Had Vanessa Cooke listened to her mother she would never have gone on stage, never had a career in theatre and not been witness to one on the most significant events in South African theatre, the creation of the Market Theatre. Instead she took a leaf out of her father’s book, Roy Cooke, set designer and for a while the manager of the Johannesburg Repertory Theatre.
She was auditioned by Barney Simon in the early days of Dorkay House where Athol Fugard was rehearing his first plays, when the strains of legends like Bra Hugh, Dolly Radebe, Stella Starr and Thandi Klaasen could be heard down the corridors.
Once the acquisition of the old produce market had been negotiated and the Market Theatre precinct began lifting off the drawing board to become a reality, she, along with fellow members of the newly formed acting troupe, The Company, began scraping walls and floors and gently coaxing the Market Theatre into life.
She was there performing on the opening night of the Market’s first play, when helicopters were flying overhead, racing to quell the 1976 student riots in Soweto. She succoured the Market through its infancy, watched it grow, stood by it in difficult years, and when Barney Simon started The Laboratory it was Vanessa who became a director, supervising and keeping watch over its students, encouraging their growth and feeling their pride at graduation.
Along with many of her contemporaries, her footsteps have rubbed a shine onto the flagstones of the Market, polished a well worn patina on the various stages.
But Vanessa’s career has been not only been the Market Theatre. Soft spoken and unassuming she has over the past forty years been a rod of steel in the life of theatre; acting, directing and co-writing innumerable plays.