Despite a disastrous audition for the Theatre & Performance programme at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Jade Bowers has managed to dust herself off and carve herself out a niche in South African theatre.

Bowers had served as a crew member for various productions throughout her high school career in Table View and was far more in her element backstage. So when she found herself having to act for an audition, she was overwrought. “I never wanted to be an actor, and my audition was terrible’, Bowers Recalls. “I remember standing in front of Yvonne Banning, and she must have thought, “What is this child doing?’’ Not to be dissuaded by a bad audition, she went for a general BA in Drama at UCT, before moving to Wits to complete her Honours in Theatre Design, with a focus on set and costuming.

In 2010, while Jade was an Honours student, she met Ashraf Johaardien, the then Head of Wits Theatre, and this encounter would later prove to be integral to her journey and her success. For her final directing piece, Bowers did a shortened version of one of Ashraf’s plays, Salaam Stories, and asked him to be in it. He accepted, and this was the beginning of their working relationship.

Sometime later, while Bowers worked was working as Stage Manager at Wits Theatre, Ashraf, who was moving to the University of Johannesburg (UJ) asked her to join him in the same position she held at Wits. Bowers was now a Resident Stage Manager on a contract basis but needed a permanent job, so she joined the Dramatic Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation (DALRO). DALRO, being a multi-purpose copyright organisation, needed Jade to handle the admin and assist clients with the necessary licenses to perform plays and musicals. “As I worked flexible hours, DALRO allowed me to continue my creative work which meant I could attend rehearsals and have the necessary freedom.’

On numerous occasions, Bowers and Johaardien would collaborate and put on plays together, using whatever means were available to them to make costumes and sets. She would direct and design, while Johaardien would write and act. Bowers attributes much of her success in the industry to Johaardien. “He pushed me to do what I do now. After Salaam Stories, we did iHamlet, adapted by Robin Malan.’

In 2015, Jade collaborated with UJ on Tin Bucket Dawn, but couldn’t travel with the production to the Grahamstown Festival, as her son had just been born. While she was home, she received a call from Ismail Mohamed, director of the Grahamstown Festival, who offered her the Standard Bank Young Artist for 2016 award. Bowers was astounded, and was suddenly aware that somebody was indeed paying attention to her “dinky little plays’.

The award meant she suddenly had a real budget to work with, and she and Johaardien decided to mount Scorched, a four-act play that Johaardien had previously shelved.

Scorched had a premiere in Grahamstown and ran at UJ and the Playhouse in Durban. With a cast of eight, it was the largest scale play Jade ad ever put together. The play, with themes of displacement, identity, family history and refugees felt very relevant to South Africa. Ilze Klink, who played the mother, earned a Naledi Best Actress Award for her role.

In 2017, Bowers and Johaardien had another successful production, Black. For Jade, her job is a calling, the same way a career in medicine or education is. “What drives me to do what I do is telling the stories that don’t always get told. Especially in the diversity of South Africa, where we have struggles with access to space, access to education, access to be able to talk and show Coloured stories beyond the stereotype roles that Coloured people are placed in, specifically on television and on stage. To break those barriers is really what I would like my work to be about.’

Bowers artistic and technical prowess are skills that have been in and passed down the generations, in her family. Her great uncle was a master craftsman, who employed her father as an assistant, at a point. “My dad’s pretty handy with tools, and he makes most of my sets because as you know, only certain projects get money. So, whenever there isn’t any, he generally builds my sets’, says Bowers.

Bowers is still at UJ and enjoys working with the technical team “I’m still finding my feet. I do all the venues, the technicians, front of house, contracts, bookings for both the UJ and Con Cowan theatre and rehearsal rooms.

Bowers is now looking towards helping future technicians and is partnering with UJ in working on a technical internship for students in 2019, where they will get hands-on theatre experience and be involved in productions.