/ 30 August 2006

Looking in, watching out

What would be an appropriate metaphor to reflect the state of South African theatre in the first 10 years of democracy? Perhaps it would be At Her Feet, a play that was rejected by the National Arts Council (NAC), which suggested that playwright Nadia Davids rewrite her script to include other racial groups, only for the play in its original format to win two prestigious Fleur du Cap awards a few weeks later.

For this would epitomise the huge disjuncture between the practitioners of theatre on the one hand, and the structures that are supposed to be responsible for promoting theatre on the other. It would also reflect the damage to theatre-making and freedom of creative expression in general that a superficial and formulaic ‘transformation” paradigm has had.

Last week the NAC called for applications from projects that will take place at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. The closing date is May 14 and outcomes will be released on June 15, about two weeks before the festival actually starts.

Yet applications to participate in the festival closed on February 27. If anything has happened over the past decade, it is that there has been a shift from ‘struggle theatre” to the struggle to make and disseminate theatre, with the latter often being waged with policy, funding and governance institutions that — ironically — were intended to advance theatre.

There has been a welcome increase in funding agencies — the National Lottery, Business Arts South Africa, Create SA, the Arts and Culture Trust, the NAC and its provincial equivalents, and international donors — but all have their own funding cycles and debilitating application hoops that generally make theatre-makers wonder, ‘why bother?”

Consequently, some — such as Greig Coetzee, Jerry Pooe and Brett Bailey — on occasion have developed relationships with theatres abroad that would produce or invest in their work, with local funding then being a bonus rather than a production necessity.

The Department of Arts and Culture eliminated the production budgets of its subsidised playhouses. The playhouses plead poverty and have no funds to produce theatre, but they appoint artistic directors at huge costs. The NAC gave some funding to the playhouses — specifically for theatre — yet no one informed the theatre community that these funds were available.

The playhouses have been converted from non-profit companies into ‘cultural institutions” by law, and are now directly accountable to a political master who controls their funding, appoints their boards and chairpersons, and directly and indirectly determines their policies.

The dependence on public funding by the country’s major theatres — with boards that owe their positions to a politician — and managements that were appointed by these boards, have resulted in politically conservative theatres.

Principles that were celebrated after the demise of apartheid — such as arm’s-length governance, transparency and participatory democracy to promote and defend freedom of creative expression — have all but been replaced (at least in publicly-funded theatres) by self-censorship, political compromise and accommodation with the status quo, which, in turn, has led to politically safe ‘condom theatre”.

Perhaps another appropriate metaphor would be the Market Theatre that once — along with Athol Fugard — was the primary brand associated with South African theatre internationally, but which has declined in output, stature and quality almost in direct proportion to its increased government funding and its ‘most favoured performing arts institution” status after 1994.

For this would reflect not only the struggle of theatre-makers and institutions to come to terms with their roles in a post-apartheid order, but would also make the point that even when funding and political acceptability are available, they are meaningless if there is no artistic vision and integrity.

The challenge of public funding for theatre has less to do with its absence (while it may not be much, it is there) and more to do with how the available funding is utilised. A few years ago the NAC ran a play-writing competition to promote the discipline. Great idea. Except, with entries having to be no longer than one page, the council was overrun by hundreds of submissions, which were then summarised into one sentence by a member of its theatre advisory panel. On the basis of these summaries, the NAC eventually arrived at a wonderfully politically correct (in terms of gender and ‘race”) list of 10 playwrights.

This is not to cast any aspersion on the playwrights, but on a project that threw hundreds of thousands of rands at a flawed process that theoretically delivered 10 scripts, of which only a handful was staged subsequently.

Who will forget the reopening of the State Theatre — mothballed because of its loss of millions of rands in an investment scam and with it, the loss of hundreds of jobs, but then relaunched a year later with an event that cost taxpayers R740 000, of which 10% was allegedly paid to the master of ceremonies John Kani.

Theatre and other companies were invited to apply for R10-million ‘saved” from the State Theatre budget in that year, and after months of battling Minister of Arts and Culture Ben Ngubane to allocate these funds, no company received annual funding that was anywhere near that spent on the one-night reopening.

The point is that there has been public funding available for theatre, but the visionless and wasteful manner in which it has been used by those in positions of stewardship has done very little to advance the art form.

Meanwhile, up the road from the Market Theatre stands the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, a very different metaphor for the state of South African theatre in the past decade.

Once in dire debt, it is now a hugely successful commercial enterprise that generates sufficient resources to provide a new gallery for contemporary art, studio space for a ballet company, infrastructural support for a host of NGO meetings and events, and an Actors’ Centre to provide ongoing training and networking for performers.

Yet while the Civic represents a government standard to which other publicly funded theatres aspire, it is also a symbol of a macroeconomic policy that genuflects to an international market economy — and to global financial institutions that promote free trade and encourage governments to cut subsidies to recover their costs for basic services such as water, electricity and health, and to privatise public institutions.

In this context, ‘the market” holds sway — and unless a production is deemed to be commercially viable and potentially profitable, it is rejected. Profits have displaced ‘the public good”.

Other ‘receiving houses” still garner major subsidies for their infrastructure, but are being obliged to follow a similar path. Without budgets to produce their own work, they are essentially spaces available for rent to those who can afford it.

According to the original White Paper, everyone was to have access to the facilities of the former performing arts councils once these were ‘freed up” — when the performing arts companies attached to them became independent entities and had to apply for use of the space like any other company. In reality, however, as the receiving houses attempt to balance their budgets to please their political masters or to generate funding to produce their own works, space is allocated to those who will generate maximum rentals.

Church services, conferences, exhibitions and weddings have first call on publicly subsidised performance spaces — while theatre companies have to wait for openings. Those fortunate enough to book a venue discover that the rents often do not cover technical and marketing services so that, unless they have the resources to cover these costs, they play to debilitating, poor houses.

What has become clear in the past decade is that theatre is no different to other forms of transnational business. Take productions such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera, for example.

An international company and its local partners create a product locally using a pool of cheap, highly skilled labour. The provincial government in the Western Cape upgrades the facilities at Artscape, making it an attractive investment option for the producers of international musicals. It’s a classic example of contemporary economic policy. We create the conditions to attract foreign interest and capital (intellectual and financial).

We provide work for many local artists who are able to contribute to the tax base. They may not get paid competitively and they probably have less protection than domestic workers, but they shouldn’t complain — because at least they have work during a decade that has seen little, if any, improvement in the rights, protection and status of theatre practitioners.

These products can then be exported around the world using multiple casts paid in South African rands, but earning dollars and euros for their investors and partners.

Beyond the rave reviews, the Proudly South African banners, the backslapping of the nouveau riche and the propaganda about creating work for artists is the pre-eminent need to generate wealth for a few, and a cultural policy sprouting access for all, equity and redress that de facto has being rendered meaningless by an economic policy that makes the opposite possible and even desirable.

Still struggling to find a positive metaphor for a decade of South African theatre, perhaps we should look to Ek, Anna van Wyk, a play that originated at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in 1999, and went on to win the most FNB Vita prizes in the history of the awards.

This reflects the relative health of Afrikaans theatre, enhanced by a growing number of Afrikaans festivals in the past 10 years (including one in London), support for Afrikaans work by Afrikaans corporations, incentives such as play-writing competitions with generous prizes, informed and supportive print and electronic media, and loyal audiences.

According to the programme, for its 10th year the Klein Karoo festival has been involved in funding up to 80% of new Afrikaans productions in the past five years, including the first Afrikaans pantomime Brolloks en Bittergal (1998), the first Afrikaans musical Antjie Somers (2000) and Uit die Bloute, which toured for two years after its premiere in 1996.

But the metaphor is, at best, mixed, as it celebrates achievements on the one hand, but points to the ongoing ghettoisation of South African theatre on the other. Generally, white audiences see plays by white artists; black audiences watch plays featuring black actors, with little crossover between white and black — and even little crossover between white Afrikaans and English audiences.

While the North Sea Jazz Festival has few problems in attracting an audience across the language and racial spectrum, and while contemporary dance generally manages to do the same, their wordy, vocal sibling — except for notable exceptions like revivals of Woza Albert — struggles to cross apartheid divides, whereas it was able to do this more regularly at the People’s Space and the Market Theatre of the apartheid era.

Festivals remain the lifeblood of South African theatre by investing in it, by providing opportunities for showcasing work to potentially interested parties and by attracting audiences that are prepared to pay to see works in a festival setting that they might not have done at a theatre.

Yet it is increasingly expensive for theatre companies to appear at festivals without some form of subsidy. With theatres having declining budgets so that they are no longer able to shop for productions at festivals, it has become less worth their while for some companies to participate in festivals.

The economics of theatre have impacted dramatically on form and aesthe-tics over the past decade with the appearance of an increasing number of one- and two-person plays with sparse sets.

It is, however, sad that unless a play can get on to the Mannie Manim Circuit (National Arts Festival, the Baxter, then possibly the Market or State Theatre, and then perhaps an international venue or festival), many excellent theatre productions have a limited lifespan when, in fact, they could be generating work and income on a more regular basis.

Perhaps then, it is Gaynor Young’s piece, My Plunge to Fame, that is the most appropriate metaphor for the theatre in the first decade of our democracy — for despite the funding adversities, the policy setbacks, the bureaucratic frustrations, the political straitjackets, the indomitable spirit of theatre-makers keeps them innovating, producing, rehearsing and working towards the holy grail of being able to live from and with their first love, theatre.

There is little doubt that we have the creative talents and the basic infrastructure for a vibrant, even sustainable, theatre industry. What we have lacked in the past 10 years are the vision, the political will and the working together of key stakeholders to make it happen.

With a recently completed election, with new national and provincial ministers about to assume responsibility for arts and culture, and with a decade of experience behind us, perhaps it is time for a national theatre conference that will chart the way forward for the next 10 years.