The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre – A Cultural HavenBY: .
Nestled on the Howard College campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) School of Arts, lies the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre (EST).
Founded in 1981 by the late Professor Elizabeth Sneddon, the EST has the proud reputation of being the first theatre to service a Drama department at an academic institution.
Professor Sneddon was the inaugural head of the Speech and Drama Department at the former University of Natal, and a pioneering theatre director and performer who spent most of her life advocating for theatre as a tool for social change.
The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre has been a cultural haven for over 40 years, and is a staple in the South African arts scene, hosting a wide array of productions that have both entertained and educated audiences, whilst showcasing local talent.
The theatre’s intimate 400-seater venue provides an immersive experience for audiences, allowing them to feel like they are a part of the production. The stage is versatile and can accommodate a range of productions, from plays and musicals to concerts and dance performances. The theatre is also equipped with state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, ensuring that every production is of the highest quality.
One of the theatre’s defining characteristics is its commitment to promoting and nurturing local talent. The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre has been a launching pad for many South African artists, including award-winning actors, playwrights, and directors. It has also played a pivotal role in the development of theatre education in the country, through the support of youth theatre projects, the voluntary training of aspiring theatre technicians, and providing a learning and performance space for UKZN Drama and Performance Studies students.
Ms Jackie Cunniffe, the Director of the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, emphasised the theatre’s commitment to promoting local talent. ‘We are passionate about nurturing young talent and showcasing South African artists, providing a professional, affordable and welcoming space for them to showcase their work and connect with audiences.’
In addition to its support of UKZN student drama productions, the Sneddon (as it’s affectionately known) is also available for hire by outside companies, and therefore hosts a wide variety of independently produced events. In addition, the theatre has a close association with the University’s Centre for Creative Arts (CCA), playing host to internationally reputed events such as the annual JOMBA! Contemporary Dance Experience. Through its various initiatives, the CCA seeks to nurture artistic talent and create platforms for cultural exchange, both locally and internationally. Some of the CCA’s flagship projects hosted at the Sneddon over the past two decades include the annual Time of the Writer festival, and the Poetry Africa festival.
The theatre’s programming is diverse and inclusive, with productions that appeal to a wide range of audiences. From hosting classical plays like William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to award-winning musical theatre productions such as Sweeney Todd and Cabaret, contemporary plays such as Isidlamlilo, music concerts featuring SAMA artists and nominees such as Guy Buttery and Madala Kunene, and political satire by the legendary Pieter-Dirk Uys, the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre offers a platform for productions that challenge, engage and enthral audiences. The theatre also serves as a platform for social justice issues, with productions that tackle topics like gender-based violence, inequality, and racism.
‘Theatre has the power to challenge and provoke, to educate and inspire. We believe that the productions we host can play a role in creating a more just and equitable society, in addition to relieving stress, providing hope and encouraging laughter through stressful times,’ said Cunniffe.
The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre has played an important role in the broader cultural landscape of South Africa. For many years, the country’s arts industry was hampered by apartheid-era laws that restricted freedom of expression and limited access to resources. The Sneddon Theatre emerged as a beacon of artistic freedom, and by providing a space for artists to express themselves freely and engage with diverse audiences, it continues to break down barriers and foster a sense of community among artists and audiences alike.
Some of the most notable productions staged at the theatre in earlier years include Barney Simon, Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa’s Woza Albert! – a satirical production that played a crucial role in the anti-apartheid struggle; Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys featuring celebrated actor John Kani, and KwaZulu-Natal’s own Ladysmith Black Mambazo in concert.
For many artists, the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre and the CCA have been crucial in their artistic development. Ms Sbonakaliso Ndaba, a choreographer and dancer who has showcased her work at the theatre, speaks highly of the space. ‘The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre has always been an important venue for us as artists. It’s a place where we can experiment with new ideas and showcase our work to a diverse audience. The support we receive from the CCA is invaluable, and it’s a great feeling to know that we have such a supportive community behind us.’
The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre is a cultural gem and a highly sought-after venue in South Africa. Through its support of the Sneddon, UKZN must equally be acknowledged as an important and vital contributor to the South African performing arts industry. As Elizabeth Sneddon once said, ‘theatre is a living art, a mirror of life.’
With its hard-working and passionate team of employees, the Sneddon continues to be that mirror, reflecting the beauty, complexity, and diversity of South African life.
- This article appeared in the July issue of Pulse. Read the full edition here.
Words: Melissa Mungroo
Photographs: Melissa Mungroo, Sethu Dlamini and Val Adamson