Theatre and performance research in South Africa

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This article by Temple Hauptfleisch is based on ideas proposed in three earlier pieces of writing on the subject by the author, namely ‘Drama and Theatre in South Africa’ In: The World Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Theatre - Vol 3: Africa (Ed. Don Rubin, Routledge, 1997); ‘Rating the Theatre Practitioner: A South African Case-study’ In: Shannon Rose Riley. Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research: Scholarly Acts and Creative Cartographies (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009), and ‘Lady Anne’s Blog: Some Initial Thoughts on the Evolution of Theatrical Commentary in South Africa’. In: Critical Stages 2(1) March 2010. A shorter article, utilising this material, was published in Theatre Research International (Vol 35 No , 2010) in 2010.


Introduction: Theories, paradigms and definitions

So much of what one talks about in the field of the humanities, and specifically so in arts criticism, is highly dependent on its use in a particular context and epoch. For example, the very notions of drama and theatre – even ideas about performance (and indeed criticism and scholarship), are at best slippery, with numerous intriguing and sometimes even bizarre theories and research paradigms being proposed and used. (This is most emphatically so in post-Apartheid South Africa and the surrounding regions.) The same is true of the term “research”.

To avoid confusion, the term “theatre research” will be used in the rather broad yet specific way it has been defined in Western scholarly thinking, for the purposes of this discussion. So, theatre research will imply broadly a systematic investigation to discover, interpret and document the nature, history, role and impact of performance and (theatrical) events, and thus generate theories, methods and systems for further research, and the publication thereof in an academically acceptable way in order to advance human knowledge of theatre and performance in the world. This can be (and will no doubt be) viewed as a parochial view based on European and American contemporary scientific scholarship, whose dominant effect in world scholarship is clearly open to challenge and contestation by writers and thinkers from other parts of the globe (even, in the view of some at least, of replacement. (See for example most recently Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s throught-provoking book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books & University of Otago Press, 1999 and Methodology of the Oppressed by Chela Sandoval, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.) This kind of debate can potentially be highly applicable to Southern Africa, as we shall see, and the issues have been raised from time to time.


Criticism, scholarship and publishing before 1925

While ideas of theatre research and performance studies in South Africa - as we tend to define them today - are really creations of the 20th century, they also do tend to have substantial roots in disparate socio-cultural processes which date back to the mid 19th century. Cultural trends emerging are the flourishing of amateur and professional theatre in English and Afrikaans and the advent of the professional critic (1880-1947), the rise of Afrikaner and African intellectualism and cultural nationalism (1880-1948) and the establishment of a Western education and university system (1829-1916) , reinforced later by the introduction of drama and theatre studies as a subject at a nine Universities (1942-1975) (See Training of theatre practitioners).


These processes would only come to true fruition during the turmoil of the cultural struggle of the 1970s and later, and would go through a number of important phases, periods when a critical mass of significant factors are present in the society, sufficient to shift, alter, enhance, supplant or otherwise affect cultural and/or academic paradigms.

Records and “research” in pre-colonial performance

The oldest known performances in the Southern African region are today seen as cultural events – oral narratives and shamanistic dances among the San, the latter recorded in certain San rock art paintings – a few of them up to 25 000 years old, but the bulk dating from all the later centuries, including the nineteenth. Remnants of these dances themselves still occur today in the Kalahari among the descendants of the San. In a similar vein the arrival of what later crystallized out as the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and other peoples brought a rich heritage of social, religious and military performance and ritual to the region. While there is strong evidence that the performances themselves, being of a purposeful nature and participative in format, often offering social, cultural, ethical and political comment, there is little evidence that there was a structured and separate system of critical commentary on performances or any structured “theatre scholarship” at the time, or – if there was – it was not recorded in any way that is available and decipherable to us today. So far at least.

Which does not mean that extensive archaeological and cultural historical research has not been done to enable us to “read” and understand the records left by pre-colonial peoples. Notable in this regard have been the research and publications of J.D. Lewis Williams and his colleagues at the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand and the research on oral narrative and literature carried out by a wide range of scholars. However they become important as regards theatre and performance research in the period 1975-1995.


Chroniclers of colonial theatre 1652-1850

It really only becomes possible to discuss scholarly research and critical commentary when we reach the time of European settlement, when officals, missionaries, anthropologists journalists, dilettantes and travellers, observant diarists and artists left us their reports, personal memoirs, travelogues, drawings and notes as some of the earliest records of theatrical performance and cultural life in the colonies. These often also contained “interpretations” of the events. A few (too few) individuals have fortunately also provided us with scanty but invaluable descriptions, visual images and interpretations of what they saw as the "pagan practices" among the "African natives" during the same period. For example some useful material is provided by John Barrow (1764-1848), W.H.I. Bleek (1827-1875) and his daughter Dorothea (1868-1948), Francois le Valliant (1781-1784), William John Burchell (1782-1863), Thomas William Bowler (1812-1869), Thomas Baines (1820-1875), Frederick Timpson I’Ons (1802-1887) and many others whose visual records of social and cultural lives of the peoples of the interior and coastal regions are invaluable in the absence of modern technologies.

However, for much of the first 300 years of European occupation the bulk of the writing about theatre and performance in South Africa would unfortunately be primarily attuned to the heritage left by the colonial empire and not (consciously at least) to the indigenous performance forms that survived, and even flourished, under their noses. And the impact of this attitude would affect the writing on theatre for a very long time to come.

As we move into the 19th century however, the source for our basic knowledge of the theatre practice broadens to include the emerging newspapers and journals. Initially one only finds the odd advert for or description of a performance, but later the formal critical comment begins to become more prevalent. The first newspapers began to appear in Grahamstown and Cape Town in 1824-6 and soosn spread to the various mining towns (Kimberley and Johannesburg in particular), ports (Port Elizabeth and Durban) and rural towns. Inevitably, the reviews they carried would become our primary sources for contemporary research in the field.

The basic format and philosophy behind the writing was borrowed directly from British practice and the colonial versions thereof, and lasted well into the first half of the 20th century and – importantly for this article – setting the ideological tone for much of the early research. Most commentators were limited by their own intentions (a diary, a travel journal, a report to the governor, a popular newspaper review for the readers, etc.) and the prejudices of their time. Such authors often displayed a bias towards formal plays performed in a “theatre” setting, describing the social occasion and the technicalities of the work, rather than being substantial discussions of live performances and viewing performances by criteria familiar to a European observer.

In view of this it is not surprising that the century and a half to follow would display a remarkable indifference to – or denigration of – the “colonial” (e.g local writing and performance in English, French and Dutch) and more particularly the so-called “native”, or later “third world”, arts and culture. Indeed, in South Africa there was not yet (at least not to the eyes of Western observers) a substantial enough theatre tradition to be worth writing a history about. It would take the advent of the 20th century to rectify that.


The emergence of a professional theatre system 1850-1924

By 1850 the British empire was flourishing and the colonies were being purposely populated and governed to expand its influence across the globe. To this end the Southern African colonies were no longer viewed as temporary outposts, but as very strategic parts of the commonwealth (particularly after the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and of gold in 1886). So the attitude towards the region changed radically and between 1829 and 1916 a large number of British style schools and virtually all the traditional universities in South Africa (including one for black students at Fort Hare in 1916) were founded in order to train young people to become the intellectuals and workers required by the colony and the motherland. Based on European models, and more specifically on British practice, the core fields of study in the arts at the new institutions were language, literature and philosophy. The only performing art to receive special early attention was music.

This educational system provided the intellectuals who would go on to become the educators, artists and ultimately researchers in the early 20th century. Most of their post-graduate work was initially undertaken abroad – in England and on the continent – with the Dutch and Flemish influence being especially prevalent among theatre historians and critics.

Another consequence was an enormous increase in English theatrical activity between 1850 and 1925, with more and more companies and artistes travelling through the various British colonies visiting the country, often settling down here. Among them were exceptional personalities such as Sefton Parry (1857 – 62), Disney Roebuck (1873 – 85), the Wheeler brothers (Ben and Frank, 1886 – 1910), Luscombe Searelle (1887 – 96), the Holloway Company (1886 -99), and particularly Leonard Rayne (1905 – 25), whose company would dominate the first quarter of the 20th century. (See Jill Fletcher's The Story of the African Theatre 1780-1930, 1994, for more detail on these producers and their work.)

To a large extent it was this English travelling theatre which provided the broad structural framework for the theatre system which would establish itself in the country in the 20th century. This would later combine with the Dutch (later Afrikaans) cultural traditions of literature, music, debating societies and amateur theatre, which had also continued from the 19th century. And naturally, the marked growth in journal and newspaper publication during the second half of the 19th century (sparked by the diamond and gold rushes and the Anglo-Boer War in 1899-1902), would increase the amount of commentary on and visual and written documentation of theatre activities during this period.

Five key phases in modern academic theatre and performance research

Which brings us to five crucial phases in the history of academic theatre and performance research in the region.

The literary legacy and academic training in theatre 1925-35

The years immediately preceding 1925 are dominated by the enormous trauma of the Boer war and the fraught struggle to heal wounds, forge a nation, and rebuild the country, to be followed shortly after by the devastating advent of the First World War and its particular repercussions in the newly established Union of South Africa. In the process the seeds were sown for a number of bitter short and long term problems (notably the issue of Afrikaner identity and nationality, the Afrikaner rebellion of 1914, and complex matter of the rights of the ignored black majority - as demonstrated by the 1906 Zulu riots which broke out in Natal, Mahatma Ghandi's initiation of the passive resistance movement among Indians in South Africa and in 1912 the founding of the South African Native National Congress in Bloemfontein to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised African population). These matters would surface again as the century got into its stride.

In the theatre developments came rapidly. Besides a continuation of the long tradition of amateur English, Dutch and Afrikaans theatre outlined above, and the still blossoming English urban theatre (now strengthened by successful local entrepreneurs, writers and actors), there was now a significant thrust towards a fully fledged Afrikaans theatre as well – driven by the ever growing nationalist movement among Afrikaans speakers, and supported by the arrival in South Africa of a number of qualified Dutch and Flemish performers, such as the influential Dutch actor-manager Paul de Groot - who brought professionalism and literary acumen to his productions, and provided much needed in-service training in Afrikaans to a host of versatile and creative performers. (Many later stars trained under his benner, including André Huguenet, Wena Naude and Berdine Grünewald.)

In 1925, the year Afrikaans was formally declared an official language of the country, De Groot founded the first professional Afrikaans theatre company, touring with classic European and newly written South African works, while two energetic amateurs, Hendrik Hanekom and Mathilde Hanekom, followed suit and took to the road with a number of farces they wrote themselves. .

The founding of these first Afrikaans professional theatre companies , coincided with the emergence of a generation of more serious and accomplished playwrights, who sought to emulate the European theatre and actually set the tone and style of Afrikaans theatre for the next three decades or more. By 1935 there would be more than 40 Afrikaans and English companies on the road, criss-crossing the country, playing rural towns as well as major cities.

In this context we become particularly aware of two strains in theatre reviewing and criticism that would dominate a large part of the mid-century: the pragmatic, journalistic writing in English newspapers on the one hand, and the international, often more erudite writing by better educated cultural figures in Afrikaans newspapers and cultural journals. Unlike their English-speaking counterparts, who did not come from an intellectual tradition (few had tertiary education till the 1970s), a number of the Dutch (and later Afrikaans) critics were university trained individuals who had gone to Holland and Germany to study philology, philosophy or literature. They tended to have a European view of theatre and the arts and adopted a far more intellectual approach to their craft, were part of the growing Afrikaans cultural nationalism, and thus desired not only to do and write about the arts, but to study and chronicle their development in an effort to create a cultural identity for the Afrikaner. Key figures in this respect include newspaper editor and cultural leader Gustav Preller, who consciously set about “creating” a history of the Afrikaner in his writings, and the popular writer and commentator C.J. Langenhoven, who did the same through his stories and plays, as well as more modest but important individuals such as the prolific journalist and arts critic D.C. Boonzaaier, who kept a detailed and annotated record of his own theatre-going in Cape Town for a period of 30 years (1882-1912).

Amidst this rich tapestry of theatrical activity three significant publication events stand out as harbingers of formal theatre research in South Africa.

P.W. Laidler’s anecdotal 1926 book Annals of the Cape Stage, was not an enormously detailed or erudite account of events, but it was a very useful source of information and is still widely used in studies of English theatre in the Cape in the first two decades of the century.

However, with some justification, F.C.L. Bosman’s Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika Deel 1 1652-1855 ["Drama and Theatre in South Africa Part 1" 1652-1855] can be called the first true piece of theatre research on South African theatre. The result of formidable and painstaking historical detective work based on a meticulous reading of all the newspapers, brochures, posters and programmes in the state archives and the state libraries of the country, it describes the history of colonial theatre (in Dutch, French, German, English and Afrikaans) in the country in detail, from the first arrival of the Dutch settlers in 1652 to the middle of the British colonial rule in 1855. (The formidable collection of thousands of programmes, photographs and hand-written note cards he used to undertake this project, make out part of the Bosman collections housed at the State Archives in Pretoria and the Nasionale Afrikaanse Literêre Museum (National Afrikaans Literary Museum) in Bloemfontein. )

The book concentrates on the performers and companies, rather than the writers only, and giving comprehensive lists of companies, performances and plays. It was a published version of his doctoral thesis, and he was the first person to obtain a doctorate in the field of in South African drama. Bosman would continued studying theatre in the country to the end of his life, his other works including a variety of shorter summaries of the history in English and in Afrikaans, as well as a second volume, F.C.L. Bosman Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika Deel II 1855-1916 (Pretoria, J.L. van Schaik, 1980).

Besides his two major books, Bosman’s primarily legacy is the fact that for a long time he was almost the only academic writer who wrote about theatre as a performed art form, rather than as a literary form. He transferred this to his students and number of them, or researchers influenced by his work, continued the task of writing the history of theatre and dramatic literature in the country in the light of his philosophy. The most comprehensive of these was the posthumous publication, in 1969, of Ludwig Binge’s doctoral study, Ontwikkeling van die Afrikaanse Toneel 1832 tot 1950 [The development of the Afrikaans theatre 1832 to 1950] (Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik, 1969), and an English summary (and illustration) of Bosman's main findings, Jill Fletcher’s The Story of the African Theatre 1780-1930. (Cape Town: Vlaeberg, 1994). The internet based Encyclopaedia of South African Theatre and Performance (ESAT) is also largely indebted to Bosman for its data on early theatre.


Valuable as this work is for understanding the colonial theatre in the region at the time, it paid hardly any attention to African performance and its contribution to history of theatre here, or indeed to dramatic theory. It was left to the third writer, H.I.E. Dhlomo (or Herbert Dhlomo), to initiate this process. A playwright, journalist, teacher and cultural activist, he wrote a considerable body of dramatic theory, criticism, as well as numerous plays, in which he allegorised black African history for his contemporaries. Founder, with his brother Rolf Dhlomo, of the Bantu Dramatic Society in Johannesburg in 1933, he had a clear vision for the cultural development of the black South African and among his works are a series of remarkable articles which he published in the 1930s and 1940s, exploring the nature and purpose of drama in (Southern) Africa. His syncretic philosophy of theatre sought to blend European notions of theatre with African performance practice – this long before the advent of Schechner, Turner and Performance Theory. The importance of his ideas were not that noticeable in the period under discussion, but do constitute one of the first original attempts to devise a home-grown dramatic theory for South Africa. What was most probably more immediately successful were his attempts to stimulate an interest in theatre among the youth in the urban settlements, leading to the gradual growth of many other amateur theatre and performance groups in the various black townships around the cities. On the other hand, the articles and his dramatic works would most fortuitously be rediscovered and published in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming part of the theory of the new, alternative, South African theatre as articulated by the writers and theorists of the cultural struggle of the 1970s.

(See H.I.E Dhlomo Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed by Nick Visser (In Special Issue: English in Africa 4, 2: 1-76, 1977), H.I.E Dhlomo Collected Works Edited by Nick Visser and Tim Couzens (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985) and Tim Couzens The New African: A Study of the Life and Work of H.I.E. Dhlomo (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985).

Preparing the groundwork 1945-62

Much of the research that followed on Bosman’s epic project remained focussed on generalized literary histories and overviews until the mid 1970s, with the notion of drama as performed art initially receiving scant attention and local writing in English or the African languages not being considered an important field of study.

However, this was the period in which the professional theatre established itself as a coherent system. By 1945 the professional industry had become much stronger and more diverse, evolving rapidly from the rather non-cohesive pre-war polysystem consisting of a strong amateur base (among all language and population groups), the largely itinerant rural Afrikaans theatre, a repertory English system in the cities, and the emerging urban and rural patterns of music and dance performances among the Black population. In 1947 the state granted funding to found National Theatre Organisation (NTO), the first state supported theatre company in the British Commonwealth. In theory it was to provide theatre for the whole country, though actually limited of course to white Afrikaans and English touring companies. In 1961 this concept was adapted and enlarged to become four well funded provincial Performing Arts Councils, responsible for theatre, music, dance and opera in the four provinces. They were the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT), the Performing Arts Council of the Orange Free State (PACOFS) and the Natal Performing Arts Council (NAPAC)) Their repertoires were largely European, English and American, with a smattering of original Afrikaans work, and the occasional English play by a local writer. At the same time, toward the latter part of the period, we see the first stirrings of more politicised work. For example, between 1956 and 1962 Athol Fugard made his appearance, the musical King Kong introduced a new kind of urban performance and a number of Afrikaans and English writers produced controversial work which changed the nature of local writing.

In fact 1956-1962 must rank as one of the most influential periods in the history of South African theatre practice, particularly for its later impact on the politically charged theatre of the 1970s, when one considers the content and style the new theatrical works that premiered in those seven years: Besides the arrival of a young Athol Fugard with The Cell (1956), No Good Friday (1958), Nongogo (1959), and The Bloodknot (1961), the more influential plays of the time also include Moeder Hanna (1956) and Die Verminktes (performed as The Maimed, London 1960) by Bartho Smit, Germanicus (1957) by N.P. van Wyk Louw, The Kimberley Train (1958) by Lewis Sowden, Try for White (1959) by Basil Warner and King Kong (1959) by Harry Bloom, Pat Williams and Todd Matshikiza (1959).

Of course, this growth in practice was inevitably accompanied by a similar growth in the publication of commentary and reviews, most of the newspapers now having substantial arts pages and regular theatre reviewers, some of them not only academically well equipped, but well aware of international trends – particularly among the Afrikaans critics. A good case in point was W.E.G. Louw, one of the most prominent critics of the 1950s and 1960s and later an influential and powerful arts editor, who claimed to have seen over 1 000 European performances during his frequent visits to the European continent.

This tradition would remain in place for a very long time, for once the drama departments were established in the 1960s, and the formal training in what came to be known as theatre studies began, a number of similarly trained people would become the leading figures, entrenching this tradition till late in the 1970s. It is from this background that, increasingly, the more prominent English-speaking critics would also come and a new generation of writers would emerge who would be among the main driving forces of the new theatre and its associated performances – helping to shape and promote theatre as a fully fledged cultural tool. Names such as Oliver Walker, Phyllis Konya, W.E.G. Louw, Merwe Scholtz, Lewis Sowden, Percy Baneshik and Terry Herbst soon became familiar and considered formidable in arts circles. By the sixties a number of younger, even more politicised, critics would join them – including André P. Brink, Wilhelm Grütter, Philippa Breytenbach, Owen Williams, Johan van Rooyen, Michael Callenborne, Fiona Chisolm, Raeford Daniel, Michael Venables, William Pretorius, Derek Wilson, Cas van Rensburg and Rykie van Reenen. Of them, W.E.G. Louw, Merwe Scholtz and André P. Brink were academics as well.

In this period theatre would gradually become recognised as a fully fledged academic discipline and the first drama departments would be founded. The oldest form of training (beyond pure apprenticeship) in the country had always been the private drama and elocution class. There were hundreds of such teachers and private schools, working independently or through primary and high schools and most of them are affiliated to the South African Guild of Speech Teachers (founded 1945). Some universities (Cape Town, Durban and Stellenbosch) also offered courses in the early years before 1935, but the first formal departments were established at the University of Cape Town School of Speech and Drama (in 1942), the University of Natal's Department of Speech and Drama (in 1949) and the University of Stellenbosch's Department of Drama (in 1953). The structural model that the departments would ultimately copy was, interestingly enough, not the British or European ones, with their split between academic study at Universities and practical training in conservatoires, but something much more integrated, more akin to the North American model, with a blend of practical training and academic study being offered. It is pretty much the system that was adopted when later departments opened in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still in use.

By now a distinctive difference had developed between the English Drama Departments and the Afrikaans departments. The English departments tended to have a very pragmatic approach of drama training, tending to focus on inculcating practical performance skills, with less emphasis on academic work and post graduate research. The departments were often led by speech practitioners and actors (Rosalie van der Gucht, Elizabeth Sneddon, Robert Mohr, and so on). The Afrikaans departments in turn, while initially also geared to skills training, gradually tended to favour a theatre studies approach, one which included a strong interest in the role of text focused critic, researcher and historian. This was perhaps so because the Afrikaans departments were largely founded and led (or partially led) by academics or journalists rather than practitioners, and these were people who came from the Dutch/Belgian/German world of formal drama study. The most influential of these were Geoff Cronje and F.C.L Bosman at University of Pretoria, Gerhard Beukes and Louw Odendaal at University of the Orange Free State and Fred Engelen and Fred le Roux at University of Stellenbosch. It is from them and their students that the initial research and post graduate work would come.

The impact of this groundwork phase of experiment and academic development is seen in the gradual increase in formal publishing of theatre research, with substantial monographs appearing in the seven years under discussion, and another seven appearing in the following decade. Besides a surprising number of overviews, histories and biographical studies by journalists, the period saw three substantial postgraduate theses being completed locally - one on Afrikaans and the other two on English playwriting in South Africa. (Pioneering actor-director André Huguenet’s rather self-aggrandizing autobiographical work Applous! Die Kronieke van 'n Toneelspeler ["Applause! The Chronicles of an Actor"] is a surprisingly compelling piece of writing, providing a thoughtful insider’s view and acute analysis of the way theatre worked during the previous two decades. Other books appearing in this period include works on influential producers such as Muriel Alexander, the Hanekom family, the King Kong production, African Consolidated Theatres and the Stodel family, and children’s theatre in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The theses - by L.W.B. Binge, L.D.M. Stopforth and Ben de Koker, were largely summaries and overviews of the plays that had been written to date, with little or no theorizing or framing or serious critique.)

The most important point emphasised at this stage is that while there was no clearly structured theatre research community as yet (or even a clear imperative to undertake such research), the focus of general cultural studies and literary research had clearly begun a slow but perceptible shift towards a much stronger interest in the performance aspects of local theatre and in local topics for research.

Cultural struggle, radical theatre and analytic theatre studies 1970-85

The 1970s and 1980s were one of the most productive eras in the more than 300 years of written cultural history, with the most exciting, most diverse and politically relevant performances and events taking place. In addition, both the context and theatrical events of the period are perhaps more comprehensively documented than those of any other era, for it was the time of the political struggle for liberation in South Africa and there was a real sense of purpose to everything, including a deep commitment to and engagement with the work by artists, commentators and audiences. In what became known as the cultural struggle, this commitment would profoundly interest two ensuing generations of artists and affect the way the arts were perceived.

A core value propounded during this cultural struggle was a belief in the potential of art as political weapon and its ability to change the present and even predict and affect the future. Besides the large-scale and opulent – often brilliant - work done by the Performing Arts Councils in what is often referred to as their golden years and the box-office successes of the few major professional companies, a range of important alternative theatre movements and facilities would thus emerge in this period – including many formally structured “poor theatre” spaces (The Space Theatre, the Market Theatre, the Abbey Theatre etc), radical companies (Theatre Workshop ’71, Junction Avenue Theatre, the Serpent Players, Glasteater/Glass Theatre, Bahumutsi Players, etc), informal (often unknown) township venues where underground performances by performance poets, actor-playwrights and other artists took place and the many municipal and school halls where the touring township musicals of Gibson Kente and others were presented. The National Arts Festival (popularly known as the Grahamstown Festival, founded 1973) was also created then, in response to an important drive for identity and recognition among the various cultural groups in the country, and would grow rapidly to have a powerful long-term effect on theatre in general and the way the theatre system would develop.

Beyond the sphere of formal theatre, these two decades of political struggle are also synonymous with the emergence of what would, I suppose, today be referred to as “applied theatre”. By the late 1970s it had become an important element in the practice of many theatremakers and cultural activists, and would continue to grow in importance. The variety of activities and methods utilizing theatre processes in order to try to heal, change, educate, inform and otherwise empower people and thus perhaps also to change society, included the playmaking strategies of workshopped political theatre (deriving from Brecht, Boal, et al), the principles and practices of Drama in Education (DIE) and Theatre in Education (TIE). Later, the practice would be expanded to include Psychodrama, Drama Therapy, Socio-drama, Theatre for Development, Community Theatre, and similar methodologies, as well as the more commercial fields of Live Advertising and Industrial Theatre. These schools of thought would become a core part of the university training programmes, academic and professional conferences and theatre research, particularly in the 1980s and later.

In this context, six additional drama departments were founded to fill the need created by the increased professional theatre, extensive radio services and eagerly awaited television service (finally arriving in 1976). These departments, their faculty and especially their students were important role players when theatre became an active weapon in the struggle for liberation, and would all contribute to the experimentation , intellectual debate. Not only were they to be the makers of protest theatre, but they also became the theorists for and the documenters of the cultural struggle.

Significantly the developments described above had come precisely at a time when the state, through its Department of Education (DOE), began to actively promote research and post-graduate study, requiring the Universities to up their “research output”, in line with the international “publish or perish” philosophy. In support of this aim, the Department introduced a number of interesting incentives over the years, many of them of importance to the arts.

For example, in 1968 the DOE founded a semi-autonomous research institution called the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and in 1971 acquired an Institute for Arts, Language and Literature, with a subsection called the Documentation Centre for the Performing Arts. Founded by P.P.B. Breytenbach (1971-73) and Rinie Stead (1973-78), it initially concentrated on the collection of archival materials and publishing bibliographies. Renamed the Centre for South African Theatre Research (CESAT) in 1979 it proceeded to undertake active research under the guidance of Temple Hauptfleisch. The projects were largely statistical, methodological and sociological studies, including audience attendance surveys at the various arts councils (1979-1981), a survey of interest in the arts in South Africa (1983), a study of theatre research trends (1981), a source book on Athol Fugard, articles and exhibitions on the history of South African theatre and studies of theatre research methodology.

CESAT closed down in 1988, when its materials were transferred to the State Archives in Pretoria, where it later became part of the South African Centre for Information on the Arts (SACIA) in Pretoria.

Two other important Centres founded in the late 1970s also have their origins in the HSRC documentation project, largely owing to the remarkable collector P.J. Nienaber, who had initiated the Documentation Centres at the HSRC, but later moved to Bloemfontein to found another centre, the Afrikaans Nasionale Letterekunde Museum en Dokumentasie Sentrum(NALN) [“The National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Documentation Centre”] and was instrumental in getting the National English Literary Museum (NELM) established in Grahamstown. Both Centres are still invaluable sources for literary and theatrical materials.

Another incentive introduced by the DOE in the 1980s was a unique rewards system for research outputs, which formed part of the Department’s tertiary funding formula. Aimed at encouraging academic research and publication, this scheme pays institutions a substantial and specified amount per output unit produced by their academic staff. Since many institutions pass (part of) the money on to the particular department or individual researcher, this became a source of considerable additional research funds for prolific writers. University faculty members thus gradually became more willing to undertake research and publish their findings, particularly once they overcame the fear that the system would be used to censor and control publication. The system in turn had a stimulating effect on publishers and editors.

In this favourable environment a number of associations and institutions now emerged, seeking to organize and promote theatre and theatre related research and practice. Besides the usual trade associations, there was the Cultural and Communications Studies Unit (later the Centre for Culture, Communication and Media Studies – CCMS) at the University of Natal, founded and run by Keyan Tomaselli and a number of academic associations, such as the Association of Drama Departments of South Africa (ADDSA) and the South African Association for Drama and Youth Theatre (SAADYT). Their conferences and seminars would generate a number of research initiatives, including a stronger interest in publication and ultimately four major journals.

Most of the South African academic literary journals would take articles on drama, though not that many were on offer. However, in the period under scrutiny, conscious attempts were made to found journals on theatre and performance. Among them S’Ketsh (published sporadically between 1973 and 1979) stood out as a valuable resource on township theatre, alternative theatre and theatre by black writers, directors and performers. Three other important journals were Teaterforum (founded by Elize Scheepers of the Drama Department at the University of Potchefstroom for CHE , late 1970s to 1986), which supplied a forum for lecturers in Drama Departments, The SAADYT Journal (founded 1979 by South African Association for Drama and Youth Theatre) which focused on the theory and practice of educational theatre forms and Critical Arts (founded in 1980 by Keyan Tomaselli and John van Zyl at the University of the Witwatersrand) which dealt more widely with media and cultural issues, but published some trenchant work on theatre and performance issues over the years.

While there clearly was a stable academic environment for theatre study by the early 1970s, most of the theatre research activity was still located in literature departments and the research published - with a few important exceptions, such as the writing of the prolific and inspiring Stephen Gray - tended to be somewhat conservative in approach, concentrating on biographical studies of playwrights and the analysis of published texts, rather than studies of performers, performances and the theatre and performance system. However, by the 1980s a number of new theses and book length publications were radically changing the direction and focus of research in the country. (See Temple Hauptfleisch ‘Theatre research in South Africa’. In: Critical Arts 1(3), October:11-22. This article reports on an analysis made of completed and ongoing drama, theatre and performance projects between 1970 and 1979, utilizing the National Register of Research at the Centre for Science Development in South Africa.)

For example, a 1981 volume called South African People's Plays, edited by Robert Kavanagh, made a profound impression with its introduction of non traditional work from the arena of protest theatre and popular theatre. A similar shift came in 1984 with Temple Hauptfleisch and Ian Steadman's South African Theatre: Four Plays and an Introduction, which for the first time since Bosman's pioneering work, sought to discuss a more representative range of local playwriting and production traditions. In addition, three publications on various aspects of Afrikaans theatre appeared in this period, written or compiled by J.H. Senekal, Charles Malan and André P. Brink.

However, the most notable year was probably 1985, when four important doctoral projects, dealing specifically with Black South African performance were completed by Peter Larlham, David Coplan, Robert Kavanagh and Ian Steadman respectively. Larlham introduced the study of rural indigenous performance forms, while Coplan, Kavanagh and Steadman discussed black urban performance, introducing a strong cultural-materialist approach which was to influence such studies for much of the eighties and into the nineties.

Following on this initial burst of activity, other individual researchers also made significant contributions (through research reports, theses, articles, lectures and books) to broaden the scope of theatre research beyond the narrow confines of written literature or formal theatre. More than 40 publications appeared in the period. Particularly prominent in this were the contributions over a range of activities of notable academics such as Keyan Tomaselli, Stephen Gray, John van Zyl, Ian Steadman, André P. Brink, Lynn Dalrymple, Martin Orkin and Ari Sitas, and through them, of many of their students.

One very particular result of this burst of research energy was an increased interest in interdisciplinary research, and specifically in the work of cultural anthropologists and what VeVe Clark might have termed “theatre archaeologists”, as theatre researchers began to look for more specific links with the pre-colonial past. (See ‘The Archaeology of Black Theatre’ by Clark in Critical Arts, Volume 2, Issue 1, 1981, Pages 34 – 50.)A critical factor for those 20th century theatre researchers who chose to study these pre-colonial and pre-literate cultures is that in any pre-literate performance one is dealing with a set of oral, visual and kinetic activities, taking place in a world where no orthography or any (extant) tradition of written history existed. We therefore – even today - know less about theatrical performance in this period than about any other form of artistic expression, quite simply because of the ephemeral nature of the theatre as form and because no demonstrable examples have survived unmediated. Yet it is specifically in this period and the following phase that we see major advances being made in interpreting and using the findings of the new cultural archaeology and anthropological research, and adapting them for use in theatre and performance studies. Notable in this regard have been the research and publications of J.D Lewis Williams and his colleagues at the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, the research on oral narrative and literature carried out by a wide range of scholars in the years 1975-1995, including Harold Scheub, Isabel Hofmeyr, R. H. Kaschula, Jeff Opland, Leroy Vail and Landeg White, M. I. P. Mokitimi, Duncan Brown, Liz Gunner, David Coplan and others, and the research on traditional dances among the Xhosa, Zulu, Venda and other indigenous peoples by Edith Katzenellenbogen and her students at the University of Stellenbosch in the 1980s.


Re-visiting the past, coping with the future, rethinking paradigms 1988-94

This phase, which coincided with the democratization process in South Africa, was an extremely volatile and interesting one, during which the future of the theatre and the shape and role of the theatre industry was heavily debated in a diverse number of forums and publications. It was also a time of some self-doubt and uncertainty among artists, writers and academics, since much of the raison d’etre for the period preceding had been the liberation struggle – without the struggle, what would one write about or build performances on? Yet, interestingly enough, this very uncertainty actually seemed to stimulate publication and research in a number of ways. Building on the infrastructure created and the theoretical and methodological advances of the 1980s, the decade following 1988, saw another burst of activity, with the pressure to publish increasing, a South African Association for Theatre Research being founded, a marked increase in students for drama departments and candidates for post graduate study, and a conscious attempt by academics and artists to return to international participation after the ending of the cultural boycott.

The 1980s trend towards founding research facilities (centres and institutes) at various Universities continued, among them the Centre for Cultural and Media Studies (CCMS) at the University of Natal in Durban, the Institute for the Study of English In Africa (ISEA) at Rhodes University and the Centre for the Study of African Language and Literature (CESALL) at the University of Durban Westville. The Mayibuye Centre for History and Culture in South Africa at the University of the Western Cape was founded in the 1990s (and in 2001 became part of the Robben Island Museum, its archives being called the UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives, but still housed in the Centre on the campus). One of the youngest of the centres - and perhaps the most specifically focussed on theatre and performance - was with the Centre for Theatre and Performance Studies (CENTAPS) at the University of Stellenbosch (1994-2009). This clearinghouse and information centre was an active research centre engaged in a number of research programmes on the theory, history and function of theatre in South Africa, as well as being the publisher of the seminal research publication South African Theatre Journal (SATJ).

SATJ was originally founded in 1987 by Temple Hauptfleisch and Ian Steadman. The first academic theatre journal which complied with the demands of the state’s publication reward system (discussed above), it offered a space for the publication of ongoing research and, with the pressure to publish mounting, it gradually began to receive increasing numbers of contributions from drama departments and reinforcing the theoretical components of drama programmes. Another theatre journal founded in 1988 was Shakespeare in South Africa, a more literary journal edited by Laurence Wright for the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa and published by the Institute for the Study of English In Africa (ISEA).

Like the years 1984-5, this short phase produced a significant increase in doctoral studies and a large number of important articles and at least sixteen substantial book publications, from traditional histories to more radical and innovative studies of alternative performance forms in the country, notably oral performance and dance. Some of the most important contributions came from Walter Greyvenstein, P.J. du Toit, Julian Smith and Zakes Mda, Martin Orkin, J.C. Kannemeyer, Astrid von Kotze and Liz Gunner, all of them managing to extend range of the field of study in some way or another.

Towards a new dispensation 1997-2010

The final period comes just at the point when the country’s old theatre system, which had been under intense scrutiny and threat at the start of the 1990s, had finally been dismantled and much of its energy had shifted to the vibrant and wide-spread festival circuit which had emerged since 1994 and to the new generation of small, non-conventional urban performance venues. (See for example articles in Temple Hauptfleisch et al (Eds) Festivalising! Theatrical Events, Politics and Culture. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007 and Rolf Solberg (Ed) South African Theatre in the Melting Pot. Trends and Developments at the Turn of the Millenium. Grahamstown, ISEA, 2003.) On the other hand, the academic system was now well entrenched, open to (if not yet financially accessible to) all citizens, and most importantly theatre and performance studies was a recognized field of post graduate study and was being suitably funded by the state.

This secure status is well illustrated by the three years preceding the new millennium, when more than 60 masters and doctoral studies were completed and 12 substantial books appeared. (This count is based on a broad preliminary search of the Nexus database of registered research, managed by the National Research Foundation (NRF), done by Temple Hauptfleisch and Hannah Borthwick in April 2010. They used the terms drama, theatre and performance as keywords, and searched all literature departments for all South African languages, as well as taught European and other literatures, and drama departments.)

Perhaps the most influential of these were Loren Kruger’s The Drama of South Africa. Plays, pageants and publics since 1910, one of the best overviews of the history of theatre and performance in the country since Bosman’s 1928 publication and Duncan Brown’s Oral Literature & Performance in Southern Africa, a significant contribution to our knowledge of indigenous oral performance. It was supported by other perspectives on the history and the plays published between 1997-9 by Bernth Lindfors, Lizbeth Goodman, Martin Orkin, Kathy Perkins, David Graver, Rolf Solberg and Temple Hauptfleisch. However, what now becomes an issue of some concern is the fact that, unlike the previous periods discussed, the majority of the academic work published is the work of academics attached to foreign institutions, not local researchers – despite the incentives in place.

In part this had to do with the nature of the state’s incentive system itself, which favours the publication of articles in academic journals to books, but it also has something to do with a growing dissatisfaction among the faculty of arts departments at tertiary institutions regarding the role of the artist-lecturer and the research element in creative work. This focus on Practice as Research (PAR) would become a major factor in the decade ahead, as performance research began to adapt itself to Africa.


In the new millennium the South African state made numerous and sometimes radical changes to the tertiary education system, and intensified their campaign to improve research output, notably to get researchers to publish internationally and in all formats. In order to do this a number of further incentives were introduced, most controversially a rating system for researchers based on their output and reputation. The response of the research community would be diverse, but active, including fiery debates about the PAR issue and - linked to that - efforts to establish practice based doctoral programmes in South Africa, something the government is strenuously resisting. Part of this process has included a state sponsored pilot research project by Mark Fleishman and representatives from a number of Drama Departments, seeking ways to set up a peer review system for creative research outputs.

The reasoning behind this drive to accredit PAR processes derives from the exciting new experimental work being undertaken by a number of performing companies in the country, utilising performance to explore identity and processes of understanding and healing, as well as recovering the past. Notable examples in recent times include Mark Fleishman and Jenny Reznik’s Magnet Theatre, Gary Gordon’s The First Physical Theatre Company, Brett Bailey’s Third World Bunfight, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler’s Handspring Puppet Company, and Eric Abraham and Mark Dornford-May’s Isango Portobello company. Such processes are not only areas of practical endeavour, but also keenly studied by a number of researchers, such as Yvette Hutchison, Mark Fleishman, Nadia Davids, Juanita Finestone, Petrus du Preez and Alex Sutherland .

In addition to the work itself, these interests have led to a series of groundbreaking conferences over the past ten year, including the three Dramatic Learning Spaces conferences organised by Veronica Baxter at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, the 2007 IFTR Annual Conference held at the University of Stellenbosch, and in 2009 an Applied Theatre conference organised by Warren Nebe at the University of the Witwatersrand. Among the many African initiatives the IFTR this year sponsored a seminar in Stellenbosch on academic writing for African scholars.



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