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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

DEATH OF THEMI VENTURAS



(Themi Venturas on stage, surrounded by colleagues and associates during the fundraiser for him at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in June. Photo: Shelley Kjonstad)

On Monday night (September 11, 2017), the South African theatre community lost one of its brightest, most beloved and most versatile stars with the passing of Themistocles “Themi” Venturas who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. He died at Hospice surrounded by his family: wife Trish and sons Matthew (29) and his fiancé Beth, and Alexander (26) and his wife Megan.

First and foremost, Venturas was a family man – a doting husband and a proud and attentive father, he put his family first and arranged his work schedule around his family routine.

Venturas (59) was an old-school theatrical all-rounder whose work ethic, broad range of skills, and ability to multi-task would not have been out of place in his beloved Shakespeare’s time. His approach to theatre was much like the ringmaster in an old travelling circus: he would be the one to personally help pitch the tent, stick up the posters, tame the lion, train the acrobats; hang the lights; placate the clown; make the popcorn; sell the tickets; ensure all the performers were in-costume and on-cue – and still be the one to walk into his spotlight in the saw-dust ring with top-hat, red-tails, faux-moustache announcing in his distinctive voice, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome….” 

He had worked in the industry for 30 years in many capacities: as an award-winning director, writer, performer, musician, producer and theatre manager of multiple venues and theatre companies. He directed, and in many cases produced, more than 500 productions ranging from revues; musical theatre; comedy; Shakespeare; opera; new South African works, and ceremonies / corporate events. A visionary community leader, Venturas has also been an active member and initiator of many performing arts civic associations, networking groups and funding bodies.

Born in 1958 in Mutare, Zimbabwe, and sent to live in Port Elizabeth at the age of four, he loved theatre as a child – winning several beachfront talent contests and wrote his first play in Std 7 / Grade 9.

His entire schooling was in PE - at St Patrick’s Marist Brothers College. As a national serviceman, while visiting his brother Nick at the University of Natal Durban (now University of KwaZulu-Natal), he found the drama department and met Professor Pieter Scholtz who convinced him to come to Durban to study. He studied drama at UKZN from 1981 to 1984 and got an Honour’s degree cum-laude.

As a student, he began his enduring affinity to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, evidenced by his familiar face on many of the Jock Leyden caricatures on the foyer wall. While at the University he started the EST Workshop group which gave classes to township youth. On graduation, he was offered a job as Head of Productions and Theatre Manager at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, and headed the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre Company. He also ran the Sneddon intimate supper theatre venue, The Bistro, and collaborated with UKZN drama’s Professor Mervyn McMurtry who became a life-long friend.

He also oversaw the premieres of works from the excluded community such as Offside by Ronnie Govender and You can’t stop the Revolution by Saira Essa.

In 1991, Venturas was head-hunted to set up the inaugural community outreach programme at the then Natal Performing Arts Council (NAPAC – now the Playhouse Company) known as KWASA. He developed the KWASA internship programme; ran regular township community festivals; and wrote new works for the KWASA programme, including the award-winning Taxi Jam and Jimbo.

It was during these years that he established himself as an inter-cultural performance specialist and earned the Zulu name of Mahlek’Hlatini (The Smiling Forest) as it was perceived that he smiled through his beard.

In 1993, he left the Playhouse and started Themi Venturas Productions: the only independent professional theatre company in Durban at the time. He directed and staged many local, national and international productions the most memorable of which was Princess Magogo kaDinuZulu, the first Zulu opera which after several successful South African performances and tours went to the USA, Netherlands and Norway. Also in his stable were many nostalgia tribute shows such as Good Vibrations, Cantina Tequila and The Guitar that Rocked the World.

Venturas was known for opening a myriad community theatres: 214 St Thomas Road, Limelight Theatre in Umhlanga, the Catalina Theatre in Wilson's Wharf – and most recently the intimate Isilulu Incubator in Clark Rd, among others.

“In many ways he was the glue which bound our fragile little Durban theatre community together – initiating projects, theatre venues, civic associations and festivals to put Durban on the map, to provide work for us all and to give opportunities to emerging practitioners. His legacy is multi-fold, but possibly among the many things for which he will be remembered is encouraging new talent to pursue their dreams. He was a pioneer of working cross-culturally, and mentoring young performers, especially those who had been previously marginalised,” says arts publicist, Illa Thompson.

“He has had a strong influence on many of our theatre men and women: Mpume Mthombeni, Nothando Zungu, Thabani Ngubane, Tiki Nxumalo, Aaron McIlroy, Lisa Bobbert, Brenda Sakellarides, Dawn Selby, John Vlismas, Natasha Sutherland, Kenneth Kambule, Collin Nhlumayo; Christopher Ngwenya, James Ngcobo, Arnie Field, Huey Louw, Debra Cleland, Peter Court, Adhir Khalyan, Clinton Philander, Faca Kulu, Amanda Kunene, Shanthan Pillay, Hamish Kyd, Rowan Stuart, Liesl Coppin, Percy Smith, Daisy Spencer, Des Govender, Riaan Timson and many many others,” she adds.

Some of his career milestones include the opening of the ICC, The Africa Peace Awards and the Durban Millennium celebrations. He initiated the Young Performers Project – now in its 16th year; he produced the Durban Tattoo and ran the Durban International Blues Festival every year. He was also President of the Alliance Française de Durban.

He recently went back to study and had just completed his intercultural theatre performance MA dissertation.

In May, Venturas found out that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. He chose international experimental meds to curtail the illness. A fundraiser, co-ordinated by his theatre friends including John Vlismas, Aaron McIlroy and Jackie Cunniffe, was held appropriately at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre on June 26 to raise funds to pay for this.

Despite being frail and in obvious pain, he attended both the Blues Festival recently and the opening of this year’s Young Performers Project Footloose on Saturday evening with his family at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, which he had produced: two astonishing legacy projects for which he will be remembered.

“It is fitting that his final theatre performance was at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre watching young performers acting their hearts out in a masterfully-directed and beautifully-crafted production. Saturday evening was a proud, heart-breaking and defining moment for all of us involved. With tears in our eyes and love in our hearts, Durban’s theatre community gives you one last standing ovation dear Themi, for your dedication, inspiration, leadership, vision, friendship and care. Musho!” adds Thompson.

His cremation will take place privately and a memorial celebration of his life will be held later this month.