Restoration project lifts grand old theatre complex in Joburg
Heritage specialists restore and modernise the 120-year-old Windybrow Centre of the Arts, writes Edward Tsumele
Her strides are firm and confident as she walks around the iconic building in central Johannesburg that is home to the Windybrow Centre of the Arts.
"Most of its features are now restored and it maintains its original aesthetic appeal as the architects and heritage specialists have been engaged in the revamp of this building to modernise it, but at the same time keeping it as original as possible," says Keituletse Gwangwa, the newly appointed head of the centre.
The building is undergoing renovations costing tens of millions of rand.
It is aimed at restoring its former structural glory and its dignity, which have been lost over the years through plunder and bad management. The building is more than 120 years old and one of the few examples of 19th-century architecture in Johannesburg.
It is hoped that the centre will again become a space that will make the dreams of many artists living in and around the densely populated flatlands of Hillbrow, Berea, Yeoville and the inner city become a reality.
The complex will house a theatre, rehearsal spaces, libraries, a research centre and an art exhibition space. Its new tagline is, "More than a Theatre".
There are not many buildings of such architectural appeal in Johannesburg, as they become victims of a gentrification wave. While some visionary developers try to maintain original architecture, others demolish older buildings to make room for new ones whose architectural forms leave a lot to be desired.
The section that will house the Windybrow theatre will be the next phase of the restoration, says Gwangwa.
A lot is at stake in restoring Windybrow, as it has for decades been the problem child of SA’s publicly funded theatres. Over the years, it has reeled from one crisis to another. attracting headlines for all the wrong reasons and seldom because of the success of the productions it hosted.
Now a huge effort and massive resources are being pumped into the space to make it work again, and become a functional centre where the inner city’s arts can shine again. This includes employing fresh brains with even fresher ideas that will attract audiences.
The Market Theatre Foundation. which now has Windybrow under its umbrella, appointed Gwangwa, daughter of jazz trombonist Jonas Gwangwa and social activist Violet Gwangwa, as the head of the Windybrow Arts Centre.
Until a few years ago, it was an independent state-owned theatre with its own board, enjoying its independence and status just like the Market Theatre, The Playhouse, Artscape, The State Theatre and the Performance Arts Centre of Free State.
Windybrow was mothballed about four years ago amid allegations of maladministration and corruption. Millions of rand meant for the rehabilitation of the heritage building allegedly vanished under its previous management.
The Department of Arts and Culture closed the complex down and handed its management to The Market Theatre Foundation to run it as one of its business units.
Gwangwa is excited about the prospects of making Windybrow a vibrant arts space again. If it gets its programming right, it does not need to look further than its neighbourhood for an audience.
Already a drawcard is the centre’s two pan-African libraries — one for children and the other for adults — sponsored by Exclusive Books and stocking books written by African authors. It is set to
Residents of Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville are mainly people from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Mali. But Africa is a complex continent with cultures as diverse as the people.
So how will the centre’s new theatre programme appeal to such disparate audiences?
"These are my people," Gwangwa says.
"They are our people and among them there are bad people, just like in any society.
"But the good thing is that there are also good and talented artists looking for a space for self-expression and to use their talents to impact positively on society, she says. "Windybrow is that space due to its positioning. We know about the issue of crime in the area. And that is why we have security guards working here 24 hours. Anyway, who says that because you live behind high walls your safety is guaranteed?"
Although Gwangwa is still putting together the full programme for Windybrow for the rest of the year, she says that they will soon call for auditions for a resident theatre company aimed at attracting actors trained at universities and other institutions.
"We will host this company as a collaboration between Windybrow and the Market Laboratory [another business unit of the Market Theatre Foundation] under its head Clara Louise Vaughan," says Gwangwa. "The Exclusive Books Pan African Book Lounge will soon put systems together to enable the communities to borrow books," she says.