Maynardville Open Air Theatre

The Maynardville Open Air Theatre is a popular and central part of Cape Town’s art scene – chiefly known for its Shakespeare performances and its ballet nights.

When it is commemorated, credit for its founding is often given to two beautiful and talented South African actresses – Cecilia Sonnenberg and Rene Ahrenson – for founding it in 1956. However the theatre’s founding was actually several years earlier (1 December 1950), by an Athlone School Committee. This earlier history has mostly been ignored in subsequent decades, in spite of being extremely well documented by first hand sources from the time.

Background

The inspiration for an open-air theatre at Maynardville came from the Regents Park Open Air Theatre in London, and the thought that South Africa could create something that rivalled this institution. The idea for such a theatre in Cape Town occurred to Mrs Margaret Molteno, chair of the Athlone Committee for Nursery Education (a charitable institution for constructing schools and teacher training colleges in disadvantaged areas) early in 1848.  She had seen the theatre in London and her expressed intention was to use a Cape Town theatre as one of several projects to raise funds for nursery schools for underprivileged children of the Cape Flats. An important reason why Maynardville Park was chosen for this project, in 1949, was that the City Council had recently declared it “open to all”. This was a necessary requirement, for an area in which a multi-racial organisation would be working [1].

Preparation

The Athlone Committee members approached the City Council and got permission to use the park for fundraising theatre performances. However they received no funding or other support from the City, so they therefore began work themselves, with the additional help of several gardeners, on clearing an area in the park, and preparing the theatre. They got the stage donated by Ardene Scott Timbers, and the greenery donated by the local office of the Forestry [2] Department [3].

The Committee voted to open the theatre with a ballet performance. They therefore contacted Dulcie Howes, Principal of UCT Ballet School, the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra, and Erik Chisholm, a local composer and conductor. All immediately agreed to participate and contribute for free. Political complications were minimal, in spite of the organisers being multi-racial and many having strong communist or anti-government sympathies. Regardless, the preparations and performances at Maynardville succeeded in remaining apolitical and inclusive. This was also before the full implementation of the Group Areas Act later turned that part of Wynberg into an exclusively white area. On 27 November 1950, the performances were announced in the newspapers, as was the organisers’ intention that, if the opening performances were a success, they could become a regular occurrence [4].

Opening and first Performances

The theatre opened on 1 December 1950, with a performance of Les Sylphides, followed in the coming days by Dulcie Howes’s own local compositions, St Valentine’s Night and Les Diversions. Attendance was extremely good, and included people of all backgrounds, both from the (then multiracial) Wynberg surroundings, and from the rest of Cape Town.  Reviews were also excellent. The Cape Times even stated that the performance surpassed those at the Regents Park theatre. It was immediately decided that the performances should be an annual institution [5].

The money raised from the first three years went to the building and enlarging of the new Athlone Nursery School [6] , which opened in 1952, initially under the auspices of the Barkly Training College for Nursery Education. Money went to the Community Chest too, and further projects followed. With the Athlone Nursery School as a template, the ladies from the same Committee built and established another nursery school in the disadvantaged Blouvlei area near Retreat (a building which was sufficient to also serve as a family health centre for the surrounding community). These institutions and more were later taken over and run by the national Department of Education and integrated into the country’s overall education system, but it was the Athlone ladies’ project of founding the Maynardville Open Air Theatre which contributed to these schools coming into existence on the Cape Flats [7].

The first Shakespeare nights

In 1953 (a year which saw a break in the performances) Margaret Molteno visited the two talented and well-known South African actresses, Cecilia Sonnenberg and Rene Ahrenson, both prior acquaintances of hers, and invited them to start Shakespeare plays at Maynardville Open Air Theatre. The two celebrities were shown around the premises and persuaded to launch regular Shakespeare nights. Initially however, they politely declined. They had recently founded the Spotlight Theatre Company and the viability of Maynardville as a venue was doubtful. They later changed their minds however, and, after a few years pause, they began planning the theatre’s first Shakespeare performances in 1955 [8]

They were still helped by the Athlone Committee members, but the leadership of the actresses added a new dynamism to the project. Importantly, Cecilia’s husband Richard Sonnenberg was co-founder of Woolworths and a very influential City Councillor, whose father was even a Member of the National Parliament. The theatre no longer lacked funding, and no longer had to illegally “borrow” electricity from the street lamps on neighbouring Church Street! The City Council even offered to construct an enormous concrete auditorium, but after pleas from the original Athlone Committee members, to keep the theatre green, leafy and natural-looking, they relented. With a newly equipped stage and other improvements, Cecilia Sonnenberg and Rene Ahrenson led an immensely successful opening of the Shakespeare nights, in 1956, with a performance of Taming of the Shrew.

In February 1958, the City Council finally voted to declare the theatre officially a permanent institution, and thousands of pounds of municipal funding were directed to the project. After the first year’s performances, and further moving, enlarging of the stage, and other adjustments, the theatre continued operating, for both ballet and Shakespeare performances, up until the present day. The two leading lights, Cecilia Sonnenberg and Rene Ahrenson, not only ran the project from then on with great skill, but also played the leading roles in the performances, and effectively became the public face for an inspiring and immensely successful project.  So although the Athlone Committee members founded the theatre, the two actresses undoubtedly founded its famous Shakespeare seasons.

The editing of history

Unfortunately, in the coming decades, the contribution of the original Athlone Nursery School Committee was ignored and forgotten.

The political situation rapidly intensified, and the implementation of the Group Areas Act saw forced removals, and most of Maynardville’s surroundings being zoned as a white area (in a hard-fought concession, lower Wynberg was permitted a “Coloured” zoning). The park and its surrounds were also “gentrified”. Though Maynardville Park itself officially kept its multi-racial zoning, it is possible that crediting the theatre to a multi-racial committee based in the Cape Flats and comprising known communists would not have been good for the image of the theatre in that political climate [9].

Whatever the motivation was, the theatre’s connection to the Cape Flats and to “Coloured” schooling in particular, was entirely erased from subsequent histories.  By 1980, at the height of Apartheid, when the Cape Town Mayor Alderman Louis Kreiner unveiled a celebratory plaque at the theatre’s entrance, the process of re-writing history was complete. The plaque celebrated the founding of the theatre as being in “January 1956” and its founders as being none other than Cecilia Sonnenberg and Rene Ahrenson! Subsequent columnists and writers even invented imaginative and picturesque stories about the two beautiful actresses having the inspiration of a theatre as they strolled in the blossoming gardens - an example perhaps of how quickly a mythology can accumulate, and how untruths can build upon each other. If the real history was not so extremely well documented, it would be tempting to believe that the two really had thought it up. However this prestigious theatre, in a leafy suburb of Wynberg, has its origins several years earlier, with some of its roots in the Cape Flats. It was conceptualised and begun by a Committee from Athlone, to fund schools for the children of Cape Town’s marginalised and underprivileged communities.

Endnotes

[1] Cape Times. 1 December 1950. "Arranged for Athlone Nursery School". p.14.

[2] Cape Times. P. Chrimes (2 December 1950). Crit & Pic, page 16.

[3] Cape Times. 19 February 1951. p.14

[4] Cape Times, 27 November 1950. “Open Air Ballet Arrangements”

[5] Cape Times, 2 December 1950. “UCT Ballet better than London” p.14.

[6] Note: This nursery school had been formally founded a short while earlier, on 6 May 1949, by a small group of ladies who afterwards joined the school’s administrators to form the committee who founded Maynardville Theatre. The school opened with only 10 pupils to begin with, although it rapidly expanded in the coming years, necessitating new premises and considerable enlargements to the buildings. The new premises chosen were situated at the former “Newmans Stables” in Honeyside Road, Athlone.

[7] Margaret Molteno (Chair and founding member of the Athlone Committee for Nursery Education), Correspondence and papers.

Cape Argus. 20 February 1951. p.4 Review.

Cape Times. 6 February 1952. p.14.

Cape Argus. 10 December 1952.

Cape Times. 3 March 1954.

Cape Times. 21 February 1951. p.14.

[8] Artscape archives, Maynardville Open Air Theatre Productions - documents and photographs. (P. Regenass), Accessed 26 May 2004, 16 February 2012

Lorna Thompson (Founding Member of the Athlone Committee for Nursery Education), Personal account. 16 October 2002.

[9] Note:

Even the first conductor, Dr Erik Chisholm, would get into trouble with Apartheid police for presenting music saluting “emergent Africa” and referring to Lenin’s “peace, bread and land” slogan in his productions.

(C. Walton (2003). R. Stevenson – A Scot in “Emergent Africa”. Tempo, 57, pp 23-31

Last updated : 31-Jul-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 18-Jul-2017