Theatre Workshop ‘71 was a theatre training workshop that was founded in 1971 by the South African Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR) in Johannesburg.  SAIRR arranged for Robert Mclaren (also knowns as Mshengu or Kavanagh) - who was a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) - to run the workshop. McLaren’s aim was to “use theatre as a means of mass organisation, mobilisation and conscientisation”.

Initially started as a training workshop, the facility gradually turned into a professional company. It was founded on the premise of experimental political theatre aimed at engaging with South African social issues prevalent during the time.

The first production of workshop ‘71 took much of its style and outline from British plays. Titled Crossroads (1972), the play was a considerable success. Although experimental and having the aesthetic of “poor theatre”, much of its style was improvisational. The second play ZZZip! (1973) was a musical adaptation of a play by Ben Johnson: The Silent Woman (1609).

During the ‘70s many theatre houses that gained popularity within the liberation movement and in the townships were severely restricted and eventually silenced. Workshop ‘71 was allowed to perform Survival in the Box Theatre at Wits University, as well as tour California USA, however it too was banned when it started becoming popular in the townships. Survival (1976) was their last show, and many of the cast remained in the USA in exile.

Functioning in a hostile apartheid environment, the facility had limited to no access to funding and would eventually close after 6 years.

It helped expose many theatre artists to different aspects of theatre with the training workshops, many of whom went on to become notable figures in theatre, film and television.  It provided many skills and opened up theatre to the masses whilst offering new democratic and inclusive methods of theatre production.




Fuchs, Anne. Playing the Market: The Market Theatre, Johannesburg. Pp,26. 2002 Rodopi.|Fuchs, Anne & Davis, Geoffrey,V. Theatre and Change in South Africa. 1996. Psychology Press.|Opperman, Dean. Revolution and Concience: South African Theatre, June 1976 to February 1990. Accessed from URL:;view=fulltext

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