By Geoff Sifrin
YOU CAN TELL important things about the influence a person had on the world by the way in which a memorial speech or a tribute, after he or she dies, ends. Generally, at a gathering of colleagues, family and friends, there would be some speeches about the contribution the person made to society, to his or her field, then a tribute, followed by a sombre, final thank you to all the people who attended the memorial, and a wish that the person’s legacy will be maintained. Then, those gathered at the ceremony would file out, sadly talking about the person who had died.
But in the case of Francois Theron – the artistic director of the National Children’s Theatre in Johannesburg, who died suddenly on June 15, 2018 at age 53 – it was very different. The proceedings, which took place in the main auditorium of the Market Theatre on June 26, attended by the cream of Johannesburg’s theatre world, contained the expected, warm homages read and sung by his young actors, and people he had influenced and taught over the years. Then, as things were winding down, the host for the event, Malcolm Terrey, raised his voice, smiled at the audience and said: “Now I’d like everyone to close these proceedings by showing how we really feel about Francois and what we will remember him for!”
With that, the audience rose to their feet as one, and began laughing, hooting, whistling, waving their arms in the air, dancing up and down in the aisles, juggling their hips and hugging each other. It went on for about two minutes, and was great fun for all. People then filed out of the theatre laughing and joking with each other.
That was the most fitting tribute to Francois. He had brought fun and warmth to all – the adults and the children – and that was what they would remember him for. This was the man they remembered standing in the narrow corridor leading into the small children’s theatre in Parktown, smiling and welcoming them and the groups of children who came in with their parents and teachers to watch the Pied Piper, the Wizard of Oz or some other delightful play. Francois died, but what the crowd wanted to say was how much life and laughter he had brought – they came to celebrate his life.
Francois was artistic director at the National Children’s Theatre for eight years, during which time he worked on 42 plays.
Not everything at the memorial was about laughter and fun. Peter Terry, the director of the Theatre Benevolent Fund, and a voice who has become associated with Classic FM, spoke about the difficulty performing artists had in earning a living, often finding themselves at the end of their working lives with no money. He explained that the fund is there to try and help with a monthly income, often something so necessary in an industry where professionals are often freelancers, and there’s no safety net for when they cannot earn their keep.
The opening speech about Theron recited by the puppeteer Swannie Swanevelder recalled a comment Theron had made in an interview about how he got into theatre: “I won a bursary when I was at school to study to be teacher. I am grateful to my mother in supporting me to turn it down and go into theatre.” It was not easy as he came from a family who were unable to afford university fees and he had to work extremely hard to earn financial assistance which was premised on high marks, but he got there.
During his career he was an example of how hard it is for actors to earn a living. At one time he was performing in three productions simultaneously: one in the People’s Theatre, during the day, another in the evening at the then Civic theatre, both in Johannesburg, and a third on the weekends, in Witbank and Vereeniging. It was like a farce waiting to go wrong, but Francois saw the positive side and described it tellingly: “Thank God I am working and earning a living”. Over his career, he performed in hundreds of productions, including a whopping 275 performances of Winnie the Pooh.
Laughter and warmth is what he left behind, and thousands of kids benefitted. The hooting and laughing at his memorial was a fitting accolade.
- Geoff Sifrin is a veteran editor, journalist and columnist. Read more of his work on his own blog: www.sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com