THE BROW: Ever since his grandfather lived in Hillbrow, Gerard Bester has wanted to return to live and work there. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN
THE BROW: Ever since his grandfather lived in Hillbrow, Gerard Bester has wanted to return to live and work there. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN

GERARD Bester is perhaps best known for some of the extensive and significant roles he plays, whether as a co-creator, performer or teacher, than as the newly appointed creative director of the Hillbrow Theatre Project. However, it is clear that this latest cap fits best.

Bester has been working at the project for the past five years. Theatrical training is offered to nearly 150 children who live in the inner city. The school is at 16 Kapteijn Street, in the former Andre Huguenet theatre. The project’s funders include EED (Evangelische Entwicklungsdienst)/Brot fur die Welt (Bread for the World) Germany, ELM (Evangelical Lutheran Mission Germany, MacShipping Germany, the Lutheran World Federation, the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, and the City of Johannesburg through the Joburg Arts Alive International Festival.

The funding allows the project to operate on a no-charge basis. The children do not audition, which means they just arrive. "As long as they show commitment and dedication they are allowed to continue," says Bester.

Two projects the Hillbrow Theatre Project were involved in that stand out for Bester were Fair Play and the Passion Play. With Fair Play in 2010, during the Fifa World Cup, he says for him it inspired the notion: "What are the games we play?" He used this as an opportunity to help the children examine identity by way of unpacking culture, religion, gender, sexuality and allowing the children to question how to bring about fairness in all of that, being cognisant that what might be fair for you is not necessarily fair for me, thereby helping the children to explore human rights.

"We did this project at Constitution Hill and had a wide array of partners, including the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Museum Africa and Sci-Bono of the Newtown district, and MultiChoice. What I love about the work here is this idea of networking and partnership."

He says that when he first began to work at the theatre, he made it clear he needed the environment to be a secular space because he comes from a nonreligious background. When pressure was put on Bester for the children to perform The Passion Play, he introduced a black, female Jesus, using the opportunity to prod at self-examination and exploration among the children. Bester says he has always reaped great rewards from enabling people to develop a journey.

About his personal journey, Bester says: "I was born in Hillbrow at the Florence Hospital. Although we moved out of the area when I was two, as a child, my parents kept returning. Our Sunday night escapade was to come to Hillbrow. We would have supper at the pancake bar. Then we would hang out at Exclusive Books and at the Hillbrow record store, followed by a Milky Lane treat before returning. My grandfather, who was rather eccentric, also lived in Hillbrow. He was a photographer. He had this wonderful flat, with a darkroom. I would play in the darkroom and learn about photography."

His exposure to the local people his grandfather took pictures of introduced him to an alternative life that was both intriguing and fascinating: "As a result of this, my dream as a child was always to live in a flat in the city one day. There was something about the city that excited me — an urgency — life on the streets; visibility of people all around you; even from your flat window. The city brought the outsiders in, people that couldn’t live in the small towns because they were not accepted, for one reason or another, could live anonymously in the city with the space allowing them an opportunity for expression."

Another influence in Bester’s life as a child was his exposure to theatre. "Quite a few of my family are in the arts world and, as a young child, I would spend a lot of time there. I went to see Godspell at the Parkview Theatre nine times. And I had access to go backstage. I almost felt a part of it. Again, there was a fascination with the other world."

When the time came for Bester to begin his studies, drama was an easy choice.

"What has always intrigued me about drama is the ability to transform myself, while at the same time being part of another world."

One of his first successful roles was playing the useless man in The Fantastical History of the Useless Man, which was a Junction Avenue Theatre play directed by Craig Freimond.

"I was the useless man. I had to speak directly to the audience playing both the comic and the tragic while drawing the audience into that world. It was very empowering. I was always a shy boy. There, I found a voice. I seem to have the ability, some talent that allowed me to be there and continue to be there.

"Politically speaking, being a white male in this conflicted country, drama offered me a way to comment on the world and to debunk one’s apparent white male power." Bester says of returning to Hillbrow in 2007 after an 18-year hiatus that in some ways he has found it scary, but at the same time it felt like an extraordinary opportunity for him to return and run an arts programme in the inner city.

"On one level there is still the romance of the inner city being the heart of Joburg.

"Although there is a nostalgic pull, there is also a strong belief that the city, with all its history and its complication, remains the core. My childhood dream of always living in the flatland of Johannesburg is always there. I often joke that I am going to retire in Hillbrow."

Although Bester has often been cast in tragi-comic roles, the role he plays here is far from that. One piece of work that comes to mind was when Bester placed himself in an impromptu turnstile on a pavement in Sandton, wearing only his underwear, surrounded by a lamp and pot plant, with an array of keys and locks that he used to try to "get out". In that work, he was exploring issues of whether we should stay or leave (the country). It seems clear that Bester is set to stay.

He sees his role at the Hillbrow Theatre Project as trying to create a safe space and a humane environment while also trying to provoke and to question the daily realities of the community.

"We have to be able to question and investigate who we are, the world we live in and how we interact with each other."

Throughout our conversation, children continually make their presence felt by peeping out from behind stage curtains, darting onto the stage and calling out random lines — exploring, testing, hearing and learning their voices in a space in which they clearly feel safe to express themselves.