Theatre's revival starts on the ground

For 16 years the New Africa Theatre Academy in Sybrand Park, near Athlone in the Western Cape, has been providing students with affordable higher education in the performing arts.

Though the facilities consist of only two large rehearsal and training rooms, a resource centre, three offices, a garden and a relaxation room, up to 30 disadvantaged students are accepted every year. Most come from the nearby townships of Gugulethu, Langa and Khayelitsha.

The students pay R2 400 a year, which doesn’t nearly cover the running costs. ‘The fees we charge only represent about 10% to 20% of what the school needs to function. We try to keep the budget trim, but about R700 000 a year is needed,” says Ina Bruce, the academy’s general manager.

‘We’ve always been supported by the Swedes from the Culture House Development Agency. The Germans and the Dutch have also supported us financially. But the funding agreement has changed in the last few years: money now goes from government to government, which makes it difficult for us to access. So we are struggling with funding and we need more local and international funders.”

The school has 12 part-time facilitators and four fulltime staff. ‘We have some of the best facilitators in the industry. Some are also lecturers at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch,” Bruce says.

The school teaches acting, improvisation, movement, singing, cultural studies, script writing, puppetry, production, theatre history and play writing. It also recently added courses in life skills, entrepreneurship, computer skills and literacy to its curriculum to help students in the world of work once they finish their one-year certificate course. ‘Theatre is not a great provider of employment, so we have to do more than just teach the performing arts.

‘The core of our course consists of teaching voice, dance, movement, singing and acting. We do not just focus on one particular course for each student, we promote all-round performers,” she says.

Students also learn the technical side of theatre, and receive lessons about costumes, lights, sound and stage management.

‘We have shadow programmes with Artscape and the Baxter theatre where the students stand backstage and watch the whole theatre production being set up,” says Bruce. ‘We also have an internship programme with the Robben Island Museum where once a week a group of 10 students perform for the school tours that come to the museum.” They also learn about tour guiding and about their heritage.

The students also present productions on child abuse, HIV/Aids and other societal issues to schools and communities. Once a year they put on a production with a South African theme at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

Mavis Taylor, then head of the University of Cape Town’s drama department, started the academy in 1987 as the New Africa

Theatre Association’s vocational training programme.

The school is now accredited by the Higher Education Quality Committee of the Council on Higher Education. This meant the school had to change from its informal method of teaching to a more formal and regular system of education.

‘It was hard for an organisation like ours. Everything had to be planned, which was difficult for some teachers, but we had to do it or we’d be dropped by the education department,” Bruce says.

The certificate is now nationally recognised and can be used to go straight into the theatre industry or to study further in other educational institutions.

‘Most of our graduates start community-based organisations, teaching drama. They sometimes produce plays and do radio productions on various developmental issues. About 80% of our students are employed. One of our graduates, Sizwe Msutu, is an Artscape director. Another one, Antonio Summerton, is an actor on the popular soap opera Backstage and plays the bartender Jason,” says Bruce.

The community work they do is an effort to revive the dormant world of theatre. Bruce says that a lot of money has to be put into South African theatre for it to be revived.

‘Theatre has a lot of competition today. There’s television, there’s satellite TV and the movies. People just don’t look for this kind of entertainment. They aren’t informed about theatre. Hopefully this will change with all the community work we are doing,” she says.

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