Joburg: ‘SA’s cultural capital’

3 September 2007

A number of new theatres have recently opened in and around Johannesburg to add to the more than 20 already in existence, and the city council has now announced plans to rebrand the city as South Africa’s “cultural capital”.

The city aims to produce a branding and marketing strategy by promote itself as the country’s cultural hub by 2008, and will hold the World Summit on Arts and Culture in 2009, further backing its claim to that status.

In addition, the city council wants to promote the concept of a pan-African rotating “City of Culture” in consultation with the national Department of Arts and Culture, the African Union and other relevant bodies.

The concept will be launched during the World Summit in 2009.

The 1 900-seater Teatro at Montecasino in Fourways was built at a cost of R110-million and is the biggest lyric theatre in the country. It opened in June with the spectacular The Lion King, for which it was especially built.

Another new venue, Gold Reef City’s Lyric Theatre, will open in October; in addition, two old theatres, the Victory and the Alexander, have been refurbished and re-opened this year.

The Montecasino Teatro

In its first appearance in South Africa, The Lion King has played to packed audiences and the run had to be extended three times, currently scheduled to run till 2 December, giving it a total season of six months.

Some 52-million people from around the world have seen the musical.

Johannesburg’s residents can look forward to other theatrical delights, with Teatro general manager Steve Howell saying the theatre will secure other productions “of the stature of The Lion King“.

Howell is confident that future productions at the Teatro will be well patronised, due to the high quality of their productions and increasing numbers of black middle-class patrons.

The local acting fraternity will also benefit, as cast and crew on all shows will be mainly South Africans, as is the case with The Lion King. Besides, Howell says, it’s too expensive to bring in an international cast.

The Teatro is just one element of a broader investment of R350-million, used to expand Montecasino with a hotel, six new restaurants, a ballroom and a piazza.

The Victory Theatre

The Victory Theatre in Orange Grove is one of the city’s oldest cinemas, dating back to the 1920s.

Shortly after closing as a cinema in the early 1990s, it opened again as a theatre, presenting Ipi Thombi and the Rocky Horror Show, but by the end of the 1990s it was closed down again, before being purchased by music producer and magazine publisher Joe Theron in 2004.

Over the past two years the old building was demolished and a new state-of-the-art venue built as a cost of R28-million, with a view to setting up a home for the dance group Umoja, which Theron has taken under his wing.

He opened the new-look 470-seater Victory Theatre in June with Africa Umoja, a show that traces the history of South African dance. To better cater for patrons, the venue includes a jazz bar and a 250-seater restaurant.

“Umoja is happily settled in the theatre,” he says.

Theron bought the four small stores alongside the old Victory Theatre, demolished them and incorporated that space into his new theatre. He has kept the old cinema seats, with a decorative “K” running down each outer chair, a reminder of the days when it was called the Grove Kinema.

He has other plans for the theatre, including bringing back the popular Rocky Horror Show and possibly putting on In Defence of the Caveman, although he won’t be involved in producing the shows.

Lyric Theatre

Another new theatre, the Lyric, is to open in October this year. Based at Gold Reef City, it is to be a “luxurious and intimate, world-class, Victorian-styled 1 100-seat theatre”.

Producer Richard Loring is preparing for the opening of Hairspray, featuring local stars Mara Louw, Harry Sideropolous and Kate Normington, and a 34-strong cast. Hairspray is also showing in London’s West End Theatre and in Broadway in the US.

He is working on other musicals to bring to the Lyric once Hairspray has finished its run. Despite all the competition around town, Loring is confident that he will fill the venue. “We will be creating a new audience,” he says.

Loring feels that South Africans will identify with Hairspray, which is set in 1960s America, at the time of the civil rights movement. A new movie version of the cult classic, starring John Travolta in drag, is currently running in South African cinemas.

Alexander Theatre

The Alexander Theatre opened in Braamfontein in 1951 and was named after Muriel Alexander, the founder of the Joburg Repertory Players, which played in the theatre for over 30 years.

It was closed 10 years ago, but reopened in July this year with the musical Rent.

Producer Hazel Feldman describes the theatre as a “very viable venue”, although it will take the public a while before they can be persuaded back into downtown Johannesburg.

The response on the first few nights has been “very, very good”. Rent is a “powerful piece of theatre”, which had the audience on their feet by the end of the evening.

“If Rent works, it will pave the way for other shows,” Feldman says.

Although not prepared to comment on what she has planned for upcoming shows at the Alexander, Feldman says she is working on a few ideas.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat was seen for the first time in Johannesburg at the Alexander and it closed in the 1990s with Ipi Thombi.

Property entrepreneur Adam Levy bought the theatre late last year and gave it a major overhaul.

“I want people to come into Braamfontein and feel inspired,” says Levy.

He has had the 550-seat theatre re-upholstered and has had the bar and bathrooms revamped. “We have retained the old stall feeling – a very authentic feel and flavour – but with a new-age feel.”

Counting the three theatres at the Civic Theatre and the three theatres at the Wits Theatre, Levy sees Braamfontein becoming Johannesburg’s West End theatre precinct.

“They will all benefit each other.”

Civic Theatre

Civic Theatre chief executive Bernard Jay has been responsible for a major turnaround at the complex, with audience attendance figures improving from 30% seven years ago to a present attendance of 85%, mainly through creating “a new theatre-going audience in the city”.

“For seven years people were criticising me – now they’re copying me,” he says.

Although he modestly denies credit for getting more Johannesburg residents into the theatre, he admits to “a certain amount of emulation” and having “established something at the Civic”.

The opening of the four new theatres this year is healthy competition, and Jay says it would be “mad to see this as a threat”. He says people might go to see The Lion King and, from that experience, be encouraged to go to the Civic Theatre or any other theatre in the city.

His concern, though, is getting a steady supply of material, particularly musicals, to fill these theatres.

“Just how many Broadway musicals are there around?” he ponders.

Jay says that South Africans just don’t write musicals, but he may be about to be proved wrong – writer and playwright John Matshikiza has just finished rewriting his father’s 1959 script for the hugely successful King Kong.

The Civic Theatre’s 1 069-seat Nelson Mandela Theatre is booked until October 2010, but this doesn’t mean Jay is complacent. A recent production, The Soweto Story, was not successful, he says, attributing this to people having never heard of it before.

“People want to see titles they know, like Chicago, We Will Rock You, or Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Source: City of Johannesburg