WHEN YOU WATCH a small child being exposed to the magic of theatre, you can believe in anything. Joyce Levinsohn, one of Johannesburg’s children’s theatre pioneers, understood this magic and this ability to believe, from the inside out. The founder of the city’s oldest traditional children’s theatre, she championed theatre for youngsters, over generations and across financial hierarchies. She succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease on 6 November 2021. She was 86.
If you were a small child from 1990 onwards in Johannesburg, chances are, you had the privilege of sitting cross-legged on cushions on the floor of Levinsohn’s theatre in the suburb of Parktown, where a special section was put aside for you, bordering the stage. This privilege was not necessarily something you would have only been granted if your parents could afford to take you. Or if you were white. Levinsohn’s generosity and bigness of heart was such that she made the effort to extend a hand, and mostly, a free ticket to all children, particularly those living in townships or informal settlements, in historically impoverished suburbs, on the streets.
The grand old former randlord house that occupies the block bordered by Junction Avenue, Queens Road and St Andrews Road in the Johannesburg suburb of Parktown touched the sensibilities of literally countless theatre visitors, some who saw plays in the context of school trips and others who came with their parents in tow. It still does.
But it was Levinsohn who convinced the decision-makers at the Johannesburg City Council in 1990, that this house had what it took to be a children’s theatre. With its pressed steel ceilings, the detritus of stables and servants’ quarters, its secret passages and gorgeous fabrics painted by set designers, it became a refuge and a place of magic. It has a green room and a library, bay windows, a garden and the ever-sacred theatre itself, at its core. The city council granted Levinsohn a 50-year lease, on the suburban heritage site, where it still operates as the National Children’s Theatre.
Levinsohn’s ‘net’ was immense. She established a tradition of inviting the so-called Children of Fire, children badly burnt in informal settlements, for free, to attend the theatre. Every single season. The stories of giving are many. Levinsohn understood what a theatre experience could do for a young person. And she knew that money was often the barrier.
Blessed with talent to dance and perform, Levinsohn (nee Zinman) was born in Johannesburg on 19 February 1935. Schooled in Berea, she started her career in ballet; she was the Johannesburg Youth Ballet’s first lead dancer. Like many little girls of her era, she learnt elocution from the age of 10.
Mentored by iconic theatre personalities Elizabeth Sneddon and Taubie Kushlick, Levinsohn pursued both her performative loves. In the early 1950s, she qualified with an Associate Speech and Drama Teacher’s Diploma from Trinity College in London, a Teacher’s Diploma from the Royal Academy of Dance and a Licentiate in Speech and Drama, also from Trinity.
Apartheid had just been ratified. Levinsohn vowed to do what she could to make a meaningful difference in her black peers’ lives. In 1954, she co-established the Zinman-Green Speech and Drama Studio, in Johannesburg, where she readied young white performers for Eisteddfods and taught black teachers theatre-in-education, a methodology which informed the teaching of language, the humanities and the social sciences, similar to Sylvia Glasser’s edudance principles.
As Levinsohn’s drama students flourished, so did they need a platform. A Sandton communal hall served the purpose until 1976 when the company Children’s Theatre Productions was established, with Levinsohn at its helm in the capacity of executive director. It thrust her into the eye of the creative storm: 1976 saw the Soweto Riots, the arrival of television and the establishment of the Market Theatre. The country was a cauldron of creative protest.
With no promise of state funding, in running her company, Levinsohn had to take on the mantle of financial director, theatre co-director and voice coach simultaneously. During this time, she learnt the art of knocking on government and corporate doors to raise funds. Her staff was small and loyal and they rode the storms out with her.
In 1987, at the height of South Africa’s State of Emergency, Levinsohn conceived of an “interactive, eco-musical to promote the message of conservation”, which also aimed to address a lack of awareness of African folklore traditions. The show Songs and Tales Under African Skies was born. It toured the country and the world, opening up African children’s theatre awareness to everyone, including children who may never have had access to theatre. It also put Levinsohn’s work on the map.
Renamed as the Johannesburg Youth Theatre Trust in 1990, Levinsohn’s project was now formalised as a non-profit educational theatre trust. She rolled with the bureaucratic punches in the not-for-profit industry and reshaped her company’s priorities accordingly.
And with the intrigues of the Brothers Grimm, Dr Seuss or Hans Christian Andersen and magical princesses, basic moral behaviour and social awareness told by bears and ducks, spiders and minstrels, the theatre thrived artistically, bringing to fruition many of Levinsohn’s dreams about theatre specially for young audiences, and the doors that the industry could open for life.
Many of South Africa’s current seasoned theatre professionals passed through Levinsohn’s hands, from Daphne Kuhn of Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, to Jill Gerard, of the People’s Theatre in Braamfontein, not to mention many of South Africa’s top stage performers, such as Adam Pelkowitz, Kate Normington, Shelley Meskin, LJ Urbani, Huey Louw and more. Many enjoyed their first professional theatre gig on Levinsohn’s stage.
The inimitable late Francois Theron joined Levinsohn’s company in 2008 as an actor. In 2010, he was promoted to artistic director of the company. Being able to create his own productions gave this immensely talented practitioner the chance to make his more outrageous dreams of theatre making come true, and in so doing, to spark fantastic new energies to the children on the stage, and those in the audiences.
Also, a generous collaborator with much savvy, Levinsohn used the cream of the creative industry for years, in developing her work. From 2000, she began to work with the set and costume designer Sarah Roberts, who was joined by trusted fellow set designer, Stan Knight. Jane Gosnell was the lighting stalwart from 2004, rendering each little tableau onstage brilliant credibility. This dream team was the key to so many of the theatre’s productions.
Also in 2004, Levinsohn employed Sydwell Koopedi, an opera singer and former member of the Black Tie Ensemble. Koopedi grew as an administrator under Levinsohn’s guidance, and fuelled with her enthusiasm, kindness and belief in him, he gave credibility to the theatre’s projects with clarity and acumen. And Willie van Staden staged managed Levinsohn’s work with the aura of candid skill and kindness that was central to the theatre’s existence, from 2009. These individuals became part of the theatre’s fabric and its audience’s happy experience.
Levinsohn received a Vita award for her contribution to children’s theatre in South Africa in 1990, a lifetime achievement award from the Arts and Culture Trust in 2001 and a Naledi Theatre award for lifetime achievement in 2005. She was, on many levels, a feisty and strong-willed traditionalist who held onto what she thought conventional children’s storytelling could and should be. But on other levels, the complexity of the country, the multiple financial hierarchies which affect little children and her own levels of social awareness, enabled her to loosen some of her grips on what she believed should happen onstage. And magic, season after season, was born.
Levinsohn, who stepped down from the theatre in 2011, due to ill health, lost her husband, Lionel, last year; they were married for 64 years. Her cousin, Moira Katz, took over as CEO of the theatre in 2011. Levinsohn leaves her children Steven, David, Lawrence and Della and their families, as well as generations of theatre lovers who had their eyes and souls opened by her work, from both sides of the footlights.
A version of this story was published by the SA Jewish Report.