/ 5 July 2006

Towards a free Market

After years of decline, artistic mediocrity, poor houses and state handouts to bail it out of financial crises, the Market Theatre is set for an upswing.

What makes a relatively young man leave a leadership role in the heritage sector in Pietermaritzburg to take the top job at the Market at its lowest point?

My training as a historian taught me to do an analysis of the Market and its context before applying for the job. Like many cultural institutions, the Market faced the challenges of funding, governance and management. These are not dissimilar to what I experienced in the museum sector where transformation and subsidy cuts caused a lot of anxiety. So the challenges of the Market are familiar to me.

But the performing arts are quite different in practice to heritage. Administratively, they fall under the same department, so one deals with similar policy and funding issues and government officials. Also, one doesn’t go to university to be trained

as a museum curator or a theatre administrator simply because our universities don’t offer these courses.

As a historian, theatre and heritage are similar in that they both have to do with the interpretation of the past and the present, with issues of representation, and with the management of these. Like I had to learn the language of the heritage sector, so I need to learn the language and dynamics of the performing arts industry. But I don’t see my lack of knowledge of the sector as a disadvantage at this point, as we are building a strong team at the Market.

What is different about the Market now? Why should we believe that the apparent decline over the past few years has been arrested?

It’s a question of timing. I was fortunate to join the Market at the same time as a new board was being put in place. We have a relatively new chief financial officer, and Malcolm Purkey has been appointed as the new artistic director. We are about to appoint a new marketing manager so, from a governance and managerial perspective, I am convinced that we now have fresh energy, new ideas and the collective vision, experience and capacity to take the Market Theatre forward.

You mentioned funding as a problem. Yet, the Market has never had so much funding as it has had in the past eight years. Prior to 1994 it had no subsidy, but did exciting, excellent theatre. There is resentment among some theatres that they do more, and better, South African theatre now, but it is the Market that always seems to benefit most from lottery or state funding.

Funding from the private sector and from the lottery is an open competition.

We apply like any other theatre. It may be that because of a glorious past our applications may be viewed with greater sympathy now. But we recognise that we cannot continue to dwell in the past. We need to rediscover what helped to build our reputation and brand, and apply these within the new conditions and challenges that we find ourselves in.

We accept that we can no longer simply depend on the government. Although we are a non-profit entity, we need to be more businesslike in the way that we manage the theatre, and we need to generate more of own income.

What would you say were some of the things that contributed to your ‘glorious past”?

Artistic excellence was certainly one thing. And with a new artistic director in place, we believe that we’ll see improvement in this regard. Social engagement was another. But we need to understand what the spirit of 1976 means today for our theatre, and to give meaning to people’s lives today. Also, we toured extensively, both locally and internationally, and that’s how the Market brand became world-famous. If we can raise the funding, this is definitely something that we’d like to do more of.

What are some of the key challenges facing the Market?

We recently held a strategic planning workshop and identified marketing, audience development, generating our own income and funding our core business as key priorities. At the moment the government funds our infrastructure, but not the staging of theatre productions that is our core business. And then we need a culture change within the Market itself. We need to change our mindset … to be more service-oriented, more customer-focused, more responsive to the needs and challenges of our times. We can’t stay stuck in the past … We are now in competition with other theatres that are doing the same as we have done in the past. We need to find new things that will make us unique as a brand.

What seems to make the Market unique at the moment is that more than 70% of its audience is black. We are proud that our audience demographics generally represent the demographics of our country. But we are keen to develop the theatre as a place for all South Africans, where everyone will feel comfortable and find theatre that appeals to them. Making the parking area secure, having a restaurant like Moyo and providing easy access from the highway and via the Nelson Mandela bridge to the Market are all ways in which we are trying to improve the image of, and accessibility to, the theatre.

Having a predominantly black audience might help to attract companies that would want to reach those markets. We hope so.

But there is also a downside. New audiences don’t buy tickets at Computicket but at the door on the night of the show. So the theatre doesn’t know what kind of business it is doing beforehand. Shows may start late owing to the queue at box office, and some customers might be put off if they can’t get tickets on the night of the show.

These are all part of the challenges facing the Market, and we will need to put in place strategies to address these. But I’d rather be having these kinds of problems than not have people come to the theatre. We’re in a period where we are learning a lot, where we will fail sometimes and on other things, we will become market leaders as we develop experience to stand us and others in good stead. This is a delicate industry. We can never be 100% sure of anything, but we can do more research and plan better.

How do you choose your artistic programme? On the basis of what your — mostly black — audiences want, or are there more general artistic criteria that guide you?

We haven’t been in a position to do market research to inform our artistic programme. There will always be a debate between those who create art on the basis of artistic truth and excellence and then go in search of a market and those who believe that we should find out what audiences want and offer them these products. But we’re a certain kind of theatre doing particular kinds

of theatre. We don’t do pantomimes.

Maybe you’ll have to. Maybe you’ll have to commission Mbongeni Ngema?

Maybe. But to answer your question, our programme for the first six months of this year is more or less set, and it’s based on previous experience.

Your 2005 season starts with Green Man Flashing. Isn’t that a bit of a risk? It’s controversial, early in the year and not exactly escapist summer fare.

I heard a lot about Green Man Flashing, about it being anti-government and so on. But I saw a run-through and I think it’s a brilliant piece of theatre. There are many who want feel-good theatre, but this is the kind of theatre that we would like to do. It raises issues for debate. It makes audiences think. It asks uncomfortable questions. That is what theatre should do. That’s the contribution that theatre can make to democracy.

Mike van Graan’s Green Man Flashing runs at the Market Theatre until February 6