A Conversation with Yvette Hardie

Yvette Hardie is a theatre director, producer, educator and advocate, focusing on theatre for young audiences. She initiated the launch of ASSITEJ SA in 2007 and leads the organisation as Director. She is currently serving her third term as President of the international ASSITEJ, which networks across 100 countries. In 2017, she was responsible for hosting the 19th ASSITEJ World Congress & Performing Arts Festival, Cradle of Creativity, for the first time in Africa. She produced the award-winning Colonnades Theatre Lab production, Truth in Translation, seen by 55 000 people worldwide. For her own company, FreeVoice Productions, she produces national and international tours of Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother. Her directing credits include Suzanne Lebeau’s The Ogreling and Mike van Graan’s Is it because I’m Jack? She is valued for her work in Arts Education, having written national curricula and textbooks for Dramatic/Creative Arts. Recently, she was awarded the Mickey Miner Award for Lifetime Achievement from IPAY for her contribution to theatre for young audiences locally and globally.

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

I would say, my parents. My father was a frustrated actor, I think. As a young man, he got involved in an organisation which was kind of an international movement around trying to bring a more just world and bring values back into politics and all sorts of things. One of the interesting things about them was that they used the arts to spread their message. His early working life was working on plays that would tour to China but as a boy, in fact, he was involved with Brian Brook’s theatre and playing in Peter Pan. He absolutely loved theatre and the arts so they always took me to things from when I was really small and I fell in love with it. I remember some really early experiences of theatre, coming here to what was then the Nico Malan to see ballets or musicals. I remember very specifically a Christmas play that we went to. It was kind of an immersive experience on a farm in Hout Bay where the whole audience treks around with wise men who are on the search for the baby Jesus and you are completely involved in the story. It just thrilled me. Apparently, when I was four, I was saying that I would be a writer and actress when I grow up. It came from there.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

Where did you do your training and what was your time like?

Because I knew that I was going to be an actress right the way through school, I knew that I wanted to go to UCT and that I wanted to study drama. At the end of my Standard Nine year, I did a method acting course which was part of UCT’s summer school and my parents very amazingly allowed me to arrive late for matric so I could finish this course. While I was in my matric year, I was already kind of into UCT in a way. I was on the campus and I was going to watch their auditions and exams and all I wanted to do was to act. After studying at UCT, I then moved to Joburg and started working as an actress but then also as a director and, interestingly, directing PACT’s school tours because that was what one did at that point. My first real directing experiences were with theatre for young audiences but at the time I didn’t really make that connection. Then I did an honours through UNISA and later on, I did my MA through what is now Tshwane University of Technology. The reason that I went there was very specific because while I was at UCT, I had an experience where my voice actually got quite badly damaged and it never felt the same after that experience. I wanted to find a way to strengthen that. I came across a book written by Arthur Lessac called The Use and Training of the Human Voice. It was completely unlike the other voice work that I had done before and somehow I just felt something working for my voice. I got really excited about that and I started using that work with my students. 

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

What was your very first encounter with ASSITEJ?

After I had been working in theatre in Joburg, I started to get more involved in teaching. I was teaching at the National School of the Arts. I became involved with the drama department and then I decided to go back into professional work. I was working on a very big musical called Truth in Translation. As I was travelling with this play, I was meeting people in different parts of the world who I later discovered were all connected to this thing called ASSITEJ, except I hadn’t quite connected the dots yet. Around the same time, a writer and professor who I knew went to Namibia to run a workshop for African playwrights for young audiences, which in fact was an ASSITEJ workshop. He came back and he spoke to [me] and to a colleague of mine and he said, “Have you heard about ASSITEJ because I believe that South Africa doesn’t have an ASSITEJ center and I really think that this is something that we should be investigating.” He kind of pointed at me and he went, “And you, Yvette, you travel internationally and you’ve worked with young people for a long time and you work in theatre, this would be an ideal thing for you.” I was kind of taken aback and thought it sounded interesting. I think through him I contacted Niclas Malmcrona who was then the Secretary-General of ASSITEJ and they were about to hold a meeting in Swaziland of ASSITEJ members from Africa. I went to that meeting and I got very excited because it was an opportunity for us to engage with the rest of the continent. In 2007, we launched ASSITEJ South Africa at the National Arts Festival and we gathered together a whole lot of people [who] we thought might be interested in being part of this organisation. It’s a network. It’s a whole range of different organisations coming together.

What was that first year like?

It was exciting to know we were becoming part of an international network of practitioners who were all passionate about the same things we were passionate about, but it was also very daunting because we had nothing. We had a group of people who we were working with and we had those skills. From early on, we took the decision to find ways to partner with other organisations that were already doing things to start to get the name ASSITEJ out there and to make a contribution. One of our first projects was with VPU which is an NGO that works a lot in Khayelitsha but in other townships as well. We ran a holiday program in the arts through VPU which gave us a little bit of exposure and our first taste of running a project and so it grew from there. We tried to find the space where people were already doing some of the work and to say, “Let’s work with you on this and let’s make it part of the international community of practitioners who are working in this way all across the world. Let’s share resources and ideas and see how we can support one another.” There was a lot of support across the networks. 

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

And then eventually you went on to become the  President of ASSITEJ International.

That all happened very crazily and very quickly. In 2008, I was invited to attend the Congress of ASSITEJ in Adelaide. Before I was due to go, I was contacted by Niclas and by a couple of other people who I had met, to say, “Have you thought of putting yourself forward as a candidate for the Executive Committee of ASSITEJ?” My response was like, “Are you crazy? I’ve just joined this organisation.” They kept persuading me and saying, “We think you’d be really great.” I spoke to the board of ASSITEJ South Africa and they said, “Go for it. There is no guarantee you are going to be elected.” I went to Adelaide and stood for election for the Executive Committee and frankly, I think they gave me the job of Treasurer because no one else wanted the job. That was a step on to the Executive Committee which meant that I then had access to the workings of ASSITEJ and got to understand this unbelievable community of theatre practitioners that are in over 100 countries across the world. The opportunities that came out of that for meeting artists, for seeing work, for understanding different kinds of approaches for young audiences, for hearing about new projects and being inspired and wanting to bring all of those things back home was just huge. I really believe that a lot of the growth of ASSITEJ in South Africa is very much due to the fact that I had such immediate access to the international world through being on the Executive Committee. I served that three-year term of Treasurer and then towards the end of that term, our President at that stage was stepping down. He started to have conversations with me about, “Have you thought about standing for President?” It was the same response, “Are you mad? I’ve just gotten on to the Executive Committee.” I think that what people responded to at that point was the fact that the exposure that I was getting at ASSITEJ was making such a huge impact on the work that was happening in South Africa. They could see that I was actively working to transfer the lessons back into our own practice and also because I had a very practical experience of building a national center, I had something to offer to other people who were coming into the organisation for the first time and who were maybe feeling a bit lost and didn’t really know what ASSITEJ was about. I had a feeling of what I felt we needed to be doing to make the organisation more accessible to people and more inclusive and engaging so that people could apply what they were learning into their own world because in the end, that is what it is all about.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

What have you noticed to be the evolution of children’s theatre in South Africa and globally?

I think there has been such growth in the last 10/11 years in South Africa of what’s happening in theatre for young audiences. If you think about before that, we only had, and still have, two permanent venues in this country that serve young audiences. Both of them are in Joburg. Then we had a couple of companies who were doing amazing work but they were all operating in such isolation from one another. There was such a sense of trying to survive in that landscape. I think the same thing is true across the continent. Because funding is hard to come by for theatre for young audiences, what tends to happen is that our work gets very driven by other imperatives. What theatre does is it gives children a different kind of experience that engages them with every cell and every part of their being [and] is profoundly transformative. It’s not about information. Yes, it can carry important information but what is really important is the experience because once the child has had that kind of transformative experience, they are open to learning, they are curious [and] they want to know more about it. You need to ask them the critical questions and you need to do it in a way that is so thrilling and so memorable that it’s going to be part of their conversation for weeks afterwards and they are going to want to think about the questions that the play raises. Because of the exposure to the international work where there are really interesting trends around work for very young audiences, I think it started to open the eyes of South Africa practitioners to what was possible. I think what ASSITEJ has been able to do is to say, “Here is an organisation that believes in you, that wants to support you, that wants to give you opportunities to engage with international work or to see other options, that wants to help you in doing the work that you are already doing so you can do it better.” In that process, we’ve started to see a whole lot of new developments. We are seeing much more challenging work being made for primary schools that isn’t just based on the same old stories. It’s about engaging the artists first and foremost.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

Because your current term ends in 2020, what would you like your legacy with ASSITEJ to be?

Well firstly, I have no intention of stopping [my] work in the South African space in terms of theatre for young audiences. I think there is a huge amount of work that we still need to do here. We’ve got an educational program now that empowers teachers to teach creative arts which we are hoping to be rolling out nationally over the next ten years. We’ve committed to Cradle of Creativity as a bi-annual festival which will continue and we are working in six-year cycles. I want to see South Africa as a leader for theatre for young audiences in the world because I think we have the capacity to be that. I think already we are very inspiring. I think holding Cradle of Creativity here was huge. It impacts not just us but practitioners in Europe and America. [It] was enormous and they are really excited by what’s happening in South Africa. I intend to continue to work in that space. Within ASSITEJ International, I’m stepping down in 2020. I’ll still be involved but obviously I’m not going to be involved in leadership and what I’d love my legacy there to be is to leave an organisational structure that is continuing to be inclusive, that is growing, that is about ensuring that those people who are coming from other parts of the world where the funding is not the same as it is in Europe, feel welcome. That there is a diversity and a vibrancy in the organisation. It’s really become a very dynamic and diverse collective of people. I really hope that it stays that way and continues to grow. One of the things that we are working on at the moment and that I’d also love to be part of the legacy is to have more children’s voices involved because this is an organisation for children but we don’t engage with children so much in the way that we run the organisation or in the way we decide on our programmes. I really hope that there will be more access for child and youth leadership within the organisation. The other part of the legacy is that I never want to see Africa being so absent from the international theatre for young audience space as it was when I arrived. It wasn’t that it was completely absent, for example, Zimbabwe has had a long history of making theatre for young audiences and various other countries; Rwanda, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia, but they are often are not very visible in the international space and they are not part of the conversation. I really hope that what I’ve tried to do in this period is to start those conversations and get them a really strong place at the table. I really hope that is going to continue.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

You entered into this industry in the creative realm of making and creating and now it may seem like your current position is more administrative. How do you manage to still stay inspired and creative?

I love working with directors and writers. The last time I directed was 2013, so I’m really hoping that when I have some more time, I’m going to be able to go into directing again. I’m very inspired by working with other artists. By helping them realise their ambitions, I feel like I am still part of a creative process. I also love to be on the ground running workshops. I find that very creative. I run a lot of workshops with teachers and other artists helping them learn facilitation skills and that kind of thing. Whenever I am in a workshop space, I feel very energised. I also do a lot of public speaking because of my role and I find that creative as well because I’ve got to think about how I’m going to package what I’m going to say for a different audience and try to understand their context. I feel like my job is very creative. It’s not quite doing what I said I was going to do when I was four but I still feel like it is very much part of this longer scope of things that I’m doing that are rooted in creativity. I couldn’t do what I’m doing without keeping my creativity alive.

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Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

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

Janice Honeyman is a huge pioneer of theatre for young audiences and she is just one of the most gorgeous human beings. She is so dedicated and she’s done so much for South African theatre. Thembi Mtshali-Jones is one of my inspirations and I feel very privileged to have gotten to know her very well over the years and to work with her as a colleague and also very much as a very dear friend. She is just incredible and so talented. Sindiwe Magona is my personal inspiration. If I can get to Sindiwe’s age and have the energy that she has and the childlike enjoyment of life, I would be very very happy. I don’t think I will ever be able to embody all of the qualities that Sindiwe has but she is quite phenomenal. There are so many actresses that I think are just amazing and I love to watch on stage. Susan Danford would be one. Directors; Yaël Farber and Lara Foot. One of the things that always amazes me about the South Africa theatre scene is that when I travel to other places, there is a lot of concern about gender issues and gender equality. I look at people like Mamela Nyamza and Ntshieng Mokgoro and Lara and Yaël and Lara Bye and people I work with like Jaqueline Dommisse and Tsholofelo Shounyane. We’ve got some strong, powerful women in the arts in South Africa who have made an incredible impact and who continue to be leaders in all sorts of ways in their communities. I think we are quite a world leader there, I’d say.


For more information on ASSITEJ, please visit their website.

Special thanks to Candice van LitsenborghChristine Skinner and Hannah Baker

All photos were taken by Candice van Litsenborgh on February 6th 2019 at Artscape

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

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