Perception---you have that power.

There is purpose in design. There is information in a setting. There is truth in your environment. Fake or real, it's there.

All images are copyrighted by Heidi Hoffer unless otherwise indicated. Your courtesy in using my photographs must include crediting me as the photographer. You must tell me when and where you've used them and send the link to me showing your use of them.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Market Theatre, Johannesburg

The Market Theatre is undoubtedly one of South Africa’s most famous theatres, largely because its directors have been unafraid to produce work that directly reflects and ignites the thoughts and actions of South Africa’s past present and most importantly future cultural history. Their mission statement is “To create an authentic South African cultural experience committed to providing the highest level of artistic excellence in all aspects of the performing and visual arts in which the education and development of a diverse community of artists, audiences and technicians is assured.”

The Market Theatre Website

Did you notice they actually have the word “technician” in their mission statement? That alone puts them above many others.
Nomvula Molepo is the Market Theatre’s resident lighting designer.

I visited with the Market Theatre’s resident lighting designer, Nomvula Molepo. Her experience with the Market Theatre is from the ground up. As a young woman, she attended a Market Theatre production but found herself very interested in the lighting and what made those electrifying moments. (pun intended). She joined the lucky few who were apprenticed to the Market Theatre’s production team, and found herself investing extra hours with the lighting control boards, the lighting instruments, and generally bugging the lighting guys to tell her why this worked that way and so on. In the end, they found she had a flair for designing lights and organizing crews. She’d found her calling. Today, Nomvula is an international designer whose work has taken her to Sweden, Austria and Birmingham. In Johannesburg at the Market Theatre, though, is where she hopes to bring more young women into the technical fold.

The lobby of the Market Theatre exudes a cosmopolitan flavour. The feeling of living history comes from the regionally identifiable red floor tiles in the lobby. The feeling is both welcoming and rich.

Just off the lobby is a bar that caters drinks and food to an extremely diverse clientele before, in-between, and after shows. The bar has a more modern, Art – Deco style to it. There is seating upstairs, too, which you can see in the photo.

The entrance to The Main Theatre is very unassuming, and truly looks more like a forgotten corner of a museum. This unassuming entrance actually contrasts nicely with the exceedingly professional work done inside. Vestiges of the old fruit and vegetable market days are preserved as well as the tastefully done plaques honoring theatre patrons. I particularly liked the vintage fire fighting equipment. Tidbits of the past inluding the wall of historical photos reminds the audience member that the Market Theatre has been a driving force in the cultural direction of South Africa for a long time.

My tour with Nomvula included the large thrust theatre called The Main Theatre. It has a brand new Grand MA Ultra Lite lighting console. They worked with DWR Distribution for its purchase and their training. Nomvula says they are very happy with it. Here’s a link to DWR’s story about their new Grand MA.
The Main Theatre is a thrust with balcony seating. It seats 387 people. The sound operator sits house left (our right in the photo) just under the balcony. The sound operator’s table is just visible to the right of the center right column in the photo.

The lighting rig for the thrust theatre includes both conventional lighting instruments as well as moving lights. Instruments can be reached by catwalks. You can see the speakers hanging left and right just in front of the proscenium near the South African flags.

The setting on the stage is for the powerful “Songs of Migration” written and directed by James Ngcobo. The setting and costumes were designed by Noluthando Lobese and the lighting was designed by Wesley Francis. I saw this performance Sunday January 16, and it was an excellent capture of the music that travels with and develops because of physical relocations many South Africans and other workers from nearby countries have experienced. I have since tried to look up every CD the featured performers Hugh Masakela, Sibongile Khumal and Gloria Bosman have done.

Walking up the stairs to the Barney Simon Theatre lobby provides another elegant pathway into the past. You can see the eclectic mixture of industrial air handlers, the Art Deco arched windows and the wrought iron canopy over the stairs. The stair risers are set for easy stepping, with lower than normal height. Someone walking on them would just look elegant.
The upstairs lobby entrance to the Barney Simon Theatre boasts the iconic arched windows, indicative of much of the Market Theatre’s architecture. It really used to be the old Indian Fruit Market. Future plans include making the Market theatre and its environs more “green” to include a rooftop green-space where herbs and some food can be grown for the restaurant. This would bring the Market theatre almost full circle, closer to its Indian Fruit Market heritage. 

In the Barney Simon Theatre looking up you can see the fixed battens or pipes but also you can see the wooden curved arches that support the high cathedral ceiling, almost like what you’d see in a big European barn.

 This view from the balcony where the sound designer and operators have their equipment shows the ceiling full of instruments and also the plugging strips into which lights get plugged.
This view shows the full room—almost. The arched supports support the roof, and the lighting instruments and their pipes are above these for better lighting angles. The Barney Simon Theatre seats 120 people.

The patch panel for the Barney Simon theatre is located through a door from the lighting designer’s office. When an instrument gets hung on a batten or pipe, it gets plugged into a numbered circuit. At the other end of the circuit is a plug-end that can get plugged into any available dimmer on this panel.

Their small 120 seat theatre which is called the Laager Theatre is like a high-ceilinged classroom, with no backstage space. The seats are bleachers with cushions.
The lighting grid over the audience and over the playing area is a gridwork of pipes, reached by an extension ladder. Here, the production Manager Carl Johnson is assisting an apprentice technician in getting he floor prepared for an upcoming performance of “Sizwe Banzi is Dead”.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead
I had the opportunity to see “Sizwe Banzi is Dead”. Onthatile Matshidiso’s set design used the space very well. It put the visual concentration where it needed to be for the actors to finish filling the environment and the visual stimulation ranged outwards using black and white photographs of Style’s work. The lighting designer Michael Maxwell masterfully directed our attention to the interior and exterior scenes using specific areas and colors of lighting. The centrally situated monologues got a delicate treatment of light around them, so in the end the visual looked like an old time photograph, very suitable for Sizwe’s last words. The costume coordinator, Noluthando Lobese did a great job assisting Omphile Molusi play the different roles of Styles and Buntu. The rakishly large hat on Styles, plus the actor’s physical characteristic of swishy elegance all contained in a rather typical looking lab coat really masked well the more down to earth character of Buntu. Buntu wore earth colours with knit textures that made him different than Styles. The decision to put Arthur Molepo, who played Sizwe Banzi, in an earth-clay coloured double-breasted suit was a stroke of genius. Arthur wore that outfit at times like a ceremonial robe, and at times like a rag. That little bit of extra material really helped expand his character’s depth. But I veer from the visual tour…

These photos are views of the lighting rig over the audience and over the playing space in the Laager Theatre. You can see the bleacher seating, and understand just how intimate this theatre space is.
Behind the seating of The Main Theatre is the wardrobe facility, complete with windows. Their Wardrobe Manager, Nunu Moloi, likes the windows of course, but wishes for more space.   Adjoining rooms include the laundry and dye facilities, and minimal storage. At this stage, the Market theatre is experiencing growing pains and needs larger and better workrooms, and much more storage for supplies and stock.
The Market Theatre’s rehearsal halls are actually off-site in a cluster of buildings with little alleyways connecting them.
The storage and workshop rooms, which were in the process of being cleaned and reorganized, are near the rehearsal rooms.
I saw this neat little still-life arrangement on my way to one of the rehearsal rooms.

I think Nomvula was saving the best for the last when she took me across the street from the Market Theatre’s Market Photo Workshop and Gallery  to the Unity Gallery in The Bus Factory #3, where other shops, offices and the Ramolao Makhene Theatre are located.

During my visit, and small festival was being held in this laboratory theatre. Interestingly enough, this theatre runs its lights on an ETC lighting board.
The Unity Gallery has great natural light coming from skylights, and the hallways are used as gallery space for local artwork, including beaded plants and animals arranged in a gardenlike gallery display.
My favourite section of the gallery was the beaded plants and animals, especially this group of sheep.


  1. Fascinating tour, Heidi. Now I want to go there and see some theater! Saw a good new play at Steppenwolf last week- Sex With Strangers. A 2-person play, well-written and acted.

  2. Hey the Heidi, Glad you like the tour. The plays were extremely good. I am glad our Steppenwolf is doing good theatre, too. I wish it were closer to where I live!