Rob Van Vuuren’s name may not be instantly recognisable in the UK but, in his native South Africa, Van Vuuren is a household name. As well as an acclaimed stage and film actor, an accomplished writer and director, Van Vuuren has hosted South Africa’s Got Talent and won the fifth series of the country’s version of Strictly Come Dancing with a record score.
Van Vuuren is now coming to the UK to showcase not one but three different productions in this year’s Brighton Fringe. He spoke to Glen Pearce ahead of his trip to the UK.
Rob Van Vuuren’s CV reads almost like a directory of South African media outlets. Credits for stage, film and TV sit alonside writing and directing credits as do a long list of acclaimed stand up comedy plaudits. So is it safe to say variety is an important element in Van Vuuren’s career?
“It has its pros and cons.” admits the performer. “Sometimes it’s easier for people to pigeonhole you as it’s an easier sell in some respects,” he continues, “but I’ve always just loved various aspects of storytelling and I always come back to the view that I’m a storyteller at my core and I love discovering different ways that part of me can find expression.”
But does that variety prove to be a challenge? No, says Van Vuuren. “I find a tremendous amount of joy in being able to explore all of those aspects,” he explains. “ I think I’d get bored if I did just one thing, I think I’d become very frustrated and jaded.”
That variety is reflected in the three shows he is bringing to Brighton Fringe. A dark psychosexual horror, an observational stand-up comedy routine, and a children’s show. The first, Dangled is supported by The Pebble Trust International Touring Bursary. How important has the bursary been in enabling him to bring this show to Brighton?
“It’s absolutely huge for me, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s always a fantastic opportunity to be able to measure your work to an international standard and to play to a different audience who have different expectations.” Although he has appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 with The Three Little Pigs (an experience he describes as “mind-blowing”), this will be Van Vuuren’s first trip to Brighton. The trip made possible by the funding is one that thrills the South African. “I can’t wait. The importance of winning the bursary is huge as I wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise.”
Van Vuuren explains that while South African audiences go to his shows with preconceptions based on his previous performances, British audiences come to the pieces with fresh eyes. “It’s nice to go to a place where all that is stripped away and no one knows who I am, to just put the work out there without any preconceptions of me.” he shares.
Fringe and self-produced work has always been strong in South Africa because our economy isn’t strong enough to support those massive shows.
The fringe environment, with over 900 performances also allows for a sharing of information and knowledge between performers.It is an opportunity Van Vuuren finds invaluable. “To connect with other artists, whether that translates to touring your work further or just sharing ideas and knowledge and building relationships is amazing. Every time I get the opportunity to do that it exceeds all my expectations.”
While his Stand Up show Life and his family show Florence & Watson & The Sugarbush Mouse (co-written and performed with his wife Danielle Bischoff) show a lighter side to his work, his new show Dangled seems a much darker affair as he explains.
“Dangled is an adaptation of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman by South African writer Louis Viljoen.” While Viljoen’s name may be unknown in the UK, he’s a prolific writer in his native country and it’s clear Van Vuuren is a fan of his writing. “It’s very dark, very twisted and the subject matter is difficult but the way he writes is very beautiful. The way I always describe it is Tarantino meets Berkov on meth.” He laughs.
The darkness though shouldn’t deter audiences Van Vuuren feels. “We premiered it last year at the National Arts Festival in South Africa and the response has been amazing. It’s quite shocking but also quite visceral and moving and people respond to it in a very profound way.”
With festivals such as Brighton Fringe going from strength to strength, with fringe being seen as a way around some of the arts economic challenges, the arts economy like in South Africa has always embraced the fringe according to Van Vuuren. “Every now and again you do get the big theatre centres pushing through a big musical or a big hit but in general fringe and self-produced work has always been strong in South Africa because our economy isn’t strong enough to support those massive shows,” he explains.
That economic struggle though has fostered a generation of inventive practitioners. “There’s a very strong tradition of ‘poor theatre’, for lack of a better description of it, in South Africa.” He continues. “We have a lot of people who create work independently and find creative solutions to bypass budgetary limitations.”
Van Vuuren also believes the number of solo shows coming out of South Africa back up that view. “It’s the cheapest way to do theatre. If you’re doing a one-person show where you are tackling an epic script with a large cast of characters you find inventive ways of dealing with that.”
Those harsh economic realities are clear for Van Vuuren. “Travelling on Rands when our Rand is getting weaker and weaker makes it very difficult to travel internationally,” he laughs. “I don’t expect to make any money at Brighton Fringe, I just expect to lose as little money as possible through the process!”
But what are his hopes for Brighton, aside from limiting the damage to his bank balance? “Hopefully, connections are made to build a sustainable touring network internationally. That’s my dream, to be able to do what I’ve been doing in South Africa for the past 20 years and tour it international and survive. Just survive, that’s all I really want to do!” He pauses to reflect before laughing “Yes, surviving is good!”
Brighton Fringe runs 5 May to 4 June 2017.
For more information visit www.brightonfringe.org