Artlooks & Artlines is a monthly column written by Ismail Mahomed, CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation.
Hillbrow, a high-rise and densely populated suburb in the inner-city of Johannesburg, is hardly ever likely to hit the glossy pages of a cultural-tourism magazine. For 13 consecutive years, the suburb has been inspiring creativity and promoting positive change through a dynamic Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival, which has been held each year at the Hillbrow Theatre. The theatre was the former Andre Huguenot Theatre – home to some of the popular British farces and British drama that attracted Johannesburg’s glitterati theatregoing community before 1994. After being mothballed for a short while, the old dame in Hillbrow found a new voice in 2005 when the Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival was established by the Hillbrow Theatre facilitators to give a platform to new and original works created by school learners. ‘The Festival itself offers dramatic arts experiences and skills directly to inner-city schools,’ explains Hillbrow Theatre Director, Gerard Bester, ‘while the outreach programme provides drama training to inner-city learners – we assist, guide and mentor them in the production of the plays that they enter into the Festival.’
The Festival goes a long way in helping to promote theatre in the inner-city high schools and to contribute towards building positive attitudes within the inner city. Through drama and other arts projects, inner-city learners engage and deal with issues that affect them. The Festival gives a platform to new stories created and performed by the youth who experience life in the inner city of Johannesburg. This project also promotes dialogue between the various inner-city schools and helps to build a strong and vibrant inner-city community. ‘Theatre and arts have kept me from doing some of the bad things that are around in Hillbrow, like drugs or crime,’ says Bigboy Ndlovu, a Hillbrow Theatre Project participant in the Festival throughout his high school career. Apart from creating an outlet for young school playwrights, directors and actors, the Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival also creates 31 employment opportunities for young arts practitioners who go into innercity schools to work with the learners on a weekly basis.
I watched children who were voiceless, who were rebellious, who couldn’t concentrate, go from being life’s outcasts to life’s conquerors. They now have purpose and a will to achieve their dreams
Twelve Market Theatre Laboratory alumni are employed to work in various schools along with second-year students from the Market Theatre Laboratory who gain practice working as facilitators at various inner-city schools in the build-up to the Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival. ‘The impact of the partnership between the Market Theatre Laboratory and Hillbrow Theatre has been far greater than I initially imagined – I am amazed and delighted by how many alumni continue to work with schools in the inner city, and how it has re-shaped and focused the career trajectory of many of the Market Theatre Laboratory students,’ says Clara Vaughn, Head of the Market Theatre Laboratory. A five-year partnership between the Market Theatre Laboratory and the Hillbrow Theatre has grown in leaps and bounds. The partnership counts for more than nine days of performances. The Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival is a culmination of months of workshops and training, with student facilitators from the Market Laboratory. The students spend time in classrooms teaching, forming bonds with young people and nurturing their talent. ‘I watched children who were voiceless, who were rebellious, who couldn’t concentrate, go from being life’s outcasts to life’s conquerors. They now have purpose and a will to achieve their dreams,’ says Sibongile Fisher, an alumnus of the Market Theatre Laboratory.
She has facilitated drama workshops for the Festival since 2013 and was so inspired by witnessing the impact theatre can have on young lives, that she went on to initiate the Indalo Inter-High Drama and Poetry Festival in Tembisa last year. Every high school learner participating in this year’s Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival attended the Market Theatre’s popular Tour of the Market Theatre and at least one production presented on the Market Theatre’s main stages. The multiplier effect of the Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival is enormous. Apart from giving inner-city youth a platform to create plays dealing with issues that directly affect their lives and the Festival’s ability to provide employment opportunities for young arts practitioners, the Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival is a generator for future and sustainable audiences for all theatres in the greater Johannesburg. This year’s Inner-City High Schools’ Drama Festival ran from Friday 1 to Saturday 9 September at the Hillbrow Theatre. It was presented in partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture, Rand Merchant Bank (RMB), the Market Theatre Laboratory, Bread for the World, Assitej South Africa, Hillbrow Radio, Exclusive Books and the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival.