In contemporary SA Marlene le Roux is transforming Artscape into a beacon of hope. It’s a place for all and they’re all welcome, writes Gasant Abarder.

It’s as if her energy lights the way through the dim spaces of the passages, corridors and bowels of the Artscape building to the front of house. Her disposition is infectious and, although it’s Monday morning, this doesn’t feel like work.

She passes a cleaner and pauses for a quick chat about how the kids are doing.

The security guard is asked how his day has been so far.

This isn’t how chief executives interact with their staff. It’s not just a show either because she knows intimate details about each of their lives. But then Marlene le Roux isn’t your typecast chief executive.

Soon we’re in the office on the 5th floor that she only moved into recently – six months into the position. If she had her way she would still be in her old office on the ground floor. But she relented because others couldn’t make the mental shift.

Mental shift? Try Black. Woman. Disabled.

Marlene is all of these, but so much more. Why the emphasis? Consider that this building we’re sitting in was once called the Nico Malan – a bastion of segregation during apartheid.

In contemporary South Africa she is transforming Artscape into a beacon of hope. It’s a place for all and they’re all welcome.

“For me it’s not good enough to just be a chief executive. What is important for me is to look at how this institution can bring our diverse communities together?

“There needs to be a space where people can just be – whether you like hip-hop, the opera or the ballet or whether you are just interested in seeing your child being affirmed on stage with the Schools Arts Festival.”

It didn’t happen by accident that Artscape is bringing new feet through the door. In previous roles, Marlene had been working on transforming the theatre for many years.

But now that she’s chief executive, her project to live the constitution and its Bill of Rights through the arts has been kicked into high gear.

Arguably her biggest coup to date will be when theatre icon John Kani directs and performs for the first time at Artscape in the coming weeks.

It is extraordinary to think that before Marlene, the 75-year-old Kani had simply never been invited to perform at Artscape.

But if you know Marlene’s own incredible personal journey, you’ll know that for her “impossible” is just a word. Her intervention has made it possible.

Marlene started a resource centre at Artscape for upcoming artists, hosts programmes where school children learn their craft in the arts, takes the theatre to the far-flung corners of the province and makes space available in the theatre to whichever community group needs to use it.

Those who can pay subsidise those who need a hand up.

It sounds mad. But if you had the sense that Artscape was an elitist space, Marlene is kicking that notion down, one misconception at a time.

She relates an anecdote about the ballet dress rehearsals, which she invites the elderly to attend for free.

It’s a big day out for the gogos, and Marlene is quite deliberate in what she sets out to achieve.

“They all come dressed to the nines. But the coloureds stand in one corner, the blacks in another corner and the whites are all over because this is ‘their’ space.

“I greet them warmly and welcome them. But I make sure they mix in the theatre, with the seating plan.

“This lady then comes to me and says, ‘I’m not going to sit next to them.’.

“I say, ‘who’s them?’ And she says, ‘them, they don’t smell so nice’.

“I say, ‘okay, just for me, for the first half, sit there because I can’t rearrange now’.

“I then make sure to go to her at interval to swop the ticket because I promised her. But I know the ticket won’t be swopped because she’ll inevitably say, ‘no, that’s my best friend’.

“You know what they spoke about? The children who never visit. It’s perceptions that need to change. If I were upset I would have blown it out of proportion.

“Sometimes you need to make everybody feel special and not take it on yourself. They made friends and she forgot totally what she said to me in the beginning that she didn’t want to sit next to ‘them’. There is this willingness, but how do we bring them together?

“It is a space that we must share: opera must share with jazz, ballet needs to share with hip-hop, the disabled must share with everybody.”

It’s only 10am, but Marlene has already been working a full day. Before the start of her working day she made sure Adam, her 15-year-old son with cerebral palsy, was fed through a tube. He is paralysed and can’t speak.

Adam’s and her own disability has made her a lifelong activist for the rights of the disabled.

Marlene contracted polio – which she calls the “African disease” – when it was completely preventable, as a young child growing up poor in Wellington. Her left leg is in a brace.

“I wrote a book called Look at Me, about the journey of self-acceptance, five years ago. It sold out and so did the second edition. South Africa is only waking up now to disability issues.

“I’m also on the president (Jacob Zuma)’s task team on disabilities. Now I’m an advocate to change the view of the president, not to confine disability only to social grants under the Department of Social Development.

“That’s my role now, to look at disability holistically and integration.

“I went around the country to get women from all walks of life, different cultures, different languages, to tell their stories in this book.

“They have overcome so much adversity. I cried when I interviewed them because I have nothing in comparison with the hardships some of these women have to overcome.

“Three of them have died already because their bodies just gave in.

“When you’re poor and disabled you don’t have the money to go to a physiotherapist or to have proper nutrition.

“I get strength from the fact that there is always somebody worse off than me.

“The book is two-fold: the one part is about women born with disability, the other part is women who became disabled. People take strength from it because if you have high blood pressure tomorrow and get a stroke, you can end up in a wheelchair. The journey for you is much more difficult than for us who have been born with disability.

“It is a totally different journey and a mental shift. That’s the other work I do.”

Marlene pays special tribute to Yolanda and Jeanne, the two carers who look after Adam on a full-time basis.

“If I look at Adam – he is blind and can’t do anything for himself and can’t talk. When I take Adam to Red Cross Children’s Hospital or Tygerberg Hospital I see mothers from Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Atlantis, Manenberg with children like Adam who have no support.

“Husbands and boyfriends leave them because they can’t cope with children like that. Most of the time they are not a boss like me, who can quickly take Adam to hospital. They have bosses who will fire them because you’re sitting more at Red Cross with your child than being at work.

“I look at this and say I can’t say that I’ve arrived. I can only arrive if that woman can have the same as I do with government intervention. I see the bigger picture.”

Marlene has suffered discrimination because of her disability.

“I’d been accepted at UCT as an opera singer. The professor looked at my rural mother and said: “If you don’t have the money don’t enrol your child here.”

“He looked at me and said: ‘But you are disabled. How are we going to put you on stage?’

“I was so disappointed because the door closed just like that. Today, look where I’m sitting. To the youngsters, I would like to say: ‘Don’t let one door close because of your circumstances and think that is the end. Ten doors will close for you until you get a door that will open, but it’s hard work’.”

The activism at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) changed her perspectives.

“UWC trained me to be a fully-fledged South African citizen and to understand diversity. Coming from a rural background, from the scheme in Wellington in particular, you are brought up to be racist.

“Being thrown into UWC in the early 1980s was the best thing that could happen to me. I became a person, my journey about racism, my journey to understanding people. My journey to become who I am today started at UWC.”

Marlene has won numerous awards for her activism and work in the arts. A qualified educationist, she was a founding member of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and also served as an adviser to former president Thabo Mbeki.

But it’s not hard to see that she is now on the journey of her life, using Artscape as a vehicle to reimagine our society.

“The first thing I did here was to start a resource centre for emerging artists to get training on how to write proposals, how to market your production, how to meet other people, how to engage with artists from Khayelitsha, Manenberg, from all over… there are courses and access to computers. That made a shift in the thinking of people.

“The second thing I spearheaded with a team was to start up the audience development and education. It gave the break the building needed. I immediately started with a youth programme and women and humanity festivals.”

What I find most exciting, though, is that Marlene and her team hit the road every year to take Artscape to the dorpies of the Western Cape.

“It’s highly successful because I take Alistair Izobell as the frontliner – people love him. I produce the show in such a way that there are black, white and Indian artists. The orchestra, opera and ballet go along as well as Dance for All.”

People from the communities team up with professional artists on stage for the productions.

“We also stage it in the township to demystify those communities. So if you want to see the ballet and you’re from the white community you get into your car and come and see it in the township.

“In this building, people have technical skills, experienced people who have been here for more than 30 years.

“They build the stage and transform a school hall for me into little Artscape.

“This year we’re going to the West Coast. We go and descend on a town. I also stand at the back and cry. The reason why we are doing this is to reimagine your life, to reimagine the new South Africa.

“We’re all talking about it, but can people reimagine their lives in the township?

“They can’t. I stand at the back and I cry to see those children’s faces. In that way, the Platteland comes to know Artscape, so what they do is get on the train and they come to the festivals. We bring those communities together.

“We need to deconstruct our society. When I started here I thanked the Lord every day because we were in a position to deconstruct our communities and we use Artscape as a vehicle.

“I use Artscape as a vehicle to implement our constitution.”

* Gasant Abarder is the editor of the Cape Argus.

Cape Argus