Theatre shake-up points to a new direction

Jo'burg Theatre. (Clarissa Sosin)

Jo'burg Theatre. (Clarissa Sosin)

Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema’s tenure as the Jo’burg City Theatres (JCT) inaugural chief executive officer will be dominated by battles about identity, geographical autonomy, collective programming and the rebranding of the Soweto Theatre, the Roodepoort City Theatre and the Jo’burg Theatre, whose management now falls under her.

In addition, during her term she will have to wrestle with the question of uniformity and what standardisation means in terms of ticket prices and programme curatorship.

But also, with regard to individual theatre managers, Nduneni-Ngema will have to determine the strengths, weak spots and areas in which the three theatres can collaborate to drive and hopefully realise JCT board chairperson Mongane Serote’s vision for “a South African dramatic environment that develops and celebrates an African consciousness in a dynamic diversity”.

Likewise, she will have to be cautious about the prickly issue of the R101-million budget allocated to administer the theatres. The theatres will receive a R56-million subsidy from the Johannesburg municipality and the rest of the money will be raised in-house from rentals, ticket sales, sponsorships, bars and other financial ventures to keep their doors open.

Serote, a veteran cultural activist, who in May launched his fifth novel, Rumours, says that, although recognising the different character of the three theatres is essential, the works presented must collectively help to “make us citizens of the 21st century within the global context”.

In a country still grappling with the meaning of a rainbow nation and how to make sense of social cohesion, Nduneni-Ngema says that one way to sustain what Serote aspires to is to appeal to “a diversified audience at the three theatres”.

Changing society
Incoming Market Theatre artistic director James Ngcobo has similar aspirations. He says that audiences have changed and curatorship has to be informed by new dynamics.

“Previously we were locked in isolation and now we have people [visiting] from the continent, diaspora and other parts of the world.
When we curate, we have to take that on board.”

Nduneni-Ngema, who has a close professional relationship with Ngcobo, concurs: “It is essential that Jo’burg City Theatres operate collectively to bring out solid conversations we want to generate about our changing society.”

Although maintaining theatre identities that are informed by demographics may have positive commercial consequences, she says this should not be used to promote divisiveness.

Outgoing Jo’burg Theatre chief executive Bernard Jay, whose position became redundant following the merger but who remains executive producer, makes a politically emotive assertion that may appear to contradict Serote and Nduneni-Ngema. Although he says that the merger was desirable, he adds: “It is important that all three theatres maintain their separate identities, at least, for now.

“In a year’s time, there will be answers to the question of identity and how to move forward. Jo’burg Theatre works — it does not need to change. The concentration should be in Soweto, and no one knows what is happening in Roodepoort.”

To defend his position, Jay recalls his inauguration as Jo’burg Theatre chief executive 13 years ago. He claims that Jo’burg Theatre, then known as the Civic Theatre, was on the verge of being closed because it was not making money.

The theatre’s position, bordering Braamfontein, Hillbrow and the Johannesburg city centre, was then profiled as a security risk. He remarks that the city manager, Pascal Moloi, was unequivocal with him on his appointment: “Don’t think you will go there and we will pump in unlimited money … The message was unambiguous.”

He recalls Moloi telling him to “find ways to make the theatre financially viable”.

Because of this, Jay defends staging commercial entertainment. This has been the major source of criticism from his detractors. He cites the success of the annual pantomime and ballets, which he says draw racially mixed audiences. The restaurant and bars are also boosting revenue at the venue.

But Serote calls Jo’burg Theatre a space where “Europe is hosted in South Africa”. And, although he says “we do want interaction with Europe”, he admits that there is also the dilemma of “how to bring the African voice into that space”.

Socioeconomic realities
It may be too early to expect Serote to answer this but he says it is a challenge for “the board, theatre managers and Nduneni-Ngema to sit and talk about”.

It is a test Jay has struggled to find answers to for 13 years. He says that surviving his tenure was driven by dealing with South African socioeconomic realities. Although the audience profile at Jo’burg Theatre is changing, people who have disposable money to buy tickets at R300 a head “are still white”.

Steven Sack, director of the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand and a previous director of arts, culture and heritage services for the City of Johannesburg, agrees with this. His response suggests that, although the political imperative to create nonracial spaces is inescapable, socioeconomic iniquities hinder its realisation and make the problem difficult to address at theatre level.

“But certain shows have exclusive racial audiences,” Jay says. “Political obligations aside, change is gradual.”

He refers to the performances of Matthew Ribnick and Riaad Moosa, which have a large Indian following. Then there is comedian David Kau’s mainly black patronage. But Trevor Noah is succeeding in wooing white audiences, Jay says.

Fiscal austerity may be the main reason Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau has decided to manage all municipal-owned venues from one office, but the challenge is to work out the practical implications of the merger, given that the three theatres represent different consumer markets and diverse cultural tastes.

Ngcobo, mindful of the challenges he will face when he takes over at the Market Theatre in September, intends to take a guarded approach towards theatre management. Curators, he says, “should not shy away from pursuing commercial work that pushes the envelope. The business of theatre is to make money.”

A main benefit of the merger will be that the administration structures will no longer be replicated. There will be one chief executive, one chief financial officer, one company secretary and one human resources department for all the theatres.

But, despite the fact that the theatres are now stable companions, they will have to compete for marketing, sales and advertising to achieve their budget targets.

The Soweto Theatre, which celebrated its first anniversary at the end of May, is still a construction site, pending the refurbishment of the decrepit amphitheatre beside it.

But, Serote says, hopefully, for the venue’s marketing strategy, he would like to see it deal with “its historical space in the arts, creativity and political history”.

Serote says that the Soweto Theatre should tap into its history created by the late director Gibson Kente, among others. Kente is acknow-ledged as the father of township theatre and lived until his death in Dube, a location creatively immortalised in Can Themba’s The Dube Train.

Kente, like Matsemela Manaka at Funda Centre and many other arts practitioners in the greater urban sprawl of Johannesburg, spent almost half a century promoting drama in the now grungy Eyethu Hall in Mofolo and the Uncle Tom Hall, all within manageable distance from one another.

The venues, including churches, classrooms and shabby community halls, were, in the tumultuous apartheid years, prime sites of both protest theatre and imported American cinema.

Time for revivall
The Soweto Theatre manager, Carl Johnson, says that the venue has defied dogmas. He and Nduneni-Ngema are concerned that the venue is only a receiving house. This apparently reduces revenue, which needs to be corrected. Nduneni-Ngema says she is going to “negotiate with the board to overcome it. It is a budgetary issue that can be corrected.”

Despite this, Johnson says the theatre has hosted more than 100 events and has staged more than 300 performances.

Johnson points out some of the theatre’s additional strengths. A revival of the 1980s anti-apartheid drama Bopha! enjoyed an audience turnover of between 60% and 70%. Musicals, some of which had mixed racial audiences, have also been successful.

Johnson boasts that Salif Keita performed to “racially mixed, full houses”. Another musical success was the appearance of musician Zakes Bantwini whose shows sold out at R300 a ticket.

The dance season of the France-South African cultural season Danse L’Afrique Danse did not do well though. Johnson attributes this to “lack of consistent planning by organisers”, adding that the season also failed at Wits Theatre, the Market Theatre and the Dance Factory in Newtown.

Theatres reach out to the community by staging performances for schools and creating children’s programmes. However, the theatres bankroll these themselves and it is for managers to decide whether to pursue them.

The Roodepoort City Theatre manager, Loran Robertson, laments that the children’s programmes in Roodepoort, which were successful when Marietha Smith was chief executive, were abandoned. Robertson says she does not know why Sack, the acting chief executive after Smith, did that.

But Sack contradicted Robertson, saying that the children’s music tuition programmes continued until he left.

Jay says that Jo’burg Theatre pumped a great deal of money into youth and children programmes but Johnson says children’s theatre is not his forte.

In a market looking to the youth and young parents to boost its revenue, children’s theatre cannot be underestimated. Robertson and Jay spoke of the future, of a dwindling white purse as the theatre-going generation gets older, too frail or afraid to go out at night.

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