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Permission to fail | Market Theatre Laboratory

Thirty years ago it was decided by Barney Simon and John Kani, the then managers of the world-renowned Market Theatre, that, as an extension of the company, it was important to create an inclusive laboratory type space where collaborative and experimental work could be given a chance to develop. In addition, the laboratory would provide a space for practise and skills transfer. Today, the Market Theatre Laboratory is one of the premier training facilities of its kind in Southern Africa and has been recognised on multiple platforms for creating excellent theatre that engages with human rights issues. Creative Feel explores some memories as well as the future of the Laboratory in light of this special anniversary.

Market Theatre Laboratory South Africa
Hani The Legacy PHOTO Craig Chitima

The idea for the Market Theatre Laboratory was born in response to the community theatre sector’s need for high-quality training, and to provide a seedbed for the creation of new South African plays. Dr John Kani, then associate artistic director of the Market Theatre, raised funds from the Rockefeller Foundation to set up the Lab.
     Vanessa Cooke, who helped lay the foundations for the Market Theatre and headed the Market Theatre Laboratory from Barney Simon’s death in 1995 until 2007, says, ‘Barney was very frustrated and he wanted a space where people could work on a project even if it came to nothing, kind of permission to fail.’
     Kani says: ‘I had a long-held desire to create a platform in South Africa for young people who had fallen through the cracks of apartheid and who had been victims of Bantu education, to find their voice to speak out about issues that concerned them and their communities – and to give them the skills to do this,’ says Kani.
     The Market Theatre Laboratory opened in October 1989 in a small warehouse under the highway in Goch Street, Newtown, where professional tutors ran practical as well as theoretical courses for aspiring actors. The Lab quickly became a platform for young artists to meet and engage creatively and collaboratively, first in apartheid South Africa and later in the new democracy. With the success of the drama school, other programmes were initiated, including the community theatre programmes which have resulted in the annual Community Theatre Festival and Zwakala Festival, which showcase performances from around the country and which have unearthed hidden theatrical talents.
     ‘There were many community groups and Barney felt very strongly that they needed to be skilled, so we started with three fieldworkers, and then there were classes for professional actors, which soon turned into the school – Barney never liked that word “school”. It was a space to develop. So we had a school, no exams. It was sort of based on the Swedish idea of creative schooling. And we got funding from the Swedes as well, which was very important because that went on for 15 years or so. And we were able to develop the programmes,’ says Cooke.

Market Theatre Laboratory South Africa
The Little Prince PHOTO Ettione Ferreira

     Dan Robbertse, who began his time with the Market Theatre Laboratory as ‘a squatter in the tiny office from the beginning, doing organising work for the Performing Arts Workers Equity’ and stayed for 23 years, later becoming the education officer, adds: ‘Memorable people visiting include the Royal National Theatre workshops with Selina Cadell and Richard Hahlo who have continued to work at the Lab over the decades. The many Swedish visitors including Maria Weisby and Tobias Theorell, Lars Engman and many more. The exchange of students between the Lab and the Unga Klara Company and the Drama School in Luleå, which took place over a number of years, was a key development initiative that I think inspired many of the young participants.’
     Cooke says: ‘The fieldwork became a national and then a SADC-region initiative. The school… we only had one room at first, so school would take place and then in the afternoon the resident project would happen, which was the two-month workshops. And then it all developed from there. The first coordinator was Mark Fleishman.
     ‘We were working with people who really, really couldn’t go to varsity, either they didn’t have the matric or didn’t have the qualifications and the money to go to university or a proper drama school. So we were working on the ground.
     ‘As with the Market Theatre, we started very small and we didn’t know what would come out of it, so it was working very intensely and trying things all the time. For me, that was the big joy. Not everything worked, but most things did. So it was very important in terms of theatre for development. We didn’t know what it would become at all. Maybe it wouldn’t be anything.

Market Theatre Laboratory South Africa
Hani The Legacy PHOTO Craig Chitima

     ‘Some of the people’s auditions I will never forget. Dumisani Phakathi and Monageng “Vice” Motshabi, those were emblazoned on my mind. What I loved was watching other people find things, through a project, or through fieldwork, becoming a student… It was amazing actually.
     ‘And then the two festivals, the Community Theatre Festival and the Zwakala Festival, where they would come see each other’s work. For me, that was very important. Because in those days, people were very isolated from each other, so to see a play from Mozambique was just AMAZING, even if you didn’t understand the languages. But was important to see that you’re not alone in what you’re doing. And I believe theatre can enlighten people to what’s going on and a lot of the plays were issue-based, whether it was the education crisis or historical events,’ says Cooke.
     Robbertse also remembers: ‘Peter Brook’s production The Man Who… and the workshops held by Yoshi Oida and members of the company. The Lab cat who walked along the length of the table to drink from Peter Brook’s glass of water – upstaging everyone.
     ‘My most memorable moments are the ones of pride when students and indeed graduates made significant achievements. Maybe more memorable are the times when students made breakthroughs or had “AHA!” moments. Legendary tours of Grahamstown, including trips to the beach and run-ins with the authorities. For me personally, the resident project – The Story I Am About To Tell – was a privilege to be involved with.
     ‘I believe that the success of the Lab is, in essence, the understanding of all the participants – teachers and learners and creators – that our core “business” is truth. Telling stories through dedicated practice, truthfully with a whole lot of sweaty craft is what it is all about. As long as we remember that – we can’t go wrong!’
     Cooke adds: ‘My wish is for the youth to benefit as much as possible from what is offered from the Market Theatre Laboratory.’

Market Theatre Laboratory South Africa
The Little Prince PHOTO Ettione Ferreira

     Today, the Market Theatre Laboratory is headed by Clara Vaughan. Hayleigh Evans, who is currently the programmes manager, says: ‘What a massive opportunity it is for any student to be linked to a space that has the particular history and cultural significance of a space like the Market Theatre. I think, more than anything, it informs the multitude of reasons to come to the Lab. You know you are not just coming here to learn how to act and to make theatre, there is also an element in which students are given the chance to find their own voices and make work that they believe is important.
     ‘As students of the Lab, and as a result of the space being adjacent to the Market Theatre, the students have access to a lot of the work that is staged at The Market, as well as its makers.
     ‘Given the size of our graduating classes, a huge percentage of students have managed not only to achieve great things outside of the comfort of the institution but have also managed to have sustainable careers in the arts. Four of our graduates have been named as Standard Bank Young Artists. Many graduates have been able to continue performing in a range of mediums as well as have continued to mentor students themselves. The lab’s growing reputation and the demand that we see from an applications level is really concrete proof that alumni are very visible in the performing arts space.’
     To celebrate the 30-year anniversary, Evans says, ‘We have a whole month of exciting celebratory events lined up over October/November. The events are very much centred around looking at the history of the Lab and how its legacy and impact can continue to inform the vision toward the future. A huge part of this is engaging and re-engaging alumni to share their stories as well as their work. During the month, we will be hosting storytelling evenings, improv-offs and events that throwback to old Lab events – as well as be hosting a festival of successful independent theatre created by our alumni (some of which has been running for ten-plus years).

Market Theatre Laboratory South Africa
Hani The Legacy PHOTO Craig Chitima

     ‘Opening this festival will be our professional theatre company, Kwasha’s headline theatre piece for the year – Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (presented in collaboration with IFAS). The piece will be co-directed by ex-Lab head Vanessa Cooke and Lab alumnus Monageng Motshabi.
     ‘A huge part of the Lab’s history has been community outreach – particularly in the form of fieldwork projects executed by the students. Currently, our Lab second years work with the amazing Hillbrow Outreach Foundation, mentoring schools groups that participate in the Inner-City High Schools Drama Festival.
     ‘I think part of the success of the Lab has been listening and responding to the needs of now and making decisions that align to this – but that are also in alignment with the sustainability of the institution,’ says Evans.
     Ismail Mahomed, CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation says, ‘Over the past three decades, the Market Theatre Laboratory has built a formidable reputation for its high-quality education and training of young theatre-makers. Alumni from the Market Theatre Laboratory have taken their place with pride on radio, television and theatre. They have won glowing accolades and awards that is a testimony to both their talent and to the training that they have received at the Market Theatre Laboratory. The 30-year legacy of the Market Theatre Laboratory is a tribute to the vision of the people who founded it and to the staff who have served it with excellence.’

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