New life for two warehouses and a church hall

The rehearsal studio in The Fugard. (Photograph : Jeffrey Abrahams.)

IN the early 1900s, tailors, seamstresses and merchants sized, styled, stitched and sold clothing and textiles at 15 Buitenkant Street in District Six. On February 12 2010, the building revealed its vibrant, new theatrical garb.


Little over six months prior, builders helped the few remaining tenants of the Sacks, Futeran and Co. building, which is located a block away from District Six Museum in Cape Town, haul desks, shelves and boxes from the premises so that they could begin the process of transforming two 19th century warehouses and an old Gothic-style church hall into a gleaming new home for the Isango Portobello Theatre Company and The Fugard theatre.

Isango Portobello, which provides 45 performers and theatre staff with the internationally rare opportunity of full-time employment, was established by British, but South African-based, theatre and film director Mark Dornford-May, his wife, opera star Pauline Malefane, and South African-born activist-turned-journalist-turned-acclaimed-film-and-theatre-producer Eric Abraham in 2006.

In 2008 the company – which has head of the National Planning Commission, Trevor Manuel, as patron – won an Olivier Award for its production of The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo in London’s West End. The show subsequently travelled to Dublin, Tokyo, Singapore, Paris, Rotterdam and Johannesburg.

“We played to sell out audiences abroad,” says Dornford-May. “But, despite being proudly South African in all we are and all we do, we are not as well-known in this country as we would like to be. So we decided that we needed to create a home for the theatre company in its hometown, Cape Town.”

In fact, the group’s makeshift home, prior to moving to District Six at the end of January, was another small church hall in Athlone to the east of the city. Two oven-hot-in-summer and freezer-cold-in-winter shipping containers planted adjacent to the hall improvised as offices. Rehearsals were regularly interrupted when the hall was required by the church to accommodate large groups of mourners after funeral services or for other churchly get-togethers.

The Athlone property was not ideal and hardly, one might argue, fitting for an outfit that boasts two of the fastest selling shows in history at London’s Young Vic.

Having discussed the need for their own premises and the value of combining the company’s home with a new theatre to buttress its following in South Africa with London-based Abraham – who underwrites the company and the theatre – Dornford-May began scouting for a probable place to call home.

The University of Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre, he says, seemed like a good point to begin the search. But the director quickly saw that Isango Portobello would be restricted if it was required to share theatre space. He considered places in Khayelitsha, which is home to a number of the members of the company, and then took a close look at the more than 200-year-old Granary (also in Buitenkant Street).

“The Granary is a lovely old building but unfortunately the work required to renovate it for our purposes would have amounted to R70-million to R90-million (The Fugard cost about R18-million) and the venture would only have been complete in five to seven years,” explains Dornford-May.

His visits to The Granary however, brought Dornford-May into the vicinity of the Sacks, Futeran and Co. building, which – as a result of a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies and a generous reduction in price by the then-owners, the Futeran family – was purchased by the District Six Museum in 2002.

The complex comprised five loosely interconnected buildings, including a church hall and four warehousing and office units. The museum envisaged transforming the old church hall into a “multi-functional performance space that invokes the social spirit of the bioscopes and community halls of District Six”. However, when Dornford-May surveyed the rest of the block, his imagination spilled beyond the broad walls of the church hall and into two of the warehouses.

Isango Portobello co-music director, Mandisi Dyantyis, reminisces, “The first time I visited the site with Mark, I was in awe of his ideas but, because his plan involved three buildings that were, at the point, completely disconnected, it was difficult for me to imagine how the whole thing would come together.”

But, come together, it did: “It is so exciting to have our own space,” he continues. “There is no doubt that this must be one of the most fantastic theatres and rehearsal spaces around. It is incredibly inspiring.”

The entrance to The Fugard is via the arched doorway of the old church hall in Caledon Street. The hall was subtly transformed into a foyer with a box office and bar counter crafted out of some of the highly polished wood boards taken from floors removed from other parts of the premises.

To access the 270-seat theatre, you walk through a door, which originally led out the back of the hall, into an unassuming passageway created between two ancient walls that have been left intact as far as possible by architect Shaun Adendorff of Rennie Scurr Adendorff Architects, which specialises in the conservation and restoration of historic buildings and precincts.

“It is a National Heritage Site,” says Adendorff, who concedes that, while he has worked on numerous other heritage projects, The Fugard is his first theatre. “That made it necessary to preserve as much as we could. The nice thing though, is that it adds to the character of the premises and, rather than make the project difficult, enhances the look and feel of the place.”

At the end of passageway and up the stairs, the door opens into the theatre. One of the most remarkable things about the theatre is the stage, which juts dominantly into the auditorium and is almost as large as the seating area.

“We wanted a large performing area because of the (lively) nature of our performances,” says Dornford-May. “And as you can see, in many places the audience is very close to the action.”

Dyantyis adds: “I think that some members of the audience are going to be intimidated by it – I hope so, anyway.”

Another notable feature of the Elizabethan-style theatre is the seating, which comprises rows of wide, comfortably cushioned benches. There are neither seat numbers nor will it be possible to reserve specific seating for the shows. The theatre will operate a first-come-first-seated system and, if you are quick enough and prefer, you can go upstairs and sit on a barstool on one of the balconies, some of which will get you even closer to the performers.

While the historically sensitive renovations mean that The Fugard has retained much of the original character of the buildings, technically it is state-of-art. The theatre is fitted with high-tech lighting (managed by lighting designer and mainstay of South African theatre, Mannie Manim) and audio systems, and a sophisticated air conditioning mechanism that cools the audience and performers separately.

“After all, just because the performers are hot due to their ample exertions on stage should not mean that the audience has to be cold,” says Dornford-May.

In fact, as Noor Khan – the R&N Master Builders building supervisor who was on site from day one of the project to handover – explains, the massive air conditioning system required by the theatre made it necessary to install a second false roof over a section of the building.

“It was an interesting but challenging job,” he says. “We worked 24-hour shifts during the final month to complete the theatre within six months. At times, there were more than 100 people on site.”

Although, make no mistake, the foyer space, theatre, large dressing rooms and outside deck with its magnificent views of the city and Table Mountain are all very impressive, the most extraordinary room in The Fugard is the rehearsal studio, with its ridiculously high ceiling, luminous wooden floor and beautiful stain glass church windows.

“It has to be the best rehearsal room in the entire world,” insists Dyantyis. “The acoustics are superb, it is wonderfully spacious and, with the light streaming through the church windows providing little glimpses of Table Mountain, you cannot imagine how creative and energetic we feel during rehearsals.”

Just how inspired the cast is by its new home will be demonstrated to an audience for the first time at the gala opening of The Fugard on February 12 with a performance of the company’s The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo. The event will be hosted by patron Manuel and founding producer Abraham. Among the VIP guests expected at the gala event is the theatre’s namesake, Athol Fugard.

Says Abraham “Athol Fugard is an international giant of drama who has over half a century created iconic South African plays featuring narratives of all of its people, black and white. At the end of the fifties, at the height of apartheid, he was a cultural pioneer who wrote and directed plays for black actors about the lives of black South Africans. His work has been a source of inspiration to me in underwriting and producing the Isango Portobello company. We are deeply honoured that Athol has agreed to let us name our theatre after him.”

The opening season of The Fugard will include, on March 19, a world premiere of Fugard’s new play, The Train Driver, which was especially written for the opening and will be directed by Fugard.

(Things have changed at The Fugard since this piece was published in the Sunday Life section of The Sunday Independent in January 2010. The theatre is no longer home to the Isango Portobello company but remains open for productions under the management of Eric Abraham.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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