Interviewing MARLENE LE ROUX is easy. Ask her one question and she speaks as though you had asked her ten. Her story practically writes itself, according to RAFIEK MAMMON.
I started out with what I thought was a simple question: “Who is Marlene Le Roux”? She took a while and seemed to find it difficult to answer – as if she had to dig deeper and really think about the many hats (and there are many) that Le Roux wears on a daily basis. And, instead of instantly taking the spotlight to talk about herself, like most people would do when given half a chance, she simply answered: “I am normal, ordinary. I find it difficult to talk about myself as if I am so important. And these days too many people get lost in their self-importance. I would like to think I am someone with my ears to, and feet on the ground.” Then she gives me an example of how, just the day before the interview, she missed her mother and drove to Wellington to see her because Le Roux understands the multifactorial bond between child and parent and knows the pain associated with losing a child, having lost her son just a few months ago. And as she tells of her visit, her eyes and the tremor in her voice tell of the tenderness that still skulks. Evidence of this comes in a statement that follows: “There is so much to do here at Artscape, for which I am grateful as it keeps me busy, but truth be told, I would much rather be in my home, quietly mourning my son.” Pause.
“There is something in my gut – a leemte (a hollow) that never goes away.” A longer pause – enough for the two of us to exchange a compassionate regard.
I throw some words at her and ask her for a kneejerk response. In the mix are words like transformation, accessibility, inclusiveness and progress in terms of Artscape and the arts. This opens a floodgate of responses. From how all words, even though they are nouns, are meaningless if they do not have any actions to them, to how she is very careful to not pat Artscape on the back as though they are the most accessible or the most inclusive arts establishment. “As clichéd as it may sound, it’s all a work in progress and much work still needs to be done,” she concludes.
Two things intrigued: Le Roux’s “ear to the ground” statement and the one on people’s self-importance. I ask how these statements impact on her management style as CEO of Artscape.
Le Roux’s response: “In order to be truly effective I need to know what goes on in every aspect of this establishment. And, in order to know what goes on from the administrative side of things to the technical side of things to making decisions about producers and artists and the many varied programmes we run here at Artscape, I need to know the people who are working in every department. So, I make it my business to get to know the employees – not just in terms of the work they do but as a human being. After all, that is what they are first and foremost – a human being.”
Le Roux is definitely not an office-bound CEO who merely delegates. At any given time in her lengthy, demanding day she would be backstage giving a nervous young artist a few words of encouragement before the same youngster makes a début appearance, or she would make a turn at any of the theatres venues at Artscape while a show is moving in just to “look in” and see that everyone is doing well. Or, she might just simply have a casual chat with one of the cleaners or a barman.
And what about the award she recently received when Queen Elizabeth II recognised Le Roux as the 5th Commonwealth ‘Point of Light’ in honour of her exceptional voluntary service promoting disability rights in South Africa? When the words “disabled” and “access” are mentioned, words flow from Le Roux’s mouth at a rate one wished rain would fall on Cape Town.
“That award is not about me. I use it as a platform to inform and to educate. I know disability as a person who lived with it all my life and I know it as a mother who had a son who needed me 24/7. I know how your life is all about planning around that disability. I know exactly what mothers, especially the poorer ones, go through and what we can do to assist. So, if an award gives me yet another platform to speak to people or to help those poor mothers and to make those who don’t understand, understand, then I say bring it on.”
The conversation was long but suffice to say, Le Roux finds it laughable that some people still think all disabled people want are disability grants. And when she thinks of accessibility for disabled people, she aims to make Arstcape a bastion, even a pioneer, in this regard.
And, would you say Artscape is doing well on the progress and inclusiveness scorecard?
“We are working on it constantly. We are always analysing the diversity of our programmes and our shows. It will always be a work-in-progress that will take a long time to satisfy everyone and even then, you are still going to have dissatisfied people,” she laughs. “All I can say is, the Artscape team is a well-oiled machine. Artscape’s doors are open. Our programmes have a huge slant towards development and education. Bring us your product and from our side, we can see if and how we can assist in creating and nurturing opportunities for all.”