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Baxter Theatre

"Our work is there to challenge and to unify the community around us: so again it’s about integration, but it’s also about speaking our hearts courageously, from a place that tells the truth."

Built on the grounds of the University of Cape Town, the Baxter Theatre is a large arts complex comprising a theatre, concert hall and studio space, operating as both a producing house and space for hire. Its artistic director and chief executive, Lara Foot, joined in 2010, and leads a team of 43 permanent staff, plus some 80 freelance and casual staff. Annual turnover is in the region of R24m (roughly £1.8m), dependent on rental income. The Baxter receives no government subsidy; 40% of its operational costs are funded by the university, the rest is made up through rentals and project-based fundraising.

Mission: presenting the best of South African and international theatre to diverse communities

Although Lara Foot describes the Baxter Theatre’s mission as simple – “we aim to present and host the best of South African theatre, as well as masterpieces from the international repertoire, serving all the people of Cape Town and the surrounding communities” – the context makes it more complicated. More so than in Johannesburg, where Foot was previously associate artistic director of the Market Theatre, Cape Town carries the history of apartheid in the ongoing stratifications of its society. “There were three tiers of separation here, people divided into white, what the apartheid government called coloured, and black. Coloured people had more rights than black people, so there was a huge disparity and still is a huge disparity between the economy of those three cultures, with black people being left right on the periphery – literally, the distance that they have to travel to get to town is much further. Whereas Johannesburg was not like that: it didn’t have as bad a geography issue during apartheid as Cape Town, it was much more integrated.”

Historically the Baxter Theatre was a beacon against apartheid: “It was built from a legacy left by Duncan Baxter, a former mayor of Cape Town, who insisted that the theatre be for everybody. One of the ways to make that happen was to build it on university property: that way no license was needed for actors or audiences to be integrated. So it has always been an integrated theatre, and the people’s theatre.”

“It has always been an integrated theatre, and the people’s theatre.”

None the less, when Foot arrived, “the Baxter was still very Eurocentric on many levels, and primarily white, then coloured. But we have a very diverse audience base and I want everyone to feel completely welcome, and comfortable with this being their home. That might sound obvious but it wasn’t in terms of apartheid. Our work is there to challenge and to unify the community around us: so again it’s about integration, but it’s also about speaking our hearts courageously, from a place that tells the truth. We try to maintain a social responsibility in terms of what we stand for, what we question, how we question, and how we bring people together.”

“We try to maintain a social responsibility in terms of what we stand for, what we question, how we question, and how we bring people together.”

Radicalism and healing

A big building reliant on rentals to cover its operational costs, the Baxter offers a wide mix of programming, but it is the work produced by the Baxter itself that Foot feels really expresses its mission, and is “where we make our mark internationally. At least half of those are new South African plays, and we’re not scared of doing quite radical plays, in terms of content and style. We tackle bold subjects and we try and find some healing with theatre.”

“We’re not scared of doing quite radical plays, in terms of content and style. We tackle bold subjects and we try and find some healing with theatre.”

One signature Baxter work is the adaptation of Miss Julie directed by Yael Farber, which brought race to the play’s already volatile class and gender politics and has been performed around the world since its premiere in 2012. More recently, Foot commissioned a group of graduate performers from the University of Cape Town’s drama department to create a play telling the story of the protest against, and ultimate removal of, the statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes that stood on the university ground. “All of the actors were involved with the fallist movement and part of the protest, so they were telling their own stories as well as examining the history of the past.” Similarly that production has successfully performed in the UK and US and will soon travel the world.

Give, gain and grow

One of the key changes Foot has made during her tenure is the expansion of the Baxter’s long-standing festival of community theatre into an annual year-long development programme. The Zabalaza Festival is run by a dedicated team (artistic director Bongile Mantsai, curator Mdu Kweyama, and co-ordinator Zoleka Helesi), and operates under the principle of “give, gain, grow”: giving experience and knowledge so that community groups can gain skills, growing both the pool of artists from which Baxter can draw, and audiences for its work.

Across the year the Baxter coordinates workshops in writing, directing, and in particular acting for community theatre groups in “previously and still disadvantaged areas”. A selection of those groups is then invited to perform at a series of seven mini-festivals across the Western Cape, finally culminating in a festival of up to 60 plays performed at the Baxter itself. Of those, one play will be chosen to be published and receive a full run in the theatre.

The festival has already had various impacts: while fewer new writers have emerged through the community programme than Foot had hoped, “a number of actors have landed on the stages here or on tours nationally”. There has also been a small economic impact: “Whatever money the groups make from the door, they receive all of it and then go back to their community and make another play. We’ve also noticed over the years that when doing the mini-festivals there are little shops that spring up, or vendors are selling various items, so one hopes that this will assist in growing the economy within the community. Our mission isn’t to bring everything here to the Baxter: it’s to make theatre viable, and more sustainable.”

“Whatever money the groups make from the door, they receive all of it and then go back to their community and make another play.”

Challenges

Foot would like the Baxter to be presenting more international classics, and more big-cast plays, but due to “financial restraints” is able to do so only rarely. She also feels frustrated by the underdevelopment of playwriting in South Africa: “We have some excellent writers – but we don’t have enough, because it’s not really taught at universities and it’s impossible to make a living.”

The Zabalawa Festival, meanwhile, presents a specific set of challenges. “Some of the artists live in crime-infested areas and for a number of the participants and audience members, the festival is the first time they’ve ever been able to get to town and to the Baxter Theatre. Some come from three or four hours away, so there are the challenges of accommodation, and transport – and even when we’ve managed to assist, and the artists are taking home the door money, some artists will come to work hungry and we have to make a plan.”

What next?

While all of the work presented at Baxter – including by companies renting the space – is intended to support its mission of excellence and integration, Foot recognises that in terms of language, English still dominates, “just because everyone speaks and understands English”. Although Afrikaans, “the language of most coloured people”, and isiXhosa, the language of black African Xhosa people, are represented, Foot would like the theatre to become more multi-lingual.

Photo: Sizwesandisile Mnisi, Back Ameera Conrad, Oarabile Ditsele, Tankiso Mamabolo, Cleo Raatus, Sihle Mnqwazana, Thando Mangcu. Courtesy of Baxter Theatre.

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