To see or not to see: South African theatre, who even cares?

It’s award season in the South African theatre world – though of course by “world” we mean the small village on the outskirts of mainstream art culture. Nevertheless, it’s a blissful time dedicated to recognising the work and talent of the country’s greatest actors, playwrights, directors, lighting and sound designers.

With little media attention barring a few mentions at the back of local papers and headlining online arts and culture websites, we can’t help but wonder what the merits of these awards are. The artists will continue, if the harsh economic reality hasn’t dissuaded them already, to work within a cottage industry, after receiving a congratulatory pat on the back and a small cash prize. But let’s not allow cynicism to take over; let’s view the theatre as half full rather than almost empty. After all, acknowledgement – no matter how big or small – is nice, even though “nice” won’t pay the bills or guarantee a fruitful career. It’s seldom that an artist will deny a standing ovation from so-called cultural authorities. For a brief moment, the cameras flash, champagne is passed around, and salutations flood Facebook timelines. And then once the fanfare has ended, there’s a return to the dusty wings before preparing to perform the festival circuit – if you’re lucky.


From ‘Die Seemu’, an adaption of ‘The Seagull’ by Christiaan Olwagen which played at the Baxter Theatre

In South Africa we’ve got the KKNK, Woordfees, the National Arts Festival, the Cape Town Fringe Festival and the Suidoosterfees, which rely on annual theatre going regulars and have their fair share of economic challenges – but what can be said of appreciation for local theatre throughout the year? Posing this question is akin to asking whether we should recycle the same Shakespearean text year after year at Maynardville. It’s nearly as old as the industry itself, and one that’s come back for a number of successful runs without ovations.

Everyone “knows” about theatre, because at some point during their childhood they were hoodwinked by parents or grandparents to attend a weekend musical matinee, or were cajoled into school outings and pretended to understand the iambic pentameter eloquently spoken by actors in a rendition of Hamlet. Most are vaguely familiar with the Baxter, Artscape and The Market Theatre. Some may even have heard of sort-of famous guys called John Kani, Athol Fugard, Reza de Wet and perhaps even Mike van Graan. As for the rest, who avidly attends the shows that take place year round across the country? 

Not wanting to bore you, we’ll just quickly mention that recent stats from the Department of Arts and Culture indicate that with more than 160 community art centres in operation, about 12 large-scale arts and culture festivals, and over 100 active theatre venues, supply doesn’t seem to be an issue. But how many people, who aren’t involved in productions themselves, trek to theatre festivals? It’s somewhat strange that people commit to and prepare for costly outdoor festivals but have no interest in watching an hour long live performance. Is theatre so boring and inaccessible that we’d rather veg out and Youtube cat videos?


David Kramer’s ‘Orpheus in Africa’ at the Fugard Theatre

National Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester explains that despite a general interest by the average South African citizen in going to the theatre, there is an issue of commitment that gets in the way, mostly stemming from economic and time factors. “Despite the strong supply of live performance, it is still difficult to get South Africans living in large centres like Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg to commit to going to the theatre on a frequent and regular basis. It happens – but it can be hard work,” he says. “So while South Africans want to go to the theatre, they don’t always follow through… and this is where, I think, festivals can play such an important role.”

In smaller cities such as Grahamstown, which is home to the annual 10 day National Arts Festival, theatre very nearly takes the space over, providing audiences a rare opportunity to experience new, cutting edge productions as well as see headline acts at a fraction of the normal price, and all within walking distance. The concern for theatre in the larger cities then, would surely lie with issues of access and spatial politics.

“To a large extent we have to still deal with the consequences of apartheid-era spatial planning,” says Tony. “Theatres in CBDs make it difficult for audiences to get to and there’s a perception that it’s not always safe to venture into CBDs at night. But that’s changing – the Soweto Theatre in JHB works hard, with some success, to get audiences through the doors for example, and recently invigorated programming energy and management at the State Theatre holds some promise for a resurgence.”


From ‘Ashes’ written by local theatre company, Rust Co-operative

Of course, age will inevitably play a factor here too. Besides issues of physical and economic access, theatre is still seen by many as existing in the older echelons of the art scene and failing to capture the attention of younger audiences. In Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct you’ll find the young and increasingly well-known POPArt theatre. Founded in 2011 by Orly Shapiro and Hayleigh Evans, POPArt puts out a brand of theatre specific to modern audiences looking to attend interesting, relatable, and often humorous productions.

Hayleigh explains that in the digital age, theatre has become even more relevant for modern audiences. “Part of POPArt’s function is to make theatre more accessible to a wider audience than the ‘perceived’ market,” she says. “We believe that theatre has something to offer everyone and that forms of live performance are becoming and will continue to become more popular in a technologically advancing world. The intimacy offered by live performance helps us access a connection through entertainment that is often missing in our daily interactions.”

Similarly, Cape Town has the Upstairs Theatre at Alexander Bar, founded by Nicholas Spaglionetti and Edward van Kuik and managed by Jon Keevy. The small 44 seater showcases a variety of performance from traditional theatre to stand-up comedy, musicals and live gigs. In fact, it usurped the once popular Intimate Theatre, which used to be run by Christopher Weare on Hiddingh Campus and was often the testing grounds and launch pad for artists to deliver new work at the start of their careers. Shows at Alexander Bar tend to run for two weeks, with musical events differing in length. Fortunately, practitioners are able to book the theatre free of charge and split door sales. So, even if the production runs at loss for the theatre, the profits generated from the bar downstairs keeps the business afloat. 

Speaking on the visibility of South African theatre, Hayleigh of POPArt notes that the marketing of shows is heavily impacted by the lack of funding allocated to the theatre industry, influencing both the advertising of shows and the process of putting them together. “Because margins are so tight – particularly in the fringe space we operate in – it also means that creative production teams are cut and people are often playing dual roles, which means focus is split,” she says. “Usually the thing that is neglected most is marketing, which means there’s less audience than there should be, which means the production runs at a loss. When not watched, it can become a vicious cycle that impacts on the entire ‘industry’s’ economy.”


From Frankie Nassimbeni’s The Playgroup

The lack of effective marketing strategies for large theatre and indie theatre practitioners results in little thought given to the business side. Theatre makers are entrepreneurs, and at the end of the day, a performance is a product that entertains a paying audience. Many a time, if not backed by sponsorship of private investors or a large commercial theatre, if there is a budget it will go towards the physical production with little allocation towards marketing. This stems from a lack of know-how and tertiary education, which can be excellent at grooming students to produce exceptional productions, but fails to provide them with any business savvy. 

And yet, commercially speaking, a theatre like The Fugard appears to have done exceptionally well in city like Cape Town where the well-known Baxter and Artscape Theatres were already established. Having opened six years ago, the 320 seater has managed to fund a playwright’s residency, showcase sold out musicals of local and international flavour and screen theatre and opera productions. At the Fleur du Caps, David Kramer’s musical, ‘Orpheus in Africa’ scooped best performance by a lead actor, best performance by a supporting actress, and best costume design. This excludes awards won for the musical West Side Story which also had a run at the theatre. How has the Fugard managed to dominate the musical theatre scene traditionally associated with the Artscape? How have they managed as a young theatre to sustain themselves in cultural climate where theatre is a luxury and audience’s everyday living expenses have increased? Clearly, there must be an ongoing supply and demand chain between patrons and artists.

“Theatre is certainly not dying, but it is also not lucrative. Smart choices, and passionate hard work can however lead to moderate success. The Fugard is a strange beast in that we receive no funding or grants or subsidy. We rely completely on our various streams of income in order to remain viable,” says managing director, Daniel Galloway. “There have been times when we have achieved this, and times when we have not. It can be a brutal business and we are very fortunate to have the backing of Eric Abraham who is the Fugard Theatre founder and owner. The business model is simple at the Fugard: our productions tend to break even at around 65 – 70% attendance. When our very real operational costs are factored in as they should be our break even jumps to an eye-watering 99% or thereabout. Productions like ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ were able to cover its production costs and our operational costs which meant that for a period we were completely sustainable.”

The key to success might lie within the notion of intimacy. Traditionally, theatres like Artscape and Baxter were built as cultural institutions. Visit the Artscape and climb up the colossal staircase or go to the Baxter and above your head loom bright orange domes of light supported by facebrick walls enclosing a spacious multi-tiered foyer. Even though the rigid space exudes a formal air of cultural occasion, it borders on the sanctimonious whereby cold austerity gives rise to the doctrine that audiences should behave with propriety and all form of appreciation must be demonstrated through the steady hand-clap.


Carlo Daniels in ‘Kanala’, The Fugard’s latest District Six musical

However, theatres like the Fugard, Alexander Bar and POPArt are less formidable because they are smaller and make audiences feel less intimated. At a venue like Alexander Bar, one might feel as though, after having a drink at the bar, happen to walk upstairs and suddenly land up watching a show at the Alexander Upstairs Theatre. Likewise, the Fugard’s interior is warm, inviting and encourages audiences to mingle after the show.

Not every theatre operates like the Fugard so to encourage a new generation of theatre patrons, Artscape has implemented an Audience Development Programme where events like the Western Cape Schools Festival of the Arts are geared specifically towards learners whereby iconic South African plays like John Khani’s ‘Nothing but the Truth’ and ‘Missing’ are staged. However, having only launched this year, it will be some time before the long term results of this initiative become clear. 

Is theatre destined to be a niche industry? Daniel Galloway says that he “would like to think that theatre will become more mainstream in South Africa. But for this to happen some pretty basic pieces need to fall into place first. A theatre’s constituency is its most important asset. Finding meaningful ways of bringing them back is critical – no better way of doing that than producing exceptional, attractive, engaging, meaningful work”.

Another awards season verifies another year has passed where an array of exceptional productions have been staged. No doubt there is value in the medium but what is its reach? What of marketing strategies? Placing posters on poles isn’t the only or most effective way to communicate. The real question is: what needs to be done to make more people want to watch theatre?

Words: Gabriella Pinto and Dave Mann

Cover image by Filipe Branquinho

Between 10 and 5