State of the Arts: Where is the audience?
As Hollywood and Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead said, "If you really want to help the theatre, don't be an actress, darling. Be an audience."
In the week of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown one should state the obvious: Without audiences there is no theatre. And in the South African context that means an audience that is not only wrinkled, balding, wealthy and white-skinned.
Educating the elite is of course in itself a worthy pursuit. Theatre-makers who are obsessed with appealing to the young and complain that their audience is not rainbow-coloured enough ought to be more respectful of the theatre audience they do get and grateful for its loyal patronage.
Most of the traditional theatre audience of South Africa, however, has emigrated. Today, they fill the shows of touring South African performers in London, Perth and Toronto.
For many of us the origin of our theatre habits date back to our schooldays, to that magical night we were first introduced to the stage, usually thanks to committed teachers working after hours for free. This is where transformation needs to start.
It is not surprising given our history of segregation that theatre remains largely a whites-only pastime, often dangerously close to becoming a museum art.
After decades of rigid, petty apartheid, in March 1978, South African theatres were opened to all races. Cinemas however remained segregated; theatre being deemed so peripheral by the apartheid authorities it wasn't worth segregating. In practice of course, people of colour were not made to feel welcome in state theatres.
The obstacles to audience transformation are well known. Physically, theatres are not located near the people and there is a lack of public transport, especially in the evenings, hence various audience development programmes to bus in "the people".
Economically, theatre is perceived as relatively expensive. It is a paid, ephemeral experience; you don't come out with a CD, a book in hand, a full tummy or less sober than when you went in.
Audiences are however notably absent even when theatre is presented free of charge. This may be in part due to an absence of familiarity, but there is perhaps a countervailing cultural aspect. Sitting silently in uniform rows in the dark is culturally peculiar.
We know that Shakespeare's audiences in Elizabethan England were much rowdier than they are today. African audiences are voluble and like to interact. The more dependent the work is therefore upon the fourth wall of Western theatre convention, a play by Edward Albee or Harold Pinter for example, the less likely it is to succeed if there are disruptions from the auditorium.
And vice versa: theatre existed in Africa long before there were theatre buildings; the proscenium arch and the very format of commoditised Western theatre can prejudice an experience of African story telling.
It was therefore intriguing when two years ago Sir Ian McKellen and a British cast from the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London took to the makeshift stage of the OR Tambo Sports Centre in Khayelitsha, to perform that notoriously difficult play that so many European audiences have struggled to get their heads around, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
The evening was punctuated with applause and laughter. There were gasps when Lucky entered with a rope around his neck; protests when he obediently held Pozzo's whip in his mouth – the subjugated complicit in his oppression. Loud chuckles erupted when McKellen, better known as Gandalf the Grey, gnawed on discarded chicken bones picked up off the floor. When Pozzo demands of the homeless men: "Waiting? ... Here? On my land?"; the political dimension of the play was piercing. Near the conclusion of Act 1, a follow-spotlight falling on the two tramps had someone in the audience shout, "Ooh! Police!" The performance ended to whistles, cheers, and synchronised clapping.
This audience knew all too well the endless agony of waiting for a better life.
Western practitioners have a tendency to infantilise the African audience – "Oh how sweet! How lively! They respond like children." I would rather argue that it is the Western audience who choose to act like well-behaved children at storytime, to enter the world of make-believe around what is patently false.
During apartheid, you'd see white patrons often perplexed or wanting to shush the reactions of their fellow black patrons.
During performances of protest theatre when, on stage, a white Afrikaans policeman with a baton beat an old defenceless black man, the black patrons would howl with laughter. I've observed this countless times.
The reason is perhaps that the violence on stage is so unreal to people who have actually borne such beatings it becomes literally slapstick; the comedy of pain, like Charlie Chaplin, the tramp at the hands of police with truncheons.
And yet outrage will be elicited by other moments. I recall in the mid-1980s seeing a Rex Garner comedy at the Baxter in which a white man wipes his hand after shaking it with a Xhosa man. He drew boos and hisses from black members of the audience.
Theatre audiences will change when black patrons take ownership of the country's theatre spaces. It is not merely a question of the work that is presented in the theatre, but the building itself. Our old apartheid cultural bunkers are aloof, intimidating, alienating; still somehow tainted by the past. Last month, Soweto became the first township to get its own state of the art theatre.
At the opening night of Winnie the Opera at the State Theatre in Pretoria last year, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela spoke from the stage after the performance. The former deputy minister for arts and culture said it was her first time inside the State Theatre. She was reminded how the building was one of those difficult to bomb.
A combination of the legacy of the past and changing times means our theatre-makers have no choice, they need to take theatre to the people, and that may well be outside of the beloved theatre building.
Follow Brent on Twitter: @Brent_Meersman