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Artscape's five-decade journey

by Simangele Mzizi 1 Jun 2021
Artscape Theatre Centre

As it celebrates its golden jubilee, Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre Centre has embarked on a poignant journey “from inhumanness to humanity”.

Marking five decades is momentous, however, the CEO of Artscape Theatre Centre, Marlene le Roux is not getting carried away at the moment.

“Fifty years is indeed an accomplishment. We have come a long way from the days when playwright Adam Small could not attend the premier of his own play, Kanna hy kô Hystoe; when the actors were painted brown, and security police were in the house while protesters were outside.

“You almost want to call it a coup, a milestone, an absolute feat. But, to celebrate the achievement, we need to be mindful of how it came about and build on the work of those who came before us,” says Le Roux.

As Cape Town’s biggest theatre centre, Artscape makes a huge contribution to the cultural life of the city and the art economy of the Cape Town CBD. In the 2018/19 financial year, the venue hosted 701 productions and events, all geared towards making the arts accessible to all.

Artscape is celebrating with year-long festivities under the theme: “Yesterday, today and tomorrow”. “It resounds with so much of what we need to pay attention to, not just for the arts and for Artscape, but as a nation,” she says.

The celebrations began in March and include a pre-recorded online concert featuring some of South Africa’s finest dancers and musicians (which can still be viewed online); a permanent visual exhibition on Adam Small; a 7-metre textile installation – which was hand-stitched by hundreds of women from all districts of Cape Town; and a rolling exhibition of theatre costumes, from 1971 to the present, made by the venue’s wardrobe department.

Exhibition of costumes from 1971 to present day


Artscape has had an extraordinary evolution since opening its doors on 19 May 1971 as the Nico Malan Theatre. At the time, it was programmed and managed by the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), only promoted the performing arts for whites and focussed on the orchestra, opera, ballet, and drama.

Things started to change in 1994 when the performing arts boards became playhouses. A new organisation called Artscape was launched on 27 March 1999 and the Artscape Theatre Centre was born, becoming a welcoming venue to other art genres, and performers and patrons from all walks of life. The year 2001 also saw the organisation creating the Audience, Education and Development Department, with Le Roux at the helm.

“The first step was to introduce Artscape as an inclusive venue, and establish it as a place for everybody irrespective of social standing,” explains Le Roux.

Artscape partnered with UNMUTE Dance Company to give voice and visibility to artists and audience members with disabilities. Indigenous art forms and jazz, which were previously excluded, were prominently programmed.

Through the Women’s Humanity Arts Festival, conversations about the equality of women, children, and persons with disabilities were given a platform. The LGBTQI+ community, and community productions, also found a home at Artscape.

Le Roux notes that while inclusivity and diversity are fundamental to the existence of Artscape, “it is always an ongoing process”. She also points out that it has been “50 years’ worth of toil from many stakeholders”.

Artscape Theatre Centre CEO Marlene le Roux performs a champagne sabrage at the celebrations


On a personal level, the 50th anniversary is special to Le Roux. She was appointed as CEO in 2015 after being Director of Audience Development and Education for 14 years and acting CEO for a year.

“It feels like I am part of the history. Born and raised in Wellington, I contracted polio as a child and as a student of UWC, I protested outside with placards against the Nico Malan Theatre Centre. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be entrusted to lead the institution on a journey from inhumanness to humanity,” she says.

As for Artscape’s greatest triumphs, the CEO says victories should be measured by public opinion. “There are so many programmes worth mentioning, which can be hailed as triumphant, so it would be disingenuous of me to claim the accolades. It is a hardworking team of individuals that bring about change and that make for a winning team.”

Cape Town City Ballet performance


With the recent closure of The Fugard Theatre in the East City, Artscape is now the only big theatre in the Cape Town CBD.

“As a theatre complex, we are very conscious that artists, producers, and creative industries’ freelancers have lost everything,” explains Le Roux.

To adapt to challenges presented by Covid-19, the venue went virtual with all local productions last year and was able to pay artists and avail the complex to them for free with the help of various sponsors. The venue is fully Covid-19 compliant and has started welcoming audiences back.

Le Roux admits that, as they build towards the next 50 years, “the Artscape complex will never be the same”.  “We are currently relooking at how we can assist the arts community even more. Without productions on our stages and artists being paid, theatres will become irrelevant. Hence, we will work hard day and night to have a fully functional and accessible theatre complex.”

IMAGES: CCID, Artscape Theatre Centre