by Dr Dawn Gould

03 / sa theatres:

Theatres are not only places for the performance of the different art forms for interested members of the public but are also places reflecting the dreams and hopes of the different artists involved in the theatre world. Dreams and hopes that might be successful but may also be dashed and never fulfilled.

Theatricals in South Africa began not too long after the Cape of Good Hope refreshment station came into being. At first the players were mostly members of which ever regiment was stationed at the Cape. All roles were played by men and it was well into the nineteenth century before females managed to gain a foothold on stage. Entertainment was often quite varied: plays, evenings of instrumental music, singing of whatever were the popular tunes overseas or arias and overtures from English, French, Italian or German operas and operettas. Circus performances were popular and sometimes a trained ballet dancer would perform either as a soloist or as part of a circus act. As the century progressed and more teachers began arriving, the public were able to take private tuition in classical ballet, singing and in various musical instruments- trumpets, violins, double bass, French horns, clavichord, guitar, harp, organ..

Early entertainment was held at the Castle of Good Hope, then at the Barracks theatre situated within the then army hospital - the area now known as Barrack Street, Cape Town. The first custom built theatre was the African Theatre which opened in September 1801. (see Imaginemag! vol.1 edition 2 Jan/Feb 2010) The building still exists and has been turned into a church and a small business premise.

As time passed and the country’s borders were extended certain factors arose that helped to stimulate theatrical development. New settlers began arriving in greater numbers from overseas countries, small towns began to be built in the Cape as well as the two republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and the other colony of Natal. The demand grew for dramatic diversions. As an example Captain Francis Algernon Disney Roebuck, formerly of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and who had arrived in Cape Town in 1873, performed at the Mutual Hall in Cape Town in the title role of David Garrick. Then, in 1876, he took his company to Port Elizabeth in a version of Hamlet. He visited Durban in Natal finding success in plays which combined sentiment with humour. By 1882 the Theatre Royal in Cape Town was the venue for The Pirates of Penzance and Patience.

In 1910 the British colonies of the Cape, Natal and the former Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (after the defeat by the British during the South African War the OFS was renamed the Orange River Colony) were formed into the Union of South Africa. Since then the different art forms have come a long way. Universities offer degrees and diplomas in music (classical and jazz), singing (lieder, opera, musicals) and drama in all its forms. The State erected theatres in the main provincial cities for the promotion of the performing arts. These huge structures dominated the landscape and at first, came with all kinds of political policies. They were: the Cape Board of Performing Arts (CAPAB), Performing Arts council of the Transvaal (PACT), Regional Council for the Performing Arts Council (PACOFS) and Natal Performing Arts Council (NAPAC). In Afrikaans the acronyms were KRUIK, TRUK, SUKOVS and NARUK. They no longer exist although the buildings are still used for art performances.

theatre army barracks

Theatre that was built into the army barracks
Photo: NLSA

kalk bay theatre

Theatre that was built into the army barracks
Photo: NLSA









camps bay theatre

Theatre on the Bay
Photo: Cape Archives

Many smaller theatres have mushroomed in the recent past, either as stand alones or as part of a restaurant. They offer a certain income for the artists involved. However, as an article on this subject of smaller theatres will of necessity be a brief one, only some can be referred to. There are those that have been custom built while others are housed in buildings recycled into their present usage – but all have fascinating backgrounds.

Theatre on Main, Tokai began its life four years ago. The Amy Gould Ballet School, an independent and successful school, found, as time passed, that there was a need and a demand for a permanent performing venue. Additions to the building created the 100-seater theatre now the home of the ballet company, Dance Crew. The building itself is surrounded by an attractive garden with the added charm of being able to observe various bird and insect species. Apart from the present owner’s choreographic originality, the history of some of the earlier owners of the same land upon which Theatre on Main was built showed a similar ability to plan and learn. The land was first known as Baas Harman’s Kraal (Master Harman’s pen). Harman was an employee of the former governor Simon van der Stel and was in charge of the cattle on this large grazing property. A later owner was the Englishman, William Duckitt, who had been brought to the Cape Colony in 1800 to improve agricultural practices. Along with his wife and children he brought seeds, plants, fruit trees and an iron drill-plough invented by his father. This suggests a line of independent thought and originality.

This aspect of independence was much in evidence when the current owner of the land Amy Gould despite opposing political laws kept the training and performances of the students, dancers of both the Ballet school and Dance Crew open to all South African dancers and audience members.

Kalk Bay Theatre was built, in 1876, for the Dutch Reformed Church. Many years later after the building had gone through different business plans, including as a piano repair shop, it was converted into its present form as a small theatre seating approximately 80 people. It is situated on the Main Road in the harbour town of Kalk Bay. The town gets its name from the time in the seventeenth century when sea shells were collected along the beach to be turned into lime The Afrikaans word kalk translates as lime.

Maynardville is a beautiful open air theatre in the suburb of Wynberg. It was once part of the large estate of a wealthy businessman, James Maynard. It is now the property of the Cape Town City Council, surrounded by large grounds and used mainly for the works of William Shakespeare and occasionally for ballet and other entertainments. Dance Crew performed there until they decided with much anguish to put the safety of their dancers and front of house people first. Backstage conditions are not as safe or as hygienic as they should be and the safety of everyone could not be assured.

Theatre on the Bay Camps Bay, across the road from the Atlantic Ocean is another theatre that previously had had a different usage in this seaside town. Originally it was a tram shed, part of the electric tram service between 1901-1930, later it was turned into a cinema. It has now been refurbished, redecorated into the elegant theatre it is today. It seats 256 patrons.

Evita se Perron situated in the country town of Darling is the performing arena of the very well known playwright and satirist, Peter Dirk Uys. A clever play on the Afrikaans word perron, translating as a platform clearly states the reason for its being. Evita being the name of Uys’ stage persona. The theatre is to be found on the platform of the Darling Railway Station and is a great attraction for locals and visitors alike.

The Market Theatre in Johannesburg was once a fruit market. It was converted into a complex made up of four theatres and two galleries. Before 1994 the directors of this theatre resisted attempts by the then government to stop it being non racial. It has also done a great deal to encourage the performing by local actors as well as presenting and performing the work of local playwrights.

The Feather Market theatre too was at one time used for another purpose – a place where ostrich feathers were sold. The building has been restored and is used as a concert hall, a conference centre and for various other functions.

It is not possible, in a brief article, to write about all the theatres that are operating today. The important point to remember though is that all of them are trying to earn a living and give work to members of the different forms of the arts.