/ 4 February 2023

He has cornered the Market

Book tickets: Greg Homann has taken up the position of artistic director at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. Photo: Kate Green

‘Plays take time and need proper development. We need to avoid the temptation of putting up work before it’s ready’

As soon as we meet,  the new artistic director of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, Greg Homann, who was only a week into the job, starts to rattle off excitedly about the post, as we head down to Newtown Junction Mall to order drinks — a glass of Coke for me and a bottle of sparkling water for him. 

Several football fans are gathered around the big screen to watch their teams battle it out.

Although he prefers not to refer to himself as a sport fan, Homann says: “My family loves sports. My middle brother Neil Homann was a professional golfer. I like rugby, golf, tennis and a little football — but it’s all been in relation to my family.”

The theatre director has played tennis, water polo and swims, among other sports. And, if things go his way, there will be two sport-related plays at the Market Theatre soon. 

One will revolve around rugby and the other is about golf, centring on a historical figure. “I’m beginning work on developing those,” he says.

For him, sport and theatre are connected: “In theatre, there is a set of rules — the game of a play. It’s called a play for a reason.” 

Both connect with the soul, spirit and energy of the nation — they feed it,” says Homann.

Still on the subject of family, he reveals he was born 44 years ago in Northcliff, Johannesburg. 

“It was a sheltered upbringing — until I went to Parktown Boys’ High, where I began to understand the country I lived in. It was a multiracial setting. Before then, I had no sense of the lived reality of apartheid,” he says.

He remembers primary school with trepidation: “It would be that on some days I didn’t go to school, due to concerns for my safety.”

 This was because of what was going on in Soweto (over 20km away) at the time. “I didn’t understand what that meant,” he says.

He credits his mother and grandmother with instilling in him a love of the arts and theatre: “I spent vast amounts of time with Mom and my grandmother. They nurtured my creative interests. My mom had an interest in art, particularly painting, which I also do. 

“I would sit up for Mom — who was on an evening out at the Market Theatre. She would come back with a programme for the show and I would fiddle around with [it], not knowing exactly what it was all about,” Homann reveals.

But when Homann was 12, he moved in with his father, mainly because he wanted to join his brothers, who were already living there. Until then, his relationship with his father was absent: “I’m gay. I struggled with my sexuality, as many gay men do in a heteronormative world. I only came out in my early twenties at Wits,” he says. 

Surprisingly, this changed his relationship with his dad for the better: “My father was very wise when I came out. He said he didn’t want to say anything he would regret. He loves me and supports me; he must now do the work on himself.”

At Wits University, Homann enrolled for an architecture degree, which he thought would be a good marriage between his creative interests and what his father described as a “real job”. 

But he dropped out after two years in favour of the stage. It was when he began his drama studies that he came to grips with the grim realities of our country. 

He met teachers, such as Malcolm Purkey, Sarah Roberts and Fred Hagemann. This proved to be crucial for his later work: “If I didn’t encounter them, it would have been much more difficult to deeply root my work in that consciousness. I would have still done South African-based work, though it wouldn’t have been the same as how I do it now.”

The director’s foundation in architecture has had a positive influence: “It has helped me enormously by understanding the use of space and design. For instance, when I’m sitting in a rehearsal room, I visualise how the use of design can better assist how we tell a story.” 

Some of the design features he would like to see implemented at the theatre are how the front of house can be made more visually appealing by the use of light. 

The number of entrances at the theatre could be utilised to give the audience a better experience. At the moment, Market Theatre lovers only experience the main entrance. More would be merrier, according to Homann.

Homann, whose theatre credits include Brothers in Blood, The Lesson and Delirium, has done a bit of design for some of his shows but feels two heads are better than one: “I said to [a producer], ‘How can we align the budget to give audiences a visually dynamic experience?’ 

“Over the years, the design budget has been diminished. And although the audience does not know it, they can feel it. We need to provide a bigger budget to bring in the best design treatment,” he says. 

It doesn’t always require a lot of money: “But if a play needs a design, and doesn’t get it, then we have a problem,” says the 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre Award winner.

So, what is his plan for the next five years at the helm of arguably the most coveted work in theatre? 

It includes shaping the Market Theatre Foundation’s artistic vision across all its entities: the Market Lab, the Market Photo Workshop and the Windybrow Arts Centre. 

“One key thing on my radar is the 50th anniversary of the theatre in three years’ time. I’m starting to work on that,” he says. 

Homann wishes to see the brewing of a homemade musical on the scale of Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina. 

“Plays take time and need proper development. We need to avoid the temptation of putting up work before it’s ready,” he cautions.

In an ideal setting, in addition to his vision “to initiate a multi-pronged new plays development programme, aimed at writers, playwrights and theatre-makers of all experience levels”, what is on his wish list? 

“I would like to set up a repertoire company named after The Company, taking from the legacy of the founders of the theatre, Barney Simon and Mannie Manim.” 

This new company would give 10 to 12 artists permanent employment in a three-year cycle, divided into six-month blocks: “During that time, it will produce four new productions, including a new South African play, one school set work and two other productions. 

“I’m eager to find a partner who recognises the value of supporting artists for a three-year cycle,” he says. 

Although it means living away from his partner Clint Lesch for the first time in nine years, it seems the vision he had when he was 40 — to be artistic director at the Market — has come true. 

“I can disappear into a conversation with a playwright and a theatre practitioner about what they want to do and how they want to do it. 

“Rehearsal rooms are the most wonderful spaces — interacting with directors, designers, actors, etc — to build a production to take to audiences. It’s stimulating and exciting. I sometimes feel I am lucky enough to call that my job,” says Homann.