Great strides for arts advocacy for young audiences

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

Access to the arts for young people in South Africa has grown significantly over the past decade. Thanks to the passionate and visionary work of the South African chapter of ASSITEJ International, the world body that is committed to growing a greater awareness of the importance of theatre for young audiences.
     Last year, more than 100 delegates from across the globe descended on Cape Town when Yvette Hardie, South Africa’s leading champion for theatre for young people, summoned them to a conference to put a sharper focus on how the connection between nurturing the creativity and imaginations of children can develop more informed and better citizens when they grow up. The World Congress for Theatre for Young People, hosted in Cape Town, was the first time in the history of the organisation that the Congress was held in Africa.

Hani the Legacy. Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi (left) and Darlington Khoza (right). PHOTO Craig Chitima

     In Johannesburg’s high-rise suburb, Hillbrow, where crime, poverty and a range of social problems are the everyday experiences of young people the annual Inner-City Schools Festival has evolved over the past 13 years as a beacon of hope. The Festival has given young people the opportunity to create poignant narratives from their life experiences and to find ways through these narratives to provide solutions for the grinding challenges that they face.
     The young theatremakers at the Inner-City High Schools Drama Festival tell their stories through the elegance of dance, the innovation of devised theatre and the high energy of spoken word. The localisation of the stories is a magnet for the audience. They identify with the characters. The rich diversity of the cultural diaspora of the community gives a vibrancy and a freshness to the works that are presented on the Hillbrow Theatre stage.
     Not far from the Hillbrow Theatre, the National Children’s Theatre Trust, founded by Joyce Levinsohn and now directed by Francois Theron and managed by Moira Katz, is another magnet that provides cultural stimulation for the city’s youth. Their works range from reimagined fairy tales and adaptations of popular books. The small, intimate theatre is transformed into a magical bubble in which the children’s imagination is stretched as far as it can go. 

Hani the Legacy. Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi (left) and Darlington Khoza (right). PHOTO Craig Chitima

    The doyenne of children’s theatre in Johannesburg, Jill Girard, is probably one of the city’s most unsung theatremakers. More than just presenting theatre for young audiences, Jill Girard has created jobs for many young actors whose careers have grown hugely in the industry and where their names are now written in bold print on billboards.
     While dramatised fairy tales are still very popular commercial theatre fair, it is independent theatre companies across the country that are taking the lead in developing content that ranges with themes from bullying at schools to constitutional rights. With more young people having access to social media and other forms of information platforms they are as a result engaging with current issues at a much earlier age. With South Africa also being a country with fast-paced social, political and economic changes, theatre for young people is taking its prime place in ensuring that it is also making the necessary cultural shifts to resonate and remain relevant to young audiences.
     At last year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, with more than 250 productions on the Fringe programme, the Market Theatre Laboratory’s production, Hani: The Legacy, scooped the Standard Bank Gold Ovation Award. This high-energy production, which brims with hip-hop, spoken word and contemporary dance while telling the story about the assassinated leader, also raised key questions about moral leadership in a post-apartheid South Africa.

Hani the Legacy. Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi (left) and Darlington Khoza (right). PHOTO Craig Chitima

     This year, in collaboration with the French Institute of South Africa and the French-based company, Mazars, the Market Theatre Laboratory will present an African adaptation of a timeless and magical storytelling masterpiece, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic children’s book,.
     Originally written in French, The Little Prince is the world’s most translated book, outside of religious texts. Sometimes described as the story of a grown-up meeting his inner child, it is a philosophical contemplation of loneliness, friendship, adulthood and authority. It tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. Although The Little Prince is known as a children’s story, the concept for this production is not to create a piece of children’s theatre but rather a magical retelling of the story in an African context, with all its universal appeal.
     That The Little Prince will premiere on the main programme of the National Arts Festival is an endorsement for the activism undertaken by Yvette Hardie over the past decade. It simply means that national institutions are beginning to recognise the value of theatre as a powerful means to let young people’s voices, dreams, hopes, fears, aspirations be heard through theatre. The struggle has not ended for young people and the arts. The greater struggle is to ensure that the arts are integrated into the school curriculum and that every school-going child is given the tools for creative thinking and creative problem-solving – elements which are at the heart of the theatre.

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