It should comfort SA’s creative rebels that a man who once wrote a play called Wankers and smoke-bombed the Cue festival newspaper offices in Grahamstown became artistic director of that same festival — and now heads one of Johannesburg’s most iconic cultural heritage sites. Such a bundle of contradictions is Ismail Mahomed, who assumed the mantle of Market Theatre Foundation chief executive at the beginning of August.
Regarded as one of SA’s foremost arts administrators, he has spent the past eight years programming the annual National Arts Festival and has now returned to Johannesburg to steer the Market Theatre through the economic dip.
This arts junkie is no typical suit, and has learnt that sometimes the most valuable and honest insights can come not from crusty academics or arts snobs but from the ladies at the local housewives’ league who invite you to talk to them over koek en tee .
His is not the easiest or most glamorous job in the world — cultural institutions are struggling to make ends meet, even those like the Market that have public money to cover their running costs. But Mahomed is looking forward to the ride, bumpy though it may be, with his characteristic good humour and reputation for leading while listening.
This is destined to be the era of the conversational, chatty Market Theatre CEO who seeks consensus through dialogue. After two weeks in the job, he’s been having meetings with his staff — some of whom have served this Newtown landmark for much of its eventful 40-year existence. It’s vital to listen to those with intimate knowledge of the institution and its audiences, instead of commissioning important-sounding but hollow scholarly reports, Mahomed maintains.
And he’s hoping to emulate the culture he tried to foster in Grahamstown when he came in as the new kid on the festival block in 2008, tasked with restructuring its artistic offering. "I wanted to build, rather than reinvent the wheel," he reflects. "It’s better to just reinflate the wheel and give it the right pressure."
Mahomed has enjoyed a 30-year relationship with the National Arts Festival, having made his debut on the Fringe programme as an independent producer in 1986.
His skills and experience, especially the ability to extract creative alchemy from shoestring budgets, will come in useful in his new role as Market Theatre head .
Beyond its three theatre venues, the Market has a muscular developmental arm in its photo workshop and student theatre laboratory. Mahomed hopes to create "an umbrella institutional identity" that taps into these strengths.
Speaking of the challenges facing the Market, he says: "How does it not lose the enormously strong legacy it has and become responsive to the fact that we live in a new country? How do we become responsive to artists whose approach to making art is different than it used to be? How do we become responsive to the community around the Market Theatre that has evolved and changed significantly, and how do we become responsive to a changing economy?
"Do we need to stick to the standard nightly performances, or do we have morning and afternoon performances?
"For me, it’s about allowing staff to interrogate these kinds of questions and help them to find solutions ... to grow and nurture audiences."
He won’t be dealing directly with programming, but "James [Ngcobo, the theatre’s artistic director] and I share a headspace around where the theatre ought to be — it needs to be celebratory of its past, it needs to be anchored to the current landscape and it needs to be visionary about the future."
To that end, plays in September and October include Jane Taylor’s satire Ubu and the Truth Commission, returning to the Market almost 20 years after it premiered there, under the direction of William Kentridge and with puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company.
Jennie Reznek’s one-woman show I Turned Away and She Was Gone, a reimagining of the Persephone myth, is another highlight.
Mahomed is keen for the Newtown cultural precinct to reclaim its status as a bustling arts hub and is already formulating a vision of the new-generation Market Theatre complex — a place abuzz with pre- and post-show chitchat among a vibrant masala of races, ages and cultural sensibilities, whose conversations spill out into the foyer and nearby eateries and light up Facebook and Twitter.
Don’t the theatre audiences of yore prefer to stay home and binge-watch Game of Thrones these days?
"Jo’burg audiences have not changed since the 1970s," insists Mahomed. "They want to talk and be engaged, so any kind of content that reaches out to audiences and enables them to talk, appeals to them."
If audiences are not feeling sufficiently challenged or involved, however, they will move away from theatre, he warns. They don’t want safe, predictable fare.
"One of the most exciting things about theatre is that artists are beginning to own their voices. It’s about what is your artistic voice; what do you want to say?"
But, he adds, our constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression and creativity risks butting heads with a growing push from public funders for work that promotes social cohesion — and artists may find themselves juggling funding imperatives with their artistic integrity.
He is unequivocal: "Praise poets don’t belong in our theatres, but in our communities."
Mahomed becomes animated when painting a picture of the theatre complex he’d like to see: "We have to talk to our staff, talk to our building — and make our walls as alive as our stages. I want to lean on a wall that comforts me, sit on a seat that says to me: ‘Don’t leave.’"
The time for talking, it seems, is back in vogue at the Market Theatre. But the time for acting, surely, is also here – both on stage and off.