Arts centre drama

2019-07-08 13:10
Thandiwe Ntuli (left) and Jabulani Mhlabini stand in their arts and ceramics studio behind the Winston Churchill Studio. Their crafts no longer get sold because of the degradation of the theatre.

Thandiwe Ntuli (left) and Jabulani Mhlabini stand in their arts and ceramics studio behind the Winston Churchill Studio. Their crafts no longer get sold because of the degradation of the theatre.

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It was supposed to be the project that catapulted talented youngsters from uMgungundlovu into the limelight.

But almost a decade later, a R10 million project, allegedly managed by Msunduzi to create a hub for local talent and upgrade the Winston Churchill Theatre, only has a new lobby area and two large air-conditioning units dumped behind the theatre to show for it.

Now local arts advocate Brian Shoarane, who lobbied the national Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) for the funding to transform the theatre into a “youth art centre”, has accused Msunduzi of scuppering the programme and devouring the majority of the funding.

But Msunduzi, in response to a detailed query, said the funding was “never given” to the municipality, but rather given to a “board that was appointed”.

Pressed on who was on the board and for more clarity, Msunduzi spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha did not go into further details and did not respond to any other questions regarding the state of the theatre.

A 2010 letter from the DAC to Msunduzi explained that Msunduzi would lease Winston Churchill to the “youth and artists in Pietermaritzburg”.

Msunduzi would be responsible for electricity and water bills, and for paying staff, as part of the overall arrangement.

Winston Churchill Theatre

Brian Shoarane stands next to a large air-conditioning unit dumped behind the Winston Churchill Theatre.

In 2011, Shoarane registered the More Fire Talent Search Foundation, an NPO, after lobbying the DAC for funding to create a youth talent incubation centre and to give the theatre a much-needed facelift.

A 16-page business plan was submitted by Shoarane to Msunduzi and the DAC, which showed that the project aligned with government’s strategic plans, adding that the theatre was a perfect location to create a youth artist hub.

The vision was that the youth hub would hone the skills of singers, dancers, comedians, crafters and artists, and the theatre itself would provide the ideal stage to get youngsters the exposure they needed.

The request for funding was then followed by a series of roadshows across uMgungundlovu to scout for talent and network with people in the industry. The foundation even held awareness parades outside the city hall.

The roadshows were sponsored by major private companies, and, although Msunduzi did not sponsor a cent, Shoarane still allowed the City to erect banners at the events.

But Shoarane now says the project was “hijacked” from him once the funding came. He says Msunduzi refused to give the funding to his NPO, and rather set up a board to manage the project.

“When funding was approved, suddenly I stopped being part of the process. How could they continue without me?

“It’s like someone else coming to renovate your house without you; my advice was needed on how to move with the project.”

Shoarane, however, chose not to fight his alleged ousting from the project. “I allowed it to carry on because if it led to the youth benefitting, it would be fine. It isn’t about me; it’s about them.

“But as time goes by I see that nothing is happening here. This place did not become a place for a youth hub. Now I want to ask those tasked with looking after the funds: where has it gone? I want clarity about what’s happening.

“Young people come to me and ask what became of the project.

“So many young people’s dreams are attached to something like this, and they have been let down.

“The youth would have been proud to be produced from an organisation recognised by the DAC. The fact that it was backed by the DAC would have carried weight for their future.

“It has been almost 10 years. The municipality can’t say it needs more time.”

Shoarane says there have only been “cosmetic” changes made to the theatre since he secured the funding. This includes a renovated waiting area.

Two large air-conditioning units lie abandoned behind the theatre complex. They have been sitting there for about a decade, he says.

The national DAC did not respond to a request for clarity. The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture did not respond to a query regarding potential repairs or upgrades, or whether there are arts programmes at the theatre.

(Neither the national nor provincial DAC have been implicated by Shoarane in the allegedly missing R10 million.)

Pietermaritzburg art scene’s white elephant

It used to be the stage of international ballet productions, and was once the headquarters of the Pietermaritzburg Philharmonic Society.

But now it has become a white elephant of the local production scene, and those in the industry say major productions have been known to pull out because the theatre is not up to standard.

Winston Churchill Theatre Decay.Photo.Moeketsi. Ma

Thandiwe Ntuli, a crafter at the Winston Churchill Theatre, stands in the now derelict dance studio behind the theatre.

Members of the local arts scene spoke to Weekend Witness on the condition that they weren’t named so as not to cause a rift in the sector.

“Some years ago, the theatre was booked for a big ballet performance. But a few months before the show, some stage specialists were hired to assess the stage,” a member of a major KZN arts group said.

“The specialists then said under no circumstances should the ballet use the stage. They said the ropes were not secure enough for people to use [to suspend them in the air].”

Members of the arts scene said it was estimated some years ago that upgrading the theatre so that it would be usable would cost about R100 000.

The problems include “fried” lighting systems, a stage that isn’t sturdy enough and the poor conditions of the dressing rooms.

“They installed new seats some years ago but they are aligned so badly that you can’t see properly because a head is blocking your view. Some new chairs are also blocking one entrance,” a source said.

“We have spoken to the municipality and they are confident that the theatre is okay. But we’ve told them a lot of work needs to be done.”

Another source said the theatre used to have a music library and offices for members of the Pietermaritzburg Philharmonic Society.

It has also been said that it is difficult to get bookings for seats when events are at the theatre.

“So everyone gets there early to find a seat. Before you could book the one you wanted.”

Top arts studio left to rot

The walls of Ababumbi Arts and Ceramics are plastered with certificates of recognition and newspaper clippings — a testament to the reverence the modest crafts studio has in the local and international arts scene.

The studio-cum-dwelling has been used by Jabulani Mhlabini, a seasoned crafter, and his colleague, Thandiwe Ntuli, for nearly 20 years. The pair were a regular fixture in major national exhibitions, and they have taken their crafts to several countries. In February 2000, Mhlabini was featured in The Witness for being involved in a cultural programme in the U.S.

The studio itself, nestled behind the Winston Churchill Theatre, used to be booming, with the public and even art shop owners spending anywhere between R40 and R3 000 on the African-inspired craftworks that Mhlabini and Ntuli make. But today, about 1 000 craft items sit gathering dust in the studio. “People don’t feel safe coming here to the theatre anymore,” Mhlabini told Weekend Witness.

“This place is dirty. There is a lot of disorder. When you stand out here, you would never think there are crafters selling things inside.”

The degradation of the Winston Churchill Theatre in the past few years means not a soul comes to view their items at the once-thriving studio.

“We now have to walk around trying to sell things. We have to carry our things around. It’s tough, because, with no money coming in, we can’t afford to rent a stall somewhere.”

Mhlabini and Ntuli continue to work full-time crafting, and said it takes anywhere between one week and three weeks to make one item.

“I learnt this craft from my mother, and I taught [Ntuli],” he said. “I have been crafting since the 1990s,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. Lots of people used to come here and that was a good time. Now everything has just gone down.” 

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  arts centre
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