“MY HEART IS in every single show. Making children laugh makes me remember why I do what I do. It is the sound of the joy in this theatre that turns it into a haven,” children’s theatre guru Francois Theron told My View, in an interview some months ago. Tragically, Theron, who was artistic director of the National Children’s Theatre, passed away suddenly on June 15, 2018, as a result of heart illness. He was 53.
If you have ever sat in a play directed by Theron and you’ve managed to pull your eyes from the magic on stage and cast a glance in the direction of the small children in the audience sitting on the carpet, you will remember how entranced they were. How swept up in the details and excitement of a story being told. These moments will forever be with them. This was what Theron gave the world.
His was an extremely prolific career; not a bland one, but one in which he injected dignity into everything, whether he had to wear a big hat with elephant ears or a purple spangly wig: the solemnity of the craft was never disrespected. Roles from Sneezey the dwarf, to flamboyant witches, not to forget Horton the elephant, represent some of Theron’s cv entries. Born on March 21 1965 in Pretoria, he described himself as “a shy child who fell in love with the idea of hiding in other identities, aided by costumes. At school, I won a bursary to study teaching; I had the full support of my mother, in not accepting this. Instead I worked my gat off to earn scholarships each year.”
After graduating at Pretoria University, he committed himself to educational projects. He performed on platforms ranging from the then Civic Theatre to State Theatre school tours and the People’s Theatre in Braamfontein, where he played in 29 productions, with 275 performances of Pooh Bear as his crowning glory on that stage.
But his list of roles is long, and includes Bohemian Madonna in We will Rock You in 2005 which toured extensively. “It was musically directed by Bryan Schimmel and Mike Dixon, with input from Queen themselves,” he recalled. “Each of us had to perform a death. I chose the famous spoof on Tchaikovsky’s Dying Swan. They loved it! The show’s scriptwriter Ben Elton said (I’ll never forget these words!): ‘you are blessed with an incredibly expressive face and impeccable comedic timing’.”
Equipped with all these skills, in 2008 he joined the National Children’s Theatre, under Joyce Levinsohn, as a performer. Two years later, he was promoted to artistic director, in which role he directed almost 42 plays: Last week, days after he passed away, Pied Piper, his final work, opened to the public.
These eight years saw Theron relentless in ramping up the material’s quality. Works such as the NCT’s production of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Underneath a Magical Moon, offered unforgettable insight into what children glean from stories. They lacked contrivance and opened doors to the fact that real magic happens in the most apparently mundane of contexts.
“It’s difficult for me to plan ahead. For me the material has to be entertaining, but educational and meaningful. It can’t be fluff. If you put your heart and soul into a thing, people will feel that. I do that, remembering that it’s about entertaining the children and the adults.
“It’s scary for me to judge and anticipate what sort of reaction a work will have,” he continued. “All I can do is rely on the love I have for the medium and the children’s instinct.” Easily moved to tears of empathy, Theron spoke of the initiative to take the NCT’s plays not only to children but also to the community’s elderly. “One of these folk recently came to say ‘Thank you for coming to us; generally we feel so forgotten’,” he said, visibly moved.
Being in the creative industry was for Theron “scary and wonderful.” “It’s about the great sense of privilege, but also the need to top each success with an even greater one.” Remarkably, in his short but extremely prolific years at the NCT, this is indeed what he achieved.
For him, it was not only a dream job, but one spotted with precious moments of hilarity: He told of a child who popped onto the stage whilst he was playing Pooh Bear, to give him a Kit-Kat.
“It was the story in which Pooh got himself trapped in the rabbit’s hole because he had eaten too much honey and gotten too fat. This little boy felt really sorry for Pooh, who looked so hungry, and he came to help me!
“Then there was the incident of the White Rabbit’s shoes, in Alice in Wonderland. A child condemned my court shoes as ‘being girl’s shoes’ – so I took them off and threw them into the wings and performed the rest of the work in my stockings.”
As a young performer, he quickly learned to never say ‘no’ to freelance gigs. “At one point, I was doing Jack and the Beanstalk for the People’s Theatre during the day, Little Shop of Horrors for which I was an understudy and assistant director, at night, and My Vrou se Man se Vrou directed by Pierre van Pletzen, on the weekends in Witbank and Vereeniging. On one weekend, during that time, I played every single role – the Giant in Jack, the gay hairdresser and Mr Mushnick and the dentist in Little Shop … I was even part of the ensemble cast. It was wild, but the bottom line to all of this was ‘Thank you, God. I’m working’.”
He didn’t miss a beat in adding, “The work was one thing but the reality of learning how to pay my dues in a very tough industry was priceless.”
But his biggest fear of all: “I would be devastated if I let people down, if the magic just stopped coming.”
Theron comes of a very large extended family with many cousins. But his nuclear family was small: he lost his father and older brother more than 20 years ago; his mother and namesake to whom he was very close, suddenly passed away in 2015. For over 15 years, Theron’s friend, confidante and carer was Isaac Shaku. Francois leaves his sister, Peggy Lotter in New Zealand, and literally thousands of children, big and small, to whose lives he brought so much magic.
- A memorial service will be hosted for Francois Theron at the Market Theatre in Newtown on June 26 at 15:00.