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Wits Theatre: A Theatrical Canon in the Heart of the City

Thirty-two years on, Wits Theatre is still standing, still staging exceptional work, drawing audiences into Johannesburg, and serving as an important mirror reflecting a constantly-evolving society.

For the last century, Johannesburg has been a changing landscape, with everything from churches, factories and shops being converted to theatres, to theatres changing names and owners. They closed down, reopened, or, unluckily, were demolished. With all of this change, the performing arts have remained a constant within this iconic South African city, with the country’s problems and passions being played out on the stage by top storytellers. Joburg theatres have been a place of revolution, transformation, new thought, excitement, frustrations, experimentation, entertainment, talent, risk, division, art, and so much more; the melting pot of a culture. Today, five theatres stand tall, having adapted to the times, in buildings as iconic and grand as their long histories: The Market Theatre, The Joburg Theatre (previously The Civic Theatre) The Alexander Theatre, The Wits Theatre complex, The Windybrow and The Victory Theatre.

The Wits Theatre as we know it today first opened its doors in 1983. It was the result of a ten-year-long plan, which centred on raising the R5 million it cost to build. Before Wits Theatre was built, however, the Wits School of the Arts’ Dramatic Arts Department had been staging plays in the Nunnery, a converted convent hall that was also used by Junction Avenue Theatre Company and The Market Theatre Company to stage productions. The Nunnery is still in use today as a working theatre venue; at one time it also served as a teaching venue for the Dramatic Arts Department.

Celebrating 32 years of existence, and two years under the directorship of theatre maven, Gita Pather, The Wits Theatre is an important landmark on our country’s cultural landscape; a space where our culture continues to be explored, where students can experiment and ideas are challenged. Commenting on its role in the city of Johannesburg, Pather says, ‘Wits Theatre is a space for learning and teaching since its primary stakeholder is the Wits School of Arts whose students practice and showcase the skills learned on stage. However, The Wits Theatre mandate goes beyond to encompass the goals of creating a vibrant artistic and creative life on campus. As a leading university, a primary task is to contribute towards a cosmopolitan, sophisticated campus culture that moulds intelligences that are informed and nuanced by exposure to the performing arts. Research definitely shows that the creative arts impact on graduates who are not merely “qualified” but who manifest a sensibility that adds value to society in a holistic, positive manner.’

The complex consists of The Wits Theatre with 367 seats in an adaptable auditorium. Its foyer contains bar and cafeteria facilities. The Downstairs Theatre is directly below it, and was designated ‘store room’ on the original plan by the architect Don Lennard but now houses a versatile experimental theatre with its own foyer, which also serves as an exhibition space. This venue seats 120. On the ground level to the north of the building, the architect, whose consultant was John Bury (one of the great British designers from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre), placed an open air Amphitheatre. For the first eight years of its existence, the occasional open-air production was staged there when the winter nights were not too cold or it did not rain in summer. In 1992, it was enclosed and added a third venue to the complex – a 120-seater all enclosed theatre where work that cannot be housed in the other two venues can find a home. It has its own foyer space.

The Great Hall, which is also managed by the same Performing Arts Administration that heads up The Wits Theatre complex, seats up to 1 035, has a rich heritage that dates back to the world premiere of the SA musical, King Kong and beyond. Both The Wits Theatre complex and The Great Hall are (and have long been) the home of important festivals such as the 27-year-old Dance Umbrella, the So Solo Festival and the 969 Festival. They also cater for a large, diverse collection of professional companies (including the recent performance of La Traviata by Gauteng Opera), jazz artists, and are home to the Wits Choir (currently under the direction of accomplished Conductor and Trainer, Dalene Hoogenhout, since 1995), dance studios and schools. These theatres are where our society can be mirrored and minds challenged.

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