Malcolm Purkey has been artistic director of the Market Theatre for eight years, and if you should catch him off guard, he will probably say they were tough.
However, he will also be thrilled over what he has been able to achieve on the Market Theatre stages with new as well as revised South African plays.
The opening this year with a revival of the The Island and Yael Farber’s South African adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie (renamed Mies Julie), tells us exactly what his intentions are.
Once the money starts coming in (they have enough for the current productions and have a programme to roll out, but no funds at this point), he’ll make his point even more strongly.
One of the productions they are supporting is the Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Theatre, Prince Lumla, who had huge success last year with Woza Albert and will be relooking Mbongeni Ngema’s Asinamali for Grahamstown.
The reason Purkey is forced to look back is because of the recent announcement that he has been appointed dean designate of Joburg’s AFDA campus while continuing in his role as artistic director for the Market Theatre on a revised contract which still has to be sorted out.
The end of his second contract was looming when Purkey was headhunted as the head of this training institution and, with education a strong feature in his background following many years at Wits as well as lectures around the world, it was really an easy decision for him to make – and for the industry, a huge bonus.
People who have had practical experience in the industry come from a marvellous vantage point when teaching those planning to make the arts their career.
(Another example is director Greg Homann, who will be heading AFDA’s performance school. He most recently directed the hugely successful second end-of-year season of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance at the Theatre on the Square.)
Purkey’s in a strange kind of mood, though, when we talk about what he has achieved.
It’s as if he doesn’t believe he has established a legacy and yet, run through the names, from Sylvaine Strike with her last production The Miser, the Molière classic with every seat sold during the run, to Craig Higginson’s popular Girl in the Yellow Dress returning for a second season, directed by Purkey, John Kani’s Nothing but the Truth, James Ngcobo’s The Suitcase and Mike van Graan’s opening production for Purkey’s term, the extraordinary Green Man Flashing.
Then there are the many Fugard premieres, Greg Latter’s Death of a Colonialist, voices like that of Napo Masheane, Paul Grootboom and Aubrey Sekhabi, all who have been part of a growing season of local theatre at the Market.
Nevertheless, there’s change in the air. Not so much inside at the moment, but surrounding the complex, and this will do much to enhance the Market precinct in a commercial way.
People might still have doubts about entering the area but, once the new developments are finished, the attractions are going to be too strong to resist.
The architects have to adhere to strict heritage rules, keeping certain façades and structures, which predicts good things about how the area is being regarded.
A strong believer in diversity, quality and originality, Purkey prides himself on pushing for young creative talent like that of Lumla.
It took a lot of courage to give a play with the title Coal Yard a season at the Market, but those of us who saw it knew that there was something extraordinary happening on the stage, and Lumla’s Young Artist Award many years later is proof of that.
“I do think I have an ability to see things with fresh eyes,” Purkey says, pointing to productions like Abnormal Loads and Somewhere on the Border.
Most of these had critical success even if the public didn’t always follow.
But then they have had remarkable success with shows that no one would have thought would have such a strong following.
That’s the richness and rewards of a life in theatre – but also the unpredictability.
“It’s tough,” says Purkey, but he’s been willing to fight dirty for the arts and sometimes he’s had to.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there where the piece of the cake diminishes every day and, even when you have the funds allocated, it sometimes takes too long to reach its destination. That’s what people in the arts deal with each and every day.
And still, when you can have a hand in the development and growth of young talents like Itsoseng’s Omphile Molusi, who is currently in Chicago developing his latest work titled Cadre, it puts a smile on even the hardened Purkey’s face.
He knows this is a time of transition for him and the Market. He’s working towards a full post at AFDA in 2014, but this year he still stands firmly in both worlds – live theatre as well as guiding an institution training new artists for the future.
Currently the main theatre at the Market is being refurbished and it will open in August in glorious style. “Much will change the next five years just on the face of it,” says Purkey.
And if this sometimes burdened artistic director has any wishes, it’s that people will acknowledge the range and depth of work presented at the complex during his reign.
His final words on his job as artistic director: “Be a nasty manager, an artistic visionary and check the toilets!”
Need one say more?