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Joburg is SA's culture capital
07 August 2007

With a handful of new theatres and audiences streaming to see hit shows, Johannesburg is cementing its position as the country's capital of culture.

The R110-million new Montecasino Teatro, the country's biggest lyric theatre
The R110-million new Montecasino Teatro, the country's biggest lyric theatre


JOBURG is to be rebranded the "cultural capital" of South Africa and, as if to reinforce this image, a number of theatres have recently opened across the city, adding to the 20 or so already in existence. The 1 900-seat Teatro at Montecasino, in Fourways opened in June with the spectacular The Lion King. Built especially for the show at a cost of R110-million, it is the biggest lyric theatre in the country.

Another new venue, Gold Reef City's Lyric Theatre, will open in October; in addition, two old theatres, the Victory and the Alexander, have been refurbished and re-opened this year.

The City is doing its bit too - it has clinched the World Summit on Arts and Culture, to take place in 2009. And by March 2008 it will have produced a strategy to promote Joburg as a cultural capital. In addition, it will promote the concept of a pan-African rotating "City of Culture" through consultation with the national Department of Arts and Culture, the African Union and other relevant bodies.

The concept will be launched at the 2009 world summit.

The Montecasino Teatro
The Lion King is playing to packed audiences at the Montecasino Teatro; it is the first time the musical has been seen in the country. The run has been extended three times - it will now close on 2 December - giving it a total season of six months.

It has been seen around the world by some 52 million people.

And once the The Lion King finishes its Joburg run, other major musicals are likely to be seen in the Teatro, says Steve Howell, the general manager of Montecasino. "Other productions of the stature of The Lion King are going to be put on in the Teatro."

Howell says Montecasino is looking for critical mass, and "it is getting it, as Gauteng audiences want what is being offered". He reckons that the critical mass is there because the black middle class is growing, and with more disposable income available, people are coming to the theatre.

"We are reaping the benefits of the good life."

He is confident that future productions will be well patronised, particularly as Montecasino will put on world-class shows. Of course, Howell hopes that people who go to the theatre will also spend money at Montecasino's many restaurants, or at the casino, which can be used to cross-subsidise the theatre, if need be.

The Victory Theatre, one of the city's oldest theatres, rebuilt at a cost of R28-million
The Victory Theatre, one of the city's oldest theatres, rebuilt at a cost of R28-million

The local acting fraternity will also benefit cast and crew on all shows will be mainly South Africans, as is the case with The Lion King. Besides, Howell says, it's too expensive to bring in an international cast.

The Teatro is just one element of a broader investment of R350-million, used to expand Montecasino with a hotel, six new restaurants, a ballroom and a piazza.

The Victory Theatre
The Victory Theatre in Orange Grove, one of the city's oldest cinemas, dates back to the 1920s; but has been dark and shuttered for a while.

Shortly after closing as a cinema in the early 1990s, it opened again as a theatre, presenting Ipi Thombi and the Rocky Horror Show, but by the end of the 1990s the lights were switched off again.

Until 2004 that is, when music producer and magazine publisher Joe Theron bought the theatre. Over the past two years most of the old building has been demolished and a new, up-market venue has been created, with a view to setting up a home for dance group Umoja, which Theron has taken under his wing.

On 26 June, after renovations costing R28-million, he opened the new-look 470-seat Victory Theatre with Africa Umoja, a show that traces the history of South African dance. The venue also boasts a jazz bar and a 250-seat restaurant. "It's a state-of-the-art venue now."

With plush black carpeting and black leather seats, it promises to be a valuable addition to the city's theatres. And with four levels of parking and direct access from the parking to the theatre, patrons can avoid the busy Louis Botha Avenue.

Theron bought the four small stores alongside the Victory Theatre, demolished them and incorporated that space into his new theatre. He has kept the old cinema seats, with a decorative "K" running down each outer chair, a reminder of the days when it was called the Grove Kinema.

"Umoja is happily settled in the theatre," he says. And he has other plans for the theatre, including bringing back the popular Rocky Horror Show and possibly putting on In Defence of the Caveman, although he won't be involved in producing the shows he's leaving that to others.

Lyric Theatre
Another new theatre, the Lyric, is to open in October this year. Based at Gold Reef City, it is to be a "luxurious and intimate, world-class, Victorian-styled 1 100-seat theatre".

Producer Richard Loring is bubbling with enthusiasm. His production African Footprint ran to full audiences at the 300-seat Globe Theatre at Gold Reef City for four-and-a-half years, and has just returned from an overseas tour.

The Globe has been changed to a 200-seat intimate theatre, catering for the gambling audience at Gold Reef City.

Loring is preparing for the opening of Hairspray. A new movie version of the cult classic, starring John Travolta, will open in South Africa on 17 August.

Loring's stage production features local stars Mara Louw, Harry Sideropolous and Kate Normington, and a 34-strong cast. Hairspray is showing in London's West End and on Broadway in the US.

And the producer is working on other musicals to bring to the Lyric once Hairspray has finished its run. Despite all the competition around town, Loring is confident that he will fill the venue. "We will be creating a new audience," he says.

He feels that South Africans will identify with Hairspray, which is set in 1960s America, at the time of the civil rights movement. Like Montecasino, the Lyric can fall back on cross-subsidisation from the Gold Reef City casino, if necessary.

Alexander Theatre
The Alexander Theatre opened 50 years ago in Braamfontein and closed 10 years ago, but opened again in July this year with the musical Rent. Producer Hazel Feldman describes the theatre as a "very viable venue", although it will take the public a while before they can be persuaded back into the CBD, she adds.

The response on the first few nights has been "very, very good". Rent is a "powerful piece of theatre", which had the audience on their feet by the end of the evening. "If Rent works, it will pave the way for other shows."

The revamped Alexander Theatre, in Braamfontein
The revamped Alexander Theatre, in Braamfontein

Although not prepared to comment on what she has planned for upcoming shows at the Alexander, Feldman says she is working on a few ideas. The theatre opened in 1951, named after Muriel Alexander, the founder of the Joburg Repertory Players, which played in the theatre for over 30 years.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat was seen for the first time in Johannesburg at the Alexander; it closed in the 1990s with Ipi Thombi.

Property entrepreneur Adam Levy, who bought the theatre late last year and has since given it a major overhaul, says he is not averse to anything happening at the theatre. The Business Arts South Africa awards were held there at the beginning of June; Talk Radio 702 presenter Jenny Crwys-Williams held her In Conversation evenings there in mid-June.

"I want people to come into Braamfontein and feel inspired," Levy says. He has had the 550-seat theatre re-upholstered and has had the bar and bathrooms revamped. "We have retained the old stall feeling – a very authentic feel and flavour – but with a new-age feel."

Counting the three theatres at the Civic Theatre and the three theatres at the Wits Theatre, Levy sees Braamfontein becoming Johannesburg's West End theatre precinct. "They will all benefit each other."

Civic Theatre
Bernard Jay, the chief executive of the Civic Theatre complex, is responsible for the turnaround of the complex, building audience attendance from 30 percent seven years ago to 85 percent attendance. He says he has spent that time building a "new theatre-going audience in the city".

"For seven years people were criticising me; now they're copying me," he says. Although he modestly denies credit for getting more Joburgers to the theatre, he admits to "a certain amount of emulation" and having "established something at the Civic".

The opening of the four new theatres this year is healthy competition, and he would be "mad to see this as a threat". People might go to see The Lion King and, from that experience, be encouraged to go to the Civic Theatre or any other theatre in the city, which can only be encouraged.

Jay's concern is getting a steady supply of material, particularly musicals, to fill these theatres. "Just how many Broadway musicals are there around?" he ponders.

The Civic's 1 069-seat Nelson Mandela Theatre is booked until October 2010, but this doesn't mean Jay is complacent. A recent production, The Soweto Story, was not successful, he says, attributing this to people having never heard of it before.

"People want to see titles they know, like Chicago, We Will Rock You, or Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Jay says that South Africans just don't write musicals. But he may be about to be proved wrong – writer and playwright John Matshikiza has just finished rewriting his father's 1959 script for the hugely successful King Kong.

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