REBIRTH: The 1921 Alhambra Theatre, which has been standing empty for the past 20 years, is to be reopened as an arts and training school.
REBIRTH: The 1921 Alhambra Theatre, which has been standing empty for the past 20 years, is to be reopened as an arts and training school.
HEYDAY: The Doornfontein Theatre was once one of the most popular venues in Joburg.
HEYDAY: The Doornfontein Theatre was once one of the most popular venues in Joburg.
The grand old dame of Doornfontein, the Alhambra Theatre, is set to be transformed into a much-needed arts and training centre.

The 1921 building, once famous for its theatre productions which drew people from across the country and which staged some of the best productions, has been lying empty for 20 years.

The building, which was owned by Pieter Toerien, has been sold to the Affordable Housing Company (Afhco) to be turned into a centre for arts learning and training.

Afhco has renovated many buildings in the Joburg CBD and, more recently, in Doornfontein. The company is also refurbishing the old, famous Jeppe Street post office into residential and retail space.

Afhco chief operating officer Renney Plit said this was a project close to his heart, so much so that he pledged some of his personal finances into purchasing and refurbishing the building.

Costs incurred are expected to be around R15million. The building, which has has three separate theatres and an office block, is on the corner of Beit and Sivewright streets, close to one of the University of Johannesburg campuses.

Plit said they conducted a research and the findings were that, of 10614 public high schools, only 7% offered art subjects such as music, visual and dramatic art, design and dance as a matric subjects. "In Gauteng, only 27% of high schools offer these art subjects.”

Plit said that was “a national crisis” as the arts were important in forming creative youngsters. “These figures mean that most matriculants are only exposed to 'right answer' subjects. These do not require creativity, innovation, independent and imaginative thinking. They do not contribute to pupil self-confidence and the ability to express themselves in social environments,” he added.

Plit gathered a team of professionals to form a hub to expose students to the arts. “We intend engaging with high-school students, as well as teachers, to develop and experience the art, and to take the experience and lessons learnt to the educational fields,” he added.

City of Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba told Plit that the refurbishment of the Alhambra was “music to his ears”.

Plit said the mayor had explained to him that he had a "personal relationship" with the Alhambra. In a letter to Plit he said: “Back in 1981, I went to watch Ipi Tombi (a 1974 musical) there and was so fascinated that I ended up convincing the owners to allow me to promote it in Soweto, where it was later staged. The arts must be part of the city regeneration project."

The multifaceted Alhambra project will:

Develop facilitators to work in the hubs and communities.

Expose pupils who are bussed in to art and multicultural subjects, and provide creativity and innovation workshops for high-school teachers.

Develop certification programmes for teachers wanting to teach art subjects.

Provide performance spaces for activities such as choirs, poetry readings, musical performances, plays, dance shows and art/design/photographic exhibitions.

Give support to community art centres such as Funda in Soweto.

Form a network with all projects and programmes such as the Artist Proof Studio.

Be a facility for the Market Theatre photo club and Moving into Dance - this network could stretch to relevant global projects around the world.

Become a showcase for natural talent for opinion leaders, and be a showcase for the importance of cultural subjects in creating "whole-brain thinkers".

Plit said the facilitators and instructors would be drawn from well-resourced schools and tertiary institutions that focused on or have facilities for cultural subjects.

An independent board will soon be appointed.

Also involved in the project is Gordon Cook, co-founder and school navigator for the Vega School of Brand Leadership, and Joe Shibambo, managing director of Hlamalane Projects, a construction and property development company which is involved in residential and retail development.