Beloved theatre veteran bows out at 64

Jamie Petersen

John Caviggia, a South African theatre veteran known for his larger than life personality and flambouyant character, died on March 13, at the age of 64.

Mr Caviggia, who lived in Camps Bay, trained at the University of Cape Town (UCT), but also did courses at Cinecitta film studio and specialised in design and dramatic arts at Silvio d’ Amico Academy, a drama school, both in Rome.

He was known as a director, designer, make-up artist, lecturer and radio commentator to name a few. Mr Caviggia died of cancer.

Former student Mark Legward first met Mr Caviggia in 1979. He said students at UCT changed courses in order to be lectured by Mr Caviggia.

“He was an all round person of the creative community,” said Mr Legward, who is also the co-ordinator of the Facebook group “Loving John Caviggia Cabbage”.

Mr Caviggia lectured at UCT, Stellenbosch, the Academy of Film and Dramatic Arts, Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), was a costume and jewellery historian and head of history at the Future Excellence Design Institute of South Africa (FEDISA) .

His knowledge was never-ending as he lectured on a variety of subjects such as English, history of art, design of theatre, opera, ballet, film and fashion.

Mr Legward added that Mr Caviggia had an answer to any question he was asked, no matter how arbitrary. “He was a creative Fairy Godmother. You could ask him how would you hold a cigarette in 1920, and he’d be able to tell you” he said.

Mr Legward said Mr Caviggia had a wonderful sense of humour.

“He was a very witty man, with a wonderful sense of humour. He always had a comeback.

“He was very loved by the theatre community, because he taught many of them,” he said.

Fiona Chisolm, a former arts editor at the Cape Times and a columnist on the Tatler’s sister newspaper, the Constantiaberg Bulletin, said Mr Caviggia was a colourful character. “You’d never know what he’d dress up in,” she said.

“Opening nights won’t be the same without looking out for what John was wearing,” she said.

Marketing manager at the Baxter Theatre, Fahiem Stellenboom, said Mr Caviggia’s death was a loss for the theatre community.

“John Caviggia was by any measure a larger than life character. Charismatic, stylish in his own unique way, intelligent and knowledgeable in so many areas of theatre-making.”

Mr Stellenboom was also a student of Mr Caviggia’s in the 1980s.

“John was well-known and well-liked by all who engaged with him. I was fortunate to have been lectured by him during my studies at UCT in the early 80s

“His death is a sad loss for the theatre fraternity, and he will be missed by many whom he taught and worked with, within the industry over the years,” Mr Stellenboom said.

Fedisa chief executive officer Allen Leroux was friends with Mr Caviggia for 22 years. Their friendship began in a rather unconventional manner at CPUT.

“John paraded into my office in full Marie Antoinette costume, including a pompadour wig replete with ship in full sail one morning before class. This was early in ‘94 and I had recently joined the then Cape Technikon as fashion design lecturer. His first words to my astonished look were, ‘You’re new, we’ll lunch on Friday!’ And so began a friendship that would last for 22 years,” he said.

Mr Leroux said he’s probably one of the few people who knew Mr Caviggia outside of the theatre.

“I may be one of the rare people who knew John outside of the theatre, but the drama followed him into academia.

“He certainly kept all around him on their toes, if only to reach for Google to try and decipher his often archaic vocabulary and double entendres,” he said.

Mr Caviggia left CPUT when Mr Leroux established Fedisa in 2005.

“When I left CPUT to establish Fedisa in 2005, John followed me on this new adventure and spent several years as head of the Design History department of the new BA: Fashion Design degree,” he said.