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Monday, January 12, 2015


(Christiaan Olwagen. Pic by Adam McConnachie)

Born in Cape Town and raised in Pretoria, 27-year-old Christiaan Olwagen has been named by the National Arts Festival as the 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist in the category of Theatre.

From as early as seven, Olwagen made his debut performance on stage when he was cast in the primary school biblical revue. His passion for the theatre meant dedicating his free time as a boy to after-school drama classes and when he reached high school he majored in the subject. It was there, at the age of 14, when he wrote and directed his first play.

Olwagen went on to study Drama at Stellenbosch University and in 2008 won the Fleur Du Cap for Most Promising Student Award for his portrayal of the "Emcee" in Marthinus Basson's production of the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret. Basson became his mentor as Olwagen completed his Honours in Acting and Directing.

Olwagen’s experience with the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown began in 2010 when he made waves with his first professional debut Woza Andries?- an appropriation of the play Woza Albert! His work gained national acclaim and won him numerous awards including the Rosalie van der Gught Award for Best Director. He was invited to stage the play at several venues in Cape Town, Aardklop Festival in Potchefstroom and the Vryfees Festival in Bloemfontein.

As an actor, writer and director, Olwagen has garnered experience in short plays, cabaret, comedy, drama, puppet theatre, musicals and physical theatre. He shares on the challenges saying: “Directing is a more natural process, writing is difficult, [and] it’s a love hate relationship. I find a piece of classic theatre like The Seagull by Chekhov, and love it so much, but a part of me wants to tailor it for our audience, to use that classical piece as a host, and then tell a version of it, setting it in a South African, or a very specific context.”

Theatre guru Olwagen co-founded a theatre collective with fellow post-graduate students, Polony, in 2012. The collective has staged five successful plays, with the most recent Wessel Pretorius' Waterpas winning the Kanna for Best Comedy. Olwagen explains, “As a theatre maker, I have a responsibility to make a piece people want to watch but that is also interesting to me, it’s the balance between those two elements.”

When asked about the driving force behind communicating his message through his craft he says that creativity depends on the connection point. “Making a connection between things that normally wouldn’t have been next to each other and combining elements to find that balance,” says Olwagen. “I am fascinated about the relationship between high art and low art. I try to make a piece of art that is relevant, and still find some kind of entry point between what you find interesting and what an audience finds interesting. It’s problematic too because it’s not about dumbing it down, it’s about combining those elements, making new hybrids, the high/low art form. We’re making theatre for people and we need to take that into consideration,” he adds.

More recently Olwagen has ventured into film. He directed and wrote the screenplay for the short film Toevlug in 2013 which saw it win Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Short Film at the KykNet Silwerskermfees. Following this he directed Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and he is currently working on Chekhov's The Seagull starring Marius Weyers and Sandra Prinsloo.

Early this year Olwagen wrote Dogma, an autobiographical account of his parents’ personal struggle with organised religion when his father, a NG Kerk reverend, got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The production has since received six Kanna Award nominations and went on to win Best Production and Best Debut Production.

“As an artist, winning this award means a great deal to me. To share the honour with artists whom I admire immensely, including my mentor Marthinus Basson. It's a dream come true. The Standard Bank Young Artist Award has launched many careers. Not just locally but internationally. I think it is incredibly important to have a global artistic dialogue and for the longest time the South African voice has been lacking. It looks and feels like it’s starting to change. I think we owe institutions, like Standard Bank, who invest in art, a great deal of debt because where would we be without them? Thank you Standard Bank for this wonderful, life changing platform.”

The other recipients of the 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist Award are Luyanda Sidiya(Dance), Kemang WaLehulere (Visual Art), Musa Ngqungwana (Music), Athi-Patra Ruga (Performance Art), and Nduduzo Makhathini (Jazz).

This year’s National Arts Festival will take place in Grahamstown from July 2 to 12. For more information click on the banner advert at the top of this page to link you to the website.