The Fugard Theatre was well known for its striking street view of stone walls and large stained-glass windows. This part of the building was built as an extension behind the Congregational Church on Buitenkant Street, in the early 1890’s, as a church hall and Sunday school. The church and hall survived for a short period (roughly 15 years) before the church was demolished to make way for the corner warehouse (now The District Six Homecoming Centre). The new warehouse floors and steel structure were introduced into the church hall space at this time, carving it up into three levels. For most of its life, the hall space existed as part of the warehouse and not as part of the church.
The tale of these two entwined histories is etched onto the structure’s walls, and considerable effort was expended to ensure that it was not lost. The remnant church hall, which became The Fugard foyer and the Studio Theatre above it, displays textural overlays illustrating its dual history as church space and warehouse. Glass panels in the floor and some of the walls show the stone below, exposing the materials that make up the walls. The glass floor around the then coffee bar was over the apse of the old church. Sadly, the foyer floors are not original. The original floor succumbed to beetle damage and had to be destroyed. However, before it was destroyed, it was used as construction shuttering for the concrete spine wall that supports the stairs. You can see the “memory” of this floor in the wood grain texture in the concrete wall. The existing floor was salvaged from the old mezzanine floor where the Studio Theatre is now.
The entrance glass wind lobby was made out of the old steel windows removed from the original warehouse.
As you enter the main theatre ( today named after a historical District 6 cinema, The Avalon), there is a glass cabinet showing the exposed layering of the original walls. This is another example of preserving the memory of the building’s origins.
The building which housed the Fugard Theatre’s Main Auditorium (now known as the Avalon Theatre) dates back to the 1930’s. Primarily concrete and solid, the theatre maintains the look and feel of the original space. You can still see the “scarring” of the openings where the windows were removed for the steel glass lobby at the entrance in the theatre’s walls, so the memory of the old floors and windows remains. The Main Theatre underwent three iterations where the seating was upgraded to ensure commercial viability and audience comfort. Initially, the main theatre had unreserved red bench seating.
This was changed in 2011 to traditional theatre seating with single reserved seats. This change was a game-changer for the theatre, but more seats were needed, so a second attempt was made where the two balconies were extended and the extra rows of seats added. This change took place in 2013 and allowed the theatre to raise its seating capacity to 325 seats. The main theatre also housed a state-of-the-art Fugard Theatre Bioscope, a popular cornerstone of The Fugard’s artistic offering.
The Sigrid Rausing Studio, named in honour of the Founding Producer Eric Abraham’s wife, who with Eric generously supported and underwrote the running costs of The Fugard, was initially built to be a rehearsal space for the Isango Portobello group and additional event space. In July 2011, the room was transformed into a 120-seat venue with raked seating and a raised stage with a full lighting and sound rig, which was installed onto an aluminium trussing structure, allowing flexibility. The Studio sat above the Foyer with the iconic and original church windows as a backdrop to the stage. Much like the Foyer, the walls were kept untreated to keep the memory of the original textures and the walls’ layers visible.
The Studio was home to many of the smaller productions that took place at the Fugard and hosted rental shows. It was also the space that Athol Fugard was most fond of and where many of his newer works premiered in South Africa. Athol Fugard also performed on the Studio stage in his last acting role in The Shadow of The Hummingbird, which he wrote and developed with his wife, and writer DR Paula Fourie.
In 2011, the Fugard Main Theatre was fitted with state-of-the-art cinema equipment to enable the theatre to be flexibly transformed into a fully functioning Bioscope (cinema) for several seasons of curated movies and recordings of international theatre, and ballet and opera. This allowed cinema screenings of all kinds to be presented without disrupting the theatre’s live show schedule. It was achieved by installing a push button 9-meter automated roll-down cinema screen.
The Fugard Bioscope – as it was then named and known, hosted several film festivals and special screenings. The inaugural screening series was presented in the run-up to Athol Fugard receiving his Lifetime Achievement Tony Award on June 12, 2011. To honour his achievement, The Fugard Theatre Bioscope scheduled a week of screenings of films based on his works, from Boesman and Lena and The Guest to the Academy award-winning Gavin Hood directed Tsotsi. As the Bioscope became more popular, it evolved into the World Cinema Season, where hundreds of recorded live screenings, including titles from The Bolshoi and Royal Ballets, Pathé Live and National Theatre Live, were screened. In addition, many film premieres were hosted by the Bioscope, including in March 2019 the world premiere of Oliver Hermanus’s Moffie, produced by Founding Producer Eric Abraham.
In 2021 The Fugard donated the Fugard Bioscope System, which includes a state-of-the-art DCP projector, 9-meter motorised screen and 5:1 surround sound system, to the Baxter Theatre in the hope that the Baxter could benefit from running its own version of the Bioscope and continuing the legacy of the Fugard Bioscope. The installation costs of the system at The Baxter were included in the donation.
Above the Main Theatre portion of the building and next to the roof of the old church building was the Fugard Theatre Rooftop. This space was a viewing area with spectacular 360-degree views of the city, Table Mountain, and Cape Towns Historic City Hall. Initially, it was a concrete slab, but as the management and production style of the Fugard changed, its potential as an event space became apparent, and it underwent multiple upgrades. A stretch tent was installed to provide shade, and Astroturf was laid to create the now-iconic green area. The bar team made this space their own, creating a portable bar system, and added seating for patrons to enjoy before and after shows.
Many special events and opening night events were held here. Most notably and historically, it was the venue for the media launch of Kat and The King’s revival in 2012, which was one of The Fugard’s most successful musical productions and launched the Fugard into the world of producing South African and international musicals. It was also the venue for the Covid fated 2020 season launch.
The Bar was the heart of The Fugard Theatre and a place where audiences and artists could gather before and after shows to have a drink or hot coffee and enjoy freshly made food. The bar counter is made of the old timber beams salvaged from the mezzanine floor of the old Studio Theatre (now known as the Star Theatre, another now demolished District Six landmark). This was to keep in line with the design concept of conserving and recycling as much of the original building’s material, preserving the memory of the space.
The bar had a somewhat limited offering in its first nine months of opening in 2010. However, when the management changed in December 2010, the bar evolved into a world-class food and beverage experience unseen in any South African theatre at the time.