Start main page content

Wits Theatre celebrates 40 Years of performing arts

- Wits University

Esteemed alumni gathered at the Wits Theatre in style to celebrate the theatre’s rich history and talent.

Wits Theatre celebrates 40 years

The Wits Theatre Complex, founded in 1983, celebrated its 40th birthday at an event attended by students and alumni from the art and culture industry. The likes of The Queen’s Shannon Esra, Skeem Saam’s Gontse Ntshaegang, Tsotsi’s Jerry Mofokeng, and Yizo Yizo’s Mmabatho Mogomotsi were in attendance to celebrate the special event.

Hosted by award-winning actress Zola Nombona and Sicelekuye Zabalaza Mchunu, the guests knew the night would be a memorable and comedic one.

The event was opened by the Head of the Wits School of Arts (WSOA), Dr. Rene Smith, who embraced the celebratory energy in the main theatre. “Looking through the archives of the Wits Theatre, it is important to note that this space has held a special place in people’s heart, as it is the centre of talent, entertainment, and creative expression. It is incredible to see how this space has become what it is today, having produced arts of all forms throughout the last 40 years of its existence,” said Smith.

Head of WSOA Dr Rene Smith

Formerly known as the School of Dramatic Art and Music, the WSOA needed a space where students could learn, practise, and experiment their crafts with the assistance of the latest performance art technology.

Myer Taub, the Head of Theatre and Performance, reflected on his journey with the theatre, describing the space as a time machine.

“When I teach theatre, I always say it is the time traveling machine. You can put something on, lay it to rest, move from time to place very quickly. It is so wonderful to be part of this time traveling machine, knowing that it has given students time traveling opportunity for their creative expression.”

The evening was filled with snippets of entertainment from current and former students who gave outstanding performances that left guests laughing and nostalgic. There were performances from the Bambanani Brass Band, a comedy act by Tsitsi Chiumya, and an epic satirical play titled Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars performed by Wits students.

In attendance was Malcolm Purkey, the former Head of the School of Dramatic Arts in the 2000's. Purkey was part of the team that helped design and build the theatre. It was important for him to create a space for the emerging School of Dramatic Art and Music four decades ago.

Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars performance by Wits students

Imagine the methods used to transform an old hall into a 360-seater theatre, boasting narrow galleries on two sides. Removable seats were installed on the existing stage to establish a 'theatre-in-the-round' setup, where the audience surrounds the stage. This close proximity between actors and audience enhances intimacy, resulting in a more engaging audience experience.

“What we have, in my humble opinion was the finest teaching theatre in South Africa,” said Robert Joseph, the former Workshop Technical Services Manager for the Wits Theatre. “Surrounding the theatre were, for example, the wardrobe filled with costumes for any show of your dreams. The workshop to build a city that shall be moved swiftly on to the stage, dressing rooms for performers to get ready in, the lighting room to create the time of day of your choice, the sound room to play sounds from, parking close by and the great room for guest, the entrance front of house.”

Joseph praised his former students who have gone on to become “top notch” actors, directors, company managers and teachers in the Arts. “This has been fuelled and nurtured in this building, by the people who have been working here for the last 40 years. The memories contained in these walls are infinite”.

In closing, Professor Mucha Musemwa, the Dean of Humanities thanked all the guests for being part of the theatre’s celebration.

“As we stand on this milestone, let us take the moment to acknowledge and show gratitude to the architects, the visionaries and the arts, who bring life into this magnificent theatre. It is their passion, dedication and unwavering belief in the art of storytelling,” said Musemwa.

The Wits Theatre is currently hosting the Pitso Ya Kalaneng (Call to the Theatre) Festival, a student-centered festival to celebrate 40 years of performance arts, from  06 February to 10 February 2024.

Comedy sketch group Thenx at the Wits Theatre