Daphne Kuhn is a rare exception in a world in which entertainment has become a mass commodity. Kuhn owns, manages and is artistic director of the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square, an intimate, independent theatre that sets out to promote the arts.
The story of this independent theatre began more than 17 years ago when Kuhn opened the first Theatre on the Square in Rosebank. After two years it moved to the Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton City.
For the past 15 years the theatre has been successful, producing everything from musicals, comedy, children’s theatre, drama and cabaret to sponsoring corporate events and classical and jazz concerts.
Kuhn recalled that in 1994—when the theatre moved from Rosebank to Sandton—she presented a proposal to create a theatre at the new upmarket venue. Eventually her proposal was given the go-ahead on condition she found a sponsor.
In 1997 film and camera company Agfa came on board and the theatre was known as the Agfa Theatre on the Square. It then changed to the Liberty Theatre on the Square and eventually to the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square.
Although Kuhn has had support from big corporations over the years, she invested 90% of her own capital into the venture to see the arts thrive.
“It was my dream to create a place for artists to express themselves and for audiences to come and enjoy themselves. I am constantly inspired by the people who cast their spell on the magic of the little stage and those who come to enjoy the theatre. I also loved the idea of an intimate theatre,” she said.
Kuhn’s passion for theatre and the arts is evident in the number of shows she has produced over the years—close to 500, with roughly one production every month.
The average cost of a production is nearly R300 000, which she subsidises through ticket sales, promotions, sponsorships and by exploiting other creative options, such as book launch events and musical concerts.
Kuhn selects and produces most of the shows, but some are co-produced. Her passion has been to develop South African theatre and see it come to life. Part of her joy is that she has given countless work and creative opportunities to writers, actors, directors, staff and crew members.
Her determination comes from years of dedication to theatre, which includes working for the Civic Theatre—now the Joburg Theatre—the Market Theatre and the Children’s Theatre. In the early days of the SABC she was involved in broadcasting. “I learned a tremendous amount over the years and tried to put into practice what I learned.
“The theatre has sustained itself for all these years without making a profit but has been able to showcase great talent and to entertain and educate audiences from all walks of life,” Kuhn said.
One of the greatest challenges for a small independent theatre is competing with Johannesburg’s bigger theatres and their mega-blockbuster productions. Kuhn said audiences in South Africa still flock to see shows such as Mama Mia, The History Boys and Phantom of the Opera in preference to more intimate theatre. This has required her to work much harder and more innovatively to develop an audience for her theatre.
Kuhn believes South African theatre is in a good space. “There is such a diversity of work and talent, although one also has to take care to find the gems. I have had the pleasure of working with luminaries in this field.”
She considers the creative arts industry to be one of the toughest in which to work because there is no measurable way to test what will be a success. It requires an adventurous spirit who is not afraid of risk.
In 2010 Kuhn was awarded the Naledi Executive Directors’ Award for her contribution to South African theatre. The theatre itself has also won lots of awards and recognition for its work and plays over the years.
When asked about her highlights, Kuhn said: “It has been to realise my dream and create a theatre. It is great to take a risk and, when it is successful, it is a great joy.”
End-of-year line-up at Old Mutual Theatre on the Square