Guild Theatre

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The Guild Theatre is a historic playhouse facility in East London.

Also known as The Guild Theatre or Die Gilde Teater in Afrikaans.

Origins and history

Founded in 1962, it has since then produced and presented numerous performing arts productions in East London and the broader Buffalo City Municipality of the Eastern Cape. In the process it has been home to some of South Africa’s leading artists, emerging local performers, as well as several international acts.

The idea

The theatre was born of an idea of Dr B. Bromilow-Downing; it began in a prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, where the young East London soldier passed the hours writing a pantomime.

The East London Theatre Guild Association

In November 1953, Bromilow-Downing and another East Londoner, Arthur Markson, formed the East London Theatre Guild Association (often referred to simply as the Theatre Guild) along with Pat Chamberlain, Mary Howe, Jimmy Nicholas, W Cronshaw and Peggy Tomlinson, with the idea of initiating interest in building a proper theatre. Soon the association comprised of over 1 000 members affiliated with the societies from around the city, including the Afrikaner Klub, Association of Arts, Church Drama Club, Dramatic Society of East London, Komga Drama Club, Technical College Drama Club, Philharmonic Society and East London Music and Variety Club.

In May 1954, the societies began raising the necessary funds to build what was then called the Civic Theatre or Little Theatre. The cash was raised through performances in churches and school halls, and “by receiving donations from various sectors”, according to a report from the theatre.

It became a tradition to perform a pantomime each year in the East London City Hall, with proceeds going to the fund.


1953: Sinbad the Sailor, presented by the East London Theatre Guild at the East London City Hall, produced by Bromilow-Downing.

1954: Robin Hood, presented by the East London Theatre Guild at the East London City Hall, produced by Joy Meaker.

1955: Aladdin, presented by the East London Theatre Guild at the East London City Hall, produced by Hazel Muller.

1956: Cinderella, presented by the East London Theatre Guild at the East London City Hall, produced by Mary Howe.

1957: The Sleeping Beauty, presented by the East London Theatre Guild at the East London City Hall, produced by Joy Meaker.

1958: Jack and the Beanstalk, presented by the East London Theatre Guild at the East London City Hall.

1959: The Frog Prince, presented by the East London Theatre Guild at the East London City Hall.

1962: The School for Scandal, presented for the opening of the Guild Theatre, directed by Mary Howe.

1963: Good Friday, presented by the East London Theatre Guild at the East London City Hall, produced by Mary Howe.


As the money came in, the Theatre Guild Association challenged the Department of Education, Arts and Science of the time to match its funds, rand for rand. Until such time, the theatre would be owned and managed by the Theatre Guild Association. However, the government responded that it would only supply funds if the East London Municipality provided a loan towards the cost of the theatre and the municipality owned the building. "The government finally granted the theatre R50 000, the City a loan of R50 000 while the Theatre Guild raised R58 000” reads the report. The theatre was built at a cost of R158 500. The Dramatic Society of East London later raised additional money for the theatre to be air-conditioned.

The Guild Theatre opening (1962)

The doors of the Guild Theatre opened in October 1962 with a production of The School for Scandal, directed by Mary Howe, who imported costumes from London, “especially for the occasion”.

Zane Flanagan, the theatre manager, says: “This was a dream come true for the East Londoners, to have a place to be proud of and a home for amateur and professional theatre, ballet and music concerts.”

The 1960s and 1970s

The theatre was managed by the East London Guild Theatre Association, a non-profit organisation, while the dramatic societies of the city provided the staff to run the theatre on a voluntary basis, with the exception of a part-time manager and one cleaner. The first chair was Arthur Markson, followed by Edgar Glass.

With the advent of television in 1976, theatre audiences declined around the country and East London was no exception. Gradually touring professional companies began to miss out the city as they could not play to empty houses. The local amateur companies also cut their productions to an average of two a year to limit costs.

The theatre was opened to all races in 1979.

The theatre began to fall into disrepair and there was no money to make the modernisations that were becoming necessary.

The CAPAB years (1986-1997)

From the mid 1980s, the theatre was owned by the Cape Provincial Administration and leased to CAPAB. From the Guild Theatre website: "On July 1, 1986, CAPAB’s generous offer to take over the running of the Guild Theatre was accepted and the building was closed in March 1987 for extensive renovations. The revamped Guild Theatre, fully manned by permanent CAPAB staff, opened on February 29, 1988 with a performance of Carmen by CAPAB. CAPAB relinquished responsibility for the Guild Theatre in July 1997. It was handed over to the Eastern Cape Provincial Government in April 1998."

Department of Public Works (1998-2001)

Nominations for a new management board were called for by the MEC of Sport, Arts and Culture at the time, Mr Mancotywa, from the citizens of East London and surrounding areas. A new eight-member board of the East London Guild Theatre was officially appointed in October 1998 with an undertaking from the Directorate of Sport, Arts and Culture to fund the theatre for three years on a sliding scale, ending March 2002. The Department of Public Works did its best to maintain the theatre with the limited funds at its disposal, but major repairs – such as a new roof to replace the 40-year-old one – were just not possible. Public Works relinquished all responsibility for repairs and maintenance with effect from April 2001.

A Section 21 Company (2001 to the present)

The East London Guild Theatre became an independent entity and a Section 21 company was formed. The board members all work on a completely voluntary basis to serve the theatre, representing the various cultural communities of Buffalo City and the surrounding areas. Its main task is transformation in line with the White Paper.

Today, the Guild Theatre hosts commercial and non-profit productions. Flanagan explains that it is also rented out for various events, including conferences, music concerts and children’s theatre. The non-profit productions include drama, directing and dance workshops held in townships.

There is also the traditional annual pantomime during the festive season.

In 2023, the Guild Theatre received a grant of R4 453,378.74 from the National Lotteries Commission to successfully plan and implement the theatre's much-awaited project of replacing worn stage curtains, installing new, modern LED stage lights, upgrading of the sound system, security fence, generator, as well as upgrading non-functional air-conditioning units in the foyer, changing rooms and offices.


The main purpose of the Guild Theatre is to provide a functioning infrastructure to serve as the home for the performing arts in the East London/Buffalo City Municipality and its environs and to ensure that this infrastructure is used to:

•develop and stimulate an interest in the performing arts in the communities within Buffalo City •act as a base for the Guild Theatre’s outreach programmeme which aims to encourage and develop the practice of the performing arts among young people in the urban and rural areas of Buffalo City and the wider areas of the Eastern Cape.


As part of the Guild’s core business, the theatre is actively engaged in developing and nurturing talent and interest in the performing arts through its education programmes.

The Guild Theatre Dance Company (1999-?)

Formed in February 1999 with funding from the National Arts Council and later from the Department of Arts and Culture, the Guild Theatre Dance Company has been instrumental in facilitating the Guild’s education programmes through training workshops and education programmes for the talent of Buffalo City and surrounding areas, particularly in the townships and rural Eastern Cape. The company of professional dancers specialise in dance forms ranging from classical and traditional to contemporary and have graced the stage of many events such as the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and the opening of the Eastern Cape Tourism Summit. The lives of the company's dancers were transformed by providing them with employment and – as dance transcends all language barriers – they continue to impact their teaching skills and expertise in dance styles of this area from traditional to Afro-contemporary to classical, in the community.

Transnet Theatre Trucks

A partnership with the Transnet Foundation enabled the Guild Theatre to expand its delivery to the province at large, enabling it to take the performing arts to areas where theatre infrastructure does not exist. The Transnet Theatre Trucks are horse-and-trailers converted into mobile performance stages, fully equipped with audio and stage lighting. The truck has a drop-down side creating a stage size of 8m x 5m powered by three-phase electricity and is fully equipped with a sound and lighting system that is suitable for all performances or events with an audience of up to 5000 people.The Theatre Trucks are available for rental with all proceeds going towards the Theatre’s education and audience development programmes, such as Community Connections.


2002: Shaken, Not Stirred! (directed by Darryl Nel)

2004: Cinderella (directed by Amanda Bothma)

During the Covid pandemic, the Guild Theatre, with support from the NAC, produced online performances, including Next - the Cabaret; A Star is Born with Kerry Hiles, and Bouquet: Marina Sings.

For more information

See the Guild Theatre website at


Arts Theatre Club archive held by George Mountjoy.

Guild Theatre commemorative brochure, 29 February 1988.

Cinderella programme, 2004

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