The National Children’s Theatre is an old establishment shaping the futures of young artists.

LITTLE FEET stomp on the wooden floor above me at the National Children’s Theatre’s (NCT) during Saturday morning workshops. The old wooden ceiling below them squeaks, simulating their excited voices while revealing it has stood the test of time. It’s intriguing how an old building, a Johannesburg heritage site, has become home to the nurturing and development of youth’s theatrical talent.

It is 9 o’clock on a warm and cloudy Saturday morning at the NCT in one of Johannesburg’s wealthier suburbs, Parktown. The theatre consists of two houses separated by a parking lot for staff and visitors. Children aged 3-17 are being dropped off at the theatre by their parents. Some parents wait with their children until the workshops start. Others wait in the parking lot with their car doors open and seats laid back. The oldest children go to the main theatre. There are 12 of them, six boys six girls. All classes rotate around different skills: physical theatre, music and dance classes, all lasting 40 minutes each.

I arrive at the building housing the main theatre. The house is overcrowded with props overflowing from their storage rooms into the downstairs passages. The stuffy smell from the props, along with the creaking floors and staircase, remind one of the age of the building, as youthful and joyful screams can be heard from the main theatre, which is roughly the size of a classroom. Half the theatre is taken up by a stage with stained white tiles and dull green curtains.

OLD WORLD CHARM: The room where the audience congregates before shows.

The dusty and creaking stairs lead me to the theatre. The children are playing their own version of musical chairs where the music – South African hip-hop – doesn’t stop. Each person rushes hastily to fill a seat. There’s a rather shy-looking, tall, young man with a black puffer jacket on, this hot morning. While the rest run and scream at each other to fill vacant seats, he merely jogs in between to eventually fill a seat.

The young man’s name is Clayde Peterson. His father and grandmother are in one of the cars in the parking lot waiting for the workshops to end. At the end of the music class, the last 40-minute class for the day, the children from all classes make their way out to the waiting parents. It is raining. It begins to thunder as Clayde and I make our way to his father and grandmother. A little girl of about four years old cries hysterically at the clap of thunder, desperately searching for an adult to run to.

WATCHFUL EYE: The NCF’s emblem displayed in the waiting room.

As we sit on a dusty, stained couch in the veranda of the second house, Clayde’s father, Clayton Peterson, reflects on the personality of his son. The large, yet gentleman, says Clayde, has been coming to the theatre workshops for four years.  

OPEN DOOR POLICY: This heritage building houses the main theatre which holds an audience of about 100.

“At [age] nine he told me he wants to act. I went on the Jozi Kids [website], saw an ad and booked him for a holiday camp [with the NCT],” Peterson says. “He loves acting. He’s more involved by being here. His social skills have improved. He was very reserved to interact but now it’s much easier for him,” the 46-year-old says.

Clayde adds, “I’ve been more open and wanting to talk to people and learning different accents…I’ve been trying to get better at what I do here.” Neither as quiet nor shy as he had seemed at first, Clayde is rather outspoken, to my surprise. “The most significant thing I’ve learnt is to project my voice so that everyone can hear you. When I practice, my grandmother always tells me that she wouldn’t be able to hear me if she was sitting at the back,” the young Peterson continues.

HONOURS: A wall displaying the awards that NCT founder, Joyce Levinsohn, has amassed throughout her time at the theatre.

“He likes to watch different YouTube videos, practise acts and different accents,” Clayton says, and, chuckling, adds, “Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he doesn’t.”

Clayton says that he likes to bring his son to the theatre. “The focus here is on the individual as opposed to school. At school there’s no time to focus on the individual. Since coming here, he’s been much more outgoing and willing to try new things.”

 Although Clayde is learning to act at a theatre, he hopes to pursue an onscreen career. “I would love to pursue a film career. For me it’s interesting. There’s lots of takes. With theatre you cannot make mistakes,” the young actor-in-training says.

Chief Executive Officer of the NCT Moira Katz, refers to the theatre as an educational children’s theatre. “Our motto is transforming lives through educational theatre,” she says.

The Petersons’ experience of the workshops reflects the objectives of the theatre as expressed by Katz. “We strive to transform children’s lives through theatre,” she says. “Our children’s lives have been changed and they’ve found a home. This especially for sports-orientated schools with artistic children. They have found a place in the theatre.”

Katz took over the NCT in 2012, succeeding Joyce Levinsohn who had run the theatre since she started it in 1989. Levinsohn had been involved in the world of children’s theatre from when she gained qualifications in the field in the 1950s (Encyclopedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media & Performance, 2018). At the time, Levinsohn took a chance, through her housekeeper, to educate black teachers about a technique called, ‘Theatre in Education’. The theatre has kept to this approach to this day.

Theatre in Education has earned the NCT recognition. The work done at the theatre saw it winning the prestigious Naledi Awards five times, the most recent being in 2016 for the musical, Khokho’s Treasure. The play is about the death of an old man who has left behind a suitcase of treasure. The lesson is that not all rewards are monetary. Fitting enough for the NCT, Khokho’sTreasure was heritage that was transported through the music of the likes of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Johnny Clegg.

RECOGNITION: The theatre has won numerous awards.

The incorporation of the fun side through learning is a consistent element in the production and teaching at the theatre. While the children may enjoy the approach to learning, the teaching doesn’t come across as strongly. The trainers are recent graduates from university, mainly the University of the Witwatersrand. To an observer, the workshops seem to lean more towards a Saturday social activity rather than training in theatre.

The NCT carries with it a rich architectural history. The first building, Ridgeholm, is a white single-story house with a thick black strip covering the bottom fifth of the wall. The house marks the first time that Cape Dutch gables were used in Johannesburg. It was designed by architects Leck and Emley and constructed in 1902 for an attorney, Richard Baumann, who served on the committee responsible for the return of the British after the Anglo-Boer war (The Heritage Register, n.d.). Today it houses the administration of the NCT, a small theatre and music room. 

The second, and asymmetrical, double-storeyed building was designed and constructed on the same grounds over a decade later in 1913. The house was designed for a Mr Gregory who was a messenger of the court, who lived in the house with his wife until 1931 (The Heritage Register, n.d.). Both houses boast large bay windows. The municipality purchased the property in the 1970s with the plan to demolish the buildings and build the M6 motorway, but instead leased it out to the NCT for 50 years.

The plays reflect the edutainment approach. Eleven-year old Angelen van Heerden attests to this, saying that she started attending the workshops shortly after seeing a play at the NCT. “I came to see Pipi Longstockings two years ago as my friend was in it. The play taught me that it’s okay to be yourself. Pipi is a strange girl and she’s okay with it. Sometimes if you’re like everyone else, you’re a sheep. That’s what my mom says.I don’t like to be like everyone else. I feel like I’m being a sheep.”

Van Heerden says she feels more at home at the NCT than she did at her previous dance school. She says she was pushed too hard and felt as though she was not ready to be where her instructor needed her to be. “[At the NCT] they’re friendly, they don’t take everything so serious. It’s a nice environment. I like the fact that it’s more chilled.”

HISTORY: The blue plaque marking the National Children’s Theatre as a Johannesburg heritage site.

Media liaison officer Sydwell Koopedi, who has a background in musical theatre, has been with the NCT since 2004. His work is more on the public relations side. Koopedi describes his job as being inclusive of press releases and bookings for upcoming shows, arranging auditions, organising casting briefs, liaising with agencies, confirming bookings with schools, organising tours and sending out advertisements.

He says he faces challenges with the advertising since newspapers such as The Star did away with theatre sections. He adds that a lack of funding has negatively affected the theatre’s advertising.

Koopedi also assists with funding, as the NCT is a non-profit organisation that relies on funding and ticket sales. Tickets cost between R100 and R120 and can make up to R8 000 on a full-house. The National Lottery and Department of Arts and Culture are the major funders of the NCT. Koopedi’s duties include writing up budget reports, collecting invoices and filling out forms. “Its about four to five files,” he says with pride.

As he continues, his colourful character brightens against his black and white outfit. “I do tours. This year we did My Children! My Africa! for grade 12. It’s for setwork. When we’re doing our social programmes, I’m the one who books the schools and ensures that everything is booked: what time they get there, who to contact when they are there. So, it’s quite a lot!” he says as he shares how underprivileged schools are challenging in terms of organising, paying and communicating with the theatre.

A five-minute walk up the road from the theatre is the Netcare Park Lane Hospital. A security guard there, Sandile Mdluli, says that the area is not safe. “During the week it’s busy and quiet on weekends.”

I found this to be true. The narrow Junction Avenue where the theatre is situated has barely enough room for cars to drive through, because of cars that are usually parked on both sides of the street. On weekends, however, parking is the least of one’s worries. There seem to be more of the patrolling security guards for the corporate buildings between the theatre and Park Lane, and the French-speaking car guards than parked cars.

“This is a high risk area. They steal cars like no-one’s business,” says the 37-year-old Mdluli. “We’re next to Hillbrow and Alexandra. Since the car guards got here two years ago, it’s been better. They used to steal one or two cars in a week. Now it’s maybe a car per month,” the Servest guard says.

Mdluli says that to tackle the crime problem, the security guards from Park Lane, Wits Junction (Wits University student residence), Life Brenthurst Clinic, Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital and security company ADT communicate regarding security related issues. He says that it is mandatory for them to help each other out to curb crime.

Although there are safety concerns about the area where the theatre is situated, it has become a home away from home to some children, a treasure for children’s arts. However, the heritage houses do not portray that image. Old, dusty and cluttered, the houses need to reflect the work being done inside, otherwise they just blend in with the surrounding rundown area.

While the weekend workshops set the theatre apart from other youth centres and theatres, the lack of focus on the skill in some of the workshops needs addressing. The NCT may struggle with funding, but to its credit, the theatre has been consistent in ensuring that such issues do not affect the children, reflecting the safe place and home that the theatre has become to many children.

FEATURED IMAGE:  The room where the audience congregates before shows. Photo: Onke Ngcuka.