THE SPACE - Theatre of Survival

A feature documentary


South Africa 1971. A young photographer named Brian Astbury sees developing playwright, Athol Fugard and actors, Yvonne Bryceland, Val Donald and Winston Dunster rehearsing for Athol’s version of ‘Orestes’, his life changes forever.

One year later, in Cape Town, South Africa, in a country under ‘Apartheid’, Brian Astbury opens the doors of ‘The Space Theatre’, the first non-racial, commercial arts venue in this violently racist country.

This documentary tells the story of these amazing people and the artists that fought against the odds to keep a theatre running, during what Athol Fugard called South Africa’s darkest days; how they refused to compromise their ideals and strove to continually present performances that challenged the social and political conditions in South Africa at that time. How in just seven years it would champion all the arts including music, dance, painting and sculpture. How it would produce nearly three hundred plays, win numerous awards, commission new works that would tour internationally around the globe, becoming not just a theatre, but a home to a host of young talent that would become stars in South Africa and far beyond.

This documentary warns of the dangers of apathy, of ignorance, of allowing a government to chip away at an individual’s freedoms without question and the dangers of censorship. It highlights the importance of not just theatre but all of the arts, to educate, encourage and open up debate and discussion. It demonstrates that when the need is great, people will always find an outlet for their stories.

This is the ‘Theatre of survival’.

About us

Several years ago Percy Sieff begun documenting the work achieved by ‘The Space’ and those that operated in it. He was assisted on camera by his son-in-law David Fasano. Sadly before the film was completed Percy passed away, leaving a unique archive. That, combined with the fact that Brian Astbury (The Space founder) was a photographer in South Africa at the time, provides us with a very thorough and personal resource that depicts the experiences at ‘The Space’ as no other could.

In the vein of ‘Searching for Sugarman’ or ‘When we were kings’, this is a film that can only be made using the resources that reflect the time, and we are very fortunate to have access to these materials.

Mark Street

Director/ Producer

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Dan Poole

Director/ Producer

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Brian Astbury

Space Founder

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Mark Street
Director/ Producer

This documentary demonstrates that when the need is great, people will always find an outlet for their stories.

I am a director, filmmaker and a friend of Brian Astbury, the founder of 'The Space' Theatre. Sometime ago Brian asked if I would be interested in helping him develop the documentary about The Space Theatre, which had been started by Percy Sieff. Brian had over nineteen interviews that had already been filmed as well as a book he had written entitled 'The Space / Die Ruimte / Indawo'. After watching some of the interviews and reading Brian’s book I knew I was being offered a once in a lifetime opportunity. For anyone working in the arts this story explores the fundamental reasons why we do what we do.

Dan Poole
Director/ Producer/ Actor

“I long to hear the story of your life, which must captivate the ear strangely.”
Tempest -Shakespeare

’This documentary is a piece of most fragile art- it holds within its structure the once-beating heart of an idea, an idea so profound that it would change the way a whole generation saw the world and interacted with it. Its roots would expand and reach far further than South Africa alone; America, the UK, Australia to name but a few, and affect future generations of people throughout the world. This is one of those incredible stories that until now has yet to be heard. This is the story of The Space-The Theatre of Survival, and we are trustees to this incredible film.

Having trained as an actor under the guidance of Brian Astbury and since (whilst acting) having also made 'Muse Of Fire- A Documentary' (, when Brian asked me to be involved in the making of this film it was simply a case of answering the question. Rarely does a project that can affect and change reveal itself to you with such ease. It’s a film that we are very excited to deliver.’

Brian Astbury
Founding Artistic Director - The Space Theatre

In the 70’s Brian Astbury founded and ran South Africa’s first non-racial theatre/arts venue, The Space, where he commissioned plays like Sizwe Banzi is dead, The Island and Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act. The Space was the first theatre to engage resident playwrights Athol Fugard, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Geraldine Aron (all of whom have since enjoyed successful careers on the international stage) and Fatima Dike, South Africa’s first black woman playwright, among others.

In the 80’s he moved to London when his wife, the actor Yvonne Bryceland, joined the National Theatre Company. Here he became a teacher, first at LAMDA, then in the 90’s at Mountview, where he started to teach actors how to devise and write their own scripts.

In 2003 he moved to E15 where he set up the Contemporary Theatre Practice course to teach actors, directors and writers the arts of survival through production of their own material. Later he headed the MA in Professional Theatre for Writers and Directors, before retiring in 2008.

Over the years Astbury has formulated techniques for training actors, writers and directors in collaboration with his students. Many of these techniques have their basis in the use of energy and emotion to free the practitioner’s imagination, allowing actor’s to understand and be able to access the mysterious state known as ‘being in the moment’. He has also developed methods of accessing and freeing the imagination of writers through the use of mind-mapping and image-streaming.

He has currently set up and will lead a new one-year theatre course - The Forge Initiative - for the The Academy of Performance Training (APT) in Guildford. Based on his experience at The Space, at Arts Threshold, and with the Contemporary Theatre Course, which he set up and ran at E15 Acting School, this is a course that will teach actors, directors and writers how to survive by creating, writing, directing, producing, marketing their own work. It begins in September, 2015.


Whilst much of the interview footage that exists was shot several years ago (the standard is poor by modern day delivery requirements) the content is invaluable. Last year we shot additional footage on the Arri-Alexa to assist with bringing the standard to a more acceptable delivery level. In 2015 we will also be shooting archive footage and several further interviews in South Africa at 4K.

Final delivery will therefore be eligible to meet specific individual broadcast requirements.

The following versions will be available:
60 min HD TV version 25fps & 23.98fps
90min HD Film version 25 fps and 23.98fps
90 min DCP at 24fps

Further requested delivery options will be available at request prior to delivery.


There was blood,
and tears,
and laughter

There were moments of logic,
and of absurdity

There were times of triumph and joy,
and defeat and misery

There were those who had faith,
and those who scoffed

There was value – and there were human beings

it was people that kept it alive

Nothing was ever simple – bit it was in simplicity
that its greatest strength lay

It was beautiful because people are beautiful,
and ugly because people can be that, too

I learned much from it,
and, if I now fail to pass on to you
some of the spirit , the energy,
the muddle, the contradiction,
the joy
that was The Space,
please forgive me.
I am still too close to it.
Maybe later.

BRIAN ASTBURY - Cape Town, July 1979.

Any help that can be offered towards the films completion, regarding additional resources, be they financial, archival or otherwise is greatly appreciated.
Please do get in touch.

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