State Theatre

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The idea of a State Theatre is not to be confused with what anthropologist Clifford Geertz[1] (1980) terms a "Theatre State"[2]

See also National Theatre

National Theatre and State Theatre as concepts

The notion of a "national" or "state" theatre is an old one, and can have many meanings, from the notion of a specific building to a broad concept of a theatre (or theatre system) funded by the "nation" or the "state". I (In some cases the "state" in question may be part of the larger entity, a nation or federation, as in the USA for example.) However the central idea has always been to obtain governmental funding and support for the professional theatre in a country, and that such a theatre would be an expression of the artistic and cultural soul and achievements of that country, state and/or nation. Most nations tend to have such a theatre or theatre organization.

The concept of a National Theatre or State Theatre in South Africa

The notion of a "national" or "state" theatre for South Africa also comes quite a long way. Some of the ideas were visionary and grandiose (including theatre schools, orchestras, drama, ballet, opera and other companies, theatres in every town, and the like). However the central idea has always been to obtain state funding and support for the professional theatre. The interpretation of the notions nation and state though, have been singular in South Africa, over the 20th century.

The term State Theatre is also used in the plural as "state theatres", usually to refer to all theatres totally funded by the state, but very specifically so for the period 1970-1990, when it normally referred to the four state funded Performing Arts Councils (PACs) in South Africa. In the later part of this period, and the early post-apartheid period, the Market Thjeatre was often referred to as the true State Theatre or National Theatre of South Africa", even though it at the time received no direct subsidy from the state. Since then quite a number of the old "alternative theatres" (including the Market Theatre, the Baxter Theatre and so on) do receive a partial subvention from the state via the National Arts Council, and thus in effect could be seen as state theatres.

As the name for a specific venue: The State Theatre Pretoria (later known as the South African State Theatre)

Though the general notion State Theatre refers to the national state-funded theatre of the country in general, as pointed out above, by the mid 1970s in South Africa the term State Theatre became specifically attached to the idea of a planned theatre building. Originally called the State Theatre Pretoria, and colloquially simply referred to as the State Theatre. Later it was controversially renamed the Spoornet State Theatre and since 1995 as the South African State Theatre.

The building

It is a formal theatre complex built on the old Market Square between Pretorius and Schoeman streets, adjacent to what was to become Strijdom Square. It was built by the Provincial Council of the Transvaal for the use of the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT)by two architectural firms, Botha, Lötter & Partners and Daneel & Smit.

The complex covers 72 143 m2 and , besides the administration offices for the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT), the complex originally had four theatres (The Opera , or The Opera House); The Drama; The Arena and The Studio) and a number of other venues, some added later (the Transvalia room, The Rendezvous, a restaurant, cafeteria, etc.), all geared towards the performances of operas, dramas, ballets and musical recitals. In 1983 a fifth theatre was added, named the Momentum Theatre. There were seven soundproof rehearsal spaces, one of which has an orchestra pit. The eighty-eight dressing rooms were situated with easy access to all the stages. In addition it had in house wardrobe facilities, technical workshops, a décor workspace which had, at the time, the biggest paint frame in the world.

The various venues

The State Theatre complex today operates and manages six theatrespaces in which seating capacities range from 120 to 1300 seats.

The Opera House

This theatre is the biggest one in the complex and seats 1,327 audience members in the continental seating arrangement. The main stage uses five lifts to take the décor onto the workshop floor 10m below or raise it 3m above the stage floor into the wings. The stages lie in the form of a cross with the top one fitted with a revolve. The orchestra pit has room for 110 players and the conductors’ podium can be mechanically set. The lighting box is 55m in height and probably the highest of its kind in the world.This is the largest of six theatres, seating 1,300 patrons on three levels including a balcony. It has an orchestra pit that can accommodate up to 60 musicians. The size of the orchestra pit can vary by adjusting the back wall of the pit.

The seating has been arranged to have excellent views of the stage from any vantage point. Continental style seating has been adopted, which means there are two entrance/exit doors for every four rows of seats to facilitate the entrance and exit of patrons.

The Drama

This theatre is a smaller version (almost exact replica) of the Opera Theatre and it seats 712 audience members. The orchestra pit seats 45 players. The Drama Theatre with continental style seating for 640 on one level. An orchestra pit, which can accommodate up to 40 musicians, also makes it a suitable venue for smaller opera or musical productions.

It has three foyer levels. Ground floor foyer with an Art Gallery and conference facility; a main foyer with refreshment centres and a balcony mezzanine.

The Studio

The Studio seats 150 people and although its main function is to house puppetry plays it also plays host to small musical galas, a seminar space and it is also used as a recording studio for the PACT symphony orchestra.

The Momentum

A flexible venue opened at the State Theatre in March 1984 by PACT, who intended to use it for experimental work. Their first production was Graffiti 84, contributed to by Robert Kirby in 1984.

Also referred to as the Momentum Theatre (named after the insurance company that sponsored the construction).

The Rendezvous

Also referred to as the Theatre Rendezvous, the venue has seating for 260 patrons and is situated off the car park on the upper level.

Both the theatre and bar area of The Rendezvous was later revamped, with a new modern interior that allows for the use of the venue for cabarets, jazz recitals, small and one-man shows. It is also used as a venue for private functions and presentations

The Transvalia

This is basically used as a seminar room. It has no stage and it serves multiple functions. The space can seat at least 110 people.

The Arena

Also referred to as the Arena Theatre, this is the complex's third largest theatre, can double as the main opera rehearsal hall.

There is no set seating in the Arena except for the 88seats on the gallery. Movable and collapsible seating units can provide a further 200 seats for patrons.Fully equipped computerised lighting and sound control rooms form part of this highly sophisticated theatre.

The Intimate Theatre

The opening season in the State Theatre Pretoria

The first director of the State Theatre was Rodney Philips and under his guidance the complex was formally opened in 1981 with the first words on the stage being spoken by veteran Afrikaans/English actor Siegfried Mynhardt, followed by an opening production called Applause, devised and directed by Anthony Farmer.

A enormously ambitious programme of extravagant theatre then followed in the first season, including a production of the verse drama Germanicus by N.P. van Wyk Louw, Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, the "folk drama" Ampie by Jochem van Bruggen, P.G. du PLessis's Siener in die Suburbs, Adam Small's Kanna Hy Kô Hystoe, Kismet, The Great Waltz, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Eduardo di Filippo's Filumena, Eric Smith's puppet show called Eric’s Puppet Company, and Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice's Evita.

An exhibition on the history of South African theatre was also mounted for the occasion, compiled by Astrid Schwencke and the staff of the Centre for South African Theatre Research (CESAT) of the Human Sciences Research Council.

Production history from 1982 to 2000

PACT staged William Gibson’s Monday After the Miracle (the sequel to The Miracle Worker) starring Sandra Duncan and Pamela Gien under direction of François Swart at the State Theatre in 1982. Aubrey Berg’s production of Tennessee WilliamsCat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Lena Ferugia, Ron Smerczak and Victor Winding was staged here by PACT in 1982 before the production moved to the Alexander.

William Egan directed an Afrikaans translation of The Taming of the Shrew called Die Vasvat van ‘n Feeks starring Marius Weyers and Sandra Prinsloo for PACT at the Pretoria State Theatre in February 1983. PACT also presented Sheridan’s The Rivals starring Pauline Bailey, John Hussey, Wilson Dunster, James White, Pamela Gien and John Lesley directed by Michael Atkinson here in March 1983.

In June 1983 they presented John Osborne’s The Entertainer starring Michael Atkinson, Helen Jessop, Stuart Brown, Kate Edwards and Gina Benjamin at the Alexander. William Egan’s production of Tennessee WilliamsNight of the Iguana starring Eric Flynn, Sandra Duncan, Annabel Linder and Anthony James was staged at the Alexander in 1983. Also in 1983 Neil Simon’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue starring Michael McCabe and Erica Rogers and directed by Ken Leach was staged at the Alexander.

PACT revived Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena starring Nomsa Nene and directed by Marius Weyers here in August 1983 before moving the production to the Alexander. Taubie Kushlick staged The Best of Brel here for PACT in 1983 before it moved to the Leonard Rayne. PACT staged The Merry Widow starring Roberta Palmer and Gé Korsten and directed by Neels Hansen in December 1983.

A new venue called the Momentum Theatre opened here in March 1984 and PACT announced it would be used for experimental work. In December 1984 Anthony Farmer directed Showboat starring Bess Arlene, Mayo Miza with Ed Barrett and Pieter Niemann alternating the role of Gaylord Ravenals.

In December 1986 The King and I starring Joe Stewardson and Judy Page was staged in the Momentum. Marius Weyers and Sandra Prinsloo under François Swart’s direction starred in an Afrikaans translation of Hamlet here for TRUK in 1987. All the performing arts councils jointly staged The Great Waltz under David Matheson’s direction with choreography by Geoffrey Sutherland in 1987. It opened here before touring to all the major cities.

Gibson Kente’s musical Sekunjalo, the Naked Hour was staged in the Momentum in September 1988 and Max Collie performed here in 1989. Also in 1989 PACT, NAPAC and PACOFS presented Lerner and Louwe’s Camelot here in 1989. In 1990 PACT staged an Afrikaans version of King Lear in the Momentum and PACT, PACOFS and NAPAC presented My Fair Lady here.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a combined performing arts councils production staged in the Momentum in January 1991. Later in 1991 Lerner and Louwe’s Brigadoon was staged here. PACT staged Romeo and Juliet here in 1992. François Swart’s production of Gigi was staged here in 1992. Lisa Kent’s production of Me and My Girl was staged here in 1993. PACT presented Dalene Matthee’s Fiela se Kind here in 1994. Geoffrey Sutherland, Andrew Botha and Graham Scott’s production of Queen at the Opera was staged here from November 1996 to January 1997.

Charles Wilson’s Don Gxubane Onner die Boere was staged at the Arena Theatre in 1994. **** State Theatre

Pieter Fourie's Ek, Anna van Wyk, directed by Marthinus Basson, performed in the Momentum Theatre in 1999.

In June 2000 the State Theatre was closed by the Minister of Arts and Culture, owing to extreme financial difficulties and an investigation into corruption by the Ministry.

History - after 2000

The Minister, Dr Ben Ngubane, announced the new State Theatre board in July 2000, to be led by Welcome Msomi, creator of Umabatha in the 1980s, who had been appointed chairman. The other members were Walter Chakela (chief of the Windybrow complex in Johannesburg), Doreen Nteta (CEO of the National Arts Council), Christopher Seabrooke (a board member of Business and Arts South Africa (Basa)), Edmund Radebe (chief of the Playhouse Company in Durban), Bongani Tembe (head of the orchestra at the Playhouse), Mike van Graan (Artscape consultant and well-known arts commentator), Jay Pather (lecturer in the Arts), Mannie Manim (founder member of the Market Theatre), Themba Wakashe (from DACST), Carol Steinberg (advisor to Dr Ngubane) and Sikkie Kajee (administrator of the State Theatre).

Although the State Theatre was still officially closed or “mothballed” and not operating as before, the new board decided that the facilities would be available for hire to production companies and entrepreneurs until its official re-opening in April 2001. The government would continue funding the maintenance and general upkeep of the building, but would not be subsidising the productions. This opportunity was immediately taken up by the independent company Maestro Entertainment Holdings, chaired by Chris Lodewyk. He leased the two main theatres at the State Theatre for November and December 2000 to stage three shows: The Nutcracker ballet, a musical revue titled It’s Not Where You Start, and the choral show The Singing Christmas Tree. The undertaking ended, however, in failure. The run of It’s Not Where You Start was closed early and Lodewyk declared that the production was costing Maestro in excess of R80 000 a week to keep on stage - but bookings for the entire run were only R50 000. The Nutcracker drew 40% audiences and The Singing Christmas Tree sold just over 100 tickets per night for the 1 300-seat Opera Theatre. In the end Maestro claimed to have suffered a loss of almost a million rand. Although Lodewyk denied it, the failure was blamed on high ticket prices and on poor marketing and publicity.

The South African State Theatre (SAST)


The State Theatre officially re-opened on April 4, 2001 with a core staff of 80 re-employed people (40 technical staff and 40 administrative staff). The re-opening was marked by a multi-cultural musical evening celebrating diversity, featuring the KZN Provincial Orchestra, traditional dance from Welcome Msomi's musical Umabatha, classical ballet from Giselle, gospel music of Family Factory, arias from Cosi Fan Tutte and Carmen, the isicathamiya from the Soshanguve Tycoons and Victor Masondo's Mack the Knife. It was directed by John Kani, at the time chief executive of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and the National Arts Council, who was also the MC for the evening. The once-off performance for an invited audience cost DACST R740,000.

Upon its re-opening the State Theatre was given special budgetary privileges. This was clearly at the expense of other arts bodies and also given notwithstanding the theatre’s terrible financial track record. Initially it was awarded a supplementary grant of R10 million, which had originally been allocated to the NAC for general distribution. After strong protest from within the arts community and in the media, the decision was reversed.

Up to the re-opening of the theatre the new policy of PACs functioning as playhouses had not been implemented at Pretoria’s State Theatre. The reasons behind this were complex, but in essence could be boiled down to two main issues: the new Constitution prevented the government from obliging the provinces and the cities to support the theatres financially, and there were no no tax incentives for businesses to support the arts. At the time of the re-opening Minister Ben Ngubane announced that the theatre would from then on function as a playhouse, available for rent and supported through private sector partnerships and provincial funding. He also announced that “if the provincial governments don't support the theatres, they will close by the end of this financial year”.

While the investigations into the earlier financial mismanagement of funds, including the investments with Scott Asset Management (SAM), run by Keith Scott of Scott Investments continued, and the arts community kept speculating about the viability of the State Theatre, a new CEO, Michael Lovegrove was appointed in December 2001. He was a former PACT administrator and Sun City producer. Lovegrove immediately declared that what the State Theatre needed was ‘popular’ theatre, musicals and pantomimes and announced that Cats would open in the theatre in February.

Aubrey Sekhabi, 32-year-old Wits drama graduate, playwright and artistic director of the North West Drama Company for the previous eight years, was appointed the new artistic director. Under this new management the State Theatre started offering a wide variety of productions which clearly indicated an intention to reflect, and attract, the new South Africa. For the more conventional State Theatre audience Cats and Madame Butterfly started the year; two operas, Brett Bailey’s African-themed Macbeth and a more traditional Aida, were imported from Cape Town, and the ballet The Sleeping Beauty was staged. For the smaller theatre venues two more Cape productions, Glass Roots and Suip! were imported and, amongst others, Athol Fugard’s Sorrows and Rejoicings (starring Pretoria’s favourite Marius Weyers), Harry Kalmer's double bill of Briewe aan 'n Rooi Dak (Letters to a Red Roof) and The Bitterbek Blues of Ben (Die Breker) Bartman, Janice Honeyman’s Vatmaar, Yael Farber’s He Left Quietly, Bongani Linda's Shaka Ka Zulu (The Gaping Wound), Kgafela Oa Magogodi's Itchy City and King Baabu by Wole Soyinka were put on during the first year.


Dennis Reynecke in Hauptfleisch,1985;

Percy Tucker, 1997

Johann van Heerden (2008)][3]

See also National Theatre and PACT

Go to ESAT Bibliography

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