New hope for old theatres
Some fading heritage theatres are becoming venues for vibrant activity
Instead of gracefully sashaying off into the wings after taking a final and rather tragic bow, two of Johannesburg’s grand old theatre dames are reinventing themselves for a new generation of inner-city audiences — as arts education hubs.
Urban decay, the migration of theatre audiences and the passage of time had made the demise of the Windybrow Arts Centre in Hillbrow and the Alhambra Theatre in New Doornfontein seem not only likely but grimly inevitable.
In the case of the Windybrow, maladministration and rotting infrastructure added to the plight of the 121-year-old heritage building, one of the few remaining examples of 19th-century architecture in the city.
The Alhambra saw the light of day as a silent-movie bioscope in 1921 and went through various incarnations before being saved from demolition by impresario Pieter Toerien in 1981 (who bought it for R235,000 as a 37th birthday present to himself). It shuttered its doors in 2000 amid dwindling audiences and has been used as a props storage space ever since.
But these two fading beauties are now getting a new lease of life, as the public and private sectors wake up to the pressing need for arts education as a catalyst for uplifting communities and developing the country’s creative economy.
The historic Windybrow, a stone’s throw from the Ponte tower, is being refurbished, after the arts & culture minister placed this national monument under the management of the Market Theatre Foundation in 2014 and the two theatres amalgamated last year.
That year an unspent capital works grant of R11m was used to renovate the mansion, which was in "a desperate state of disrepair", says the foundation’s chief financial officer, Christine McDonald. A further R60m has been allocated by the department of arts & culture over three years to restore the adjacent theatre to its former glory by 2020.
No longer battered and bruised, the freshly minted heritage house has started offering free extramural arts workshops to children from the surrounding areas — anything from 50 to 110 participants a day — as well as other cultural activities.
The nearby Alhambra, a stately but decaying theatre adjacent to Ellis Park stadium, has been sold by Toerien to a consortium that is planning to develop a performing arts academy to fill the crying need for high school education in the creative disciplines.
A visit to the Windybrow reveals a national treasure that was facing ruin but has survived, and majestically so. It now chimes with the chatter and activity of youngsters preparing for their dance, drama, marimba and visual art classes. Some children are quietly paging through books in the reading room, which is sponsored by Exclusive Books.
In the centre of this is the willowy figure of Nomalanga Nkosi, the centre’s new administrator. An actress by profession ("I’ve just been on a soapie — Scandal — but you probably haven’t seen me," she laughs), Nkosi is also a seasoned communicator and manager who has worked at Pro Helvetia, the British Council and the Arts & Culture Trust. She studied fine art at Rhodes and drama at the Market Theatre Laboratory.
"Young people are my heart’s joy — they’re the reason I applied for this post," says the quietly assured young woman, who reportedly beat more than 1,000 applicants for the position. A head for the arts centre will be appointed soon.
Since the Windybrow reopened earlier this year it has housed a number of arts development initiatives. Two residency programmes have helped to reactivate the centre and bring back the creative energy for which it was once renowned.
Global research shows that the creative economy of the future requires flexible and innovative thinkers
Market Theatre Foundation CEO Ismail Mahomed explains that Nkosi will be a link between the foundation and the people running the arts and cultural programmes at the centre.
"Our aim is to develop the Windybrow Arts Centre as a hub for excellence in pan-African expression, and that of the African diaspora, but we want it to be responsive to the demands of the creative and cultural economies," he says.
"The programming at the centre will be bold. It will take calculated risks, but we will not compromise on artistic excellence and will be giving value and accountability for every cent that we derive from the public coffers."
Haven of creativity
Mahomed believes the Windybrow can become a model for how SA multi-arts facilities can serve their communities. In Hillbrow, these are mainly poor people from immigrant groups, explains Nkosi.
"Here, the children find a haven of creative expression. They come to this venue after school and are able to play, be children and be inspired," she says, while offering a guided tour of the restored building, whose appearance still harks back to an 1896 Johannesburg in the throes of the gold rush. It has been reinjected with fresh life and relevance for a contemporary Egoli reality.
"I would love to see the Windybrow thriving as a collaborative hub for different kinds of creatives, and to build a truly pan-African centre. I want all the programmes to equip the children for what could possibly be a creative career — I believe every child needs to be part of an arts programme."
It’s a vision she shares with Gordon Cook, one of the buyers of the Alhambra along with Renney Plit and Joe Shibambo. As a co-founder of the Vega School of Brand Leadership, Cook knows a fair amount about education, but he was appalled to discover that out of 10,600 public high schools in SA, only 6.8% offer one or more of the five creative arts subjects — music, art, design, dance or drama.
"It’s a shocker," he says candidly. "That’s why we’ve created what we call the Reimagine Movement, to redress that."
He and his partners acquired the Alhambra from Toerien to function as the flagship hub for a number of performing arts schools, offering, initially, "fast-tracked creative training" to high school pupils on an extracurricular basis. The envisaged "hub and spoke" model will then have satellite arts education campuses fan out to areas such as Soweto and Alexandra, Cook explains.
He says the Reimagine Foundation has applied for section 18 (a) status as a nonprofit entity, and is in the process of developing a transdisciplinary curriculum in conjunction with the Wits School of Arts, Vega and the University of Johannesburg. "We’ll pilot the curriculum for inner-city high schools and will also use the Alhambra as a flagship hub to develop teachers in the creative arts."
Cook and his partners bought the Alhambra for less than R5m and it will cost between R10m and R12m to refurbish, Cook estimates. Because it is a heritage site, they are working with a firm of architects to preserve the "iconic" exterior and facade while repairing interior rain damage, roofing and electrics and building studio theatres, auditoriums and "areas for messy play".
Cook is critical of the current educational focus on developing analytical skills "while completely ignoring emotional subjects. Global research shows that the creative economy of the future requires flexible and innovative thinkers, and South Africans’ ability to operate in these creative spaces is unparalleled — look at Esther Mahlangu, Brenda Fassie and Sibongile Khumalo."
He hopes that by the first quarter of 2018, the as yet unnamed space will host its first community arts activities — and that it will also become a "funky space" for corporates to host their events, taking advantage of the nascent cultural renewal that’s sweeping through New Doornfontein.
"I’m helluva bullish," chirps Cook, with barely contained optimism.
The "reimagining" of these iconic inner-city heritage theatres means that the nostalgia some might feel for a bygone era can take its place, without regret, alongside the new memories that will be conjured by new performers and new audiences in a new era.
In a recently published commemorative book about the Alhambra, Toerien describes the melancholy he felt at having to mothball the theatre, with which he had fallen in love "at first sight" and where acting greats such as Rex Garner, Richard Haines and Michael Atkinson so memorably trod the boards.
He recalls returning to the theatre periodically and being saddened by its frailty, before putting it up for sale with a heavy heart. "It was so dependent on the will of the audience and the actors to give it life. The Alhambra deserves a new life, to become something new ... [and to find] a new owner who will love her as much as we did."
And she seemingly has. Soon this dignified dowager will once again be alive with the sounds of voices and the buzz of creativity — the show may be a different one but it will, thankfully, go on.