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Ellenbogen’s gift to theatre-makers

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Julia Merrett

Elizabeth Ellenbogen

Almost 40 years in the theatre industry, in and around Africa, Elizabeth Ellenbogen has gathered enough theatre memories and mementoes to fill up not just the latest theatre she’s helped to open, the Rosebank Theatre. She could fill up all the theatres she has helped to open over the years, if she could.

Husband Nicholas is having nothing of it though, and she agrees. Neither want the Rosebank Theatre to be about the Theatre for Africa theatre company or the Ellenbogens, they want it to be a space for the community.

They have spent the past few months refurbishing what used to be a drama studio space into a now 50-seater theatre. The theatre’s entrance has also been changed from the Alma Road side to North Street, which means they now have a foyer.

“It is very important to have a foyer to congregate,” explained Liz (“I’m a Liz,” she says with an impish grin. She does still sometimes use her maiden surname, Szymczak, when tackling an acting role, her first passion) in an interview last week.

It is also important to have an official theatre opening, but this is going to have to wait until the owner actually has time to visit the Mother City. While Theatre for Africa, founded 1989, have worked from Cape to Cairo, and the Ellenbogens have been instrumental in opening seven theatre spaces around Cape Town, Rosebank Theatre is the most permanent one, courtesy of Alexander McCall Smith.

Nicholas and McCall Smith are old childhood friends and the author purchased the space and made it available to the Ellenbogens for life as a theatre space.

The two men are talking about collaborating on a theatre piece, probably one aimed at children, but it is still early days.

“It does create a bit of permanence. It’s a huge relief, but it hasn’t penetrated my spirit just yet. It has been daunting, making this our space,” Liz admitted.

Standing still in one space for a few months also means old friends now know where to find them, like actor, producer and now set designer, David Scales, who will help them with a new production for later this year, a musical called Old Kit Bag. Like their next Raiders production planned for the National Arts Festival, the musical will take WWI as its cue, to commemorate the Great War’s centenary this year.

Scales is the one who arranged a picture of the late Joan Brickhill on a table in the centre of the foyer and has helped Nicholas with the carpentry work around the theatre – which now boasts a tiny changeroom under the stairs and a cunningly disguised storeroom overhead.

Three large pictures of Central African bishops by actress Claire Berlein dominate the foyer, though this look could change as different artists will be encouraged to hang their work in the space.

Currently on the boards is Live with Ivy, a play Nicholas first wrote in 1992, which he has adapted so he could play across from Berlein. Originally he played the younger character, while Patricia Saunders played the older character.

He’s written more than 60 plays over the years, but Liz says they do not want to only present Theatre for Africa works in the space.

“We want it to be a space for play readings, for films, for theatre. Also important to Alexander is music,” she said.

Alma Cafe on the next corner concentrates on acoustic music, so they wouldn’t want to step on any toes and would probably go into a more classical line.

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