ONE OF THE SHINING lights on the Johannesburg theatre scene is Daphne Kuhn, a fiercely independent theatre producer and owner of the 200-seater Auto & General Theatre on the Square at Nelson Mandela Square, in Sandton. This vibrant, engagingly articulate and energetic personality is the recipient of a number of awards, including the Naledi Executive Director’s Award for her contribution to theatre. She has a deep, abiding passion for the arts. She has been in a competitive business for more than three decades and, over the years, her intimate little theatre, which is a stone’s throw away from the famous Mandela statue, has provided Gauteng theatre- goers with an exciting and diverse range of productions with more than 2000 shows staged since its inception in 1997. What drives her is her “allencompassing involvement in various aspects of theatre.”
In her early years Kuhn wanted to become an actress, never realising that one day she would be in a lofty position in which her decisions would help shape the theatrical landscape. “I started off studying drama at Pretoria University “a hundred years ago,” she laughs, “and attained my various degrees. I was essentially hoping to become an actress, but I hadn’t thought further than that. I always had the leading part in theatrical productions at school in Shakespeare and Children’s Theatre in Pretoria. We had a wonderful set of lecturers like Anna Neethling Pohl. We had a wonderful academic background and training. I performed in both English and Afrikaans. I also later taught drama and lectured at university.”
Kuhn did not remain in theatre. Soon after getting married in the ‘70s, she was fortunate enough to get a position with SABC TV in the drama department and served as an assistant to British TV producer and trainer Mike Leeston-Smith from its inception. She also worked for the Civic Theatre (now the Joburg Theatre) and the Market Theatre, and feels she was never totally fulfilled until an opportunity arose to open a little theatre in Rosebank in 1994. And that’s how her thriving and creative career as an independent producer began 24 years ago. After her success in Rosebank she cast her eyes towards Sandton, which she considered at the time to be “the hub and the centre of a fast developing area.” It was the right move at the right time. Kuhn raised funds, found a sponsor and in 1997 her new Theatre on the Square opened. During our interview, she raised the spectre of finance and the strain of keeping the theatre operating in a tough economic environment. It’s a tribute to her that she never quits and continues to bring innovative productions to her little space in Sandton. It has hosted a variety of plays (from Tuesdays to Sundays) but also classical music concerts at lunch-time on Fridays, comedy on Sundays, and jazz, including the recent annual jazz and blues weekend. Talking about the productions staged at her theatre she said 2017 had been a good year and there were many highlights.
What is important is that she takes her audiences into account when selecting a play. “There is a responsibility to educate an audience, entertain an audience and give them something that they like. But, at the same time, I believe there is a strong need to present new ideas, new voices and new things that that will broaden an audience’s mind.” She takes a chance with each production, adding that its obviously easier to stage an established overseas play than a newly written local one, sighting as an example the runaway success of “From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach.” Written by Chantal Stanfield, a Coloured actress from the Cape Flats who fell in love and married a Jewish singer named RJ Benjamin, the play cleverly turns Stanfield’s own life experiences into a delightfully funny onewoman show. Says Kuhn: “Essentially, I love doing drama; plays of pure, legitimate theatre. I find it easier to work on plays that target a select interest group. I try to encourage South African writers to give me scripts and I read tons of them all the time. Some are good, some aren’t so good. I’m influenced by contemporary subjects that hold up a mirror to our society, and I’m trying to create a voice, like the Market Theatre, while creating a balance between the commercial and the more serious, intellectual plays.” For her joy comes from watching an audience being challenged and provoked and entertained at the same time. Another form of enjoyment is working with a diversity of theatrical souls who are determined to stage the best production possible. “The people I work with have passion and it inspires me. Oscar Wilde said ‘I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.’” As a producer, Kuhn believes that an important facet is to help encourage young people to attend the theatre. “To see young people, through the medium of theatre, develop a love for this art form is wonderfully uplifting,” she mentions.
Her husband, Philip, a professional man, who is credited with taking many of the production photographs, enjoys music, theatre and the arts, and he encouraged his wife to approach theatre in a more businesslike manner. She says: “My background was totally academic and we weren’t trained to deal with the business side of things. The marketing of a play is sometimes more important to draw an audience, than the production itself.” Theatre has given her immense pleasure over the years and she is determined to “pay” back to the industry and to help keep arts and culture alive at a time when it’s in a parlous state. “We are hoping that companies with a vision will help sponsor more theatre in South Africa and so help the industry survive.” A devoted wife, mother and grandmother of four, Daphne Kuhn considers herself a homemaker who, when away from the office, loves to read travel, and to listen to music. “I’m quite normal, you know,” adds this impressive impresario.