A quick glance at the watch shows the time to be three minutes past seven.
In the dark recess behind a growing audience at the Union Bar, seven hands extend and pile up in a hybrid knot. Hands belonging to an anxious collective of performers, each donning identical blue t-shirts.
“On three,” he says. Sure enough, on the count, they repeat after him: “For Matthew! For Illy!”
This is what unfolded on Wednesday night, mere seconds before the very first performance of the year by Nat(urally) Caf(feinated) [Nat Caf] – our improvised comedy troupe. I led a short call-and-response tribute to our departed members (they are very much alive – just very far away from Grahamstown). It was the night that the improv comedy journey took off once more.
It felt so much like our debut performance back in September. We were back swimming in the deepest and most turbulent of currents. It was always going to be a tough ask.
This show was different. A show that, before its start, posed so many questions.
* Would we cope without Matthew Jackson? (the now-departed founder, whose theatre career is taking off in his native U.S.A.)
* Were we ready for it?
* Were people going to turn up?
Yes, yes and YES.
An emphatic yes to the third question. Thanks to some additional marketing on the part of the Rhodes SRC, the Union was totally full. People stood and sat on virtually every bit of exposed floor in addition to the occupied chairs and benches.
As for the first question, it was always going to be a daunting task. Matthew is a theatre studies graduate from America who spent the whole of 2011 in Grahamstown as a volunteer worker for Ubom! (the drama company housed at Rhodes). He returned to the other side of the globe at the end of the year.
I was tasked with opening proceedings on Wednesday as well as being one of the MCs, alongside the effervescent Kelsey Stewart.
We stood on the other side of a wall which separated us from the growing audience and, from our position, heard gentle chatter morphing into an anticipated buzz of a completely packed venue.
As I made my way to the small stage, a jolt of excitement masked my anxiousness with the broadest of smiles.
Kelsey and I then took the crowd through a mild warm-up before introducing the group and beginning with an off-the-cuff narrative game called Story Story Die (as seen in picture above).
The rest of the show went quite well. As with any other performance, there were moments of roaring laughter while there were also more moderate responses from the audience.
Overall, a decent return for Nat Caf. The relief that came with it was most welcome.
I’m incredibly grateful for the legacy that Matthew Jackson left on these shores and excited for the prospects that lie ahead.