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PLAYHOUSE SET TO RECLAIM FORMER ROLE (article first published : 2004-01-20)

In 1998, national legislation was passed whereby the Playhouse - along with other performing arts councils - could no longer own production companies. This meant the Playhouse had to let go of the dance, drama and puppet companies along with the Playhouse Singers. Also relinquished was the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, which has survived on an independent basis. Further down the line, the complex began to operate mostly as a venue solely for hire and the valuable Education and Development department was lost.

These actions made a serious impact on the state of the performing arts industry in Durban. With no central hub offering a wide range of professional productions and providing a much-needed showcase for emerging black talent from community and township theatre groups, artistes had to create their own work.

The use of the three fine Playhouse theatres – the Opera, the Drama and the Loft – became out of reach financially so other performing venues had to be found. For those with the infrastructure and skills, this was just about possible. For those entering the industry, the task was too great and many fell by the wayside.

There are now very few arts practitioners operating in Durban who earn a sustainable income from theatre work and the gap between mainstream theatre companies and emerging/community theatre groups has never been so wide.

We produce excellent performers from the drama programmes of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Durban Institute of Technology but there is insufficient work to keep them here. We lose their talents to Johannesburg which can offer more theatre work as well as a film and television industry.

However, a welcome energy seems to be rising from the Playhouse Company. The new council (board) comprises high profile business and community leaders and includes a Supreme Court judge. This governing body has promised a firm hands-on approach to all aspects of the Playhouse from its financial and administrative operations to its commitment to serving the creative needs of KZN artists and audiences.

Heading the council is its feisty chairperson Councillor Mina Lesoma. Her diminutive, slight and always elegantly-dressed frame may suggest a delicate frailty but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Outspoken, determined and pro-active, she is resolute and firm about the future of the Playhouse.

On an annual basis, the Playhouse Company receives R19m from the national government and R1,8m from the Ethekwini Municipality. From this income, an amount of R1,2m has been set aside to bring the Playhouse complex into a better state of repair and R3m was spent on an upgraded sound system for The Opera. This was in place for the recent production of “Umoja”.

“We are looking at the blueprints of government arts institutions and local government’s broad framework,” says Cllr Lesoma. “The Council has strong listening skills and we intend to react on issues that are pertinent to the efficient running of The Playhouse. The belief is that everyone looks to the Playhouse for a strong standard – so what are we providing for artistic direction? We must build up the standard of performance of smaller theatre groups to a professional level and focus all the more on skills development and capacity building.

“I feel that it is not acceptable that the Playhouse is simply a hiring venue,” Cllr Lesoma adds. “We must look at the rates and, by using some of the funding money, offer a more accommodating policy of affordable hiring fees. The Playhouse will also generate a strong partnership programme through sponsorship, co-funding and seed funding.”

Well-known opera singer and former Playhouse Director, Linda Bukhosini, has been appointed as Artistic Director and her draft business plan to create a balanced artistic programme for the company is to be presented at the next Council meeting.

One of her biggest challenges will be to recapture the arts community’s faith in the Playhouse. However, she is completely au fait with the running of the complex, knows the arts community and understands their problems. A first-world thinker, she is efficient and has a strong success record coupled with a passion to support communities at grassroots and emerging levels. Her business plan aims to host all artistic cultures at the Playhouse - from isicathamiya and maskanda to opera and ballet.

Cllr Lesoma’s message to arts practitioners and audiences alike is unwavering: “The Playhouse Council and Management are looking to reclaim the Playhouse’s former position as the major roleplayer in the Durban theatre and entertainment industry. We look forward to the time when the three theatres are operating continuously and filled with KZN talent.” – Caroline Smart




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