Mark Graham-Wilson talks about the power of art

Godfrey Johnson caught up with Theatre Person, Mark Graham-Wilson, who opened up about the arts and so much more! Find out what else he had ...

Godfrey Johnson caught up with Theatre Person, Mark Graham-Wilson, who opened up about the arts and so much more! Find out what else he had to say in the excerpts below....

GJ: Hi Mark. I must say, it’s been splendid to reconnect with you after all these years. I am looking forward to performing at The Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre (RATA) on 5 and 6 March. What inspired you to open a theatre in the country?

M G-W: Hi Godfrey, lovely to reconnect with you too. That’s the great thing about our industry, we always get to meet up with each other at various intervals along the paths of our respective careers. I – and our audiences - are thrilled that you are going to be performing at RATA and we are looking forward to having you here.


I moved to the Riebeek Valley just over 2 years ago with my family and very quickly realised that there are still many problems here around racism, lack of inclusivity and real transformation. My response to this was to start a community performing arts project as I believe the arts (particularly performance) have the power to transform, heal and bring divided communities together. The Olive Branch Project was started in January 2019 and quite quickly became part of the arts and community scenes in the Valley.


I was also drawn into the broader arts community which had kind of started operating under the Arts Town Riebeek Valley umbrella and Klaus Piprek (the founder of Solo Studios, the Valley;s premiere annual fine arts event) and I started working together and some throwing ideas around. Shortly after moving here I became aware of the open-air amphitheatre in the grounds of the Royal Hotel. The venue had been standing unused for some years and I immediately promised myself that I would do something there before too long.


Then Covid came along and with it the decimation of the live performing arts. Sometime into the initial hard lockdown I was reading an article by Ismael Mahomed in which he posed several hypotheses around the reinvention and survival of theatre and I realised that, once the lockdown regulations were relaxed somewhat, we had the ideal venue on our doorstep in which to produce safer, socially distanced theatre events in the open air. I approached Robert Brendel, the owner of the Royal Hotel, who was excited by the idea and generously donated the venue free of charge and gave me carte blanche to plan a theatre season. This was in July 2020 and I set a deadline to open by mid-November with a fully curated season of professional performances supported by simple technical equipment and a team of trained technicians.


I identified the goals of what became known as RATA (Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre) as providing work and a bit of income for performing artists, a training and job creation initiative (linked to The Olive Branch Project) which would see eight unemployed members of the local community trained as theatre technicians who would then staff the productions and creating opportunities for audiences to attend live theatre safely. The overall goal is to contribute in any way possible to the survival of our industry through this difficult time.


Armed with some funding from a local private investor, the in-kind venue sponsorship from the hotel, a supporting grant from Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) and donations from some local businesses I set about equipping the theatre technically (under the guidance of Kobus Rossouw), setting up the technical training programme, also with Kobus’ input who put me in touch with Namhla Kalipa-Tunyiswa, a fantastic, young all-round theatre technician who ended up running the training course.


I put out a call to the Cape Town industry for submissions of small productions (one and two handers for social distancing purposes) which drew about 20 applications from which I selected 10 for the season. I also made the call to open the venue and season with a new play by Clare Stopford, Covid Moons, which, in retrospect was madness. It was a complex production with two actors, a musician, puppets, multiple video projections, sound effects and lighting cues and a set – all run by a newly trained technical crew, most of whom had never set foot in a theatre or seen a fully-fledged stage production. However the gamble paid off and Covid Moons was a critical and box office success despite opening ten days later than scheduled (due, ironically to one of the actors, falling ill with Covid during rehearsals).Covid Moons was followed by the rest of the season which included works with Lynita Crofford, David Muller Georick Veltman, Roger Lucey and  - of course  - you!

GJ: What inspired you to pursue a life in theatre and the arts as a whole?

MG-W: Like many a young gay boy I think I was initially inspired by seeing Joan Brickhill in productions like Hello Dolly and Mame at His Majesty’s Theatre in Johannesburg - and probably wanting to be her!


Fortunately, that developed as I got older into a desire to tell stories about the nature of being human. I realised very early on in my career that I didn’t like performing - and wasn’t much good at it anyway - and that directing was what I wanted to do. I continue to be inspired by my fascination with human beings and the need to tell stories which illuminate what it is to be human - warts and all - but that also move us closer to an understanding of how to do better at being human.

GJ: Can you share some career  highlights with us please?


MG-W: The Olive Branch Project and RATA, both of which came into my life in the last two years, are major highlights. Being able to create something out of very little in a time of such despair has flooded my life with meaning when I was sorely in need of it.


Other highlights all revolve around my artistic collaborations over the years of my career, most notably with Lynne Maree, Jana Cilliers and, of course, Dorothy Ann Gould. I have owned and run theatre production companies with all three women at different times. My collaboration with Jana produced two of my personal directing highlights, Masterclass, in which Jana played Maria Callas and Opdrag:Ingrid Jonker which Jana and I commissioned from the late Ryk Hattingh for our company and in which she starred and I directed.


The years of running the Actors Centre in Johannesburg of which Dorothy Ann Gould was Artistic Director and I Chairman of the Board cemented my love for skills transference and development, components of which I always try to have running parallel to whatever professional theatre work I am involved with. Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye with Dorothy as Hester and her husband Michael Maxwell as Johnny which I directed for our company Tripletake and which toured the country for several years, remains one of my favourite memories along with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking for the Market Theatre in which Dorothy gave her tour de force solo performance three years ago.

GJ: Mark Twain once said, “You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

How do you keep your imagination in focus?

M G-W: This is a tough question as, for many years, I didn’t keep it in focus. Due to personal circumstances which required me to earn a consistently good salary, I spent ten largely miserable years in television soap opera, during which time I often sacrificed my imagination in favour of providing for my dependents and responsibilities. I only recently made the decision to break out of this situation which I recognised I had created for myself out of fear and fear alone.


I now know that the ONLY way to keep my imagination in focus is to remain true to myself, authentic, honest and above all, to place my energies into what excites me and drives my passion for telling human stories. I will never again make the mistake of being a square peg in a round hole for the sake of a monthly salary.

GJ:  What is your secret to juggling personal life with the business of theatre.


M G-W: Simple. Each informs the other. I couldn’t create theatre if I didn’t have a personal life and my personal life would be much poorer without the insights that being in theatre provides me with for living. I know the question is probably more about juggling the practicalities and here I am lucky. Despite having two still relatively young children at my relatively advanced age, I manage – only because I am fortunate enough not to be single. I do not know that I would cope as a single parent in the theatre and I am in awe of the many who do juggle these two massive tasks with imagination and dignity.

GJ: What advice do you have for young aspiring creatives who would like to be the next Streep, Dickens,  Lady Ga Ga or Banksy?

M G-W: First of all, know absolutely with every fibre of your being that this is what you want to be and do. The arts are not for sissies and anything less than a 150% commitment to a life that is often going to be hard and frequently almost untenable is not going to work. Second, third, fourth and fifth; humility, humility, humility and humility. None of us will ever know it all and we can never stop learning. You will know nothing when you start so don’t be a dick. My years in television have made me despise the instant fame that comes to people who will never in a million years be able to call themselves actors. Then, work hard. Lastly, have fun and sprinkle some fairy dust. As often as you can. If it is never fun and you never experience any magic, you are in the wrong game.

GJ: Who and what inspires you to wake up in the morning?

M G-W: My family, my friends and my fascination with the human race.

GJ: What future plans do you have for RATA?


M G-W: Growth and development of our commitments to our artists our community and our audiences, hopefully a second Summer Theatre Season which we want to open with our Valley community production of Romeo and Juliet, and  - please universe – to make at least a bit of money from it!

GJ: What plans do you have for yourself?

M G-W: In addition to refocusing my imagination on theatre and skills transference and development I have re–enrolled to complete my suspended clinical studies in Logotherapy through the Viktor Frankl Institute of South Africa. My goal, through combining my theatre skills and experience with the philosophy and therapeutic models of Logotherapy, is to open a practise which provides Counselling and Coaching for Meaning Based Living.


Another long term goal is to establish and develop a regular theatre festival in the Riebeek Valley.

Social Media handles:

Facebook: Arts Town Riebeek Valley 

Riebeek Valley Olive Branch Project


Instagram: royalartstownamphitheatre


Instagram: royalartstownamphitheatre



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Urban Craft Magazine: Mark Graham-Wilson talks about the power of art
Mark Graham-Wilson talks about the power of art
Urban Craft Magazine
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