/ 31 January 2024

‘Politics is theatre, after all’

Marianne Thams (1)
The way things stand: Journalist Marianne Thamm’s show Round of Applause – South Africa Still Standing is at the juncture between theatre, journalism and politics. Photo: Nardus Engelbrecht

Journalism can be funny —mostly unintentionally so —  often because of mistakes made somewhere in the editing process in newsrooms. 

My favourite is the correction that I saw posted on the “Overheard in the Newsroom” account on X: “Due to a typing error, Saturday’s story on local artist Jon Henninger mistakenly reported that Henninger’s bandmate Eric Lyday was on drugs. The story should have read that Lyday was on drums. The Sentinel regrets the error.”

There should certainly be a closer link, if not a combination, of journalism and stand-up comedy, or at least theatre.

A London School of Economics blog in 2022 about what journalism can learn from theatre starts: “Journalism and theatre have much in common — and not just because both professions are full of show-offs.”

The similarities are that “both theatre and journalism deploy real-time story-telling. 

“They both depend on an engaged, paying audience. They both try to offer insight, sometimes exclusively, into the human condition. And they share a desire to permeate the ‘fourth wall’ between performers and their witnesses to bond a tribal unity between them, either through emotional engagement or a Bertholt Brecht-style alienation effect, the better to evoke a political and/or social-critical audience response.”

It is no surprise that there is actually such a thing as performance journalism but what is astonishing is that there is not more of it. 

Performance journalism was pioneered in 2018 in Latin America by Cristian Alarcón, the director of Revista Anfibia in Argentina. 

According to an article published in LatAm Journalism Review (LJR), he is “exploring the edge between journalism and art and figuring out how journalism could be conveyed with an artistic perspective”.

Two years ago, they staged their second performance journalism lab in conjunction with Casa Sofia, a cultural organisation in Buenos Aires. 

“Projects arise from pairs: an academic, journalist or researcher, and an artist,” Julieta Hantouch, director of Casa Sofía and one of the project co-ordinators, told LJR. 

“The works are developed in a lab where we work from those two disciplines. It’s not a text from which a play is put together. It’s a journalistic investigation in which we go deeper, which goes through a lot of twists and turns, and where we engage with the information at multiple levels.”

During the lab, participants develop a journalistic investigation and an artistic performance as a way of telling the story, LJR says.

Hantouch told the journal that performance journalism is not about putting on a play based on true facts or stage adaptations of journalistic investigations. “It has more to do with a journalistic or academic investigation intersecting with an artistic discipline.”

In the last lab’s main performance in April 2022, the participants staged a salsa party in which the characters tell stories of migration and their connection to this music.

LJR reports that other topics tackled in performance pieces have included different styles of maternity, gender transitioning, femicide, big data and discrimination against women in football.

So far, so serious. What about tackling some humour at the intersection of journalism and theatre, in addition to important topics like those?

And journalists can be intentionally funny too, because journalism and comedy have a lot in common as Suchandrika Chakrabarti, a British journalist of 15 years who became a stand-up comedian, told journalism.co.uk. Success in both jobs relies on an  understanding of the audience, having a thick skin and stage confidence, and having the ability to find emotional truths.

South African journalist Marianne Thamm, a veteran of 40 years in local newsrooms and associate editor of Daily Maverick, with all those qualities, has taken them and turned it into a show called Round of Applause — South Africa Still Standing.

The idea for Round of Applause came from her being invited to participate in the Spier Talking Heads series in Stellenbosch two years ago.

“Every single person who circulated to my table had no idea how the nuclear deal was stopped or what the community at Xolobeni achieved in taking the Australian mining company to court … also they knew nothing about the Slapp [strategic lawsuits against public participation] suit or the amounts involved in state capture,” Thamm explains. 

“I also attended an arts summit where it became evident that people are too overwhelmed.”

That is how this piece of performance journalism was born. She staged it at the Woordfees (word festival) in Stellenbosch in October as well as at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre for three weeks.

Thamm says theatregoers can expect a “condensed trip through state capture and where the constitution managed to hold us all together”. 

A reviewer said of her Woordfees performance that with “the information at her fingertips, how could she not share on stage?

“And she does it brilliantly. It’s not a big ask, though. The story has all of us hanging on every word — even though we’ve heard all of it before, it still renders us all speechless.”

Thamm says something like America’s The Daily Show is a form of performance journalism. One needs to add that their hosts aren’t journalists, but comedians. 

She says Round of Applause is “slightly Dada-esque — I did write scripts for the satirical show ZA News for many years, so expect some surprises.”

But she adds that it should not be confused with “performative” journalism.

I ask her about the link between theatre, journalism and politics: “Comedy is something I have been doing for many years outside of journalism. I have been part of all three for many years and they are a perfect blend. Politics is theatre, after all.”

Thamm says the show was easy to script. “It was written for me by South Africans themselves and politicians. What to put in and what to leave out was the issue.”

She is doing two shows in Johannesburg this week and then goes on a tour of sorts with performances at the KKNK from 25 to 28 March and will be back at the Baxter from 8 to 27 April.

It is reassuring to see her PR punts the show as “celebrating the strengths of South Africa’s democracy. Get ready for 2024 when things can only get better.” 

Click here for bookings for the Joburg “house concert” performance of Round of Applause.