Baxter: A theatre for all

The Baxter Theatre Centre under construction before its opening in 1977. Picture: Baxter Theatre Centre

The Baxter Theatre Centre has been at the forefront of the performing arts for over 42 years, both as a popular venue and as a leading award-winning producer of cutting edge works from local and international repertoire.

The theatre came into being as the result of a bequest from the late Dr William Duncan Baxter who, in his will, bequeathed a sum of money to UCT for the purpose of establishing a theatre which would, in his words, “develop and cultivate the arts in Cape Town and the adjacent districts for all artists”.

Since its inception in 1977, the theatre has stayed true to its promise of always being open to everyone who visits it and to create a work of the highest artistic quality.

The objective is to reflect the cultures of all the people of South Africa on its stages and in its foyers and galleries and, thereby, nurture an interactive and meaningful relationship with its audiences and patrons, while generating a spirit of goodwill and creativity.

The Rondebosch-based theatre was designed by the award-winning architect Jack Barnett, who wanted to design a theatre that embodied the South African spirit and culture, at a time when South Africa was much divided.

A theatre like the Baxter had to embrace all the people of Cape Town, which was difficult due to the laws that were enforced in the country at the time.

The Entertainment Act of 1931 introduced legal censorship and the Publication and Entertainment Act of 1963 segregated black and white audiences, unless under special licences.

To build the Baxter in the city centre meant that people of colour couldn’t access it and that is why UCT became a strategic location for a theatre for all.

Throughout the years of apartheid, the Baxter remained a culturally inclusive, multilingual centre that today continues to thrive by drawing on local talent and creating a uniquely South African theatre.

Over the past 42 years, many productions staged here, have consistently reflected and questioned the status quo in South Africa and widened access to all sectors of its surrounding community.

The theatre continues its tradition of showcasing local work and talent as is evidenced by the productions that have won many awards and acclaim both nationally and internationally.

Over the years, iconic productions that have enjoyed international recognition and success include the 1985 production Miss Julie, starring John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo and showing the first on-stage kiss between a black male and white female. It sparked an outcry from the apartheid government at the time. Other productions include The Island, Size Banzi is Dead, Nothing But the Truth and many of Athol Fugard’s plays.

In recent years, productions such as The Fall, Mies Julie, Tshepang, The Inconvenience of Wings, Karoo Moose and Solomon and Marion have travelled abroad, to critical acclaim.

The Baxter marked its 40th anniversary, celebrated in August 2017, by embarking on an exciting and innovative initiative called the 40/80 Campaign.

It is a simple and accessible fund-raising drive which was launched by inviting the public and the business sector to join the theatre to turn a 40-year legacy into an 80-year commitment, thereby, ensuring that this illustrious legacy will continue for future audiences and artists.

The Baxter is widely regarded as one of the premier theatres in the country, winning awards and receiving accolades and recognition for its inherent and proudly South African productions which speak to the heart of the country’s social landscape with universal themes.

The vision of the Baxter’s chief executive officers and artistic director, Lara Foot, is for the Baxter to be one of the top theatres in the world. It is this declaration of intent that drives the Baxter staff to excellence every day.

The Baxter is surrounded by the talent, the motivation and the opportunity to make this vision a reality.