Opinionista Matthew Alves 11 July 2018

The Inertia of South African Theatre

Theatres seek stable profit, but they do so at the expense of bold originality. And so grows the assumption that audiences don’t understand theatre, and that in order to gratify them, shows should be recognisable or comforting. The problem is cyclical, but it takes hold early, when performers are still young and daring.

Do we still hold South African theatre accountable as a space to explore new, divergent ideas? Publicly, it seems to be withering into obscurity, though among its members it still enjoys a level of loyalty that may be blinding those on the inside to the waning need for its purpose. Glance at the line-up of shows at any local theatre and you’ll find a safe selection of recycled entertainment. Theatres seek stable profit, but they do so at the expense of bold originality. And so grows the assumption that audiences don’t understand theatre, and that in order to gratify them, shows should be recognisable or comforting. The problem is cyclical, but it takes hold early, when performers are still young and daring.

Performance institutions grooming the many eager artists saturating the market every year have little incentive to compromise their titles as places of prestige by altering their standards of admission or updating a curriculum that under-equips students for a distracted market.

And it’s not just starry-eyed naivete; students aren’t being taught how to navigate long-term, real-world barriers in their profession [1].

Unable to compete with the variety of Netflix and YouTube, fresh graduates find themselves mimicking the hard-sell ethic of online on-demand entertainment. It results in a kind of clickbait theatre, shows styled like Twitter controversies to attract jaded theatregoers, sidestepping a critical process that interrogates the underlying cultural need.

Sadly, what you end up with is art for artists, by artists, of artists, or more accurately, “approved” art. The theatre industry remains unaware, affirmed in its taste through an insulated system of accolades, virtually unknown to anyone outside its circle.

In today’s binge culture, this system can only survive in a self-congratulatory and self-delusional environment.

Is weak turnout a symptom of uncultured audiences, or is it, in fact, a reflection of consumer dissatisfaction with the products being offered by the creative community? Take the increasing popularisation of the theme of marginalised voices. The drive for these narratives, while valuable in the wake of democracy, has become unwilling to take into account the public’s interest in current theories of gender, race, and identity.

Performers see glitzy West End reruns and rightly try to create some counterbalance, something with a little realness.

It’s assumed that there can be nothing better than seeing such topics explored endlessly, and what follows is a competition to one-up humanistic dramas. These assumptions find root in performance schools that operate more like a “let it all out” group therapy session than the front line of critical cultural engagement, and it leaves far too many graduates self-empowered but passive and ideologically alike.

Art should move beyond an infatuation with talent, political sermonising, or moral certainty, and instead excavate the nuances of existence, as disturbing as they may be.

Why do we find so many artists in such firm agreement on what classifies as ethically necessary stories? In theory, it’s just good business sense. Better to be virtuous than confrontational. This kind of finger-wagging thinking ends up informing the work that theatre-makers create. Dark comedy that once poked fun at human imperfection and perversion now asks audiences to contemplate their unearned advantages in society.

Take the moral uniformity at events like the Golden Globes, where grandstanding types like Meryl Streep command Orwellian obedience to the ideal of inclusivity. Artists would do well to remember that they are not the arbiters of morality. If they lose perspective on the role they play in containing the tension between ideas, how long before the theatre loses its way entirely and becomes nothing but a cult (see The Daily Show with Trevor Noah)? Our theatres should for once dare to appal audiences, but this won’t happen in a climate of self-righteous conviction.

How exactly are we measuring success in the creative industry? According to the Employment in the Cultural and Creative Industries in South Africa report composed by Serge Hadisi and economics Professor Jennifer Snowball, in 2017, the creative and cultural industries contributed less than 3% of total employment in South Africa.

The 2.93% refers to the percentage of all jobs [in South Africa] that are classified as ‘cultural or creative’ according to the Unesco definition.”

The Unesco Framework defines six main domains: Cultural and Natural Heritage, Performance and Celebration, Visual Arts and Crafts, Books and Press, Audio-visual and Interactive Media and lastly, Design and Creative Services. Each cultural sector is placed within one specific domain.

Snowball adds: “It includes cultural workers in the creative industries, as well as cultural workers in non-creative industries (like a designer working in a car manufacturing firm), but it does not include non-cultural, support jobs in cultural industries (like an accountant in a film company).”[2]

An understandably broad definition. But when you begin to pick away at the figure, you realise that South African theatre actually makes up only a fraction of an already minor percentage.

Consider the Artscape theatre, which recorded in its 2016/2017 Annual Report that government grants account for 78% of its total revenue. You remove that contribution and it becomes another business facing irrelevancy. To some, such a radical thought is unimaginable, and could inflict great harm on fragile mainstays of artistic expression.

Can cushioning a business in hefty grants provide the conditions for competitiveness needed to kick-start actual growth in the performing arts, or does it merely conceal the public’s indifference to the organisation’s offering?

The theatre has always flirted with its own decline, but it will rapidly accelerate this process, until its members acknowledge the real part they play in its redundancy. And until they stop using their positions to derive social currency with one another, and start challenging audiences, theatres will remain a cultural afterthought.

Funding is a concern for theatre-makers; one that will remain even after the ideological issues disappear. Nonetheless, there needs to be an honest discussion about the stagnation in the performing arts institution. It is failing to unlock the imagination of its students, multiplying an out-of-touch clique of creatives over-concerned with what is politically fashionable, having ingrained a standard by which one complies or is ostracised, which only fuels an avoidance of unorthodox ideas.

As the availability of online entertainment grows, so does the exodus of talent in search of less oppressive conditions. Where creativity is shackled by fearful, small minds, integrity and originality cannot last, and must adopt a likeable, Oscar-worthy, or politically uniform spirit. DM

[1] In defence of lecturers, there is usually a grave discussion about the odds facing performers. I argue that this discussion needs more constructive, forward-thinking insights.

[2] Prof. J. Snowball. (personal email communication, 17 May 2018)

Matthew Alves is a Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate with an MA in Professional Acting. He is also busy with his undergraduate in Psychology.

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