The Wits Theatre complex first opened its doors in July 1983. Ten years before that, the plan for the theatre was first announced. In the intervening years money was raised from the public and private sectors and the complex cost in the region of R5 million.
The Schools of Dramatic Art and Music needed a laboratory where their students could learn to develop their craft; where they could experiment with the latest in performing arts technology and could display the results of their work and experiments to the university and the public at large; where this could be done in the comfort of relatively well-equipped venues.
Before that, The Wits School of Arts (Dramatic Art) had been staging its productions in the Nunnery. This venue was once a convent hall and is steeped in theatrical tradition as companies like the Junction Avenue Theatre Company and the Market Theatre Company both staged productions there 20 to 25 years ago when there were no other theatres available. It has been retained as a teaching venue for use by the The Wits School of Arts (Dramatic Art).
The complex consists of The Wits Theatre with 367 seats in an adaptable auditorium. Its foyer contains bar and cafetaria facilities, Cafe Dulce The Downstairs Theatre is directly below it, and was designated "store room" on the original plan by the architect Don Lennard but now houses a versatile experimental theatre with its own foyer which also serves as an exhibition space, the venue seats 120.
On the ground level to the north of the building, the architect, whose consultant was John Bury, (one of the great British designers from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre), placed an open air Amphitheatre.
For the first eight years of its existence, the occasional open air production was staged there when the winter nights were not too cold or it did not rain in summer. In 1992 it was enclosed and added a third venue to the complex - a 120-seater all enclosed theatre where work which cannot be housed in the other two venues can find a home. It has its own foyer space.
One of the best features of this complex is that there is sufficient undercover parking for the entire audience of all three theatres in the Senate House parking garage, just a short stroll across an enclosed bridge, from the foyer. The theatres are also served by a fully equipped workshop and wardrobe which are situated above and alongside the dressing room areas adjacent to the theatres.
The Wits Theatre has established itself as South Africa's major venue for contemporary dance. Annually the FNB Dance Umbrella celebrates its national festival here with top companies from around the country. All the region's major dance companies have danced here and book seasons on a regular basis.
The Great Hall, which is also managed by the Performing Arts Administration seats up to 1035, has a rich heritage that dates back to the world premiere of the SA musical, King Kong and beyond. In 1993 we hosted the St. Petersburg Ballet Company. A few years ago, it was converted from an adaptable theatrical venue into one more suited for concert performances. For many decades the Johannesburg Musical Society has presented its splendid recitals, featuring the best artists from this country and all over the world, here.
Wits University has one of the finest performing arts facilities in the country where its students can hone their skills and where professionals can be seen regularly. These theatres are where our society can be mirrored and young minds challenged.