I trained as an actress and had a dream of becoming famous. But that isn’t what happened at all. I acted, then directed, and then started teaching. I found teaching to be so compulsive I just wanted more and more of it.
I became head of department at the National School of Arts in Johannesburg, and had the opportunity to work with young children, putting on three or four productions a year. It was an incredibly nurturing space.
After 13 years it was time for a change. The opportunity came along to work on a production of the TRC hearings, called Truth and Translation. I became very involved in researching it, writing it and producing it.
It was a play about dealing with conflict and we toured countries that have dealt with conflict such as Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo. The play was acclaimed and well received the world over.
We worked with political prisoners, widows and orphans of war. If ever I needed proof of the power of theatre to change lives, this was it: a South African play travelling to foreign places like Kosovo, where an audience member would afterwards say, “That was me on the stage”.
In the middle of that I started Assitej SA – it is also about the power of theatre to change lives.
Our slogan is “Changing the world, one child at a time”.
You can’t change the world immediately, but you can change this person here, in front of you, now.
What is Assitej SA?
Assitej SA is a national network of theatre for children and young people.
We bring together all the theatre companies, the individual artists – all those interested in making sure that children have access to the theatre – and we serve as a hub to synergise their efforts so that more children see theatre.
A lot of young people don’t even know what theatre is, because they are geographically “stuck” in their environment. So some of the main projects we run is about bringing theatre to kids, wherever they are.
Our mission is to get every child in SA to fall in love with theatre, at the youngest possible age.
How did Assitej (International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People) and Assitej SA start?
Assitej was created in Paris, in 1965, which is where our strange title comes from – it’s a French acronym – and at the time it was connected to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Its goal was to bring about world peace during the Cold War by connecting people from the East and the West through the arts.
It’s now in 85 countries around the world, and since the 1990s the African chapters have become more active. We’re one of the newest kids on the block, as we started in 2007.
I helped get it started here because I knew that working together, and sharing ideas and resources so as to grow the theatre industry as a whole, was something that we really needed in SA.
The power of theatre
We believe that theatre has a transformational power, the capacity to awaken people’s imaginations in amazing ways, get their curiosity going, understand the world around them better, and develop empathy.
What’s so great about theatre is that because it’s a live interaction, and the actors are physically there, in your space, it has a far more powerful effect than anything you can put on television.
Somehow, when you see a play live – then afterwards do a workshop with the actors – that becomes an experience that children never forget.
We take productions to some of the poorest parts of the country and then do workshops after the play, so that they’re left with something.
Theatre’s beauty, as well as what is also painful in nature about it, is that it’s ephemeral. It’s passing, it’s momentary, but it can have such a huge impact.
I believe that impact can be greater if you give them tools to process what they witnessed. If they have a workbook with pictures of what they saw, it’s something that they’ll keep and use, and it’ll serve to remind them.
Is theatre not a dying medium?
Theatre’s always going to be a struggle, but I believe in the power of this medium.
I don’t believe that it will ever die. I believe that it needs to get cleverer; we make too much bad theatre, and more focus needs to be on the quality. Sometimes it’s too indulgent or disconnected, so that people can’t relate.
But at the same time, you don’t want to put a cap on people’s creativity and say, “This is what you should be doing”. People need the space to be creative, experiment, try things, and fail if necessary.
That is what the arts are about. You can’t always be successful. There is something about live performance that will remain powerful.
Stories feed us. One of the things we do as children is act out what we see around us.
Technology will never be able to take that away. We just have to find the best way to help it flourish.
Seeing the kids’ responses to a production makes it so worthwhile. We did some shadow puppetry last year, and there was such a feeling of life and possibility in the room as the kids played behind the screen.
You could see their minds being opened. They left awake – and that is what you want theatre to do: to wake us up to the world around us and the possibilities that exist in that world.
An autistic child spoke for the very first time during one play, and ended up chatting throughout.
I don’t think that I’d be any good at management if I didn’t intrinsically believe in what I was doing.
So you have to have vision and believe in that vision passionately yourself. And then it is about bringing people in to not only share that vision, but also mould it, shape it, and collectively find its expression.
I work with a team with a vast range of skills and backgrounds, and the trick is finding ways to draw from our personal strength to make things happen.
Everyone has contributed in a fundamental way to what we are doing. And when people contribute, they feel valued, and that what they are doing is worthwhile. And that’s what you want.
The importance of Assitej in SA
We have such a legacy of so many painful problems, such extreme contrasts, and such wasted human potential in this country.
An organisation like Assitej has a contribution to make in making people feel like they have value by giving them something they can be inspired by, participate in, become part of.
In Sa, we’re all sitting in our own buckets. Some of those buckets are beautiful, some are really dire. Theatre allows you to see over the rim of that bucket … that there is something more out there. And maybe by becoming more proactive, you can make a change.
Assitej may not be feeding children’s stomachs, but we have to feed children’s minds, hearts, imaginations and their capacity to love.
To find out more, visit www.assitej-international.org and www.assitej.org.za.
l Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.