Louise Stickland meets Gearhouse South Africa's Ofer Lapid - a fascinating man, whose life story is littered with experiences of war, political unrest, rebellion and award -winning innovation.
When it comes to characters, Ofer Lapid is undoubtedly one of the more larger-than-life, colourful and interesting personalities in the industry.
Working with an equally incredible set of people, he has built Gearhouse South Africa into one of the best and most respected production facilities in the world — one that was recognised as the Favourite International Production Company in the 2008 TPi Awards.
Winning the award is something quite massive to Lapid in terms of his life-long objectives and achievements, and a major landmark for the industry in South Africa at this moment in time.
The TPi award was followed shortly after by a Lifetime Achievement Award from the South African-based TPSA (Technical Production Services Association).
Healthily laughing off his ‘semi-legendary’ status, Lapid prefers to be known for the humanity and self-effacing modesty that has made his personality so endearing and accessible by such a dynamic range of people. Add to that a seriously wicked sense of humour, and possibly as a result of numerous experiences on the front line of life and death, he’s a deeply caring man.
He holds passports from (he quips) three of the most controversial nationalities in the world: Israel, South Africa and France… and that’s just the start as one attempts to unravel his complex personality.
Born in Jaffa in 1960, in close proximity to the street where the city’s prolific dope dealers plied their trade, his mother came from 15 generations of Palestinian Jews and his father was Lithuanian. The French influence also came from his mother’s family, making him ‘mixed’ in Israeli terms.
Lapid has always been a misfit, a rebel and a free spirit. Aged seven and holed up in a bunker during the Six Day War in 1967, he first heard The Rolling Stones on the radio, which inspired him to want to work in the music business. Despite his father’s best efforts to get the noise extinguished, he continued to listen to The Beatles and the Stones on a tinny receiver, little imagining that nearly 30 years later, he’d be having dinner with Mick Jagger!
By the age of 12 he realised that he’d never fit into mainstream society or do ‘sensible’ things like gaining unblemished school records and taking advice from his parents. At this time he was living in north Tel Aviv, and just across the road from a live performance venue. He preferred the company of Palestinian Arabs and learned to swear fluently in Arabic as well as his native Hebrew, and this was when he became fascinated by the trucks pulling up and loading and unloading kit outside the venue.
He decided to investigate what went on at the shows, and offered his ‘services’ to the promoters, venue managers and visitors initially as a runner. Being well acquainted with the locality made him an ideal contact for some of the more unusual and difficult artists’ requests! This was the first time he came to realise what ‘backstage’ or ‘production’ at a show was all about and immediately became fascinated with that whole world and its accompanying magic.
Soon after, he left Tel Aviv and went to agricultural boarding school outside the city. Not seeing eye-to-eye with his parents, it was the prefect reason to escape the house and he loved animals and growing organic products such as cannabis, the crop that ultimately led to his expulsion from that institution.
Heading straight back to Tel Aviv and the stage, he started working with Israeli shows and artists at the time, by this time multi-skilling and assisting the sound and lighting guys. It was the mid-1970s and the kit (rheostat dimmers, etc)was primitive.
He worked with companies like More Production and Betty Bam — the latter brought an old Altec system (one of the first old Britannia Row PA rigs) into the country as well as a Court system. He loved the drama and freedom of expression afforded by the theatre, which was still heavily censored in Israel at that point.
ENTERING THE MILITARY
At 17 and a half, he had to do compulsory army service for three years. He was accorded ‘lonely soldier’ status because of the strained home relationship which carried certain privileges and the chance to volunteer for specific units. He excelled during his military years. “It taught me discipline, self-motivation and gave me real confidence for the first time,” he says adamantly, adding that it also prompted the take up of extra curricular studies.
Lapid ended up serving almost five years in the army because of the war, learning many useful life and survival skills including how to use a firearm properly — something he’s been able to remind people of on occasions when they’ve tried to screw him in business!
The holidays and weekends were spent back in the theatres and venues working on gigs where possible. Realising he had a nascent creative flare for lighting, he also had the chance to develop his skills and experiment with the genre.
During this time, whilst fully uniformed with Kalashnikov in hand, he first met Britannia Row’s Bryan Grant who was one of his great inspirations and someone with whom he still has very close working and personal ties.
The army also saw him experience first-hand the futility of war and the dispensability of human life during the 1982 Lebanon War, when Israeli defence forces invaded southern Lebanon. At this point Lapid’s politics, interpretation of the situation and perception of the bigger picture of decades of Israeli/Palestinian and Arab conflict meant he could no longer justify his actions as a soldier.
“The army recruits people when they are emotionally immature. It took a bit of time before I realised that we were completely failing in our strategic objectives,” he explains with great sincerity.
In fact, the Lebanon War had such a profound effect on his values that he decided to leave Israel. “I was just happy to be alive at that point — war changes your perspective on life.”
A NEW WORLD
Lapid exited his country whilst working the lights for a touring Israeli act called Hakol Oever Habibi. The last stop was South Africa at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg on February 20 1985. Despite his “dodgy English” and the then-ruling Apartheid regime, he decided to stay.
Some of the innovative effects he produced — including heating ammonia chloride on a hot plate to produce smoke and the slightly less risky practice of having strings of ACLs on the floor and genie towers right close up behind the drummer — had not been seen before in South Africa.
On the strength of this, Alan Geen, owner of Coliseum Acoustics Sound Hire, asked him to do a second tour which led to a gig in Lesotho headlined by Juluka (Johnny Clegg’s first band). It was attended by 40,000 people “rolling dope on newspaper and raving like crazy; it was mad”. That show was one of his life-defining moments and when he knew he wanted to stay in South Africa.
He was immediately attracted to the rawness and energy of the country, its rich multi-layered musical and cultural heritage and its cosmopolitan make up. He also “felt special” because of his technical knowledge, although a lot of people in the then-embryonic South African sound and lighting industry hated him, he says.
Lapid met many long-lasting friends in those early years, and people in the industry like Micky Lehr, who all wanted to raise the technical standards and offer greater creative scope for the performance and production industry.
One of his first permanent jobs in South Africa was at the State Theatre in Pretoria which ran a segregated crew. The deeply-rooted and well-watered racial hatred bred by Apartheid shocked him as much as inherent Israeli/Arab racism. Needless to say, he hung out with lots of black and mixed race people, and once again wanted to fight for the underdogs.
Black culture was new and fascinating and he started to learn some African languages, vowing at some point to do something that would make a difference and help improve social issues in a country where the political writing was clearly on the wall.
He briefly embraced the soulless, shallow world of ‘tits & feathers’, operating lights for the ‘extravaganzas’ at Sun City; worked and lived by the seat of his pants doing township gigs (virtually no-go areas for non-whites at the time), and then quit rock’n’roll to work fleetingly in the film industry.
In 1989, Johnny Clegg asked him to handle lights on the first international tour of Cruel Crazy Beautiful World. The state of the gear he had to work with was completely inappropriate for touring, the schedule was gruelling, and the crew worked until they dropped trying to make it happen.
The tour proved to be another turning point for Lapid who vowed that when it ended, he would either leave South Africa or start getting his own proper kit together. As we all know, he went for the latter option, and has focused ever since on his original objectives of raising technical standards in the country he’s made his home.
Adjectives abound when you ask people to describe Lapid — fearless, fair and funny are just a few. Some say he’s aggressive in business, but that’s because he’s had to fight so many battles to get Gearhouse South Africa into the position it is today rather than because it’s innate to his personality which naturally leans towards peace, love and pacifism… and putting others first.
Lapid has never been scared to take risks whether in business, personal or political. He’s known as a great judge of character and is always the first to attribute the company’s success to its people and their passion, enthusiasm and talent. However, we all know that this comes from the top down.
His industry influences are many. Europe has been a big one. When he first started, the people he aspired to be like were Brit Row’s Bryan Grant, Brian Croft of Vari*Lite, or the original swashbuckling LSD crew — people such as Nick Jackson, Terry Lee, Simon Austin and Steve Dawkes.
Right from the start, he wanted to teach people the right way to practice their business and to be recognised as a top production supplier.
Companies like XL Video also inspire Lapid. “They get the greatest and the latest kit and crew, and put fantastic shows together with a total service attitude,” he says, confirming that this is the same attitude he adopts with Gearhouse.
The things that Lapid currently finds most rewarding are the educational schemes that are run within Gearhouse, which take those who have had little opportunities for education, teach them both professional and life skills, and see them gain confidence.
Gearhouse South Africa currently runs 20 students in Johannesburg, 12 in Cape Town and 10 in Durban. “We need to think about a new generation of industry people to take it on from us,” he says with passion.
Lapid’s backbone is his wife Nicola and three children who live in beautiful Cape Town, his base when not engaged in the weekly shuttle between Gearhouse’s three offices and constant international travel.
He will always ensure that anyone coming to South Africa receives a warm welcome and a positive impression of the country as it struggles to overcome the growing pains of a young democracy — a process he is very much dedicated to helping in every way possible.