By Susan Roberts
I went through many transitions in the first fifteen to eighteen years of my working life, but my childhood was different. It was filled with roots. I grew up in the same house in Pietermaritzburg in which my father had grown up, and my formative years were the epitome of a happy, settled childhood.
My dad had grown up during the Second World War, and he had felt a strong sense of pride when accompanying his father in the Citizen Protection Services to ensure that neighbours conformed to the wartime blackouts and curfews in case of enemy planes. His mother had joined the army and worked at a military hospital, so his Great Aunt Bertha took over the household duties of caring for the two young boys in their parents’ absence.
Despite the fact that it was wartime, my father and his friends managed to enjoy their childhood. Or perhaps because it was wartime, they were not as closely supervised as they might otherwise have been. They played pranks, engaged in mock battles which usually ended in one gang burning down the riverside grass-and-mud fortress built by the opposing gang, and they still found time to bait and dodge the crazed, child-hating neighbour who brandished his shotgun at anyone under twelve who entered his vast nine acre property on the other side of the river.
I grew up listening to my father’s tales of the neighbourhood. For me, life was good and centred around those same landmarks. School was within walking distance, and high school only a bus ride away. There were ballet lessons, drama club activities, amateur dramatics and later the fun of University which was on the far side of town, two bus rides away.
We moved house when I was in my first year at University, but only across the river to the other side of the valley. My world was still small, still contained within that neighbourhood.
And then came the first big transition, when I graduated with a degree in English and Speech & Drama, and started my working life in South African theatre.
To do this I had to move away from home and relocate to Johannesburg at the beginning of 1982. This was when my real education began – all that “school of hard knocks” stuff that I had only heard about.
Theatre was fun, but it was hard too. Hard to live in a transitory world, hard to make a decent living, hard to come to terms with having no social life, hard to be away from home and family, and hard to pack up and go on the road again every few months with another touring show. I was young enough to enjoy the experience of life in other towns, and I got to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. However, every few years I got sick of the same old grind and changed my own scenery by moving to a new city, working for a different theatrical management.
To cut a very long story short – four years in Johannesburg, three in Cape Town, three in Durban, one and a half in Bophuthatswana, and another two and a half years touring two musicals back-to-back around the country – I finally settled down to a more permanent job in Johannesburg in 1995. It was while working there that I decided the time had come to settle in more ways than one, and I bought my first apartment.
The day before I moved into it, the mover’s truck broke down and my friends rallied together with all their small hatchback cars and the loan of two bakkies to move me into what I declared would be the last place I ever lived. In fifteen years I had lived at nineteen different addresses. No more.
“Next time I move,” I said, “it will be just me in a pine box.” I ate those words before too long, of course.
After two and a half years (it seemed to be my job limit at that stage of my life), I changed jobs again and spent a year at another local Johannesburg theatre, then commuted daily from my apartment to two Pretoria theatres in succession. A few more freelance contracts followed over the next year or so but my attitude to life was undergoing enormous changes and I missed my family more than ever before. Johannesburg winters seemed to be particularly bleak in my new home, especially since my boyfriend had finally declared that he had no intention of marrying me.
It wasn’t a big step to pack up and move back to Natal, closer to my family, once again. My plan was to settle in the Nottingham Road/Dargle area, to make candles and stained glass crafts on the Midlands Meander. I was finished with theatre…
However, a theatre job came up in Durban. I applied for and got it. I began working in a beautiful theatre that I had performed in as a student, and had visited on several tours.
I’ve been there for fifteen years now. Some people might say of this that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before the prince arrives, but I think it’s also about growing up and deciding what’s important to you. In my book, family heads the list every time.