I have struggled a lot to come up with this next blog, but an occurrence last week helped shape my thoughts and made me think of why I love theatre so much. Social media has been incredible in connecting all the disparate people in my life. I am South African, I have lived there all my formative years and in the last week, as it goes on Facebook through a friend of a friend, I was put into contact with my old nursery school teacher.

I grew up in a mining town about an hour away from Johannesburg called Randfontein, known for its gold production. It is not exactly a cultural hotspot but a small town dedicated to gold – its business is way underground where my foreman grandfather sweated in the tunnels searching for that mineral. This was my mother’s side of the family. The Devine’s were good South African stock.

On the other hand, my father’s family, the Mondahls, were from Falmouth via Denamrk, and moved to South Africa after the Second World War to give my great grandmother a chance at love, again in Randfontein, after her first husband died in the war.

So I grew up in Randfontein with a Cornish/South African heritage and I loved it there. It was the best place to be a kid. I'm so grateful that I grew up playing in the veld. There, sometimes solitary, sometimes with my BMX friends, we played for hours on the dust plains - building forts, catching tadpoles, and looking for anything that sparked a story or an investigation. It was an easy place to grow up for a white child during Apartheid. And like most children I went to nursery school at four years old.

It was at St John's Nursery School in Randfontein that I found theatre. It was not a wealthy school, but it had enough toys to make a child’s imagination fly. I will never ever forget the puppet theatre that stood on the side wall of the playroom. It was a simple tall cardboard box that you could crawl into. The proscenium arch was above your head and you just had to raise your arm to make the puppet make his entrance. There was a curtain backdrop and red tabs. One puppet I loved was a hand puppet of a lion. And it was there that my love of theatre was born.

I’m not precisely sure why that specific toy captured my imagination more than the others, but here’s a possible explanation. I remember the feeling of being alone “backstage” and thinking that I could control what people saw and felt and maybe that was my way of controlling the world around me. I suppose what thrilled me most was the two worlds happening at once. There was me hiding behind the box and there was a whole world of people sitting in seats watching the story world being created in the proscenium arch frame for them. This duality - the secret versus the public world - has always fascinated me. I would sit in that puppet theatre for what seemed like hours. 

And when I moved up to primary school that fascination became an obsession. At break time I would often sneak into the school hall which had a large stage at one end with a substantial backstage area and I would wonder around behind the scenes enjoying the sense that anything could happen there. Then there was the frame that looked out on the world that was looking back at you and I loved it. It blew my young imaginative mind that such a storytelling place could exist on such a grand scale.

The area around Randfontein mine - a buidlign with a mineshaft and mud and puddles, filtered to look like a painting
Randfontein Mine
Photo by Paul Saad © Distributed under a Creative Commons licence, via Flickr – Image Licensing

Randfontein had no working theatre and it was in the middle of the veld in a country that worshipped the sun and sport. It was a strange obsession to have then.

So this little jaunt down memory lane on Facebook has reminded me why I love theatre so much, and I still love walking around an empty theatre and seeing the different spaces for the different worlds. And whenever I am in the audience I always wonder what it is like for the actors backstage. What is actually going on while I sit there watching the show.

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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