A Conversation with Marlene le Roux

On paper, Marlene le Roux is titled as the CEO of Artscape, however she personally prefers to be referred to as the facilitator. Marlene has made history by being the first women to hold her current position. We were extremely grateful to have the opportunity to sit down with her and get to know the woman behind the title.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I grew up in Wellington where I was surrounded by brilliant musicians all the time. I grew up in a community that experienced the brunt of apartheid but knew how to live life. I come from a poor community, but one of the most beautiful talents my community had was to play an instrument, to be able to sing, to be able to be part of choirs and most of the time it was church based. I grew up with music and the arts since I opened my eyes. My mother and my granny used to be singers and had a very good voice. From an early age I was engraved with the arts but the arts were never formalised in our communities in a sense that it was never part of music as a subject or being on stage. This bastion where I am now, it’s just a dream. Every day I pinch myself. I don’t take it for granted at all but I also say that I am the miracle of the new South Africa because this was a place that my people could never enter. 23 years ago they couldn’t enter here, this was for white people. So I see it as, “How do I overthrow the past but never exclude anyone?” Because we must learn from what has happened in the past so that we don’t become like the past.

I read that you’ve tried to make Artscape a home for the people. I think one of the quotes I read of yours was, “I use Artscape as a vehicle to implement our constitution.”

Yes. It’s not easy. A lot of people still have pain about this place. I am very aware that there is a long journey that we still need to go on. I am also very aware that black artists still feel that there still is more that needs to be done for them. Not everything will change in my lifetime. Change is time but it is also perceptions. I think what is important is that accessibility is also about how do you see yourself? You can decide, “I am going to enter a space” or, “I don’t enter a space.” How I see my role is a facilitating process of, “How do we facilitate that everybody feels comfortable?” so that everybody has a space where they can breathe. I think that is very important in South Africa. It’s a whole societal mindset that needs to change.

Marlene. Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

The issues about audience integration has come up in several interviews. I wanted to know your opinion on that and how are you working to actively ensure that Artscape audiences are integrated?

Arts currently is not a scientific subject in the most disadvantaged areas. The arts are still very much elitist. Only the parents that can pay can afford their children to at least be exposed to the arts. The arts is not just for you to become a professional artist, that’s the difference. The arts also ignites critical thinkers. The arts introduces you to literature. It exposes you to the world because you need to read about writers, the world, who is staging this… you read about John Kani, Zakes Mda, Athol Fugard. You are exposed. You are not just looking at the curriculum as a scientist. This country needs different kinds of scientists to be innovative, to be entrepreneurs, but basically to have a care of, “How do you see the world?” Why am I taking this long way of answering you? You can’t take the arts in isolation of integration. It’s a systemic challenge that we have. It is not just an Artscape challenge. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see the ballet, or have a ballet lesson in your life, you will think this is the most stupid thing that [you] must come and view when you are 60 years old. Will you buy a ticket? Secondly, is that, do you havea rail at Woolworths that is only for blacks? No. Everybody comes to Woolworths or to Pick ‘n Pay to buy. It’s the same with the arts. Can I now say that I keep 50 tickets aside in case black people come and buy the ticket?” No. I rewind that because it’s a whole way of having to look at it. What do we need to do? That’s why at Artscape we have an audience development and education program. We start with young people. We start from grade 1 to grade 12. I just had a meeting with the education department subject advisor in English and she came to give me good news. The kids that came to see Nothing but the Truth by John Kani had a better English mark than the schools that didn’t come and see the play. Scientific. So what are we saying? I want to take the emotions out of things. That’s why I say we use the constitution and I break it down. You can’t just put something in a little box and put a wrapper on it. It is a whole systemic challenge that we have in our country and until we are going to deal with it on the ground, obviously Artscape won’t be adhere to be fully integrated because it is societal issues of challenges that we have, it is economic challenges that we have, it is where people have not been having a welcoming experience 21 years ago coming to this building that needs to be programmed and the building is in the city. It is all of that that you need to look at. It is not just one factor, It’s a much bigger picture and a much bigger challenge than just an artistic challenge.

I know that you work very closely with the government so I feel like you might be able to answer this question better than anyone else, I wanted to know how you’ve noticed government support for the arts has changed throughout the years and maybe you can tell us about what is currently being done that we can perhaps get excited about?

There is nothing to be excited about. It is a mindset in government that needs to change. We don’t value the arts. If I can make an example, we get money for the building but not for the arts. I have a cross-subsidization model. I must hire the opera house out in order for us to produce arts which is transformational. It is not from government that the arts are funded. It’s from us hiring but I don’t see it as a challenge. I see that we have a wonderful asset. My first thing that I do is to maintain this asset to attract. I see it as a wonderful, positive challenge. In governments we concentrate on maths and science. What they don’t realise is that the GDP of Britain is high because of the artist, the export of the artist, the royalties of the music. It is about all of that because they invest in their artist. They invest in the arts and cultural exchanges. It’s for us to reexamine our policies. If you want to demote a minister, where do you put the minister? [The] Arts and Culture department. We should have the best. Who is there to take South Africa forward? Not science. The arts. Because what do you need? You need to bring people together. And the arts is the vehicle to bring people together. If we are not careful, we are going to have a wonderful uprise and it is going to be very soon. It started with Fees Must Fall because we don’t want to address the uncomfortability of our challenges.

Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

Out of all the different programs that are run through Artscape, do you have one that is particularly close to your heart?

It’s the rural outreach program. I started that 10 years ago. There I get hope and inspiration. It’s the ordinary people who make the difference. It’s the ordinary people that come to the production and they want to see. It’s the ordinary people that we introduce to the ballet and the indigenous artist and the dramas and the opera singers and the contemporary dancers and the contemporary singers and Afrikaans and isiXhosa singers on stage. When people leave there, it is like this is the beauty of South Africa. What we are doing there is to break down the silos and to break down the divide between the railway line that you need to cross to go to the township. Without us making any political speeches, that is what happens. I don’t have the doom and gloom of South Africa because I am an active citizen. I see Artscape as a wonderful resource to enable change, to bring people together. It is a wonderful resource. I will always thank government that we have the opportunity to have this resource. That’s why I make them crazy here. You won’t be able to work with me if you only see it as a job to make a salary because I make your life hell and uncomfortable. I must do it because this is state funding that we need to work with. In those programs I really see how people want to work together.

Jumping off of making people’s lives hell, I do think I need to touch on this fact just so that the readers don’t get the wrong idea but I read a writer’s profile on you where he remarked on how during your interview you stopped to chat to a cleaner and asked him about his family. You touched on the fact that this really is like a family. Why is that something that is important to you and how are you able to maintain those relationships on top of doing the work that you do?

I feel that everybody is important. My granny was a domestic worker. My mother was a factory worker. We were invisible. So I am very aware. And me being disabled, I have been invisible for most of my life because people don’t acknowledge you. You alone can’t implement a vision. It is a team effort. Every day I realise that the cleaning ladies are so important to that opera that is going to be staged now because that person who pays R500 for that opera, [if] that toilet is not clean [that person] will forget about the opera. Whether we have staged a wonderful opera will be immaterial because they will remember how dirty those toilets were because they paid R500. You need to value each and every person. I can be the CEO but I am absolutely nothing if the sound technician is not seeing to the sound for the show that is on that night. I could lose my job if that sound technician is not feeling valued. It is important that you need to see yourself as part of a team. My job is to let these doors be open. I must make people feel comfortable to come in. But if you don’t do your job, if you don’t pick up that phone and say, “Hello Artscape here, how can I help you?”… How important is that receptionist because that is your first port of call? Not me. You need to make people feel valued. That is extremely important.

Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

As the first female CEO/ facilitator, what would you like your legacy to be?

I am one of those people who never thinks about my legacy. I never think about, “What is my next move?” It is just who I am. I can be honest with you. I will never be able to tell people, “this is what I want to leave.” I take a day as it comes. I really cannot tell you what my legacy must be. I don’t see myself as so important. When I walk out of here, I go dancing. I forget about this place. I am not a sensitive person. I get a klap everyday here because it is about artists, and it’s about people. In this job you mustn’t be sensitive because you are judged by the public, you are judged by artists, you are judged by the community. 

I need to touch on the fact that you said that you don’t consider yourself important. I think it must be known, because you are in this position as a woman, as a person of colour, as a person with a disability, that you are paving the way for so many people who are going to come after you. And especially in regards to all the programs that you are implementing, people are going to look back and say, “This was because of Marlene le Roux.”

And then I want to sit in a corner and run away. Really. It’s a strange thing that I have with myself. I just got a doctorate from CPUT and I didn’t want to go to that graduation. They needed to force me because I didn’t tell anybody I was going to get it. Because for me, it is not about me. But I am now forced to go. There’s very few people who get it. I get extremely uncomfortable and I won’t come to your house or a party if I am introduced as the CEO of Artscape. You won’t see me again. It is just not my style. I am not perfect. I just want to say that I make mistakes every single day. I own up to my mistakes, but I never leave a day without sorting out the conflict. 

Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you? 

By helping to produce Miriam Makeba here on our stage, again I realise, besides her being an activist for us, how the arts can transcend and you can be telling a story. I was always a fan of hers but I didn’t know about things that we have now put on stage about her life. This woman had a life. This woman had heartache. This woman had a story that is so untold. And this woman was larger than life. Her legacy is not about money because during her time there wasn’t royalties. It’s the same as I was a fan of Brenda Fassie. You need to realise what talent is. Brenda Fassie had talent. I like excellence but I am not a purist. For me, this place must be to create opportunities that have endless possibilities. That is what we are here for. It’s to open up the space. If I look at a Miriam Makeba where all odds were against this woman, wow.

Special thanks to Shihaam Domingo, Marlene le Roux, Candice van Litsenborgh and Hannah Baker.

Photos taken by Candice van Litsenborgh at Artscape on 10th February 2017.

Sarafina Magazine and Candice van Litsenborgh maintain copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries please contact us.


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