Little Theatre, Cape Town
The Little Theatre was founded in 1931 by Professor W H Bell, the University of Cape Town's first professor of music. Many South African actors, singers and dancers had their first training in public performances upon this stage. When the Little Theatre began its work the stage was almost all it had to offer in the way of adequate theatre facilities. The auditorium was an old laboratory with hessian-draped walls, and the audiences sat on hard benches or lecture-room chairs. This was, in fact, almost part of the dedicated atmosphere which Professor Bell sought to create. Success, however, brought the need for enlargement and in 1934 an auditorium with a raked floor and proper seating was constructed to the design of Brian Mansergh.
In 1934 the Cape Town Repertory Theatre Society staged its first production in the theatre and the Little Theatre remained almost its only home until 1948 when the Rep. moved across the road to the Labia Theatre. Some 50 productions by this Society were presented there over this 15 year period.
Other guest bodies to enjoy the hospitality of this theatre included the Cape Town Ballet Club, the Cape Town French Club, the K A T (Afrikaans Players) and the National Theatre Organisation. Companies from Belgium, France and Germany played at the Little Theatre as well as Teda de Moor's Bantu Theatre Company, the Hogarth Puppets and student players from elsewhere in South Africa.
The purpose of the Little Theatre was defined in its constitution as the training of students in the arts of the stage and the presentation of productions of approved standard and range. The widest possible interpretation was given by the Director, Professor Donald Inskip, to the second part of the definition and the standard applied is that of worth, variety and interest in the broadest sense.
The arrival of Dr Erik Chisholm in 1946 gave a great fillip to the production of opera. In the same year the School of Drama, under Rosalie van der Gucht and of opera under Gregorio Fiasconaro, provided the backbone of each year's programme.
The Ballet School under Dulcie Howes presented numerous programmes in the theatre in the early days but the later repertoire of the Ballet Company called for a much larger stage and auditorium than the Little Theatre could provide.
In addition to the theatre itself, the university provided rehearsal rooms, sewing and wardrobe rooms and a large, well-equipped workshop. The university's specialised personnel could cope with all the varied aspects of producing, dressing and setting shows with it being necessary for anybody to go more than a few yards to find his or her opposite number.
William Shakespeare's plays always figured prominently among Little Theatre productions. The first of these was Richard II, performed by boys from the S A College School (SACS) in 1935. The play was produced by Alfred Holtzer. Before the Second World War, two of the most notable productions were Cecil Tugman's King Lear and Jack Bligh's Hamlet, while during the war, Marie Ney's programme of Shakespeare's Women remained vividly in the audience memory. An endeavour was made to present the play set for the Senior Certificate examination, followed by a tour of the surrounding districts. This led to productions of Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and King Lear.
Experiments were made in the staging of Shakespeare's plays, for example, As You Like It, and a reproduction of an Elizabethan stage was devised. The Winter's Tale and The Merchant of Venice both had adaptable permanent settings.
The Merchant of Venice was produced in Afrikaans.
Romeo and Juliette was produced twice. Norman Marshall, sent from Britain by the British Council, directed the play in an outdoor setting in the quadrangle of the old S A College School. Shakespeare at the Little Theatre was performed by schoolboys, students and professionals and all the major plays were tackled.
The Story of the Little Theatre by Rosalie van den Gucht