lockdown. We have decided to launch it digitally, globally and the release should be available on all major streaming services soon. We will be donating a portion of the income to our wonderful cast.
BWW: What will the future look like for VR Theatrical after this? Will there be any changes?
Jaco: We simply cannot continue with business as usual. Important discussions are being had within the industry to see how we can be better prepared for similar situations. The South African Guild of Actors has been working very hard behind the scenes to assist in mediating on a government level on behalf of freelance actors, producers, and entertainers in all spheres. VR Theatrical is keen on getting more involved in their work and seeing how we can contribute to creating a better industry for all.
BWW: How are you handling the stress in the face of uncertainty in your industry?
Jaco: Somehow I am not too stressed, but rather hopeful. In a world where we have been stripped of interpersonal contact, the commodity that theatre offers - its immediacy - is going to be our biggest drawcard. What I love most about live theatre is that at the beginning of an evening you have a bunch of strangers in the same room, but as the evening progress, a strange bond starts to bind them all together. They all share the same experience, laugh together, feel together; and it is this 'sharedness' that simply cannot be replicated. That is the singular reason why theatre has been able to exist and survive throughout most major revolutions, (especially the digital revolution) and why I believe that it will also endure, if not thrive, after COVID-19.
Photo credit: Supplied
VR Theatrical's HERE'S TO YOU cast album is currently available for purchase at www.vrtheatrical.com/shop. 50% of sales go towards the artists.