Photo Credit: Philip Joubert

Tales from Tankwa Town: Thetare-making in the desert

Plays Gone Wild, a themed-camp for kids at AfrikaBurn 2017

I recently returned from AfrikaBurn, Africa’s answer to Burning Man, where participants “gather once a year in the Tankwa Karoo [a magnificent desert in the Northern Cape] to create a temporary city of art, theme camps, costume, music and performance!”. I had attended previously as participant of other themed camps, but it was the first time that I had been part of an organising team.

Two of our engineers (Thom and Francois) taking a break at the Workshop from the desert heat with our super friendly Front of House Manager Jacco! Photo credit: Helet Botha.

Plays Gone Wild’s gift to burners included inviting kids (at the Burn) to come make theatre with us in the desert, I repeat, IN THE DESERT! Our mission was to facilitate kids in creating their own artwork and performance. I believe that kids are capable of more than we give them credit for and that they should be encouraged to share their stories and motivated to make things!

Helet, our producer, and one regular creatives getting messy and beautifying the Cage-Stage!

What we got up to!

Plays Gone Wild was a hybrid project at this year’s Burn, it’s part themed-camp, part art-installation and part performance. Lucky for us, the folks from Burning Mail (thanks Burning Mail) shared some of their frontage with us making us super lucky tenants with prime real-estate on the Binnekring for hosting our workshops (the themed camp part of our mission).

Photo credit: Philip Joubert.

Our Art-Installation…aka… Cage Stage

Part of our mission was our cage-stage, which was located opposite our workshop on the Binnekring. Some perceived our Cage to be a doorless structure containing a typewriter as some kind of infinite monkey theorem reference like David Ives’s Words, Words Words, others claimed it was built to be the exact size of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.

It’s wonderful to see our project captured people’s imaginations, but really it was designed so that we easily assemble and dissemble it AND fit all the parts into 1 maybe 2 single-cab bakkies (A South African work for pick-up truck). Our cage did in fact have a door and a swing (attracting desert dwellers both young and old).

This WAS our red-flag…signalling an abnormal load…an “no” it was not me!
Kobus and Liebrecht! These are our our golden boys! There is nothing these two can’t do, and they do it smiling! And NO, we already shotgunned them for next year! Photo Credit: Helet Botha.

Just keep Swinging…

Mind you, we had some challenges with the swing! One of our extremely enthusiastic, grown-up team-members (ahem-Ben) did some vigorous testing, aka. hectic swinging revealing faulty hardware and potential danger as one of the carabiners broke (luckily I had my climbing gear on hand so we could swap them out).

Ben and Philip…our Swingers on a mission…

We also realised that the chains were causing a significant amount of friction on the wooden beams. This was a massive problem as it could cause damage our structure. Thankfully we had 4 in-house engineers on site who also happened to be awfully charming and were able to procure some broken bicycle tyres from the DMV folk thus ensuring smooth swinging!

Ben yet again doing some “vigorous testing”, Rob and Philip along with a one of our Loyal little burners secure the gables, while team-mates Thom and Kobus discuss how to take over the world. Photo credit: Helet Botha.

Getting Messy…

Plays Gone Wild hosted 3 workshop days, where kids could drop in and participate in making masks and costumes, building puppets, props work on the stage or even try their hand writing stories!

Olga, our “go to girl” and and teaching artist extraordinaire working on some creation with a little burner. Photo Credit: Philip Joubert.

All of our workshops were facilitated outrageously competent team-members who helped the little burners with various projects from painting projects to carpentry projects, there was always something exciting to do!

Linsen our Puppet Master, busy with some serious dental work! Just kidding! He really did work his magic, making cardboard mechanical engineering a real part-time profession! Photo Credit: Philip Joubert

The Anglerfish puppet was humungous and required many helping hands to bring this cardboard creature to life! It was also a time intensive creation, involving gluing puzzle-like sheets of cardboard together for reinforcement as well as some dry-brush paint techniques, to prevent the cardboard from becoming soggy!

Seeing as our performance was set to take place at sunset, we wanted the creatures to come to life at night thats also part of our motivation for choosing an Anglerfish as they are really bioluminescent creatures illuminating the depths of the ocean.

Bioluminescent creatures in the making! Louw, our Master Electrician rigged the puppet with EL-wire! Photo Credit: Philip Joubert.

“Once upon a fish-tale…”

The third part of our project involved creating a story and putting up a show with a real audience. We had a typewriter in our workshop space and asked kids to write stories about an Anglerfish. Why? Because Anglerfish are awesome and we happened to be making a giant cardboard one!

One of our Plays Gone Wild loyalists, worked on the creating the story for the performance. Photo credit: Philip Joubert.

Kids and grow-ups enjoyed the typewriter, respectively for novel and nostalgic reasons. Everyone willing took to the keys and wrote us some brilliant stories. The typewriter in the cage was accompanied with question for folks asking “What are you escaping from?”. Some responses were long letters others single words, but people said they were escaping from all kinds of things, escaping from underwear, sadness, love, judgement, broken toasters and from mothers…

Crystal helped one of our kids write their heartwarming story about making friends! Photo credit: Philip Joubert.

A common theme arose in the kids stories, even though details varied all stories seemed to feature a fish who had trouble making friends. The story we performed was written by four awesome kids (ages 8–11) and titled Deep Sea Blues. It’s a “fish-tale” about making friends, disco balls and dancing, if you want to read the script it’s hot off the press!

Once the story was finalised, the kids split the dialogue into speaking roles and started rehearsing lines. While a core group of kids rehearsed lines, the rest of our crew finished working on the puppets and costumes.

A twist in the tale

We spent our last 2.5 hours of our last workshop session rehearsing the performance and preparing to go on stage. A massive dust-storm, twisters and all was blasting through making it hard to get anything done! Just hours before the show, we received terrible news, one of our most dedicated creators performers could no longer be part of the show. Her family had to leave to prevent them from catching the Tankwa Tummy that had taken out their whole camp (it was seriously doing the rounds).

Not only was our theatre enthusiast devastated but so were we, loosing a critical team member was a massive blow. Most of all we wanted her to experience the full loop, as see you work performed to a live audience! She was so brave to come tell us and we were all sad to see her go! As sad as it was, she flew away on a magic carpet into a storm (now how’s that for a magical ending, something that can only come true in at AfrikaBurn).

Our little actors preparing for their desert drama! Photo credit: Philip Joubert.

But the show must go on! As soon as the dust settled, another one of our enthusiasts, managed to learn Shelley’s lines and assume the role, just in time for the performance. With painted faces and fins flapping, the kids were almost ready to go on stage.

Helené, our Costume Designer, painting faces and amused by one of our little stars. Photo Credit: Philip Joubert.

Our team members also managed to ask surround themed camps to turn off their music for 10 minutes while the little maestros took to the stage. The amazing people from a neighbouring themed camp (I’m not sure who you are but THANK YOU!) even assisted us with a couple of sound ques! They had an incredibly loud sound system and were able to provide our fish and friends with beats for the show and parade!

Rob doing some pres-how publicity on the Blinkering. Photo credit: Philip Joubert.
Parents, family, other kids and friends started to gather for the world premier of Deep See Blues. Photo credit: Philip Joubert.

A crowd started to gather, awaiting the world premier, a desert debut, a stof-stopper, binnekring-buster performance of Deep Sea Blues. And so the sun began setting, a missing mom had taken her seat in the audience and the dust had settled, we were ready to tell our story. A story about the things that hold us back, making friends, and that sometimes all we need to do is dance — it WILL make you feel better!

We paraded our awesome creation around, dancing in its wake. The little theatre-makers, a giant cardboard creature and team of outrageously-competent team-mates illuminated the darkness, and the dust, that Saturday night.

Asking whether our mission was successful depends on what you are measuring. If it was purely seeing a project through then, yes! Did kids and teammates learn something, I think so! Did we have fun, no doubt! Sure, there are many things we could do better or make better provisions for, and it was by no stretch of the imagination an easy task but I’m not sure it would have been as rewarding as it was if it were easy. I think learning takes place when we are challenged and dare to try new things.

Shelley and the Anglerfish. Photo credit: Philip Joubert.

Once upon a fish-tale… I got to swim upstream and make magic in the desert with my friends. If there ever was a tale that captured the spirit of the Each One Teach One and Communal Effort principles, I think it was lived at a turquoise workshop between 4ish and 5ish on the Binnekring. Thanks team Plays Gone Wild, you were really a dream team!

Once upon a fish-tale, 16 friends took to the desert to make theatre and share in making something with young children, and it was pretty cool!

Photo Credit: Philip Joubert.


“The gift she and her friends [Plays Gone Wild team] gave on the playa was profound. I could not believe that young adults at an event like burn would take the time to gift small children in such a profound and meaningful way. It was a BIG highlight…” — Debbie Osler

Please send us your feedback if you or your kids were part of our project! We would love to know about your experience!

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