Interview: Daphne Kuhn Chats About Running THEATRE ON THE SQUARE

Theatre on the Square is a hub of activity in Sandton

By: Mar. 06, 2023
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Interview: Daphne Kuhn Chats About Running THEATRE ON THE SQUARE It's not often I get to talk about theatre happening up in Joburg. However, last year I met Daphne Kuhn - owner and artisitic director of Theatre on the Square - and have seen some of the amazing work done there. This year, I chatted to Daphne about her theatre, the challenges they've faced over the last few years and the exciting future she sees coming.

BWW: Let's start off with - tell us about how Theatre on the Square came about.

Daphne: Having completed my Master's degree in Drama at Pretoria University, working as an actress and lecturer, later as a publicist, PR and marketing manager for a Children's Theatre company, the Civic Theatre and Market Theatre, it became evident that a safe, accessible, and quality theatre was needed in the Johannesburg suburbs. This was in 1994 at the start of our newly found democracy - a time when people were bemoaning the demise of theatre. I took the challenge and risk and opened my first intimate Theatre on the Square in Rosebank, at Mutual Square (in a non-functional space which was part of a dance and drama school). After its success, I needed a bigger venue to present exciting new works and productions, to generate work opportunities for our talented industry and to continue uplifting the appreciative audiences of all ages. I then opened our beautiful new Theatre on the Square on the dynamic Nelson Mandela Square (formerly Sandton Square) in 1997.

BWW: You worked at both the Market Theatre and Joburg Theatre before starting your own theatre. How did those experiences prepare you for running your own theatre?

Daphne: These wonderful experiences and the networks built up, prepared me in many ways to focus on all aspects of the theatre which is the task of my role as producer - "putting it together" from the artistic, technical, marketing and financial side to the planning of a balanced cultural programme of new plays, comedies, musicals, youth theatre as well as classical and jazz concerts. There were some negative aspects which emerged from some of the larger institutions, but through these, I learnt what not to do - and how important it was to treat staff and patrons with respect.

BWW: Theatre on the Square has been going for over 25 years now. What are some of the highlights for you from this beautiful space - both the productions and the people?

Daphne: Highlights have been -

  • the joy of entertaining, uplifting and educating the public through the medium of theatre and music by attempting to improve the quality of life of all - and generating work opportunities prolifically for the industry;
  • receiving the wonderful support of the public who appreciate and depend on the theatre as a cultural hub;
  • receiving support and sponsorship from many leading corporate institutions and Insurance giants who acknowledged the tireless work of Theatre on the Square. For this they were offered naming rights. Sadly, this not been forthcoming for the last three years from the private sector, the province or the national government. We continue to strive for financial assistance to allow the theatre to grow and develop - and to keep open.
  • another highlight is that we have proudly and independently produced and presented well over 3000 productions and music concerts, children's theatre and have offered the theatre as a platform to launch new careers, for youth theatre festivals, weekly classical and jazz concerts as well as corporate events.
  • The theatre and many of our prestigious productions and performers have garnered numerous industry awards for theatre excellence (there are too many to specify but productions of ROSE, THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, HARD LOVE, HANSARD, BOESMAN AND LENA, SUDDENLY THE STORM, and LIFE'S A PTICH spring to mind as well as many musical revues and comedies);
  • Another highlight has been having the wonderful warm support of the public and the media;
  • but mostly the privilege of working with so many incredible and inspiring artists and musicians, directors, writers, designers and technicians in the industry who put their passion for the theatre before the financial reward (examples those I've worked with include Joan Brickhill, Anna Neethling Pohl, Patrick Mynhardt, Hugh Masekela, Janet Suzman, Paul Slabolepszy, Mike van Graan, Ismail Mahomed, Annabel Linder, Judy Page, Michael Richard, Greg Homann, Julie-Anne McDowell, Sello Maake KaNcube, Alan Swerdlow, Fiona Ramsay, Graham Hopkins, Sylviane Strike, Abigail Kubeka, Jennifer Steyn, Kate Normington, Bryan Schimmel, Lara Foot, Malcolm Purkey, James Ncgobo, Rajesh Gopie, Steven Stead, Greg King Du Preez Strauss, Sue Diepeveen, Charmaine Weir Smith, Louise Saint Claire and James Borthwick to name a few!
  • We pride ourselves as being an acknowledged "voice" of the people through our new SA plays, such as the current HOME AFFAIRS production.

BWW: You've created an incredibly welcoming and plush space at Theatre on the Square. One of my favourite parts about the décor is the wallpaper. Can you tell us a bit more about décor choices and that gorgeous wall covering?

Daphne: The wallpaper was digitally designed to incorporate the hundreds of posters and photographs from past productions. This now serves as a document of the history of the theatre and the numerous and varied productions produced and staged. The wallpaper was part of the sponsorship arrangement with Auto & General at the time when the theatre was refurbished as the Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

BWW: Running a theatre is obviously not without its challenges - the pandemic must've knocked you hard, as it did with so many theatres and artists in the country and around the world. How did you manage to weather that storm?

Daphne: We were closed for nearly two years and thankfully we are open and vibrant again for over a year. This would not have been at all possible but for the success of our crowdfunding initiative which helped cover some of the huge backlog and income lost during the pandemic - when I still had to cover rental, running costs and staff salaries, with no income whatsoever from ticket sales.

BWW: Your team is such an integral part of Theatre on the Square - can you give a us a quick rundown of who is on the team and what they do?

Daphne: Besides my role as producer, theatre owner and artistic director, I employ a wonderful loyal and efficient team who have been with me for decades: Mika Stefano (Marketing Manager), Regina Dube (resident stage manager), Loftus Mohale (technical manager), Reggie Mathebe (assistant technical manager and bar manager), Melidah Thakadu and Malebone Sekeleko (assistant stage managers, bar staff members and Front of House assistants) and Maggie Mabusa and Patricia Ramathata (general assistants).

BWW: Looking to the future, what do you see happening for Theatre on the Square and what do you want to see happening?

Daphne: Based on my experience for many decades and seeing the amazing young and established talents emerging, as well the exciting multicultural audience development, I can only say that I am extremely positive. I predict a glorious and dynamic theatre future here. However, we need governmental and corporate support to grow and flourish and to present marketable theatre gems for South Africa and abroad.

Photo credit: supplied

Theatre on the Square has a constantly evolving line up of new shows. Keep an eye on their website for what's hitting the stage next.