Children's theatre in South Africa

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Children's Theatre and Theatre for Young People in general

Children's theatre

The concept "Children's theatre" has a number of possible meanings.****

Theatre for the youth or young people

Children's theatre and Theatre for the youth in South Africa

Children's theatre

While recorded tribal history in South Africa does not reflect any type of performance specifically designed for children and young people, children were a central part of tribal life and the performance of folklore by storytellers, dancers and poets was aimed at the entertainment and education of both adults and children. Theatre, in the more restricted European sense and aimed specifically at children was originally a part of the occasional work of amateur companies, particularly the Dutch Rederijkerskamers. The first recorded professional children’s company then also derived from this, namely Tot Oefening en Smaak (1825 – 1826), an initiative of J. Suasso de Lima and J.G. Tredouw. It was apparently run by J.G. Tredouw Jnr. (18*-18*) at the age of nine. Ten years later (1835-6) the company [Kunst en Smaak]] (led by J.W. Lotz) was very active in Cape Town as well.

Many professional companies, however, did offer some entertainment for families or made arrangements for children to see shows originally intended for adult audiences (e.g. pantomimes). Thus in 1857 Sefton Parry presented a special matinee of his pantomime Beauty and the Beast for children in Cape Town.

From the 1870's British and American companies toured the major cities as well as the towns of the western and eastern Cape with dramatised adaptations of popular novels, aimed at both adults and children. Among the plays presented were Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Prisoner of Zenda, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol.

By the turn of the century visiting companies had also begun to perform plays such as Bluebell in Fairyland and Alice in Wonderland, which were clearly aimed specifically at children. In 1919, for instance, Leonard Rayne’s company performed the pantomime Peter Pan - a play which was to become very popular and do well for him.

In the period between 1920-1940 the vast and strong tradition of amateur theatre, schools theatre and debating societies tended to continue this trend and cater for children alongside the work they did for adults. The school play became a very popular form, and most schools and universities developed dramatic societies or did at least an annual play. The various missionary schools for example did a great deal at this time to foster an interest in theatre among black children through their studies of Shakespeare and the classics as well as school plays and concerts. **** ???

However, though the school play and (amateur) theatrical entertainments for and by children had long been part of the South African scene, as suggested above, a key moment in the history of children and youth theatre in South Africa came with the launching of a teacher exchange programme between Britain and South Africa in the 1940s. It was a singularly crucial development, for it brought a number of innovative teachers to South Africa, including individuals such as Celia Evans (19*-19*), Mary Tilley (1904-1986) and Rosalie van der Gucht (1908-1985). Their contributions, although reflecting divergent approaches to children's theatre, largely led to the emergence of a targeted, professionalized indigenous theatre for young audiences in South Africa.

In 1943/4*?, Celia Evans and Mary Tilley formed an organisation called Children's Theatre Incorporated in Johannesburg, with the development of sound artistic standards and a sense of appreciation in children of music and the arts as primary objectives. The organisation was also to provide children with the very best available entertainment, instruction, tuition and guidance in music and the arts. For most of their early presentations, local elocution teachers such as Norah Taylor (*) and Isabel McLaren (*) acted as producers, putting on shows such as Rosemary Ann (1947) and The Snow Queen. In order to provide entertainment of a high standard, their policy was to use professional actors only. Evans had a firm belief in the magic of the theatre and thus supported the use of elaborate stage settings and sophisticated stage machinery.

With Children's Theatre Incorporated firmly established in Johannesburg in the early 1950s, Rosalie van der Gucht was invited to establish a branch of the organisation in Cape Town. In contrast to Evans's approach, Van der Gucht wanted to harness the educational possibilities to those of entertainment, promoting simplicity of presentation and participation by the audience, rather than passive observation. Van der Gucht's productions (e.g. Arena Entertainment, Let's Make an Opera and Brian Way's Pinocchio (adapted by Gretel Mills) all made use of informal arena-style staging and audience participation which influenced the action of the play. These radically different ideas about the nature and practice of theatre for young audiences and complications in funding the Cape Town branch caused problems and led Van der Gucht to form an independent organisation called Theatre for Youth in 1956.

For financial reasons, Children's Theatre Incorporated had to abandon its policy of employing only professional actors in 1962. This change in standard, together with the difficulty of obtaining plays suited to their preference for spectacle, led to their demise in 1965.

Theatre for Youth, on the other hand, which used Van der Gucht's drama students from the University of Cape Town as a nucleus of performers with often professional actors in leading roles, continued to function until 1986.

In many ways the 1950s can be seen as the golden age of non-subsidized children's theatre in South Africa, for besides the two major movements described above, most cities had smaller amateur companies and schools presenting plays produced by local and international authors - in English and Afrikaans. This was reinforced by the prescribed works for schools (particularly the local works in Afrikaans) and the various schools' drama festivals and eistedfoddau. As we have seen with other playwrights (see Afrikaans Theatre), the Afrikaans playwrights and performers basically had to write their own material, since there was no canon of Afrikaans plays, and therefore there is a large body of plays for children and schools by a wide variety of Afrikaans authors over the whole of the twentieth century. These include such as writers as C.J. Langenhoven, Gerhard Beukes, Mariechen Naude, Suzie Mey Viljoen, Louis de Villiers, Coenie Slabber, Marie Schutte, Temple Hauptfleisch, Hennie Aucamp, Elsabe Steenberg, Corlia Fourie and many others who produced numerous one-act and full length Afrikaans plays for children and young people in the period 1915-1985.

On the other hand, though there were a number of writers writing such plays in English, they were little known and seldom published in view of the competition from the international canon of children's plays in English. The first production of a truly indigenous full-length play in English came with The Three Wishes by James Ambrose Brown (1919-), produced for Children's Theatre Incorporated in Johannesburg by Anna Romain Hoffman (*) in 1954 and in Cape Town by Hansel Hewitt (*) in 1955. The play launched Brown's distinguished career as a playwright for young audiences and was followed by such popular plays as The Circus Adventure (translated into several foreign languages and also reworked as a musical). Gradually in the 1970s more English playwrights would turn to children's plays as a serious area of endeavour, as we shall see. A large number of playwrights also wrote texts for schools in the nine other South African languages, but these texts - though often utilizing traditional, mythical and moralizing material - were seldom performed, but published for use as setworks by teachers in schools. (See Part Two, Section 1 and under the names of the individual languages in this section.) Developments in this period also contributed a number of significant changes to the form of children's theatre in the country. For example, as indicated above, formal proscenium arch presentation started to give way to the more flexible arena-style productions advocated by Van der Gucht, and directors began to experiment with presentation styles for young audiences based on the ideas of Brian Way?* and others. From the late 1950s, state subsidised theatre began to play a role as well. Although NTO had been founded in 1948 with state sponsorship from the Department of Education, and they thus had an educational task, they saw this mainly as a commission to perform classical and prescribed works as part of their general commission, not do plays specifically for children. However, in 1959, inspired by a number of young performers returning from experiences abroad, NTO founded a NTO Youth Group in 1959, with performers such as Jannie Gildenhuys, Carel Trichardt, Kobus Roussouw, Francois Swart, and others, to perform dramatised versions of literary texts and other works for the youth. In 1962, when NTO was replaced by the Performing Arts Councils, CAPAB and PACT both formed special companies for children’s and school programmes, while NAPAC and PACOFS did such work with their main companies. Some of the most innovative children's theatre practitioners initially worked for these companies, individuals such as Esther van Ryswyk, Robin Malan, Janice Honeyman, Peter Terry, Eileen Thorns, Alwyn Swart, Annie Barnes, Claire Johnson and so on - who all wrote, developed and directed work for children. Like most other theatres in the country, these companies changed their emphasis from pure entertainment to socially relevant issues during the 1970s. Starting with the same approach as NTO, PACT's youth company underwent a radical change in 1974 when Robin Malan became the director and made Theatre in Education (TIE) the basis of their programmes, which now reflected relevant socio-political issues. This emphasis was continued by his successors, Peter Terry and Alwyn Swart. At CAPAB it was largely the work of Eileen Thorns who became head of its Youth Drama in 1976, which changed the emphasis from pure entertainment to socially relevant issues. A number of the alternative and independent theatre companies of the 1960-1990 period also offered work for children, and the introduction of the cultural boycott and the politicization of theatre now led to the emergence of a much stronger school of writing in English as well. The Space Theatre, for example, did work by Robin Malan, Geraldine Aron, Fatima Dike, ***, the Market Theatre did ***, *** and the Baxter Theatre ** did ***, ****. In Natal we see the rise of Pieter Scholtz and his company *** and in the Free State ****. In this period the notion of workshop theatre and improvisational text development began to take hold and presentation styles for young audiences continued to alter and develop. A prominent force that developed in this regard was the Market Theatre Laboratory, where young people were trained to create work for themselves, a notion gradually also taken over by most training institutions and even schools. On the professional side an important voice has been that of Janice Honeyman, who had (like so many) trained by Van der Gucht, and from the first introduced a new style that combined entertainment, educational material and social issues in one event, an approach already introduced in her first play Cape Parade Adventure (19*). In WAM (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), for example, she combines musical education and understanding with a joyous theatrical experience. Incidents from Mozart's childhood are illustrated by his own music in a light-hearted script that allows for active audience participation. Annie Barnes also extensively utilized audience participation in her work. For example, in Rainbow Land, an educational play about nature conservation, the 10 to 12-year-olds in the audience form an integral part of the action, representing the inhabitants of the endangered land. It is a technique also used in her other plays (e.g. The Jubba Jugga Junkgara Follies and Hey! Hooray!). Over the decades, drama departments at universities and training colleges have always played a major role by doing regular plays for children and school-going youth. Because of what appeared to be a limited interest in children's theatres by the four state-subsidized Organisations (despite the subsidies they too got from the Department of Education), this becme intensified and these bodies played an ever-increasingly important role in the 1970-1990 period, keeping theatre for young audiences alive in their communities, servicing schools and doing regular plays for the youth. Perhaps the best example of this comes from the University of Natal in Durban and the pioneering work of fiery speech teacher and educationist Elizabeth Sneddon (?1897-) and her successor Pieter Scholtz (*). Scholtz wrote and directed his first indigenous full-length play with his own company in 1970 (Thurkaari: Demon of the Curry Powders) and in 1979 he received the Amstel Playwright of the Year Award for The Amazing Adventures of Tambootie the Puppet, and in 1980, for Mister Big Strikes Again. Utilizing characters that are loosely based on the Commedia dell'arte prototypes, but essentially modern in conception, Scholtz influenced other tertiary education institutions in Natal, so that children's theatre became comfortably entrenched in that area. Another kind of contribution to the development and vitality of theatre for young audiences was made by the drama department of the University of Cape Town, under the leadership of Rosalie van der Gucht and, from 1971, Robert Mohr (*). One distinctive influence came through their involvement in the Theatre for Youth's productions until 1986, the other through the institution of an annual winter school in the early 1970s. This created an opportunity for young people to experiment with different theatre forms. Flowing from this the University of Cape Town became a leading force in the development of Drama in Education (DIE) and Theatre in Education (TIE), particularly under the dynamic guidance of Esther van Ryswyk (*), course leader for educational drama and theatre programmes until 1982. She not only introduced the notions of DIE and TIE into Cape schools, but in 1979 founded SAADYT (Southern African Association for Drama and Youth Theatre) to unify and develop youth theatre and educational drama in South Africa, and set up international exchanges and links for local teachers. Finally, a number of societies and Organisations have played an important role in promoting theatre for children and young people by running festivals of theatre. These include FATTSA, ATKV and the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, as well as the various education departments. ** By the end of the 20th century, children's theatre has become big business for many freelance performers, for the schools are in a sense ready-made audiences. Work ranges from the many schools and play festival productions and the performance of prescribed or set texts to the dissemination of social and health messages and the promotion of AIDS awareness. While the political imperative has become less pressing, the social issues facing the country have become more clearly defined. Numerous companies began developing work to address these issues - from large spectacular works (Ngema's Sarafina II for a notorious example) to a wide and divergent range of smaller-scale, often interactive, works by community and other groups (Nicholas Ellenbogen's Theatre for Africa, Cape Town's New Afrika Theatre, Gcina Mhlope and her storytelling workshops, to the marvellous work of Lyn Dalrymple and DramAid in Kwazulu Natal and Pieter-Dirk Uys and his schools tour in the Western Cape) try to extend theatre for young audiences to a broader audience, one which includes the more remote towns and rural areas, previously disadvantages communities, and those most at risk. They see theatre as a common and affordable meeting place for children of all races to meet, interact and learn, as an integral part of the necessary healing process taking place in the country. A great deal of the work has a clear socio-cultural thrust, seeking to disseminate. (MK & TH) (See also Part 1: Background and Puppetry in this section.


Storrar, 1968, Greyvenstein, 1988, and Hauptfleisch and Kruger, 1997)

Theatre for young people or Theatre for the youth

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