Richard Griffin the man behind Madame Zingara

Words: Julie Velosa

There is something to be said for that old cliché about dynamite coming in small packages. It’s the first thing that pops into my head as I stand amidst a building site watching Richard Griffin at work. I’m privy to a behind-the-scenes look at what will soon become the glittering interior of ‘The Celebration’; the new show presented by Madame Zingara.

Madame Zingara is a wild and eclectic runaway gypsy who celebrates excess in the most dazzling way possible. She is also the brainchild, or perhaps even the alter ego, of owner and creator Richard Griffin, and she has entertained thousands of us around the country for over 15 years now. And while it must be exhausting to be so fabulous all the time, Zingara shows no signs of retiring her feather boa anytime soon.

I’m watching Richard as he works with an aerial trapeze duo, putting the finishing touches to their performance. Alternating between the sound and lighting teams and the person operating the trapeze rig, is intimately involved in every step. For Richard, the son of a schoolteacher and an accountant, theatre was not naturally in his blood but watching him, you would never know.
Years of being in the restaurant industry eventually led to branching into theatre, with the first dinner-theatre version of Madame Zingara being located in Loop Street. When a fire devastated that building it was the end of an era. Richard tells us, “It broke our hearts, no two ways about it. That building in Loop Street held a lifetime of memories. Looking back I’m grateful for that suffering and for what it taught us and where it led us. When you reflect back you can see clearly where that journey was going.”

What emerged from the fire at Loop Street would lead to much greater things however – the birth of the Zingara tented venue, which is mobile and able to entertain many more people around the country.

Richard spotted the first tent in Cork, Ireland in the summer of 2006 and it was “love at first sight” he tells us. “Dinner shows in Europe are very formal where the show takes second place after the celebrity chef. My concept is of course quite different – I am big on the creative, the entertainment, the audience feeling part of every aspect.” After a few months of internet searching he located one of the last remaining ‘spiegeltents’ (mirrored tent), popular in the late 19th and 20th centuries and brought it to South Africa. This would be the Madame’s new boudoir.
Having an idea is great, but the mark of a true trailblazer is to take a concept and shape into something that works. Beyond that even, elevating what works into something spectacular, something that leaves audiences stunned. This is what Madame Zingara does unfailingly.

So what is Richards driving force? “Tenacity and an ability to separate from the noise of life, so I can focus on the person or situation in front of me and deal with the task at hand.” It also helps to be doing something you love, which may seem idealistic, but its what makes the difference.

“Find your passion. Get the work done. Find that thing you adore to do and stick with it. You can bounce around, try new things along the way, but hold the passion and expect pain along the way. Emabrace it – it’s part of the learning process and the journey

As I wander around the site of The Celebration, which is located in a new spot at the Grand Parade, I am in awe of the sheer size of this operation.

The Celebration alone is a massive undertaking – talented artists stretch in one corner, sparks fly where pieces of the set are being welded together in another, and in the background the sound of hammering continues. The remarkable part of this story is that what I am watching is just one piece of the Zingara puzzle – aside from the show, there is also a list of restaurants, as well as retail shops and bars housed under Zingara’s umbrella.
Richard is intimately involved in every aspect of the business, from the concept, through to the menus and input on the live acts “I’m a control freak with an unbelievable team around me. I’m very involved, everywhere. I still run the maintenance division of the company and all departments report to me. I have a founding staff member in all my venues to keep an eye out and to look after each one.”

Richard falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between creative and businessman, and most likely that balance is what ensures his success. He does not consider himself an artist, but is also not a typical businessman either. He says he is not motivated by money but instead comes to work wondering, “what can I create?” Money can certainly make dreams a reality but Richard is more interested in people, in creating employment and giving opportunities to people so that their talents can be brought to the fore. Of course he is also realistic and celebrates the wage bill, “I get great pleasure out of remunerating my staff, rewarding them”.
I asked Richard whether he ever feels overwhelmed by it all, “At times, of course yes. In terms of stress, I stop, breathe and start over. We live in a country where there is major stress – our economic landscape is constantly shifting… it’s pretty much the Wild West out there. Change is our only constant. We need to adapt continuously.”

When marvelling at all that goes on behind the scenes to create a show like this, it is clear that hard work is at the core. This is no nine to fiver, in fact Richard considers knocking off at 5:00 p.m. a half day. However, in amongst this doggedness to keep things going must lie the creative, after all how else would a glamorous diva like Madame Zingara endure? So, is it late night revelry or the work of the subconscious mind that help Richard create this world? “A bit of both really,” he says. “Layers of life experience enable one to do different things at various times on one’s journey. The rest comes down to those incessant dreams that I struggle to turn off sometimes.”

It would seem like Richard is living the dream, but it’s not dreams alone that keep a trailblazer climbing, it’s tenacity, “We are all only as good as our last delivery. Dreams can quickly turn into nightmares so it’s crucial to stay focused, stay humble and never assume anything.”

So is Richard a dreamer? Yes, in his own words he is, but he is also a resilient personality with an irrepressible desire to succeed. He possesses the unusual ability to marry drama with reality, business with art… and the result? A glitzy, fantastical world to escape to, where we are reminded of the wonder that exists all around us if we just look in the right places…

The Celebration is the latest show by Madame Zingara and opens July 2015. Click to find out more about the show in your city – Cape Town and Johannesburg.

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