Johannesburg’s theatres define the soul of the city

Artlooks & Artlines is a monthly column written by Ismail Mahomed, CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation.

With a growing circuit of independent theatre venues and newer arts festivals popping up in some of the most unusual places in Johannesburg, the city is proving that it is alive and well. From the posh northern suburbs to the fast-developing southern suburbs, there’s an interesting spectrum of work that entertains, inspires, challenges and informs.
     In Johannesburg, South Africa’s most vibrant multicultural city, theatre enthusiasts can be assured of finding anything ranging from home-grown South African theatre productions to Broadway and West End favourites. The city is also home to an eclectic range of festivals from the So Solo Festival at the Wits Theatre to the 24-hour Festival produced by the POPArt Theatre.
     Connecting the kilometres between the Soweto Theatre in the south of Johannesburg and the Montecasino Teatro in the north of Johannesburg, there are thousands of patrons whose support not only creates work for the city’s creative forces but who also add value to the city’s vibrant cultural identity.

Ismail Mahomed
Leftfoot productions’ Nijinsky’s War at POPArt Theatre PHOTO Suzy Bernstein

     There are few cities in the world where theatres located on university campuses present both student work and high-end productions by professional companies. Both the Wits Theatre and the University of Johannesburg Theatre take pride of place in the city as hubs for a range of boldly curated professional live performance festivals, including the iconic Dance Umbrella.
     Joburg Theatre, renowned for its annual pantomime created and directed by Janice Honeyman is also the producer of some of the most successful large-scale musical theatre productions. The Theatre also presents a bouquet of classical ballet and contemporary dance.
     In Newtown, the legendary Market Theatre, with more than 300 awards won over the past 42 years, is noted for originating new South African works. Celebrated internationally as the leading South African artistic voice, the Market Theatre now has a fourth performing arts space, the Ramolao Makhene Theatre, housed in its impressive and award-winning Market Square complex.
     In the heart of Hillbrow, the Windybrow Arts Centre is rising like a phoenix and forging its identity as a hub for Pan-African creativity and expression. Surrounded by a diasporic African community, the Windybrow Arts Centre is a stone’s throw away from the Hillbrow Theatre where an annual Inner-City Schools Festival attracts thousands of learners to re-envision the city through music, theatre, dance and poetry.

Ismail Mahomed
Jemma Kahn in We Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants

     The Festival of Fame, presented annually by the National School of the Arts, also continues to grow each year as it evolves with a programme that is bold and cutting edge. Not even the South African Constitutional Court, which is the vanguard of the nation’s access to Freedom of Expression and Freedom Creativity, can stay away from the power of live theatre. Under the leadership of Executive Director and city tourism guru, Dawn Robertson, the Constitutional Hill precinct is increasingly becoming a site for live performances and public arts events.
     As one departs from the inner-city to the northern suburbs, the highways lead to the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Daphne Kuhn’s intimate Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton and to Ntshieng Mokgoro’s Olive Tree Theatre in Alexandra Township. Each of these theatres has developed a strong following of audiences. The city’s two casino theatres, Montecasino’s Teatro and Gold Reef City’s Lyric Theatre on either end of the of the northern and southern suburbs, also play to packed houses of audiences.
     Added to these theatres, the city of Johannesburg also hosts the acclaimed Joy of Jazz festival, the Zwakala Community Theatre Festival, the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, the 969 Festival – which showcases highlights from Grahamstown’s annual National Arts Festival –  and the annual Naledi Theatre Awards.

Ismail Mahomed
ASSITEJ SA’s Naledi Theatre Award-winning show Just Antigone, led by Billy Langa with Mahlatsi Mokgonyana as the director and music from Cape Townbased sound designer John Withers

     The city is also an active hub for incubating the next generation of theatre-makers. With AFDA, the Market Theatre Laboratory, Wits School of the Arts and Oakfields College, there’ll be no shortage of new theatre-makers who will continue to enrich the city’s cultural soul.
     More than merely giving a cultural identity to Johannesburg, each of these performing arts spaces and festivals make a dynamic contribution to the city’s economy. Not only do these theatres create work for writers, directors, actors and designers but they also inject significant business opportunities for an extensive range of service providers and hospitality industries who chew off the benefits of a thriving arts economy.
     It’s time for the city authorities in the Metro Council in Braamfontein to take a closer look at the city’s theatre economy through a wider lens.  It might just be surprised about the important role the Metro Council can play in bringing all the role-players to a conference that can help the city to reposition the way that it can take advantage of one its most vibrant resources – the arts!
     After all, it is Johannesburg’s theatres that define, curate and sustain the heartbeat of the city’s nightlife. It’s here in the concrete jungle where the city really comes alive.