EAST London 1970s child theatre star Deon Opperman is returning to his roots in promoting the fast-growing Eastern Cape High School Drama Festival. Opperman, now a multi-award-winning actor, playwright and theatre and television producer in Johannesburg, was invited back to his hometown by East London's doyenne of theatre, Michele Brandenburger.
Brandenburger is the director of the FNB Alexander Playhouse Eastern Cape High School Drama Festival and is an honorary life president of the city's longstanding Dramsoc, and its Alexander Playhouse, and serves on the board of the society.
The pair said the competition, which started with an invitation three years ago by Brandenburger for Opperman to adjudicate an Eastern Cape version of high school drama competitions taking place in other provinces, had grown from a handful of schools to 20 entries this year. Opperman also agreed to become a patron of the festival, and this year secured a part sponsorship from First National Bank (FNB).
The festival awards the winning school R10000, and a R35000 university bursary goes to the best performer for studies of their choice. In the past two years, this money, plus a larger amount for running costs, came from a private donor, who preferred to remain anonymous.
The top three plays will be performed at a Guild Theatre gala show tonight which will also be attended by FNB's regional director, Rocco Joubert.
Opperman quipped: "Parents of sporty kids can now also encourage them to have a go at drama – to help pay for those university fees!"
Opperman has controlling shares in three companies in Johannesburg and has four degrees, including one from Rhodes University and a Wits masters degree in business administration.
His first major role, he said, was when a lead actor in the Playways Nursery school in East London was unable to perform.
After Opperman enthusiastically put up his hand, the six-year-old sang his heart out to a little girl on stage to the words of the nursery rhyme: Soldier Soldier, Won't You Marry Me?
He went on to perform in the famous Vincent Primary School plays. But his local breakthrough came when, as a 13-year-old, he made it onto Dramsoc's stage, playing the part of the artful dodger in Oliver Twist in 1975.
These childhood experiences meant that when he got the call from Bandenburger to help out in East London, he responded willingly.
Now, with a bank taking an interest, he and Brandenburger say their next step is to invite the winners of provincial high school competitions in Gauteng, the Western Cape and others, to East London to take part in a national showdown.
"We want to make it an East London event, to keep it rooted in this city," he said.