Mavis Taylor

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Mavis Taylor (1924-1997). Actress, designer, director, and enormously influential teacher.


She was born on 7 October 1924 and died on 4 November 1997 at the age of 73.


She studied at the University of Natal where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Art and Psychology and a Teaching Diploma. She studied and worked in theatre in England, where she obtained several professional qualifications.


Mavis was co-opted onto the staff of the Drama Department of the University of Cape Town in 1952 by Rosalie van der Gucht, where she was employed to teach design and was soon noticed for her designs for departmental productions. She also began directing her own productions in 1953 and by the early sixties, she had made a name for herself as a director.

In 1969/70 she spent three months in America on a Carnegie Scholarship and two years later she was invited to spend a year in New York as resident director at Ellen Stewart's Cafe La Mama and returned to UCT bringing all the innovation and expertise of her American experience to theatre in Cape Town through her productions and to her teaching of acting and improvisation. After Robert Mohr's death in 1984 Mavis became Acting Head of the Drama Department for a year. In July 1988 she was appointed as Head of the Department, a post which she occupied until her retirement in December 1992.

Maintaining links with international artists, even during the cultural boycott (e.g. director and theorist Richard Schechner and author Steven Berkoff), allowed her to do work not always possible for others. Ever respondent to her times, dynamically embracing the complexity of South African social and political issues in both her professional and personal life, she opened her home to young people in need of nurturing and support, made theatre about the political situation, and demanded that the Drama Department actively grapple with the social change in the country.

In the early 1990's Mavis argued for a theatre for healing for South Africa. She initiated an outreach programme Little Theatre Tours which took mobile, low budget theatre productions into the townships dissolving the barriers of segregated urban planning and in 1987 founded the New Africa Theatre Project, with which she worked till the end of her life. In 198/9* she took over the reigns of CAPAB Drama at a time when artistic and theatrical directions were both unclear and under constant challenge on issues of legitimacy and relevance??*.

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

As director

At the Little Theatre her many productions include The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1953), Caligula (1955), The Learned Ladies (1956), Much Ado about Nothing (1957), The Country Wife (1957), A Clearing in the Woods (1959), The Egg (date unknown), King Lear (1962), One Way Pendulum (1962), The Skin of our Teeth (1963), The Tree That Sat Down (1964), The Recruiting Officer (1965), Once in a Lifetime (1966), Little Malcolm and his Struggle against the Eunuchs (1967), A Lily in Little India (1967), You Never Can Tell (1968), Peer Gynt (1968), Oh What a Lovely War! (1969), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969-1970), The Knack (1970), The Alchemist (1970), Henry V (1971), You Can't Take it With You, Measure for Measure (1975), I am Herbert (1978), America Hurrah, The Trials of Brother Jero 1980s, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1983), The Madwoman of Chaillot (1985), Sweet Bird of Youth (1985), The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (1988), Trumpets and Raspberries (1990), A Little Life Like This (1992).

For The Space she directed Balls, Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi, Female Transport (1975), The Final Sting of the Dying Wasp, The House of Blue Leaves (1976), The Indian wants the Bronx (1973), Revenge, Sing a Song of Empire and Slag (1973), We Bombed in New Haven with Pieter-Dirk Uys taking over when she fell ill (1973).

She directed God’s Forgotten (Pieter-Dirk Uys, 1979 at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club [1] in New York.

In October 1977 she directed the opening production of the Baxter Theatre (Leonard Bernstein’s Candide). Subsequent productions at the Baxter Theatre include St Joan of the Stockyards (1979), Marat/Sade (1980), Tom Paine (1981), The Orange Earth (1985), Greek (1985) and at the Market Theatre the following year, West, Kvetch (1988), Crossing the Line (1989), Guys and Dolls 1990).

For CAPAB she directed productions of Suite in Three Keys (1968), Don't Let Summer Come (1968), Arme Marat (1968), Die Vader (1969), Tango (1970), Police (1971), The Real Inspector Hound 1971 (and designed costumes), After Magritte (1971), The Zoo Story, Don Juan (1975), Oh What a Lovely War! (1978), The Government Inspector (1980), The Form (lunch-hour, early 1980s),Can't Pay? Won't Pay! (1993), 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1994).

Other productions include The Wizard of Oz (1986, Nico Malan Theatre), Emgxobhozweni (1996), a Cape Flats Players production of Aluta Continua with Peter Braaf in 1987, Kanna hy kô Hystoe (1976). Not For The Deserving (1976), (Proteus Theatre 1976), People Like Us (NAF 1993), Dankie Auntie NAF 1989, Once Upon a Mattress (Labia Theatre 1967).

She helped to create and directed two productions of Thina Bantu - We People 1980s.

As designer

Although she on occasion designed costumes or sets for productions that she also directed, there were productions where she was involved in her capacity as designer only. These include Tiger at the Gates costumes 1955, Back to Methuselah 1956, Androcles and the Lion 1956, costumes for Die Goue Kring 1958, Arms and the Man (1958), designed Revenge (Space 1972) and Slag (1973), set designed The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1956), The Knight of the Burning Pestle (with Doreen Graves 1953), décor Don't Let Summer Come, costumes for Die Koopman van Venesië (for Fred Engelen, Little Theatre, Cape Town, 1960), The Trial costumes 1960, Dark is a Way (1966).

Mavis Taylor was one of the major forces in the formation of Theatre Action Group in 1990.

As lecturer and mentor

Much of her influence came through her numerous students, who included Gay Morris, Chris Weare, Tjaart Potgieter, Geoffrey Hyland, Jamie Bartlett, Lionel Newton, Anna-Mart van der Merwe and Mark Fleishman.


Over the years she received numerous awards for her work. Besides a range of Three Leaf Awards, (Winner of two Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards as Best Director (1980, 1985)), Vita Awards, these include the Cape Tercentenary Foundation Award of Merit for her contribution to South African Theatre (1986), a Vita Honorary Award for her contribution to theatre in South Africa and the 1987 Distinguished Woman Award from UCT.

In 1993 she received the Fleur du Cap Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to the industry.


Liz Mills.

Die Burger, 8 November 1997.

Various entries in the NELM catalogue.

Tribute by Temple Hauptfleisch, 1997a.

Theatre programmes of the various productions.

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