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Opening Doors

Creative Feel met with James Ngcobo, the passionate and articulate artistic director of the Market Theatre to discuss the past, present and future of the theatre that will be 40 in 2016.

‘One of the things that I feel very strongly about is a sense of cutting-edge at the Market that we have to keep working on constantly,’ begins James Ngcobo. ‘We have to constantly excite and surprise our audience with everything that we curate or programme.’ An important part of his role as artistic director has meant ‘understanding that the Market Theatre needs to start operating in a country that has gone through a complete metamorphosis,’ he explains.

Turning 40 is a big event for one of South Africa’s most historically important theatres and, while the programme for their June birthday celebrations is still under wraps, Ngcobo shares some of the exciting line-up for the rest of 2015 and 2016. All of the programming, all of the work, is centred on ‘getting people back’ and ‘creating new audiences’. ‘I am absolutely passionate about new audiences!’

2015 ends with Jazz Town, Paul Slabolepszy’s The Return of Elvis du Pisanie and Noise, ‘directed by one of our unbelievable actresses, who is directing for the first time at the Market Theatre, Dorothy Ann Gould.’ ‘I wanted, in the middle of these two dramatic works [The Return of Elvis du Pisanie and Noise], this new thing that audiences can come to the Market and celebrate the South African songbook,’ explains Ngcobo. ‘This is what Jazz Town is about.’

‘From the day I arrived at the Market, I remember I even spoke to the CEO and said, “I really want to do year-end musicals,” because we do dramatic works the whole year at the Market Theatre and I would like people to know that “entertainment” isn’t a swearword at the Market Theatre.’

With Jazz Town, ‘we are celebrating a sound that was born out of Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, because a lot of our jazz composers share one thing: they were born in Queenstown. It was really a hub that produced such a strong musicality about it. Even people like Gibson Kente, who is one of the people that we are celebrating here, was influenced by that sound and so… Last year we took the production, we incubated the work and toured it in eight little towns in the Eastern Cape. At that time, it was celebrating Queenstown. But then, this year I’ve decided to revisit it, because I thought the biggest story here is the story of how the sound of Jazz Town has travelled. You could be in a jazz club in London and see a young girl who graduated from UCT singing songs that are completely influenced by the sound of Jazz Town. You could be in Belgium, in Antwerp and watch Tutu Puoane performing…’

‘We are going to be a home for the next four years of the Johannesburg International Film Festival (JIFF),’ he says. ‘There is a lovely synergy between the type of audience that will go to JIFF and the audiences that we get to the Market.’

‘One of the things we are doing, also next year, is taking Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night,’ expresses Ngcobo. ‘we’ve commissioned someone who’s translating the piece for us and adapting it into Afrikaans, and it’s going to be performed by black and coloured actors.’ And, he adds, ‘we are working on staging a musical about the life of Hugh Masekela as one of our seminal works for next year.’ A Raisin in the Sun is a work that Ngcobo ‘feels very strongly about’ – ‘Lorraine Hansberry wrote about racial tension in America in the 1950s. What she wrote about is still a huge problem in America. And it gives our actors a chance to pick up a South Side of Chicago accent!’

2016 will also see the return of old favourites, like William Kentridge and Handspring Puppet’s Ubu and the Truth Commission, and classics not yet seen at the Market, such as Zakes Mda’s The Dying Screams of the Moon, directed by John Kani. ‘You can’t celebrate 40 years and not have certain people,’ says Ngcobo. Classics will also be revisited by young directors, to ‘tap into a memory space’ but also to make people say, ‘I saw it before… but not like that!’

In particular, to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, sonnets and excerpts of plays will be given to young directors to re-interpret and re-imagine. ‘We are charging forward but look back and pick up this jewel from the past and give it to a beautiful young director and they gallop with it,’ he explains. There will also be new works, written by young playwrights, such as I See You, which was developed as part of an exchange between the Market Theatre and the Royal Court, facilitated by the SA-UK Seasons. The play will open in London with a mixed cast of British and South African actors and will then travel to South Africa to play at the Market Theatre.

This mix of new and classic, young and old, is an important one for Ngcobo, who says ‘we are passionate about the collision of emerging and of seasoned voices – to see those working together… It is opening our doors to young directors… A theatre that is very receptive to young writers, young choreographers, young directors, is a theatre that is looking forward.’

And looking forward includes the staging of plays in different languages, such as the first fully Setswana play that ran last year and was commissioned by the Market Theatre. For 2016, a play in Sesotho is in the process of being commissioned. Theatre will be taken to the people so that people may take to the theatre. Work is being done to make the Market Theatre more visible in spaces around Johannesburg and Newtown, one example of this being the play readings that are taking place in some of Johannesburg’s most historic buildings.

With 25 works set to be staged in 2016, this spectacular celebratory year means that there is something for everyone at the Market. Watch this space for more on upcoming plays and June celebrations.

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