South Africa’s new political theatremakers

South Africa’s cultural landscape has changed drastically in the past 25 years, but young people need access to arts education more than ever. Joburg’s ‘theatre of struggle’ trains underprivileged young creatives to challenge stereotypes and make politically engaging work, says Clara Vaughan

Last week, students from the Market Theatre Laboratory, where I’m education officer, went to perform at one of the most expensive, exclusive, and traditionally white high schools in Joburg. They staged an adaptation of Hamlet called I Ophelia.

Afterwards, there was a Q&A with the audience, and it gave me deep pleasure to see my students articulately answer questions about Shakespeare, language, performance and the difficult subject matter that the play explores. Many boundaries were crossed in this event; many stereotypes around race, class, education and wealth overturned. This is exactly what South Africa needs, and why the Lab always aims to experiment, develop and educate.

The Joburg-based Lab turns 25 this year – and what an extraordinary 25 years it’s been. Dramatic political, social and cultural shifts have transformed South Africa since the Lab began.

Back in 1989 the Market Theatre Lab was an anti-apartheid (and therefore anti-government) institution, with a mandate to provide educational and developmental opportunities in the arts for people that the government ignored. Now, the Lab is part of a formally recognised cultural institution, funded in part by the Department of Arts and Culture – very much part of the system rather than against it.

Yet despite the metamorphosis of our landscape, in some areas change has been all too slow. The poor, the poorly educated, and the historically disadvantaged remain under-serviced. The failures in the school system ensure that both financial resources and scholastic ability prevent many young people from going to university.

So our main activities are similar to what they have always been: we run a drama school that offers full-time training in the performing arts, and conduct extensive community theatre training programmes and festivals. Our greatest strength is our teachers, who are all successful industry professionals.

Market Lab students © Patrick Selemani
Second year students Thando Mahlangu, Thandi Ramashe and Mahlatsi Mokgonyana perform The Piper’s Tune for school audiences, 2014 © Patrick Selemani

We aim to equip young people with the kind of theatre training that will liberate them artistically – as well as economically. Our students struggle to pay fees, and often attend despite their parents’ disapproval (‘Get a job! Study engineering!’). Many come from backgrounds of such deprivation and abuse that it astonishes me that they manage to come to school each day, let alone excel as they do.

Lack of consistent funding is an ever-present concern and it is difficult to balance our reliance on school fees with our mission to educate even the poorest students. How does one strive to be sustainable in these circumstances? We haven’t answered that question yet.

But in the midst of these challenges, I am tremendously excited about the future of the Lab. The Market Theatre’s new artistic director, James Ngcobo, takes young people seriously as performers and theatremakers. He is involved, interested, and invested in the quality of training the Market Lab offers, and this has allowed the Lab students to participate more than ever in the activities of the Market Theatre.

Last year, James directed our second year students in Milk and Honey, a new work that premiered at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and went on to have a season at the Market Theatre as part of the Arts Alive Festival. This work, which explores issues of land ownership, is a good example of the Lab’s continued drive to make theatre that is socially and politically relevant, challenging and purposeful.

Market Lab graduation © Patrick Selemani
John Kani, South African actor and one of the founders of the Lab, congratulates graduate Anne Modula, 2013 © Patrick Selemani

We have also begun a mentoring programme which attaches our newly graduated students to Market Theatre productions, working with the director, designer or stage-manager. It is through our relationship with a professional, working theatre that we believe we can equip our students with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete successfully with students from the most privileged, well-resourced universities and training bodies in South Africa.

The Lab plays a vital role in supporting and enabling great theatre in South Africa, because people need access to education and opportunities as much as they ever have.

Main image: Alfred Motlhapi and Molebogeng Phiri in Milk and Honey, 2013