Her Famous Directing Mentor Pushed Her to Write

By Randy Gener with Matthew Gurewitsch   
Lara Foot’s staging of Woyzeck. | Photo by Mark Wessels.

U.K. and SOUTH AFRICA |  Imagine being mentored by one of the world’s greatest theater directors.  Sir Peter Hall — the late, great titan of the British stage — embarked on his cycle of the Rolex Mentor Protégé Arts Initiative with a logical, coherent plan.   

His agenda for the year 2004 included several of his specialties:  among them Shakespeare (As You Like It, which he directed for the first time in his career), Harold Pinter (a revival of Betrayal, of which he directed the premiere in 1978), and an opera (La Cenerentola, the Rossini version of Cinderella).

Wasting no time, Hall summoned Lara Foot — the South African theatre director and producer –  to rehearsals for his production of Shaw’s Man and Superman even before the programme had officially begun.   Hall soon began, however, to develop an intriguing theory about his new associate. 

“My hunch,” he said within weeks, “is that Lara’s really a primary creator.  Not an interpreter or a ‘re-creator,’ though she can do that, too.  Writing plays, making films – that’s where she belongs.”

Lara Foot — who was mentored by Hall, who created the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 as well as led the Royal National Theatre for 15 years — was already noted for her creative spirit. As one of her country’s most promising directors, she has been recognized nationally for her hard-hitting work.

Although she has already made great strides on her own, Foot regarded becoming the protégé of Sir Peter Hall as “the opportunity of a lifetime.”  “This gave me the chance to extend my skill as a director,” she said.  “The theatre industry in South Africa is struggling, and it desperately needs to be nurtured.”

Apparently, she and Hall started with dialogue and observation of his work.  “Then we went on to dialogue and observation of my work,” she said.  “After that we went further.  He came to South Africa and saw the whole environment I work in.  We spoke about the direction for specific projects of mine, including plays he has directed as well as a new play of my own.”

Their relationship lasted one year from 2004 to 2005.  During that time, Hall discovered that she was not just a talented director.  She also had playwriting talents. He read her 2002 play Tshepang: The Third Testament, now widely acclaimed, which explores a real-life incident of child rape.

“Write more,” Hall advised his protégé.  “Playwrights are rarer, more precious than directors.”  So she did. He pushed Foot to steer away from only directing plays — but instead to write politically engaged dramas and to make films. 

Sir Peter Hall chose Lara Foot as his protégée in 2004
Lara Foot and Mncedisi Shabangu in Tshepang at Johannesburg

His influence as her mentor stuck.  Foot is today the CEO and artistic director of the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town, South Africa.  Yet she has also become known and respected for her own hard-hitting plays, which sensitively and creatively, tackle social issues in South Africa and for which she has won several awards. 

The mentorship came at an important time in her career, said Foot.  She was still based in Johannesburg and directing plays at the Market Theatre, where she had been mentored by playwright Barney Simon until his death in 1995.

Hall, an astute interpreter of texts, focused on her work and sense of worth.  He brought acute focus to bear on Foot’s writing:  “The form of writing, how words affect one another, how they are placed side by side,” she elaborated. “I took myself much more seriously as a writer after I saw how he valued text.” Her “very experiential and formal” relationship with Hall, she said, was an entrée into a more worldly conversation about creativity. “

A passion for storytelling

Storytelling has been Foot’s passion since her days at the University of Witwatersrand where, in 1989, she earned an honors degree in drama and received an award for outstanding achievement in directing. She was inspired early on by Barney Simon, the South African director who co-founded Johannesburg’s non-racial Market Theatre.   After winning the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award in 1995, Foot held senior directing posts at the Market Theatre from 1996 to 2000, implementing several reportedly visionary programs.

“Peter has seen my work at The Gate Theatre in London. This was one of the most fantastic experiences I have ever had,” Foot recalled. “He was very encouraging about my writing, which is inspiring. After he saw my work, our dialogue progressed into new dimensions.”

What was her first impression of your mentor? “I found Peter Hall warm, kind,” she replied. “Our first conversation was fascinating, challenging, vigorous as well as exciting. He is undoubtedly a giant of the theater.”

How did the mentoring year progress? “Peter and I started with dialogue and observation of his work. Then we went on to dialogue and observation of my work. After that we went further. He came to South Africa and saw the whole environment I work in. We spoke about the direction for specific projects of mine, including plays he has directed as well as a new play of my own.

How does she think her work was similar to or different from her legendary mentor?

Lara Foot replied: ‘Peter Hall deals more with text than with image.  He looks for meaning between words, and I’m interested more in space.  We both are fascinated by the way a story unfolds, and have respect for good writing.  And we both really like actors, and are fascinated by them.’

The late Sir Peter Hall

Does she think that Peter Hall’s guidance will change her approach to theatre?  “It already has,” she continued. “He has confirmed in me the need for form in the presentation of great works. The desire to explore colloquial dialogue has finally been banished from my thoughts. I will now look towards form and poetry.”

Was the similarity or difference a stimulus or a barrier to your relationship?  She said, “I felt like an artist who has only worked in watercolor who finds out you can also work with oil or with clay.  You add more to what you know.  You gain more skills than you’ve already acquired.  The bottom line for me is that I’ve primarily worked with image and with the relationship between images and bodies onstage.  Peter taught me to look at the relationships in words — to focus a lot more on that.  Now I can concentrate on both at the same time.

Has your approach to theatre changed or developed during the mentoring experience?
“Yes, it really has. Basically I’ve become much more responsive to form. And again, my expectations for myself have gotten higher. It’s given me more of a drive towards excellence.”

Lara Foot takes 2005 workshop at South Africa’s Market Theatre Lab,

Following her mentor’s advice

Lara Foot laughs when she recalls her initial impatience with the mentorship.  “I felt frustrated that I wasn’t directing, frustrated that I had to sit still all the time. But, at the same time, I felt deeply grateful that I did not have responsibilities. While you are in it, you have no idea what you are learning.”

By 2004, Foot had directed more than 30 productions, 23 of which have been new South African works, including a staging of Zakes Mda’s novel, Ways of Dying (2000), and her own creation, Tshepang (2003), a devastating portrayal of child abuse and infant-child rape in South Africa. Among the classics she has directed are Waiting for Godot (2001) and A Streetcar Named Desire (2002).

Foot said that the crime depicted in Tshepang, which is barely acknowledged in South Africa and virtually unknown outside of the country, is staggering, topping 20,000 such cases a year.

Tshepang — the 70-minute, one-act play that brought Foot to life for Hall — was her first original drama.  Such an experienced reader of scripts as Hall could recognize the potential of such a property instantly. 

From his hands, it quickly passed into those of Thea Sharrock, a former assistant who was just taking up the reins as artistic director of The Gate, London’s self-appointed “home of international drama.”  Sharrock pounced on the chance to present it as the opening attraction of her tenure, for three weeks beginning in September 2004.  The scheme fell into place in six weeks — the twinkling of an eye.

Actor Mncedisi Shabangu in Foot’s Tshepang

Her later writing demonstrated the benefit of Hall’s guidance.  Critics and audiences now applaud Foot’s nuanced understanding of the world of her characters and her redemptive storytelling, whether in her plays Karoo Moose (2007), Solomon and Marion (2012) or most recently Fishers of Hope (2014) in which she magically explores what she called our “core instinct” for hope beyond just the South African landscape and borders, setting it “somewhere in Africa.”

As for Hall, he had since found ample confirmation that her true place is with the primary creators.  ‘Write more,” Hall told Foot once again. “Playwrights are rarer, more precious than directors.”  It was the single most important lesson or piece of advice her mentor gave her.

Foot’s drama Fishers of Hope at Cape Town.

[Some parts were extracted from a chapter written by Matthew Gurewitsch for Unique Voices, Common Visions, a record of the 2004/2005 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.]

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