Two small blonde boys dash across the lawn, a cashbox firmly tucked under the arm of the eldest. “We’re late, Ma’s going to open the doors and we’ve still got to cut the cakes and the Irish coffee glasses need a polish!” “Are you ready guys? I’m going to let them in, it’s time!” I open the doors. “Hi Sue, hi John, welcome, you’re in the limelight box tonight. Mrs Manning! Good evening, party of eight? You’re second table form the left, in front of the stage.
The theatre fills up, that magic buzz of a full house is tangible, the smell of wood chips, red wine and gourmet picnic baskets. Louis gives me the signal, I move in next to him behind the sound desk and pick up a small black box with a couple of levers – the lighting system! I glance over my right shoulder to Marius, 14 years old, and Heinrich, two years his junior, in the bar/coffee shop, time to kill the lights… It’s Showtime Folks!!
We, the Möllers, have both been involved in the performing arts most of our lives, Louis as co-founder and producer of amongst others, Carte Blanche, and me Sybel Coetzee, as a freelance actress and TV presenter. In 1989 we took stock of our hectic lives and decided that family comes first, with the result – goodbye Joburg, hallo, brave new world, a dairy farm close to Plettenberg Bay. After a few years of farming we longed for a way to combine our two loves – the footlights and our farm. That was 1996, the birth of The Barnyard Theatres. Why Barnyard? Louis had built a beautiful, rustic American-style wooden barn on the farm and this we converted into a theatre with an old-world atmosphere, heavy wooden beams, a horseshoe gallery, big, big tables with welcoming lanterns and wood chips on the floor. What a happy happening this has been! We had enormous fun with this our first very much hands-on family affair.
Our very first productions was called An Evening of Love Songs. Talented locals put together quite an impressive show. Our audience loved it, but the star of the evening was undoubtedly The Barnyard. The first taste of our homely, rustic farm theatre where friends and family could be entertained and eat, drink and talk into the small hours of the morning proved to be a winner, and they wanted more. Louis’ old Joburg company produced a hit show A Handful of Keys with Ian von Memerty and Brian Schimmel, They honoured our play-play theatre with a handful of shows and the ocean loving people of Plett and Knysna were now on the hook – this time on theatre!
My booking office was my cell phone and a scrap of paper was eagerly produced be it whilst milking cows or taking oysters off the rocks. The children were so young, Heinrich could hardly peep over the bar counter, but that was their business. They had to do the stocktaking, buy in the drinks and cake and make it work. Louis expanded the theatre, continually upgraded it technically and negotiated with artists and they all graced our little 6 x 10 metre stage, from Peter Dirk Uys to the rockers of Roll Over Beethoven.
Other Barnyard Theatres were opened, which saw the start of many successful working relationships and lasting friendships. In Mossel Bay we teamed up with Tom and Ann Muller. Tom is currently co-owner of the Menlyn Barnyard. In Magoebaskloof we met the effervescent Howard Blight, today one of the shareholders of our Broadacres (Fourways) Barnyard. A Barnyard was opened in White River and then the brand was catapulted into the limelight when we decided to go mainstream by introducing the theatre into a major city. Gateway, the largest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere, was opened in Umhlanga Rocks in 2001 and opening a 470-seater theatre there seemed an obvious launching pad for this initiative. Debbie Davidson with her incredible attention to detail, uncompromising work ethic and hands-on approach proved an invaluable partner.
As Barnyard Theatres mushroomed all over the country, Louis joined forces with Duck Chowles, a brilliant musician who has more than paid his dues in the entertainment industry. Having penned and produced, amongst others, the mega-hit Roll Over Beethoven, Louis instinctively knew Duck belonged in the Barnyard stable. They spoke the same language. With the relentless onslaught of the electronic media, and in face of the struggling arts, the most challenging side of theatre today is that you cannot afford to fail, and you must be totally in tune with what the people want, to ensure a faithful following coming back again and again.
Presently there are 12 Barnyard Theatres in South Africa. While each theatre is a product of its individual setting, I honestly believe they all retain the quaint rustic charm of our humble beginning. Sitting on a wooden bench be it in Plett or Cresta, I can still hear young voices and laughter: “Hey Heinrich, that guy has just tipped us five bucks!”