The Interview: Gitanjali Pather, Wits Theatre's brand-new boss lady

2013-05-26 10:00

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As the famous entertainment arena turns 30, Percy Mabandu speaks to its new director about her role and history in the art world.

We’ve only gone for about 12 minutes into our chat and Gitanjali Pather, the new director of the WitsTheatre asks if I smoke. It’s almost comical to watch.

She has generally been regal and in charge until this glitch.

The craving becomes readable in her gestures all of a sudden and trips up a bit.

It’s akin to that awkward moment when a scratched CD breaks the flow of a delightful song.

We have to start again from the top. But first, tea.

It’s a dreadfully cold and rainy day in Joburg, so the hot beverage is a score and Pather is spirited enough to keep the whole campus adrift.

Plus, her office’s red walls catch the light with a welcome homely touch. As soon as our chat grows more captivating, Pather forgets her craving.

Enthroned on a sofa amid a sea of throw pillows and weaved fabrics, she strikes a look that rests somewhere between nerdy and queenly.

Shooting straight, she gets the basics out of the way.

“My involvement with the arts goes back since I was about 17 years old. I’m going to turn 50 next year!” Go figure.

Her credentials speak to that long career in the industry. Over the years, Pather has been part of many theatrical productions, concerts and festivals, both in South Africa and abroad.

She created the first South African Women’s Arts Festivals in Durban and Joburg, now in their 17th year.

She has also helped establish the Transnet travelling theatre trucks.

Pather has served as chief operating officer of The Market theatre, the CEO of Durban’s Playhouse Theatre Company and as managing director of Blackmagic Communication, among many other corporate roles.

Now she enters her new role as WitsTheatre celebrates 30 years.

Added to that, Pather arrives at the university as it also launches the newWits Arts Museum, which will compete to be the university’s priority for funding and other resources.

But she knows how the cards are stacked.

“After over 28 years working in the arts, if you want to make any impact, you have to learn to negotiate. To negotiate power, you have to learn to juggle yours and your organisation’s imperatives,” she says.

This is a skill she’s going to need as she implements her grand ideas for a theatre entering its fourth decade.

Her aim is to build on the theatre’s strong brand and achievements, she says.

There’s dramatic tone in her voice, accompanied by slight hand gestures.

“I want to position the theatre as a space of risk and risk taking, of experimentation across different disciplines.

“I would like to see young people break?out of any notions of what it should be and allow themselves to explore and take it to new places.

“This is how creativity develops and that’s how you feed into the lifeblood of the form. You have to drive off the road and off the boundaries,” she elaborates.

In practical terms, this means drama students will work with their peers in other fields of study like digital multimedia and music to find new ways of telling their stories on stage.

As the theatre’s manager, Pather will need to build new synergies and relationships within the university to make these creative cross-pollinations possible.

This is where her upbringing in a community that is famous for not taking too easily to change will come in handy?.?.?.

She was born and raised in Chatsworth, Durban, in what she calls “an Indian community that was very traditional”.

So when she decided to study theatre, her “social standing plummeted”.

“I was meant to go and be a lawyer or something, like any good Indian girl.

“That’s where I learnt that anything I wanted I will have to fight tooth and nail for.”

Pather first graduated with an honours degree in drama and English from the then University of Durban-Westville.

She later received a diploma in Change Management from the University of California, Los Angeles.

About her earlier days in her chosen field, she says: “I entered the arts during the cultural boycott. I wanted to be an actress but I couldn’t. There was no work. One couldn’t work for a state-funded production house as an activist.”

This meant when the boycott was finally lifted with the unbanning of organisations like the ANC and PAC, the industry was verkramp.

She remembers her first places of work as “bastions of the old oppressor’s culture”.

She shares tragicomic memories, like being called “you people”, “chilli pip” and “rosie-pip”.

Working at the Playhouse, already with four degrees, she remembers earning just R929 per month after deductions – even less than the woman who was the secretary in the HR department, she says.

All these factors complicated the central battles, like changing the theatre’s programming to make it reflective of a wider community so that non-white people could feel comfortable in there.

But all this has become part of Pather’s will and drive to succeed.

It can make one develop a propensity for aggressive approaches where there is opposition.

This can be a bad thing, and Pather understands this.

She says: “With my natural temperament, which is to feel things very strongly, I need to learn to dampen down in order to be able to manage effectively in a sector that is characterised by extreme passions.

“Love, hate and big divisions between production, technical people and artists; where everyone enters the fray and you can’t afford to.”

Her focus is also to find a way to work within the wider environment and align what she wants to achieve within the bigger accomplishments of the university.

She’s convinced of the possibilities.

“The opportunity is here. We have over 30?000 students to do it with,” she says.

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