The world is steeped in absurdity. Most choose to ignore it, or accept it as a part of the structures of an average day. Others, like theatre-maker Roberto Pombo, choose to observe and reflect, providing a medium through which to better view humanity, in all of its complexity.
Pombo, known for his performances in staged works such as Father, Father, Father!, We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, and Kid Casino, is seated outside the National Children’s Theatre where he’s just finished two performances of the Jenine Collocott-directed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He’s playing Willy Wonka, of course.
‘It’s a lot of fun doing these shows. I actually came here a few times when I was in primary school,’ he says, his cap covering a tuft of wild, Wonka hair.
Growing up in the small, West Rand town of Krugersdorp, Pombo’s childhood was an insular one. His nursery school was behind his childhood home, his primary school was one street down, and his high school was a ten-minute walk away. Booksmart and somewhat shy, early experiences of performance came through a brief stint in the school choir as well as a family trip to go and see The Sound of Music at Pretoria’s State Theatre. A forbidden VHS tape, explains Pombo, ended up playing a crucial role in his early understandings of performance, specifically the theatricality of the grotesque.
‘My parents had this VHS tape that had “do not watch this tape!” on it, and so, obviously, my sisters and I watched it,’ recalls Pombo. ‘It was The Rocky Horror Picture Show and we became obsessed with it because it was just so mad. Obviously, we didn’t understand any of the sexual references or anything, but the overt theatricality of it really drew me into theatre and to that mad world which is very grotesque, actually, and has possibly influenced my entire life up until now. That VHS tape definitely had an influence on me.’
Theatre training was done at Wits University where Pombo was able to learn and experiment with physical theatre and contemporary clowning in a formal capacity. Following his graduation in 2008, Pombo began working with local theatre-makers such as Collocott, Toni Morkel, Robyn Orlin, and Anthea Moys, while also venturing into television and the odd commercial gig. Then came The Helikos International School of Theatre Creation in Italy.
‘My initial plan after I finished up at Wits was actually to do one of those two-year working visas in the UK – back when that was still a thing,’ explains Pombo. ‘I ended up working with Jenine and Toni and all of these other people instead and I’m incredibly grateful for the path that took me on. At Helikos, I did three years of training in things like clowning and masking and movement, all with theatre-making at its core. It was a lot of fun.’
Most recently, following the completion of his MA at Wits, Pombo returned to Helikos for a three-month pedagogic training programme under the direction of renowned theatre-maker Giovanni Fusetti. Back in Joburg, Pombo’s been teaching clowning, voicework and theatre-making at Wits, as well as taking a few classes at The Market Theatre Lab. He’s also got a play retreat he’s facilitating with Moys, soon.
Beyond a love of performance, and a love for teaching performance, what is it about the world of theatre that has Pombo so enamoured? At a Creative Mornings talk earlier this year, Pombo spoke on the theme of ‘The End’. The humorous and sharp 45-minute talk about his life and work to date saw Pombo recalling a period in his life when getting on stage each night was the last thing he found himself wanting to do. It was clowning that taught Pombo to embrace failure, on and off stage, to find joy and pleasure in all that he did, and to seek meaning in-between the binaries of good and bad, happy and sad, or success and failure. It was specifically through the bouffon – a kind of clown that employs vicious satire and unabashed observation – that Pombo was able to cobble together his sense of purpose on stage once again.
‘So it was the clown that allowed me to pull myself out of this grave of creative death and self-pity that I had found myself in,’ Pombo said to the audience. ‘It was the clown that allowed me to feel this joy and vitality and life and urgency to perform that I hadn’t felt in over a year.’
It is with the application of the grotesque – the hidden, underlying parts of humanity – and the bouffon that Pombo’s work begins to take shape and find resonance on stage, while drawing from the material of the everyday.
‘The bouffon can either be seen as an outcast of sorts – these individuals cast out to the swamps who return to poke fun at those who shunned them and pushed them away – or they can not be from here at all and they can just drop into the world to reflect us and mock us. The bouffon isn’t good or bad. It just is and it just reflects, highlighting the inherent absurdity in the world. To have those bouffon eyes, I guess, is what resonates with me,’ he explains.
Pombo has a new show in the works that’s set to take the stage at Maboneng’s POPArt Theatre this December. It’s a play that pokes fun at its characters in order to peel back the layers of some of the world’s more pressing issues. Here in Johannesburg, one of the most unequal cities in one of the most unequal countries in the world, absurdity, disparity, and the best and worst of humanity are not all that difficult to come by. Making sense of it, or drawing attention to it at least, is the tricky part. It’s also the part where artists like Pombo thrive.
‘Life is so bizarre. Life is so strange. I think that’s what drives me to make theatre: This thing of looking at the world around you and going What is this?!’ says Pombo. ‘I think when everything starts making sense, then it’ll be time for me to stop making theatre.’
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