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Merger of city theatres makes sense

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It’s been a talking point for some time, and even the chief executive officer of Joburg Theatre, Bernard Jay (right), wasn’t unaware that there was lots of speculation swirling around the three Joburg city theatres. There’s the spectac-ular new Soweto Theatre, The Roodepoort City Theatre, which is still struggling to find an identity, and Joburg Theatre.

The biggest rumour doing the rounds was that the three theatres would be managed under one umbrella. “It saves institutional costs, which certainly ratepayers would welcome,” explains Jay.

It’s been a long process, with no word coming out officially until a recent e-mail from Joburg Theatre to state that Bernard Jay had advised that “the City of Joburg, as part of its ongoing institutional review, resolved that Joburg Theatre, Roodepoort City Theatre and Soweto Theatre be integrated into a single theatre management company to be known as Joburg City Theatres”. The merger occurred on January 1, and Jay is now the chief executive officer of all three theatres.

“I was told, rather than asked,” says Jay, but even though his workload has suddenly tripled, he is also hugely excited.

It was a mad rush to get everything in place before the January 1 deadline, because basically what had to happen was that the staff of the three theatres had to merge before that date.

“I’ve basically become the team leader from the middle of November,” laughs Jay, or, as he teases, Big Daddy.

This was the first time in his 49 years of working in theatre that he had to work on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but they had to get everything up and running as soon as possible. His work entails compliance, governance, finance, and human resources, and that’s where they are at this point.

Two general managers have also been appointed at the two theatres. Carl Johnson, formerly production manager at The Market, moved to the Soweto Theatre, while Loran Robertson remains at Roodepoort City Theatre. “We interviewed a number of candidates, but these two both had the knowledge and the passion,” notes Jay. “We felt they belonged there to run the day-to-day affairs of the theatres.”

The next piece of the puzzle is that the artistic needs of the two theatres have to be met – most importantly, the appointment of an artistic consultant at the Soweto Theatre.

“I will not be making any artistic decisions for the Soweto Theatre,” confirms Jay. As for Roodepoort, this will need careful strategic planning and direction, because there is confusion about the target audience, and who they’re catering for.

The board, together with recently appointed chairman Dr Wally Serote and the city councillors, will debate strategy and the way forward.

Jay is delighted to be involved with the three theatres, and believes that bringing them together on a management level makes sense and will benefit all the theatres involved.

“I am already seeing how that can work in the future,” he says.

A huge show – like Burn the Floor, for example – could develop a special component on a smaller scale to perform at the smaller theatre in Soweto. The possibility that the three theatres could start feeding one another also makes sense, especially as audiences are constantly moving closer to one another with relevant productions. Youth development at the three theatres can also be combined.

“We have been very successful at Joburg Theatre with our development programme, and if we bring the three theatres together on these kinds of projects, it adds strength. We should not try to break the theatres into three different entities,” he notes.

He also feels positive on an audience development level. “We’ve had problems with transport from Soweto for audiences, but the Soweto Theatre is accessible and can build a new generation of theatregoers.”

Transformation is still the driving force, and Jay hopes that this coming together will also make things easier at Joburg Theatre.

They receive a grant from the city council of R25 million, which goes mainly to maintain and run the complex. Then they are expected to make another R25m. It colours all their decisions of productions.

“It has always dictated the commercial approach we’ve taken,” explains Jay. “It’s been tough, and the current economic climate doesn’t ever guarantee winners like the annual pantomime.

“We can’t take anything for granted ever,” says the experienced chief executive officer.

What he has found is that names like the Soweto Theatre have a cachet that’s irresistible.

“It opens doors still,” he says. He’s also thrilled that his city has so much faith in theatre that it’s willing to maintain three theatres. More than anything, he loves being involved.

The additional workload for the executive management team at Joburg Theatre has resulted in an urgent refocusing of priorities.

Claire Pacariz, formerly the marketing manager at Joburg Theatre, has been promoted to the new position of strategic relations manager.

Her portfolio will include maintaining the essential strategic relationships the theatre has with broadcast and other media, sponsors and day-to-day operational partners, as well as identifying and negotiating new strategic partnerships going forward.

Saskia Goldberg has now joined Joburg Theatre as its marketing manager. She has held this position for the past few years at Roodepoort City Theatre, and was strategically involved in the opening last year of Soweto Theatre.


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