Lack of funding means no curtain call for Johannesburg’s Theatre on the Square

The Theatre on the Square is at risk of permanently closing its doors if sponsorship is not secured soon. With government support sorely lacking, artists and musicians have ever fewer performance spaces.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

A theatre that has brought more than 2,500 new shows to life in its 27 years of existence has launched a fundraising campaign to prevent its curtains from closing permanently.

Johannesburg’s Theatre on the Square in Nelson Mandela Square has created work for thousands of actors, musicians, designers and crew. It’s safer financially to bring already successful shows to the stage, but the theatre has provided a platform for new playwrights and performers to present untested works by funding their productions.

The venue has survived by means of corporate sponsorships and by draining the bank balance of its founder, producer, owner and artistic director, Daphne Kuhn. During a year of Covid-19 closure, staff have all been retained and paid, but it can only reopen if a fundraising campaign generates enough cash to cover the bills and pay artists who are desperate to perform again.

Kuhn has been hesitant to publicise funding campaign because of a concern that potential sponsors might fear that the theatre will fail. But this time she knows the Covid-19 lockdown will trigger its closure forever unless sponsorships are secured.

The silver bullet would be securing a new sponsor for the full naming rights at R2-million a year, with the company name displayed above the theatre and on advertising materials, free tickets for staff and clients, and use of the venue for corporate functions.

“I have been reluctant to do this because it’s a very emotional thing. But every day I get requests from artists, musicians, playwrights and directors asking when we’re reopening. The industry has been devastated and it hasn’t had the support the government’s stimulus package promised,” she said. “This theatre is part of the cultural life of Johannesburg and it’s created productions that have toured the world and launched the careers of many well-known artists. It’s probably been the most prolific theatre producer of plays in the country and it would be a huge loss to the city and the industry.”

Kuhn has sought funding from several companies, but budgets are tight and with so many organisations desperate for support, she fears that the plight of the theatre will be ignored.

Lockdown has already caused Cape Town’s high-profile The Fugard Theatre to close permanently after a year of no shows – they had also relied on private-sector support, chiefly from philanthropist Eric Abraham.

“It’s a tragedy to see theatres closing, especially at this time when healing and upliftment is needed more than ever,” Kuhn says. “It’s the saddest thing to see there will be fewer theatres, musicals, plays and concerts. The arts are on the bottom of the priority list for financial support, but they’re an essential service that should be supported by corporates to keep South African culture alive. Theatre entertains and educates and tells our stories with all the social, political and emotional ideas that form our diverse cultural tapestry,” she said.

With a seven-year sponsorship from insurance company Auto & General ending last year, Kuhn needs to raise at least R2-million a year through the new fundraising scheme. The monthly running costs are huge, with rent and salaries requiring R200,000 and utility bills R50,000.

The theatre was purpose-built by property developer Stocks & Stocks in 1997 so Kuhn could relocate to Sandton from her previous premises in Rosebank. The lease has now expired and the current landlord, Liberty Two Degrees, has agreed to waive the rent for the rest of the year if she renews it. That cuts the running costs, but still leaves utility bills and wages before anything is staged.

Producing a new play costs at least R500,000, even with a small cast, Kuhn says. That covers the rights, paying the director, artists, designers and technical crew during rehearsals and performances, and the cost of the set, costumes and marketing.

Despite the huge effort and investment, a show may only run for two or three weeks, making it hard to recoup the costs. There’s no money in touring, either, because the lack of a strong network of regional theatres means that it may only relocate to Cape Town before it closes. Few theatres, if any, can survive on ticket sales alone, and with Covid-19 compliance requiring auditoriums to be only half-full, ticket income will be slashed.

Critics who feel The Theatre on the Square is for an older, white, elite Sandton audience haven’t seen the lineups over the past few years, Kuhn says. “Our plays, musical events and comedy shows are representative of all of South Africa. We produce new plays that are relevant or uplifting, exciting and provocative. We have promoted the works of many South African writers who have been acknowledged with several awards.”

Often plays hold up a mirror to society and tackle social issues to challenge our thinking. The venue also stages lunchtime classical and jazz concerts, children’s theatre and school drama festivals, providing a space for new talent. The postponed 2020 line-up that she hopes to revive includes runs by local comedians Nik Rabinowitz, Loyiso Madinga and Ntosh Madlingozi; a new play by South African playwright Paul Slabolepszy and a collection of dark comedy sketches by satirist Mike van Graan.

As an independent commercial producer, Kuhn has no obligation to stage untested South African works, but she does so bravely, says Ismail Mahomed, former CEO of The Market Theatre and current director of the Centre for the Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “Kuhn takes calculated risks to produce South African theatre, which draws open a curtain to the complex world of South African society, and she always succeeds at producing theatre which is wonderfully entertaining,” he says.

The theatre could reopen in July if money comes in from 10 new categories of sponsorship. Individual membership for R500 a year promises discounted tickets and invitations to special events. Sponsoring one of the 200 seats costs R1,200 a year, with your name inscribed on a seat and discounted tickets. Other categories include life membership, corporate sponsorship for R10,000 a year, and supporting the jazz or classical concerts, children’s theatre and playwriting projects.

The silver bullet would be securing a new sponsor for the full naming rights at R2-million a year, with the company name displayed above the theatre and on advertising materials, free tickets for staff and clients, and use of the venue for corporate functions.

If theatres fail to reopen, the devastation to the arts caused by Covid-19 will be exacerbated. Artists have been left starving by the lack of performing opportunities, coupled with the mishandling of the sector’s R300-million Presidential Employment Stimulus Package. That seemed the only source of income for many, and artists led by singer Sibongile Mngoma have held a sit-in at the National Arts Council of South Africa  offices after it reneged on funding pledged to about 600 approved applicants. Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa has admitted the money was mismanaged, but it still hasn’t been forthcoming.

The Theatre on the Square can be contacted at [email protected] or 083 377 4969. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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