SISTERS MAKING IT WORK: Orly Shapiro, Shoki Mkgapa and Hayleigh Evans.
SISTERS MAKING IT WORK: Orly Shapiro, Shoki Mkgapa and Hayleigh Evans.

Three Afda drama graduates came together a few years back and started an edgy, indie, theatre venue in the ever-growing Maboneng precinct in the Joburg city centre smartly named POPArt.

More than two years on, Orly Shapiro, Hayleigh Evans and Shoki Mkgapa are determinedly shouldering on with a much sharper idea of what works and how things should be shaped to offer the best to audiences and to best serve theatre, which is their ultimate goal. “We want to raise the profile of the people in the industry,” says Evans. “It’s about the performers.”

What the spunky trio discovered with their intimate venue is that they have developed a refined, fringe outlet that’s fresh and young. They offer a platform for new performances but have also attracted experienced artists.

“We have got much better at curation,” says Shapiro about their experience these past few years. They have also been building on what has been essentially a young patronage. This is where to grow audiences for the future by starting them young.

They’re also thrilled that they have established the brand and that the industry is starting to trust them. Theatre and the performing arts are one of the toughest out there and it takes blood, sweat and tears to gain trust. But they’ve worked hard to get the word out there, which has mainly been word of mouth. They’re lucky that the area with Arts on Main, the one that first started shouting the loudest, is growing and expanding fast and furiously.

Part of the goal was also to offer young professionals training on a stage away from the bigger stages in Gauteng. There’s not much out there. “We have to keep working our craft so that when the time comes, we’re ready,” says Evans.

They have been offering grassroots master classes that have been very successful and they hope to do more of that. “It’s all about honing skills,” says Shapiro.

On the theatrical side what they have been looking at, especially as word of mouth is their strongest advertisement, is longer runs. Currently it’s less than a week which means that often shows have to battle before they start picking up and before they’re quite there, they have to move on. “We are bringing the more successful ones back,” says Shapiro.

“We’re not short of talent in this country but we don’t have enough celebrities.” That’s also something they want to emphasise with their younger clientele. “We come from that celebrity-driven background,” they explain.

They have regular nights, usually during the last week of every month, with comedy featured on Sundays at 7.30pm. “We’ve built up a good audience,” says Evans and they’re hoping that it will grow from strength to strength. With an acting background they’re also enthused by the networking that happens amongst the comedic fraternity. They endorse one another and that’s to everyone’s advantage and something the rest of the performance community can benefit from.

Sometimes it seems as if performers almost work against one another and in competition rather than reach out. This is something they want to change as they strengthen networking skills and possibilities.

These are all in the pipeline. They’re constantly broadening their base with food events the latest addition. “It’s been hugely successful and as soon as they’re announced all 26 places are grabbed within minutes,” says Shapiro. These one-off monthly dinners are done by a foody friend who used to do dinners from and at home, and he wanted to take it out there, to their delight. It’s all part of the entertainment spectrum.

They’ve also established a Jozi House of Poetry with writer/ performers going strong and play festivals that run plays from morning till night that pack them in – both productions and people.

There’s also the fabulous The Jittery Citizens, live improv theatre with Jessica Taylor, Alex Radnitz, Claudine Ullman and Tony Bentel on keyboard, every last Saturday of the month at 3pm.

It’s all about creating a theatre vibe.

What these three women are aiming at is becoming full-time media moguls they say, with tongues only partly in cheek – and I wasn’t smirking. For the moment the theatre is running as an aside while they all still have full-time jobs with Shoki the full-time actress. The other two are on the entertainment spectrum, but the aim is to turn POPArt into a sustainable business. “That’s where we’re headed,” says Evans.

They’ve come this far. Their marketing skills, in an era when especially in the arts, is what often flounder, are superb. Shows like Epicene Butcher first started on this platform and Neil Labute’s critically acclaimed Bash returns to POPArt from July 17 to 21 following its fantastic run in February. It presents the audience with three disturbing one-act plays. The characters are the kind of people you meet every day, ordinary, except for the creeping horror of what they have to say: a businessman; a glamorous pair of college lovers; a young mother.

Presented by the Wider Ground with Daniel Janks, Ashleigh Harvey, James Alexander and Jessica Friedan, it is directed by the marvellous Megan Willson. Stunning James Cairns also recently did a solo stint so watch out for some emerging and established names.

The plays don’t run for much longer than an hour, also tuned to their audiences. “We find that works best,” says Shapiro. They are delighted to be part of the developing hub in this part of downtown Joburg and are holding thumbs that everything that’s bubbling over excitedly is just a start.

• Check out their website www.POPArt.co.za and read more about everything that’s on offer. It’s a gas.