/ 5 February 2021

The state of the (performing) arts: Theatres try to find their groove

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The John Kani Theatre was decontaminated after a positive Covid-19 test at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. (Paul Botes)

The theatre industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. A look at how theatres are regrouping shows there is no consensus on how to find a way forward — understandably so, given the fractured nature of the industry.  

“This is largely due to the industry being unregulated, most employees being on freelance contracts and the uncertain nature of limited funding for which the sector has to [compete],” said Ismail Mahomed, director at the Centre For Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

Two points generally agreed upon are that the transition to online streaming was necessary and that there is frustration with the way the government has handled the situation. 

The second wave of the pandemic over December created a further sense of disconnection in theatres across the country.

“I am curious at the use of that term about theatre ‘bouncing back’. Theatre is not bouncing back. It’s barely limping back,” said music director Bryan Schimmel, who was working on The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Teatro Montecasino when the pandemic hit. 

He is one of many freelancers who had a tightly packed schedule for 2020, but was suddenly left without work. “We’ve had no support from the government. There were grants made to some in the arts sector, but [the money] went to very specific people, and not to the mass of us who work in the industry,” Schimmel says. There have been whispers about a third round of funding, but artists are still waiting to be paid from the second round.

Losses during lockdown

All theatres closed in March, with shows either cancelled or postponed. Almost 11 months down the line, major theatres across the country remain closed to the public. Many, however, are open to artists for filming performances or rehearsals. 

The latest update for adjusted level three lockdown states that theatres can operate at 50% audience capacity, with strict Covid-19 protocols observed. Despite the loosening of regulations, many theatres have been unable to reopen their doors.

Not only are theatres having to settle for half the number of ticket sales, they also have to spend money on complying with the new safety regulations. Some opened briefly for performances in October, but then closed again when the second wave hit.

In October, the Theatre Collective, a group of industry professionals, made a presentation to parliament’s select committee for education and technology, sports, arts and culture. On the agenda was the lack of attention given to the crisis in the theatre sector, which has left thousands of artists destitute, as well as the lack of support from the department of sports arts and culture’s R150-million artists’ relief fund. 

These and other issues were unpacked in a report by the Theatre Collective that pointed to problems in the department, as well as highlighting a disconnect between the fact that the arts and culture sector contributes 1.7% to South Africa’s gross domestic product and the lack of a commensurate government response to its plight. As it stands, the collective is still awaiting a follow-up meeting with the parliamentary committee. 

Artists protesting for the loosening of Covid-19 restrictions outside the State Theatre. (Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images)

Many theatre practitioners have had to find new forms of income. Allison Foat of Diva PR, a theatre publicity consultancy whose contracts were terminated overnight, said: “Even when shows are finally able to get back on stage, I can’t see there being any budget for professional PR people.”

Many independent theatres have struggled to stay afloat. The Fugard in Cape Town stated at the time of its closing early last year that “the Fugard Theatre and Bioscope will remain closed until we can be confident that staff, performers and audiences will not be at risk as a result of the availability of a vaccine or effective treatment for the Covid-19 virus. We do not envisage this to be until some point late next year (2021) at the earliest. Regrettably, the majority of our staff have had to be retrenched.”

State theatres have adapted to streaming on online platforms as a means to support artists, using their spaces to create work regardless of audiences being able to enter the venues. This is the case at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria, The Artscape in Cape Town, The Market in Johannesburg, The Playhouse in Durban and the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State in Durban.

Darion Adams and Crystal Finck in the two-hander Modorenai at Theatre Arts in Cape Town. (Jesse Kramer)

‘Disappointed and angry’

One of the first theatres in South Africa to reopen its doors was Theatre Arts in Cape Town — an independent outfit led by director Caroline Calburn. “I felt a responsibility to artists to allow them to earn,” she says. Her three-person team included a part-time cleaner and a tech operator. This independence freed her up to create her own Covid-19 protocols, setting up strict guidelines for audiences and artists. 

In May, Calburn opened the theatre as a rehearsal space. She then commissioned five performances under the banner, “Making Theatre in the Time of Corona”. But the venue had to close its doors again when the second wave hit.

The Baxter, also based in Cape Town, was one of the first major theatres to reopen to the public, with one-hander The Outlaw Muckridge in October. The venue hosted the performance in its smaller Golden Arrow Studio and followed strict protocols, with every second seat blocked off to allow spaces between audience members. 

Theatregoer Adrienne Sparks said: “I appreciated it ten times more because I haven’t engaged with drama for so long. It just brings you alive. I’ve missed it immensely.”

Management at the Baxter took an active decision not to live-stream performances so as not to compromise the aesthetic value of the theatre’s productions. But despite generating work for hundreds of artists each year, the Baxter was denied funding from the department of sports, arts and culture. 

Marketing manager Fahiem Stellenboom said: “Government could have helped in terms of a better way to fund individuals. There was no engagement with the sector either: decisions were made and we had to fall into [line]. For the most part, the arts sector is extremely disappointed and angry in terms of how things have been managed.” 

In the interim, the Baxter launched its own fundraising initiatives. After operating for a few months at 50% capacity, the theatre closed its doors again and postponed all shows from mid-December because of the rising number of Covid-19 cases. 

The theatre did, however, host the Zabalaza mini-festival at the end of January. Usually this festival involves taking work to the community and performing in front of large crowds, but now it was presented at the theatre without an audience apart from a small number of adjudicators.  

Nontu R observing Covid-19 protocols with Playhouse technical staff Pamela Nshangase and Philani Shange at a stand-up comedy show. (Image supplied by the Playhouse)

Meanwhile, the state-funded Playhouse Theatre in Durban is entirely closed to audiences. However, behind closed doors, work still continues: the theatre shifted its focus to live-streamed performances early in lockdown. 

“We took a decision to ensure that we assist artists as much as possible,” said artistic director and chief executive Linda Bukhosini. The theatre has been actively pushing online content ever since. 

“We had to figure out how to live-stream, because we’ve never done it before, so we’re learning on the go,” said Bukhosini. Between July and September, more than 800 artists received opportunities to perform and more than 100 performances were streamed.

“It’s a blessing that we have not had to scrape [financially]; that’s why we’ve gone all out to reappropriate those productions planned for the year and make sure the artists are supported,” Bukhosini said. 

Many theatres have adopted a hybrid model that includes a combination of live performances and streaming. The Guild Theatre, an independent company in East London, reshaped its funding proposal last year towards online production. About 50 local artists were approached for a series that streamed in June, titled “The Buffalo City Lockdown Series”. 

Manager Zane Flanagan says: “We put it out for free via our Facebook page, because we felt times are hard and people are not working.” 

The show must go on

James Ngcobo, artistic director at the Market Theatre, remains positive, noting: “A theatre can never stop planning.” The Market is one of the few theatres in South Africa currently open to audiences: it is staging  the award-winning play Kamphoer, starring Sandra Prinsloo, which runs until 14 February.

But it is hard to foresee a healthy theatre scene emerging any time before 2022. For now, it is impossible to sustain productions at 50% capacity. It also seems as if theatre-goers are set on the live experience, but the intimacy and warmth that these provide is just not possible at the moment.