Hermien Dommisse (1915-2010) was a stage, radio, screen and television actress, director, academic author, and cultural activist.
Born in Ermelo on 27 October 1915 to Evert and Hester (Hettie) Dommisse (née du Plessis), she went to school at the Ermelo primary school and matriculated from Pretoria Girls High School. At school she was not only a good hockey player and horsewoman, but was already deeply interested in the creative and performing arts. She wrote poems, prose and articles in Afrikaans and English, as well as performing in and directing the annual school play.
She then studied at the University of Pretoria, obtaining a BA HOD degree, to become a teacher at Helpmekaar Hoër Meisieskool, Johannesburg. In this time she met Gilbert John McCaul, a business man and talented pianist. They were both also members of the Wanderers Fencing club. In this period she did radio work for the SABC, performing in live broadcasts of plays.
In 1941 they married and soon settled in Krugersdorp, and the couple would have three children: Elisabeth Jeanne (born 1945, who became known as an art journalist and television presenter), Gilbert John (1951) and Nina Katerina (1952). While in Krugersdorp she got to know P.P.B. Breytenbach and began working in theatre at a professional level, inter alia as an actress with the Krugersdorp Municipal Dramatic and Operatic Society, the Hendrik Hanekom company and the André Huguenet company.
A scholarship for Harvard Business School awarded to Gilbert took the family to the USA in 1946, where Hermien became a member of ITI (the International Theatre Institute). She met a range of theatre and film personalities and scholars, and wrote articles and reviews for South African publications. On their return they settled in Cape Town, where she once more became involved in theatre as actress and director. Then followed a visit to Europe, where she became a member of the Berlin "Presse Klub" and once more was able to meet a range of contemporary theatre practitioners, including Bertold Brecht, Helena Weigel, Max Reinhardt, Walter Felsenstein, Harry Kupfer, and Irwin Piscator.
Having moved to Johannesburg, she and Gilbert became involved in the Operatic Society of South Africa (OPSA) from 1958, and she would become a vocal proponent for opera in the country in addition to theatre and indeed all of the performing arts. Similarly, she became involved with management of the Johannesburg City Ballet in 1960 (formerly known as Festival Ballet, and later again to be known as Ballet Transvaal and eventually PACT-Ballet). In 1963 she was elected chair of the Ballet Management Committee for PACT. In this period she was also appointed as a member of the Civic Theatre Interim Committee in Johannesburg.
In the 1960s she would become increasingly sought after as a film actress, and in the 1970s became increasingly involved in television.
In 1972 she completed a D.Phil degree at the University of Pretoria with the thesis Die Dramaturg en Sy Gemeenskap ("The Dramatist and his Community"), a valuable study of the role of the dramatist in various European societies from early Greek theatre to the 20th century, based on extensive travel and research, and with application to contemporary theatre in South Africa. The thesis was published by Perskor in 1976.
She was widowed in June, 1979 and after over 20 years of continued professional activity, she moved to a retirement village in Waverley, Johannesburg in 2003, and in 2007 to one in Lyndhurst, where she passed away on 24 March 2010.
Her valuable archive of theatre materials is deposited in NALN (the National Afrikaans Literary Museum) in Bloemfontein, and in the State Archives in Pretoria.
Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance
As a stage actress
She worked as an actress (and later also as director) with numerous companies including amateur companies (e.g. Volksteater, the Krugersdorp Municipal Dramatic and Operatic Society , the Johannesburg REPS), a number of independent theatre companies (e.g.the André Huguenet Geselskap), and the various state funded theatres NTO, PACT, NAPAC and CAPAB.
Among the plays she appeared in are Helshoogte (André Huguenet Geselskap, 1943, Oorlog is Oorlog (Die Maskers, 1944), Joan of Lorraine (Johannesburg REPS, 1947), The River Line (Little Theatre Players, 1954), Die Koopman van Venesië (NTO, 1960), Die Vader (CAPAB, 1969),
Among her first directing projects was Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird (L'Oiseau bleu) for Pretoria Girls High School as a school girl. Her later directing projects included Dagbreek (Krugersdorp Municipal Dramatic and Operatic Society, 1941); assistant director to Johan de Meester for the Van Riebeek Festival (NTO, 1952), W.A. de Klerk's Die Jaar van die Vuuros (KAT/NTO, 1952); Iepekonders (NTO, 1953), Die Goue Kring (JAATS 1956), Hostile Witness at the Alexander Theatre, (March 1967).
Over the years she did radio work for the SABC, among others performing in live broadcasts of plays.
She acted in a number of films, including Die Kandidaat (as Anna Volschenk, 1968), Jannie Totsiens, as Magda du Preez, 1970), Pappa Lap: 'n Verhaal van 'n Pa en Sy Dogter as Mev Hofmeyr, 1971), Aanslag op Kariba (as Wilhelmina Rossouw, 1973), Ma Skryf Matriek (as Mev. de Kock, 1975), Netnou Hoor die Kinders! (as Tina, 1977), Plekkie in die Son (as Mev. Viljoen, 1979), Fiela se Kind (as Miss Weatherbury, 1988) and That Englishwoman: an account of the life of Emily Hobhouse (1989/1990).
She wrote and directed a documentary film on John Calvin  and the Reformation, filmed in Genève, Switzerland and presented by her daughter Jeanne.
With the arrival of broadcast TV in South Africa, she began a whole new career as actress, appearing in a number of series and TV plays. Best known publically in later years for her TV roles, namely "Mrs Duvenhage" in Agter Elke Man and "Monika Vorster" in the long-running soap Egoli: Place of Gold (till the age of 89 in 2003).
She was also the post-synchronization director of one episode of Shaka Zulu (the 1986 TV Mini-Series)
She campaigned strongly for state support for professional theatre, opera and ballet in South Africa, and - besides her theatre work - played a crucial role in the promotion of opera and ballet as art forms in Johannesburg and in South Africa.
In 1961 she was appointed a member of the Governmental committee to investigate the management of National Theatre Organisation (NTO). The final report was tabled early in 1962 and led to the founding of the four Provincial Performing Arts Councils in 1963. She would later also to be a member of the Government's Commission of Inquiry into the Arts(1986), led by Dr Jan Schutte.
She was a strong advocate for the recognition of the arts as a school subject and the introduction of arts training into the schools as well as the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg.
In 1989, she was elected chair of the South African Scriptwriters' Association. ("Suid-Afrikaanse Teksskrywersvereniging" in Afrikaans, or SATV/SASWA) and in the period 1991-1993 she had a busy time as public speaker, in the process of making Western performing arts, in particular classical ballet, music and opera as well as theatre, accessible to all in the new evolving democracy, inter alia by appearing as a keynote speaker at the founding meetings of the National Arts Initiative (NAI, later renamed the National Arts Coalition).
Over the years she published numerous articles, in particular on all aspects of the performing arts (see for example "Dommisse" in the ESAT Bibliography), plus two books: Her doctoral thesis Die dramaturg en sy gemeenskap ("The dramatist and his community", a study of the role of the dramatist, and theatre in general, in society - also listed under the name Hermien McCaul-Dommisse in some sources) and Voetspore ("Footsteps", 1996), an auto-biographical look at her role in the evolution of the performing arts in South Africa (especially ballet), through some of her writings over the years; published in English as Long Jouney of the Heart, (2001), a history of ballet in South Africa, including the demise of the Provincial Arts Councils and the withdrawal of Government subsidies for the arts in South Africa.
1987: Award for Outstanding Cultural Achievement from the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Organizations (the FAK).
1990: Exceptional Pennant for the Promotion of the Performing Arts from the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.
1999: Fleur du Cap Lifetime Award for her contribution to culture and the arts.
2004: Naledi Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to culture and the arts.
[JH, TH, JMcC]
P.J. du Toit, 1988
Donald Inskip, 1977
SACD 1973; 1978/79; 1979/80;
"Dr. Hermien McCaul-Dommisse" (A biography compiled by her daughter, Jeanne McCaul, for an exhibition by the Nasionale Afrikaanse Letterkundige Museum en Navorsingsentrum (NALN) in Bloemfontein on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of her birth 1915 - 2015)
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