Head of Market Theatre Laboratory
In Today’s edition of the series marking Women’s Month, focusing on women leaders at the Market Theatre Foundation, CITYLIFE/ARTS editor EDWARD TSUMELE (ET) speaks to CLARA VAUGHAN (CV) Head of Market Theatre Laboratory.
ET: You have been at the Market Theatre Lab for quite a while now, first as education officer and currently as head of this important institution in theatre education in the country. How has been the journey so far?
CV: My most profound challenges and exhilarating moments have happened at the Lab – it’s been an incredible journey. The best part of it has been the absolutely amazing people I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from – teachers, students, theatre-makers, collaborators. It’s the energy, creativity and investment of everyone around me that keeps me excited and inspired – we never seem to run out of ideas for new projects to do, and things to try.
For me, it’s also been a journey of exploring what a ‘laboratory’ style education means, which has included letting go of many of my own perceptions and experiences of what education should look like, and imagining something more radically experimental.
ET: Working with the youth as an educator is quite demanding as your responsibilities go beyond just teaching and managing the institution, but being a mentor and sometimes a counsellor. What has been your experience heading the Lab, especially with female students coming from communities where there are social challenges?
CV: As a middle-class white South African, my background and lived experience is very different to many of the students, and I am still learning and unpacking the complexity of our deeply unequal society, and how to navigate this with integrity, empathy, and an awareness of my own privilege.
The extent of the challenges, trauma, poverty and violence that so many young black South Africans experience daily cannot be ignored, and I feel strongly that teaching young people theatre and performance skills doesn’t mean anything in isolation, without considering the person holistically. It’s important that our programme provides the life skills the students need to navigate their lives, the support they need to cope with or heal from the hardships they are dealing with, and the space to critically reflect on the context they live in.
We began a counselling programme in 2019, which has had a significant impact. More than 50% of our students have made use of this service.
Ongoing mentorship and support even after students have completed their training is also a key part of assisting young people in improving their socio-economic situations – that is why I am so passionate about helping graduates establish sustainable careers. I’ve also found encouragement and inspiration from many women students who are passionately outspoken on matters of gender, and who have used their theatre skills to create work, such as Text Me When You Arrive, that exposes and challenges the status quo in relation to this.
ET. What initiatives have you so far come up with that you feel proud about since you were involved with the Lab?
CV: .Essentially, I want our students and other stakeholders to have creatively inspiring, personally growthful, intellectually demanding experiences at the Lab, and I’m proud whenever we achieve that.
I’m particularly proud of the counselling programme that we initiated for our students last year, and I hope that we get to a point where we will be able to offer that kind of mental health support to the theatre community more generally. We were able to start programmes such as this because of the success of our part-time courses, which has made the Lab more financially independent and stable.
I’m really proud of Kwasha Theatre Company, and the space and opportunities is has created for emerging theatre-makers, as well as our other successful productions that have given young artists sustained employment and chances to travel. Our partnerships, particularly with Pop Art Theatre and Hillbrow Theatre, have been rich and reciprocal, allowing us to share resources to achieve more with less, including several international collaborations. I’m most proud of the team I work with, and the initiatives they come up with – lots of the new ideas and practices come from within the team, and we work really well together.
ET.Women still lag behind men when it comes to leadership positions in many sectors of the country, even in the arts sector. However The Market Theatre has a sizeable number of women leaders. What do you think is holding women back in advancing in the arts sector?
CV: Women don’t ‘lag behind’ men, the patriarchal systems in which we operate actively exclude women from leadership positions, and even from participating in the arts sector on any level.
From my observations, when women are given leadership positions in the arts sector, especially black women, they don’t get the same respect as their male counterparts – Mamela Nyamza’s piece at vNAF, Pest Control, gives some insight into this. The arts sector – I can speak most accurately about the theatre industry – needs to ask itself why it doesn’t attract or retain strong women leaders. Furthermore, institutions are not held accountable for the number of women playwrights and directors they programme or commission creatives with the power to shape narratives, who determine the perspective of a given story. This means that many women artists of the highest quality are simply not given space, visibility and opportunity. It is not transparent whether male creatives get paid more than women, and there is no labour protection with regards to this. Because of the informal nature of the sector, and the way that it operates, it is incredibly difficult for women with children to work within it, which is a further disadvantage. Leadership in the arts sector needs to be more diverse generally – it is only then that we will see more diverse voices and perspectives in the art that is made. In this context, Tshiamo Mokgadi’s appointment as the CEO of the Market Theatre is meaningful.