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Artscape's Marlene le Roux: A real mensch

Artscape's Marlene le Roux: A real mensch

Sharon Sorour-Morris
25 July 2019

Marlene le Roux might be small in stature but she is big in heart and soul. She is also big on ideas and executing them, and big on transforming the lives of others, especially the disabled. Here she chats about how she’s creating a multi-cultural buzz at the Artscape, the numerous awards she’s received since becoming CEO, and why being a human rights activist is her life’s passion.

“YOH, but you look funky! Look at you!” Marlene le Roux doesn’t mince her words. When I step into her light-filled office with its harbour view, her greeting is warm and ebullient. I am struck by her joie de vivre and her positivity. But this is a woman whose reputation precedes her, who has made sweeping changes to the Artscape Theatre Centre since taking over as CEO four years ago and has been rewarded for her efforts with numerous prestigious awards in South Africa and abroad.

With Marlene, life is all-systems-go, so to speak. From the get-go, she starts talking and it is hard to stop her. She speaks with passion and conviction, and humility too, about her work, her interests, her activism, her challenges as a disabled person (she contracted polio when she was three months’ old), the joy and hardship of bringing up a disabled child (her son, Adam, had cerebral palsy) and her heartbreak when he died in 2015 at age 15. She speaks about being the first woman to head up the Artscape, how she handles conflict and parenthood, confiding with a huge laugh: ‘I love my 22-year-old daughter Aimee to bits but we fight like mad!”

TRANSFORMING CAPE TOWN’S BIGGEST THEATRE

First up is the Artscape, and why she believes it needs to be a vibrant space that is not only a place to appreciate “high art” but a multi-functional venue that is enjoyed by people from diverse backgrounds.

“Everyone has the right to be here and our motto at the Artscape is ‘Everyone is important’. It is a huge space and it needs to be used … on any given day we have rehearsals taking place, professional people coming and going, schools attending performances, NGOs holding meetings, children receiving tuition, patrons coming to the Opera House …”

She is on a mission for centre-goers to “come and experience each other so that we have shared values”. Two examples that perfectly illustrate her point are the free lunchtime concerts and the recent performance by Lebanese-born Swedish singer Maher Zain. Marlene explains: “Our free lunch-hour concerts are packed to capacity with people from all walks of life: for this reason, I like to hold them in the Chandelier Foyer and not in the Opera House so that people have to engage with each other: the old aunties have to squeeze in next to the gogo (granny) or the snot-neus kind (snot-nosed child).” The concert by Muslim singer Maher Zain was remarkable, too, she says. “Not only did he perform with an orchestra - our very own Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of talented Brandon Phillips - for the first time in his career, but it was wonderful seeing people arriving at the Artscape with their prayer mats and setting them up to pray outside on the piazza,” she enthuses.

Her philosophy is aptly illustrated in the upcoming 2019 Artscape Women’s Humanity Arts Festival (from 27 July to 16 August), which will feature stage productions (including Kamphoer with the inimitable Sandra Prinsloo and The Widow, directed by Siphokazi Jonas), workshops, films, exhibitions, discussions and more. While it is dedicated to women, it is not only for and about women, Marlene says, but “a celebration of the women who played and continue to play a role in the struggle for equality and liberty”. It also embraces and celebrates issues that are close to her heart: the rights of people living with disabilities as well as LGBTIQ+ rights.

THE FIRST WOMAN TO LEAD THE ARTSCAPE

Marlene, a former artist herself, is the first woman to be appointed CEO of the iconic Artscape, an important feature of the City's Foreshore precinct (and the CCID's footprint, too). For her, every day is an opportunity to learn something new and she embraces it with vigour – and humility. “The best thing about my job is that I get to learn new things every day, from my staff, from patrons. I am extremely blessed.”

As a disabled human rights activist, she has been at pains to change the status quo and shake things up. As a result, all the signage at the centre is now in three languages (English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa), stages have been revamped, there are ramps for wheelchair-users and a comfort room for young children and disabled people. “Empowering people who live with a disability is very important to me,” she explains.

Educating others about the challenges disabled people face every day is also paramount. “At the moment, we have 10 interns working at Artscape who are disabled. As a result, Artscape staff are now more aware, and have a different perspective, as they work with someone who is disabled.”

She is also adamant that HR policies need to change to embrace the needs of the disabled, who need support not only from their workplaces but also from their communities.

“There are mothers out there who have to take leave to take their disabled children to hospital because their workplace doesn’t understand their situation,” she says. Using her own life as an example, she says: “I was fortunate because I could get into my car and take my son to the Red Cross Children's Hospital whenever I needed to do so … but other women are not in that privileged position.  To be disabled is a difficult journey, and to give birth to a disabled child is like living with your heart outside your body, every single day.”

HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST

Her activism and conscious attempt to bring South Africans of all shapes and sizes together has garnered her accolades and awards: The latest batch includes the prestigious Fair Saturday Foundation Award, given to the Artscape in Bilbao, Spain, in June for its “commitment to promoting essential values through its wide range of diverse and accessible programmes” and to Marlene herself for her courage and determination, as an advocate for human rights and as a social leader supporting the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups, including the disabled.

Last month she also received the SA Brand Summit’s Influencer of Influencers Award for her tireless dedication to turn the Artscape into an accessible performing arts centre, while last year she was honoured with the Commonwealth Point of Light award for her dedication and life’s work as a disability activist.

She waves away talk of the awards and says she uses them to “spread the positivity of our nation. Whenever I receive an award, I do so on behalf of our country and I tell the world: ‘We have so much to give. We are making it work”.’

When I finally ask her what she does in her “downtime”, she laughs. “I enjoy life,” she declares. “I have friends from all walks of life. Being a CEO is not what it is all about. I go clubbing, and I do ballroom dancing. I know how to party!”

Then, suddenly, she says very seriously: “But I also know how to grieve. I am a pleaser and a giver, and I have learnt to accept the things in my life that I cannot change. I also have fabulous mentors who believe in me.”

It is time to go. She jumps up and gives me a warm hug. “Every day, I receive a blessing. Today, you were my blessing,” she tells me. Most certainly the privilege is all mine.

IMAGES: Scott Arendse (CCID Online Coordinator)

Tags: Artscape Theatre Centre Marlene le Roux culture arts