Up Close and Personal – Top Twelve Intimate Theatres in Cape Town
Cape Town is home to several impressive theatres. The Artscape, Baxter, Fugard, Maynardville and Theatre on the Bay are well-known by local lovers of theatre, dance and music. But the city also hosts a wide range of independent or smaller theatre venues which are well worth a visit if you’re a bit of a thespian.
This started off as a short blog on a handful of small theatres in Cape Town. But the more I dug the more I unearthed unmissable theatre gems. I’ve limited myself to a dozen, and even within that there is a huge variety of intimate theatre on offer in and around the Mother City.
The Alexander Bar
In the city centre is one of my favourites, the Alexander Bar. I’ve seen a wide variety of great productions here, most recently the brilliant local play Baloog en Brommel (shameless plug for a superb piece of theatre), and never been disappointed.
As you enter the Alexander Bar you pass the raised stoep of the building. Although there are plenty of tables and chairs, it is often standing room only, heaving with patrons doing some serious mingling.
Inside are the café and bar, in all their red-walled, vintage-decorated splendor. There is a distinctly turn-of-the-(19th)-century boudoir feel to the venue, with its opulent, richly-coloured furniture, fittings and artworks, but perhaps the most striking and unusual feature is the collection of old rotary phones. These are all working, and you can use them to chat to other patrons across the room or dial 9 to order from the bar, which serves a good range of local wines as well as several interesting draught beers on tap.
The downstairs area also serves as a venue for live music, and other events. Upstairs, in a tiny venue which seats around 40 seats, is where the theatre happens. There are often several short and entirely varied productions happening on one night, so the chances are you’ll have plenty to choose between, but you definitely need to book in advance. A glance at tonight’s programme shows me there’s cabaret at 7, live music downstairs at 8, and comedy and a drama both at 9 – and that’s an average Monday night!
The Alexander Bar business is currently for sale, and I know that I’m one of many devoted patrons who are holding their breath, hoping that whoever takes it over changes as little as possible so that the “personality” of this unique venue is maintained.
Just down the drag, pun fully intended, you’ll find the “burlesque meets Birdcage” theatre Gate 69. Described as a “mini Moulin Rouge”, this cosy 80-90 seater venue serves up mezze eats and saucy, irreverent cabaret and recently received a #1 rating as best theatre experience on the Western Cape on Tripadvisor for its excellent entertainment, catering and service. They promise that five minutes in their presence will leave you “touched emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically, inappropriately, all of the above, and not necessarily in that order”, so if that sounds like a promising night out, Gate 69 is a must.
The Bindery Lab and The Arena
If your taste in intimate theatre tends towards the more cerebral or experimental, the University of Cape Town’s Bindery Lab and the Arena Theatre stage a wide range of academic and student productions. Sadly the Intimate Theatre, which hosted productions from a wide range of theatre companies, closed its doors a few years ago.
At the V&A Waterfront you’ll find another small independent theatre, the Galloway Theatre. This theatre can seat 70 to 80, depending on the seating configuration which can be proscenium, reverse proscenium or theatre-in the-round, according to the needs of the production. The theatre is sometimes used by the Waterfront Theatre School students, but it is more frequently hired out for a very diverse range of live productions. You’d think that its location at the Waterfront would make it prohibitively expensive for smaller, independent theatre groups, but the refreshing truth is that the Galloway asks only for a split of the door takings. This is specifically to encourage new work, in keeping with the inclusive vision of the late Keith Galloway, after whom the theatre is named.
Heading south out of town, the next important theatre stop is Observatory. Always a creative hub, it’s not surprising that you’ll find several small alternative theatres here. Sadly the wonderful Armchair Theatre is a thing of the past, but there are a few other venues hosting live productions in this ‘hood.
The Magnet Theatre
Observatory’s Magnet Theatre aims to create exciting, innovative and sophisticated African theatre. They have a special focus on developing a physical theatre language which transcends verbal language barriers and have staged some groundbreaking and award-winning physical theatre productions, such as Every Year, Every Day I am Walking, which has just returned from a tour in Japan. With their highly specialised training programmes, the Magnet Theatre aims to increase employability and provides valuable work experience for graduates originating from disadvantaged communities in Cape Town.
228 on Lower Main
Around the corner from the Magnet is Afda’s theatre, 228 on Lower Main. Established in June 2016 in a deconsecrated church from the turn of the last century, the theatre seats about 70 people on the original wooden pews which have been raised to create raked seating. Several excellent AFDA productions as well as a few outside offerings have been staged at the venue, Future plans are to provide certain window periods for professional theatre productions in the space.
Continuing south, you pass what used to be the Rosebank Theatre. Sadly, the Rosebank Theatre, devotedly created by Nicholas and Liz Ellenbogen, is no longer functioning as a theatre. It’s a great pity, as this tiny 50-seater was a really charming and intimate space.
Masambe Theatre at the Baxter
The Baxter Theatre complex dominates a good chunk of Main Road Rondebosch – you can hardly miss it. But nestled underneath the main theatre complex, and much less well-known, is the Masambe Theatre.
The Masambe is a 60 seater venue, co-ordinated and curated by the dynamic UCT graduate, Nwabisa Plaatjie, with the aim of creating a space, as well as opportunities, for young artists to collaborate and to showcase their work. It is an affordable, inter-disciplinary hub which hosts screenings, jazz evenings, comedy nights, discussions, indigenous music and theatre productions.
Travelling into the South Peninsula, you’ll find two theatre gems along the main road: the Masque Theatre, in Muizenberg, and the Kalk Bay Theatre.
The Masque Theatre
The Masque Theatre was established 60 years ago by a local attorney called Bertie Stern. Then the Chairman of the South Peninsula Dramatic Society, Stern insisted that the theatre should be multiracial and achieved this despite all the obstacles put in his way.
I’m cheating a little by including it with the rest of these very small theatres as the Masque can seat 174 people, but there is still a charming sense of intimacy about the venue. It functions as both a professional and community theatre space, hosting a variety of plays, soirees and recitals as well as seminars, presentations and film shows, but its core business, true to the intentions of its founder, is amateur and community theatre.
A few decades ago, in another life, I played the jilted wife of the hot-blooded hero in Lorca’s Blood Wedding at the Masque, and had to sing unaccompanied on that stage. I’m not quite sure how I got myself into that terrifying situation, but I have recovered over the intervening years, and hope the same can be said for the audiences that were there on those nights.
The Masque is accessible, wheelchair friendly and offers eats and a fully licensed bar.
Further down the Main Road and situated above the historic harbour, is the Kalk Bay Theatre with its adjacent restaurant.
The Kalk Bay Theatre
The Kalk Bay Theatre is intimate venue, lovingly and enthusiastically run by musical theatre performers Vanessa Harris and Ashley Searle. Housed in a deconsecrated Dutch Reformed church which dates back to 1876, the theatre specialises in entertainment theatre such as comedy, dance, music and cabaret, most of which Harris and Searle create themselves. They’ve crafted a space where people can bring their families, enjoy a meal in the restaurant (situated on the mezzanine level above the stage area) and watch something escapist and fun. The theatre seats 78, with the front row just centimeters from the action.
At this point we need to veer off our city-to-South Pen trajectory and head out to the northern suburbs, on the other side of what Capetonians refer to as the “Boerewors Curtain”.
Harking back to the glory days of cabaret dining in Hillbrow, Yeoville and Kalk Bay (think Amanda Strydom, Elzabe Zietsman and Johannes Kerkorrel), Die Boer aims to provide elegant “dinner theatre” with top quality food to match its entertainment offerings. In the heart of Durbanville, The venue hosts a wide range of live music productions as well as theatre. Although the focus is on Afrikaans you’ll find many productions in English on their programme as well.
Then, if you’re willing to drive for about an hour from Cape Town, you can also visit legendary satirist Pieter Dirk Uys’s Evita se Perron in Darling.
Evita se Perron
Set in the former Darling railway station which inspired its name (perron means platform in Afrikaans), Evita se Perron is a cabaret theatre and restaurant created by Pieter Dirk Uys in 1996. On weekends you can see Uys and many of his alter egos in action, including the iconic Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout after whom the theatre is named. You can also enjoy some typical South African cuisine in the restaurant or even hire out the venue for a corporate or private function.
And now for this final and very exciting Cape Town theatre space. I’ve left it until last to end on a high note…
The Makukhanye Art Room
The Makukhanye Art Room is the first ever shack theatre in Khayelitsha and has won acclaim for its innovative approach and its award-winning productions. The brainchild of talented performer, theatre practitioner and dedicated cultural activist Mandisi Sindo, this self-built venue was created as a space for “telling our own stories, whether through writing, performing or creating”. Sindo has been hailed as a hero, a dreamer and a doer who works tirelessly to provide opportunities for youth, budding artists and local entertainers.
By constructing the theatre in Khayelitsha, Sindo has provided an accessible venue for an ever-growing audience and a network of actors, directors, musicians, writers, dancers, artists who are not easily able to access cultural facilities in Cape Town’s city centre.
Whether you’re after something cerebral and experimental, glitzy and glamorous, gritty and authentic or all of the above, there’s an intimate theatre in Cape Town waiting to welcome you.