Winning Women: Daphne Kuhn, making sure the show goes on

2013-06-23 14:00

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Daphne Kuhn started her career as an actress and then grew into the businesswoman who has come to run her Theatre on the Square in Sandton for 17 years, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Daphne Kuhn takes a bow, sometimes literally, but usually metaphorically, every four weeks or so on the stage of her very own theatre on Mandela Square in Sandton.

This because she has produced at least  1 000 shows as well as weekly concerts there since opening the theatre in 1997.

A bit like The Phantom of the Opera, Kuhn almost lives at The Auto and General Theatre on the Square. She is there every day and often only leaves at around midnight.

It is a huge commitment, as demanding as running any production line in a factory and, you could argue, sometimes even more so because creative, talented people are well-known for having nervy scrum downs.

But Kuhn would be the last person to say this. Night after opening night, her presence – calm, smiling and gracious – is everywhere at once, sorting out a crinkle and dampening down the flames of a drama.

It’s no wonder, then, that last year shereceived a top South African theatre prize, the Naledi Theatre Award for Executive Director, for her outstanding contribution as an actress, artistic director, arts manager, director, lecturer, producer, teacher and theatre owner.

“The theatre has come to be known as doing little gems that tell the story of the human condition as well as portraying lovely slices of South African life,” says Kuhn.

The 200-seater Theatre on the Square might not have the capacity for huge musicals or extravagant sets, but that does not exclude all musicals, as recently The Pirates of Penzance went down a treat.

Award-winning plays that are born on Kuhn’s boards have subsequently travelled to art festivals across the world. “Defending the Cavewoman was translated into a number of languages and toured widely; and Drumstruck, which began as a drumming workshop, became a theatrical production here and went to Hong Kong and London,” she says.

She flings wide an arm that takes in the red seats, the swish stage curtains and the friendly, vibrant bar area where her devoted theatre following gathers to discuss opinions at interval.

Sometimes, performances are followed by Q&A sessions. This was the case with The Timekeepers, which is about a Jewish clock mender, a gay prisoner and a Nazi warder in a concentration camp.

The beauty about Kuhn’s theatre is an intimacy that allows and encourages such interactions.

For many years, she lectured and held workshops in her home for children, and bused them in from Alexandra. Some schools now use her theatre for festivals.

“Sometimes children come here and shadow me,” she says.

Kuhn has been stage-struck since she can remember growing up in Pretoria, putting on plays as a little girl with her friends and charging entry fees.

She obtained a master’s degree in drama from the University of Pretoria, and was so good at both classical music and drama that she struggled to choose between the two.

Her long and diverse career has taken her from acting and TV at the national broadcaster, the SABC, to Joyce Levinson’s Children’s Theatre in Braamfontein, Joburg.

She went on to establish the Johannesburg Youth Theatre in 1985 and did public relations and marketing for the The Market theatre in Newtown before joining The Joburg Theatre.

Along the way, Kuhn assimilated most of what is needed to run and own a theatre.

In 1994, she took the plunge and established the tiny Theatre on the Square in Rosebank, north of Joburg. But she had always yearned to own a much bigger theatre that was in the heart of Sandton because, she says, “back then ... people were reluctant to go into downtown Joburg”.

She approached the construction company that was developing what is now the Nelson Mandela Square, and suggested a theatre. The construction company was impressed by her experience in the field and agreed to build the theatre.

Kuhn has kept the theatre going by sheer wit and hard work.

Over the years, the inventive and energetic Kuhn has diversified and extended the use of her theatre.

There are lunchtime music concerts every Friday, which form part of a community outreach programme. At these concerts, members of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra are given the opportunity to perform and are given the takings. Audiences are charged only R35 per person.

The Opera Africa training company in Sandton uses the theatre every month or so as a launch pad for their singers by having concerts there.

Corporates also use it for industrial theatre and for lectures or conferences.

Sundays are becoming famous for jazz in the afternoons or evenings, with top jazz singers performing there more frequently.

Kuhn explains that she couldn’t have run her own theatre business the way she has without her husband, Philip, and her two married children, Rodney and Gabi.

“They have supported me every step of the way,” she says.

Her husband, a Joburg businessman, taught her the rudiments of business practice.

“But more than that, I would rush home in the evenings before a performance, make supper and then dash back to the theatre,” she says.

“My mother worked in the box office for a decade. This is a family affair.”

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