The concept of a proper theatre in East London was born in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. An East London soldier and keen supporter of amateur theatre, Dr Bromilow-Downing, dreamed of the day he would be released and home again, and he whiled away the empty hours in the camp by writing a pantomime.
After the war, he and another East Londoner, Arthur Markson, formed an association in November 1953 called the Theatre Guild, with the idea of initiating interest in building a real theatre in East London.
The Theatre Guild soon comprised over 1 000 members through affiliated societies, including the Afrikaner Club, Association of Arts, Church Drama Club, Dramatic Society of East London, East London Music and Variety Club, East London Technical College Drama Club, and the East London Music Society.
Fund-raising started in earnest in May 1954. The societies staged shows in churches and school halls, and every year a pantomime was performed in the East London City Hall. Proceeds from all these activities went to the fund. As the money started rolling in, the Theatre Guild requested the then Department of Education, Arts and Science to match their funds pound-for-pound. Finally, the Department gave a grant of £25 000,00, the East London Municipality a loan of £25 000,00 and the Theatre Guild raised £29 000,00 — and the Guild Theatre was built at a cost of £79 000,00 (R158 000,00).
With their goal achieved, the Theatre Guild dissolved and the Guild Theatre officially opened on October 6, 1962 with a production of School for Scandal, directed by Mary Howe, who imported costumes from London especially for the occasion.
At last East London had a theatre of which it could be proud and which provided a home for amateur and professional theatre, ballet and music concerts.
The theatre was managed by the East London Guild Theatre Association, a non profit-making company, and the dramatic societies of the city provided the staff to run the theatre on a voluntary basis, with the exception of a part-time manager and one cleaner.
With the advent of television, theatre audiences declined around the country and East London was no exception. Gradually professional companies began to miss out the city as they could not play to empty houses and the amateur companies, too, cut their productions to an average of two a year to limit costs. The Guild Theatre began to fall into disrepair and there was no money to make the modernisations that were becoming necessary.
On July 1, 1986, CAPAB’s generous offer to take over the running of the Guild Theatre was accepted and the building was closed in March 1987 for extensive renovations. The revamped Guild Theatre, fully manned by permanent CAPAB staff, opened on February 29, 1988 with a performance of Carmen by CAPAB. CAPAB relinquished responsibility for the Guild Theatre in July 1997. It was handed over to the Eastern Cape Provincial Government in April 1998.
The Department of Public Works did its best to maintain the theatre with the limited funds at its disposal, but major repairs – such as a new roof to replace the 40-year-old one – were just not possible. And to add to the Guild Theatre’s repair woes, Public Works relinquished all responsibility for repairs and maintenance with effect from April 2001.
Nominations for a new management board were called for by the MEC of Sport, Arts and Culture at the time, Mr Mancotywa, from the citizens of East London and surrounding areas. The new eight-member board of the East London Guild Theatre was officially appointed in October 1998 with an undertaking from the Directorate of Sport, Arts and Culture to fund the theatre for three years on a sliding scale, ending March 2002. The East London Guild Theatre became an independent entity and a Section 21 company was formed. The board members all work on a completely voluntary basis to serve the theatre, representing the various cultural communities of Buffalo City and the surrounding areas. Its main task is transformation in line with the White Paper.
To fulfil the theatre’s vision of transformation and redress, the East London Guild Theatre Dance Company was founded in February 1999 with funding from the National Arts Council and later from the Department of Arts and Culture. The lives of its dancers were transformed by providing them with employment and – as dance transcends all language barriers – they continue to impact their teaching skills and expertise in dance styles of this area from traditional to Afro-contemporary to classical, in the community.