Lara Foot, who was mentored by Sir Peter Hall in 2004−2005, is adding to her growing international reputation as a writer and theatre director with her role running Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre, where she is mentoring a new generation of artists and re-establishing the theatre’s reputation as a crucible of progressive ideas.
By Sean O'Toole
With more than 30 productions to her credit, Lara Foot was already an award-winning director in her native South Africa when she was selected by Sir Peter Hall as his protégée in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2004. Her theatrical productions had generated buzz among critics and widespread interest among her contemporaries. But as Sir Peter began working with her, he discovered that Lara Foot was not just a talented director, she was also a gifted playwright. Sir Peter read her play, Tshepang: The Third Testament (2002), now widely acclaimed, which explores a real-life incident of child rape. “Write more,” he advised his protégée. “Playwrights are rarer, more precious than directors.” So she did.
The mentorship came at an important time in her career, says Foot. She was still based in Johannesburg and directing plays at the Market Theatre, where she had been mentored by playwright Barney Simon until his death in 1995.
“It wasn’t that I was going to quit theatre,” she says. She was just frustrated. “The [Rolex] mentorship came at a point where I needed outside stimulation. I was desperate for somebody or something to focus more attention on my art, on my actual work and worth.” Hall, an astute interpreter of texts, provided exactly this. He brought acute focus to bear on Foot’s writing: “The form of writing, how words affect one another, how they are placed side by side,” she elaborates. “I took myself much more seriously as a writer after I saw how he valued text.” Her “very experiential and formal” relationship with Hall, she says, was an entrée into a more worldly conversation about creativity. “You don’t only learn what your mentor is doing at the time, you learn about international relations and the world of artists. You meet the other protégés and mentors, as well as a lot of international press.”
Foot laughs when she recalls her initial impatience with the mentorship. “I felt frustrated that I wasn’t directing, frustrated that I had to sit still all the time. But, at the same time, I felt deeply grateful that I did not have responsibilities. While you are in it, you have no idea what you are learning.”
Playwright and director Lara Foot is leading Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre to greater prominence in South Africa’s cultural life, with thought-provoking drama like her own recent play Fishers of Hope, with actors (from left) Phillip Tipo Tindisa, Phillip Dikotla, Mncedisi Shabangu, Lesedi Job and Shaun Oelf. ©Oscar O’Ryan
Her later writing demonstrated the benefit of Sir Peter’s guidance. Critics and audiences now applaud Foot’s nuanced understanding of the world of her characters and her redemptive storytelling, whether in Karoo Moose (2007), Solomon and Marion or most recently Fishers of Hope (2014) in which she magically explores our “core instinct” for hope beyond just the South African landscape and borders, setting it “somewhere in Africa”. The play was enthusiastically received at its world premiere at South Africa’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last year and also in June when it travelled to Austria for the Vienna Festival and on to the Mannheim National Theatre in Germany. Its “artistic and narrative clarity” was hailed by the Mannheimer Morgen newspaper, which described the play as “powerful and moving”.
“Lara’s work is subtle insofar as it does not lay easy blame, or polarize gender, racial or other issues,” says Yvette Hutchison, Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Warwick in England. “She implicates all – South Africans and non-South Africans – in situating themselves in relation to really tough issues, like child abuse, racial prejudice or the economic legacies of apartheid.”
Ismail Mahomed, director of the National Arts Festival, agrees. “In a society that will still for many years be grappling with the ripple effects of its history, Lara’s work creates the opportunity for dialogue,” he says. “It turns our theatres into dynamic spaces where we can all find personal healing.” He also describes her as an “icon”.
In 2009, Foot became the first female artistic director and CEO of the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town. It is when she came to appreciate the full extent of her engagement with Hall. “His politics, especially in terms of the value of theatre in the world, motivated me enormously,” she adds. His skilful juggling of creative and administrative duties came into sharper focus. “He was a brilliant politician of theatre and a person who made things happen, not only in the rehearsal room with artists. Peter made a difference nationally and internationally to how people managed theatres.”
Foot, whose direction of Amadeus (2006) and Betrayal (2006) was inspired, she says, by Sir Peter, has been translating his many lessons into practice. “I am very ambitious for the Baxter Theatre Centre,” she says. “It was seen as the little sister to the Market Theatre in days gone by. It is attached to the University of Cape Town and to this day still doesn’t receive government subsidy.” Her programming bears out her ambition. “Lara has undoubtedly brought in a wider range of audience, including Afrikaans-speakers, she has developed two new theatre spaces in the building, and she is building a community of “township” actors, writers and directors, who are gaining increased exposure in a mainstream theatre,” says broadcaster Nigel Vermaas.
Lara Foot is very ambitious for the Baxter Theatre Centre. ©Rolex/Marc Shoul
Foot’s vision also has a global reach. In 2012, the Baxter’s production of writer and director Yaël Farber’s Mies Julie, an adaptation of an August Strindberg play, was an enormous commercial success in Cape Town and was acclaimed by The New York Times when it played at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Last year, Dame Janet Suzman and Khayalethu Anthony played in the U.S. premiere of Solomon and Marion (2011), Foot’s realist drama about race, conflict and generational misunderstanding, at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. This followed a “knockout” (The Guardian) run at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013. It later travelled to Birmingham and London.
The story of Foot’s successful stewardship of the Baxter Theatre Centre is also the story of South African theatre’s confident return to the national conversation as well as the international stage. During the dark years of apartheid, the Baxter was one of a handful of politically progressive venues. But, from 1994, when South Africa held its first democratic elections and the urgent social issues that once fed creativity appeared to dissipate, local theatre somehow lost its status as a leading source of insight into the state of the nation. Cultural observers like Mahomed credit Foot’s creative force and business leadership at the Baxter for helping to catalyse a rebound. Her engagement with Cape Town’s dispersed community theatre groups is a key marker of the Baxter’s transformation. In 2011, Foot revived a development theatre project that had slipped into dormancy. Now in its fifth season, the Zabalaza Theatre Festival is Foot’s version of a mentorship programme. Drawing on lessons gleaned from Hall and Simon, Foot has positioned the Baxter as a dynamic place for a new generation of actors, directors and writers. The protégée is now the mentor. Foot’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Mahomed describes Zabalaza as one of the country’s “most progressive investments” in community theatre.
Collaborative theatre is also where Foot’s career in theatre was nurtured. “This is why I went into theatre in the first place, because of that feeling of belonging to a dream and to a truth,” said Foot at the opening of this year’s Zabalaza festival. The intensity of the 10-day programme mirrors a larger concentration of energy among ordinary South Africans on understanding the truth. South Africa is in great need of hope, says Foot, who has now directed over 40 professional productions, 29 of them new South African plays. “I believe in the effect of theatre.” It is a place where a community of interested minds willingly gather and plunge themselves into darkness in order to experience the light of hope and knowledge. “That’s really the power of theatre.”
Sean O’Toole is an arts journalist, editor and author based in Cape Town.