After finishing my studies at UCT, graduating ostensibly as an actress, I travelled and worked, amongst other things, as a flower seller in the Netherlands, and egg collector in a chicken hatchery in the UK, and an English teacher in Cairo, Egypt. The tugging strings of my return was the invitation to perform in a production called Thina Bantu (1988) at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. The production had been an improvisational process in my final year at university and for a young, fresh thespian like myself the invite was potentially the most exciting thing to happen in my newly minted adult career.
It was only the second time I had been to Joburg. I had journeyed as far afield as Cairo, but never to what I now consider to be home, my nest and my nurture. The decision to move to Johannesburg seemed appropriate; the city then, as now, was a complicated but exciting and heaving animal – one that we all wanted to ride.
That my move to Johannesburg had brought me directly into the world of Adrian and Basil of the Handspring Puppet Company (they had kindly offered my partner and I their home while they travelled) simply added to the magic of this new experience. The Handspring home was filled with puppets: living, breathing characters hanging from walls and windows. Every day I felt that I was sharing breakfast with an aging woman, a hyena and many more.
The first day I entered those great doors of the Market Theatre, as a novice actress, I was in awe of the photos on the walls of our country’s greatest performers, of seeing Barney Simon wander past, deep in conversation with an actor I recognised, but oh who was he, and hearing the rehearsal sounds leak through the theatre doors. Without a doubt, it was a religious experience; we had arrived at the holy cathedral of South African theatre – meaningful South African theatre. This was the space that argued cogently through innovation and creativity, for human rights and a transformed country. This was the original well of sacred storytelling. (This was, of course, at a time when words like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ were not the catch-alls hammered out by the likes of myself and other hacks.)
The Market Theatre, to this day, even after the magnificent renovations, still has a wonderful atmosphere, which reeks of activity and activism, history and heritage; a building in which every corner is filled with a moment, an experience. It is Joburg’s in heritance, an aunt or uncle who has fantastic stories to tell, someone whos age acknowledges the greatness of experience.
My small experience as an actor, my many, many experiences as an audience member, my engagement with the icons of the theatre – Barney Simon, Mannie Manim, John Kani and now the fabulous James Ngcobo, our experience of hosting our BASA Awards in the theatre two years ago – all of them have left a definitive mark on my own life experience. Johannesburg would not be the city she is without a space like the Market Theatre, and if you haven’t walked through those doors yet, there is no better time than now.