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A standing ovation for a theatrical milestone

  • DaphneKuhn
Turning 21 is a celebration in anyone’s lifetime, but when it applies to a theatre in Johannesburg, it deserves a standing ovation. Daphne Kuhn has achieved 21 years of performance at her Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton.
by PETER FELDMAN | Aug 10, 2018

This is no small feat in the present economic climate, when theatre attendance is not a priority among the cash-strapped public.

Against all odds, this little theatre has survived as an independent entity. It also continues to produce consistently, providing regular work opportunities for scores of actors, directors, designers, and technicians in the industry.

“I am thrilled that the theatre has sustained itself, and proud of its acknowledgments and awards,” she told the SA Jewish Report. “We have been prolific in our endeavours, having produced more than 2 000 plays, concerts, and events in the 21 years we have been in Sandton.

“Over the years, we have provided a platform and the infrastructure for new works to be developed and new, talented performers to be launched,” she said. “I am excited that we have told stories that embrace diversity in South Africa, and have produced great new local, as well as international plays, music, comedy, and musicals.”

Kuhn is the recipient of a number of awards, including the Naledi Executive Director’s Award in 2012 for her contribution to theatre. She has a deep, abiding passion for the arts, a driving force throughout her life.

Kuhn well understands the financial strain of keeping the theatre operating. It’s a tribute to her that she never quits, and continues to bring innovative productions to her intimate 200-seater, a stone’s throw away from the iconic statue of Nelson Mandela in Nelson Mandela Square.

“I started off studying drama at Pretoria University a hundred years ago,” she laughs, “and attained my various degrees. I was essentially hoping to become an actress, but hadn’t thought further than that. I always had the leading part in theatrical productions at school, and the Children’s Theatre in Pretoria. We had a wonderful set of lecturers like Anna Neethling Pohl. We had a wonderful academic background and training. I performed in both English and Afrikaans. I also later taught drama and lectured at university.”

Kuhn did not remain in theatre. Soon after getting married in the 1970s, she was fortunate enough to get a position with SABC TV in the drama department, and served as an assistant to British TV producer and trainer Mike Leeston-Smith from its inception.

She also worked for the Civic Theatre (now the Joburg Theatre) and the Market Theatre, and says she was never totally fulfilled until an opportunity arose to open a little theatre in Rosebank in 1994.

That’s when her thriving and creative career as an independent producer began.

After achieving success in Rosebank, she cast her eye towards Sandton, which she considered “the hub and centre of a fast developing area”. It was the right move at the right time.

Kuhn raised funds, found a sponsor, and in 1997, her new Theatre on the Square opened. She never realised that one day, she would be in the lofty position having her decisions shape the theatrical landscape.

Says Kuhn, “I love doing drama – plays of pure, legitimate theatre. I find it easier to work on plays that target a select interest group. I encourage South African writers to give me scripts, and I read tons of them all the time. Some are good, some aren’t so good. I’m influenced by contemporary subjects that hold up a mirror to our society, and I’m trying to create a voice, like the Market Theatre, while creating a balance between the commercial and the more serious, intellectual plays.”

Joy comes from watching an audience being challenged, provoked, and entertained at the same time. She also enjoys working with a diversity of theatrical souls who are determined to stage the best production possible. “The people I work with have passion, and it inspires me. Oscar Wilde said ‘I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.’”

As a producer, Kuhn believes it is important to encourage young people to attend the theatre. “To see young people, through the medium of theatre, develop a love for this art form is wonderfully uplifting,” she says.

Her husband, Philip, a professional who is credited with taking many of the production photographs, enjoys music, theatre, and the arts, and he encouraged his wife to approach theatre in a more business-like manner. “My background was totally academic,” she says. “We weren’t trained to deal with the business side of things. The marketing of a play is sometimes more important to draw an audience than the production itself.”

Theatre has given her immense pleasure over the years, and she is determined to “pay back” to the industry by helping to keep arts and culture alive at a time when it’s in a parlous state. “We are hoping that companies with a vision will help sponsor more theatre in South Africa, and so help the industry to survive,” she says.

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