THERE's always been far more to Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele than having a famous father, Professor Njabulo Ndebele. Ndebele the younger has carved out a name as a stage and screen actor, a writer, a director, a producer, a dramaturge and an academic. Now he’s entering the civil service as the artistic manager for Joburg City Theatres, and he’s more than up for the challenge.
This week Ndebele (44) made history by winning a Naledi Theatre Award for Lepatata, the first all-Setswana play to be staged at the Market Theatre and the first to win a major theatre award. Ndebele was also nominated for his direction of this pioneering play by Moagi Modise, which scooped the Naledi for Best Ensemble.
But this respected dramatic arts professional is not the type to brag about such achievements.
He’s not all flash and no follow-through: he’s a softly spoken and industrious worker bee who is as much ideas-driven as he is results-driven.
His personality ought to be a good fit for Joburg City Theatres, the umbrella entity that manages the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein, the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani and the Roodepoort Theatre (also known as the Promusica Theatre) in Florida Park.
The three municipal theatres collectively have an operating budget of about R138m/year from the City of Johannesburg (though there are whispers that this allocation will be slashed when the new budget is tabled in May). But they are being increasingly pressed to prove their worth and value — by generating revenue, certainly, but also by attracting new audiences and maintaining a diverse and lively artistic programme with more original in-house content than is currently the case.
This is where Ndebele will have his work cut out for him. Though based at the Soweto Theatre (where arguably he is most needed), he will oversee strategy and programming at all three theatre complexes, each sporting venues of varying capacities and catering for different audience demographics. He will be required to put on homegrown live entertainment that draws the crowds but doesn’t break the bank.
The chairman of Joburg City Theatres, Mongane Wally Serote, has added to the pressure by saying he hopes Ndebele will further the entity’s transformation agenda, “which includes African indigenous knowledge and development-driven, inclusive content generation”.
So, transformation of content and of audiences — that’s a lot for one man to tackle. But Ndebele doesn’t seem particularly daunted by the prospect.
“I saw it as a different challenge within the industry, with the right support to make a difference,” he says over a latte at the Joburg Theatre. Only a week into his new job, he is still finding his feet but already has a stack of ideas marinating.
“I thought my skills set, including directing and producing, would be perfect for this job, but within a structured organisation. I’ll be directing one or two shows a year as part of the contract. It’s very important for me to have a creative outlet.
“Plus, there’s a strong mentoring component to our development programmes. The idea is that for us to produce great in-house content, we need that stream of development. So part of my task will be looking at who we can take out of the development [side] and feed into the productions we have, as well as bringing outsiders in.”
All this indicates that there isn’t just pen-pushing in store — he will also be out on the streets and in Gauteng’s theatres, seeing what’s happening and what’s hot.
He says: “My mandate from the board is to produce world-class Africa-centred content. There’s a lot of revenue coming from rentals [where external or overseas producers hire the venues for their shows] and joint ventures at the moment, but if we want to be more in control of the revenue that comes in, we have to produce more of it ourselves.
“Of course, this means that input costs could increase. But one solution might be to produce or develop in-house work with a mind to exporting it nationally and internationally. We have to ask: how do we balance the revenues coming in and extend them, but have a different kind of content?” Ndebele is the first to acknowledge that the three city-owned theatres come with different audiences and challenges. “We need to keep supplying them with what they traditionally would expect, while widening their taste,” he says. “It’s all about balance.”
The architectural marvel that is the Soweto Theatre — launched in 2012 with great fanfare at a price tag of R150m, but seen by many critics as not having fulfilled its commercial or creative promise — is home to three “cube” venues: the red theatre (436 seats), the blue theatre (180 seats) and the yellow “box” (90 seats).
The Joburg Theatre has venues ranging from the tiny (Space.com) to the medium-sized (the Fringe and the People’s Theatre) to the immense (the Mandela Theatre). In Roodepoort, the refurbished main theatre has 328 seats and there is an 80-seat box theatre.
So, surely it’s logical and cost-effective that “content should flow” among the three city-managed theatres of similar sizes? That’s what Ndebele reckons. But he wants to go even further and involve the independent theatres operating in Johannesburg. In this respect, high on his to-do list is building a mini-circuit of linked venues that theatre works (especially those that are “relatively cheap” to produce) can travel between.
“I’d like to see our smaller venues link with theatres such as the Olive Tree [in Alexandra], PopArt [in the Maboneng precinct] and the Platform [in Newtown], and create a circuit that taps into those audiences. It also means that ‘if you miss it here, you can still go there to catch it’. It’ll help our artists if we forge a more sustainable industry. We need to support one another so our industry benefits.”
The programming at the Joburg Theatre’s flagship 1,069-seater Mandela Theatre is often locked down two or three years in advance — it’s a more cumbersome beast than the smaller, more flexible venues. So for the time being it’ll continue ticking over as a receiving house for external productions (including the international musical tribute shows for which the theatre is often maligned) while including SA content such as the annual pantomime and the Joburg Ballet productions.
Joburg City Theatres executive producer Claire Pacariz was pleasantly surprised by the warm reception given to the locally produced Luther Vandross musical creation Always and Forever, starring Timothy Moloi, and is hoping that similar content will grow audiences in new directions.
Similarly, the Fleur du Cap-winning production of West Side Story in early 2017 will have the Joburg Theatre partnering for the first time with Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre.
Ndebele won’t be lost to audiences as an actor: he will be acting in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre from May 17-28. He loves plays that “connect emotionally, whether they push you to be happy or sad, and that you can see yourself in”.
He says Johannesburg audiences can expect a “diverse but high-quality” mix of musicals, drama, comedy and one-person shows when he knuckles down to programming Joburg’s three municipal theatres.
Continuing his foray into “vernacular theatre” that started with Lepatata, he says “we’ll be looking at Afrikaans and the other official languages — playwrights like Reza de Wet — and start seeing who comes to what.
“And I think we do need a homage to the Soweto performing arts makers of the past, reviving old plays with current relevance and that speak to new work.
“But the standards of all the shows must be good; the value of your live entertainment rand must be consistent. The work should bring you into a new and fantastic world. If people are planning to go out, we want the Joburg City Theatres to be among the top five places they want to be in.”