Next Generation Visionaries


by Glenda Venn

There is no doubt in the mind of Annabell Lebethe, CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation, on the important role arts and culture play in the development and growth of inner city and urban fabric. “Artists bring soul to the city”

I met to discuss her point of view on the recently opened Newtown Junction development which is a mixed use retail, apartment, hotel and office space (worth R1.4 billion over 6 years) which has opened alongside the Market Theatre In Newtown, Johannesburg. How does she foresee the interaction between the users of these spaces and the different theatre or arts orientated audiences of the Market Theatre? What would it mean for the future of Newtown and the City of Johannesburg?

Annabell Lebethe
Annabell Lebethe CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation and lead architect on the COSAC project Wayne Mansfield from KMH Architects.

Over a period a five years, the Market Theatre Foundation, with the support of the Department of Arts and Culture will have invested R200 million into the Newtown precinct. This investment was used for the renovation of the John KanI Theatre, the construction of a new Laager Theatre, the construction of admin offices and training facilities for the Market Theatre Laboratory and Market Photo Workshop and gallery.

 Construction has already begun on the block east of Mary Fitzgerald Square for new complex to accommodate an experimental training space, offices and the Market Photo Workshop Gallery and school. The plan also includes the construction of a new Laager Theatre pushing the footprint of the Market Theatre complex towards the Newtown Junction development.  This significant investment combined with the vision of this dynamic CEO and her team, including artistic director James Ngcobo and CFO Christine McDonald, is set to potentially reignite the spirit of the arts in the Newtown precinct.

Bold plans to put on installations, or different types of performance theatre in public spaces to attract new audiences to the theatre are just one of the strategies for integrating the two different spaces. “Just imagine going shopping at Pick n Pay and seeing a short theatre piece”  Sounds optimistic, but successful precedents exist like the performance piece done by the Philharmonic Orchestra of Hamburg. Various sections of the orchestra played in different precincts in the city, while being conducted to play a symphony simultaneously via live TV footage. This resulted in a 12% increase in ticket sales through engaging the public. By extension, one could argue being exposed to the vibrancy of live theatre may grow audience numbers.

The design of the buildings suggests a bold new chapter for the Market Theatre. When it opened as a landmark of cultural struggle within the Apartheid era, in 1976, it kept the Edwardian style of the original Indian Market or Newtown Market of Johannesburg and artistically fostered on its stages the voices that shaped 3 generations of  South African theatre stars. The new theatre centre has the potential to become the cultural powerhouse of African performing arts and to create the platform for the future voices of African theatre.

And for Newtown and the City of Johannesburg?  The addition of this publicly accessible theatre and gallery space, facing onto Mary Fitzgerald Square, shifts the focus back onto the role of a public square in the urban environment. Originally intended as a cultural meeting space, the square is currently a parking lot and gathering spot for inner city marches or rallies. The clear vision for the role of  the Market Foundation in being a catalyst  for developing a cultural hub is reflected by Annabell’s response to my final question,  what would the benchmark of  success be for her personally?  “When the Mary Fitzgerald Square becomes a working public space celebrating the arts again and most importantly when Museum Africa becomes a vibrant, living museum with ongoing foot traffic engaging with relevant exciting exhibitions. “