Brent Meersman[1]

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It seems almost trite to observe that economics shapes the arts. An economic system exerts its influence as constantly and tirelessly as gravity sculpts the natural world. From the bodies of birds that wish to fly to the dowager’s humped spine, the laws of physics limit and dictate the scope of successful shapes creation might take, and bends us creatures to its will over time. In the realm of human endeavour, economics exerts a similar pervasive force. The peculiarities of any particular economic system will mould the arts, and what is more, the society they reflect.

Yet, astonishingly, this obvious fact has hardly been studied. Perhaps the neglect stems from the inherited belief that the artist traditionally rejects the conventional trajectory laid out by society for commercial success, choosing instead to wage his or her struggle from the attic of poverty, secure only in the wishful thinking that one day posterity will vindicate their labours. So internalised is this romantic parable–the artist as somehow sacrosanct from the economic world–that despite the evidence being everywhere and variously acknowledged, it is either overlooked or dismissed, as unimportant as a hiccup is to a biographical tome. I hope here to sketch, in an introductory manner, the way in which economics is shaping South African theatre.

Theatre is a commercial enterprise in a more obvious way than many other creative pursuits. Each play is a business re-invented: it requires capital, a business plan, premises, staff, a unique marketing strategy and sales. During apartheid, under the nationalist government, the performing arts were funded directly by the state through five monolithic, whites-only, Provincial Performing Arts Councils (PACs), in the service of the regime’s gleichschaltung. They were incredibly well-resourced centres with state of the art facilities, and permanent resident companies within those institutions for drama, ballet and opera. They even had their own orchestras. They consumed half of the national Department of Arts and Culture’s budget, and productions were heavily subsidised with ticket sales expected to cover only 18% of operating costs.

After 1994, the government of the liberation party converted the PACs into “receiving houses,” opening them ostensibly along more democratic lines to any arts company for rental, and set about steadily removing the subsidies for the resident companies. No dramatic repertory company survived.

After nearly 20 years as a democracy, the original PACs are now mostly moribund, drawing audiences by hosting overseas musicals staged by big commercial producers. Under the current system, theatre and drama are not subsidised, though they may apply for funds on an ad hoc, project-for-project basis to the National Arts Council, which never fully funds any production, has an extremely small budget, and is not only racked by scandal after scandal but bureaucratically dysfunctional. All theatre, whether “Eurocentric,” emergent “black theatre” or new South African drama, have been left to starve to death under this system.

In broad terms then, there are two economic models in play that govern the arts in South Africa today: the capitalist, commercial imperative, where the arts are expected to recover their own costs from ticket sales and sponsorship; and the state funded, subsidised arts model. Both systems often overlap. Both have their flaws. In the capitalist consumer model, commercial work, in particular the musical, with limited artistic merit, tends to dominate the stage today. Thus a sophisticated musical, one say by Stephen Sondheim, may survive a run in New York or London, but not in Cape Town. As a city, Capetonains can only afford Andrew Lloyd Weber for which there is a large family audience.

One could argue that “art as consumption” is going to be only as good as the taste of its audience. On the other hand, where government generously subsidises the arts, the arts will tend to be only as good as the perspicacity of its funders. Most disappointingly, the functionaries, bureaucrats and politicians of our “social democratic” state have been less successful than wealthy private patrons at recognising true talent. Heavily subsidised theatre can lapse into a different kind of mediocrity, distinct from that of consumer capitalism–the propagandist theatre of state ideology at one extreme and at the other extreme the theatre of the self-indulgent, pet director mounting narcissistic work irrelevant to broader society.

For various reasons (too complicated to go into here: wage pressures and semi-unionisation, rental increases, declining audience loyalty, the need today for professionalised marketing) the costs of producing theatre have risen dramatically in the past decade and a half, straining both state budgets and commercial producers. At the same time, ticket prices have remained under pressure. Consequently, commercial work is necessarily the most risk averse and therefore tends to be dumbed down to attract a wider public upon whom few demands are to be made.

However, guaranteed fees frequently mean little effort is made to attract an audience and self-satisfied works play to empty houses. The funding system rewards not the best playwrights, but the best funding proposal writers. It is an exercise in ticking boxes for subsidy. In both cases, many of the choices made in the artistic process are not guided by the creative imagination, but founded on financial choices. In the British and American theatre at the moment casting decisions increasingly rest on box office draw cards even when the star attraction is shamefully bad and badly cast.

Those theatre makers who depend on government grants tend to choose their subject matter according to the ideological priorities of the state and to satisfy the mandate of the cultural department. Notoriously, years ago, one overzealous National Arts Council functionary suggested to an author that she write in some additional characters to have greater ethnic “representivity.” Some playwrights don’t need to be asked; they have already made such decision to get the funding. Consequently, a look at theatre festivals will reveal hundreds of subsidised emergent theatre productions obsessed with conscientizing the public around social issues such as HIV/AIDS, violence against women, racism, and the plight of the physically handicapped. These may be very good, but economics is shaping the programme. A few years ago an all-male black troupe dressed as Zulu warriors doing synchronised Indian Bollywood dances begged the question whether this was a vivid celebration of our diversity or national funding policy taken to its ultimate absurd conclusion.

On the National Arts Festival’s commercial fringe, where there is little or no subsidy, it is noticeable that the programme is dominated by stand-up comedy, one-man revues and two-handers. Plays with larger casts are extremely rare; they are of a shape unfeasible in the current economics. Shakespeare is the exception, and is almost always reliant on large school audiences.

Foreign visitors to South African theatres often comment on the way mime is used instead of props, sets are suggested and not provided, and a single actor plays numerous parts. This form of poor man’s theatre, which many South African performers have perfected (notably Andrew Buckland and his school), continues as a response to economic imperatives. It is of course a legitimate form, but it is today essentially an imaginative response to financial strictures. What struck this critic about the UK production of the Tony-award winning 39 Steps which has been a smash hit with audiences in London and New York, was the way audiences raved about the novel form in which it was presented, the use of stage business to tell the story, and actors transparently switching between multiple parts. And yet in South Africa this format is old hat. For years now, most of our theatre is staged this way. Our enjoyment of such work is predicated on its theatricality, on watching the virtuosity of the performer. However, it has become overtraded.

Proof that this is actually an economic rather than an artistic choice rests on several observations. It is a format that has proliferated well beyond that of a specific genre of “physical theatre.” Works written and created specifically for this form have mushroomed even when there is little demand for such theatre from audiences. The method and form has been extended and applied to plays and scripts wholly unsuitable for such treatment. One actor will play multiple characters when the work would be far better served by a cast of actors.

As the financial crisis lingers in Europe and America, I venture to predict that the kind of theatrical forms which have come to dominate in South Africa will begin to materialize increasingly on the professional stages of the developed West along with lower production values. South African theatre, particularly drama, has been in a deep recession for the past two decades. It has become extremely hard in South Africa to be an actor dependent on parts in plays. This breed almost no longer exists. Most do television commercials and soap operas to make ends meet. The few survivors have been a handful of exceptional individuals who write, perform and produce their own material, usually solo. An entire generation of playwrights has fallen silent or emigrated, defeated by the insurmountable financial obstacles today of putting on a play with more than one or two people on the stage.

It could be argued that declining production values, repetitive treatment, and the ever-diminishing circles of the “poor man’s theatre” style has weathered down audiences. Sets stopped filling the proscenium arch over a decade ago. Directors have been fooling themselves for years that it is “more theatrical” if audiences can see the bricks and stilts propping up sets and flats that wobble with the slightest movement. Audiences that would once recoil at such tatty treatment no longer even blink an eye. Audiences are bored by it. Where audiences find the magic of live theatre today is in the imported musical with its fabulously high production values.

The Mechanicals company

The Mechanicals company consists of mature, professional actors, younger actors, graduates of the university of Cape Town, and seasoned drama lecturers.
The Mechanicals company consists of mature, professional actors, younger actors, graduates of the university of Cape Town,
and seasoned drama lecturers.

There are, however, as always pockets of resistance. One Cape Town based repertory company, The Mechanicals, is fighting back. Based on the University of Cape Town campus, the group consists of mature, professional actors, younger actors, graduates of the university, and seasoned drama lecturers. They operate along the lines of an amateur dramatic group–they have no salary; the members have paying jobs elsewhere; they often rehearse with parts being read when actors are away at work. But in the end, they stage productions that are anything but amateur.

Emily Child as Hermia in the Mechanicals’ production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Guy De Lancey. © Jesse Kramer
Emily Child as Hermia in the Mechanicals’ production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Guy De Lancey. © Jesse Kramer

In the past four years they have mounted repertory seasons with full productions of works by Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, Steven Berkoff, Oscar Wilde, as well as Shakespeare’s King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a variety of other works including plays by Sarah Kane, Ariane Mnouchkine (Mephisto), Louis Nowra (Cosi), Jaan Tatte (Highway Crossing Or A Tale Of A Golden Fish).

Nicholas Pauling and Guy De Lancey in the Mechanicals’ production of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter.” © Jesse Kramer
Nicholas Pauling and Guy De Lancey in the Mechanicals’ production of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter.” © Jesse Kramer

Productions by the Mechanicals are often the only place South Africans have the opportunity to still see classic, literary theatre works. The company members work for no financial reward, but the love of the theatre and a belief in their art. Although this is an admirable example, the situation is ultimately untenable. Neither model–heavily subsidised or commercially driven should ever win the argument outright; a healthy tension should be maintained. Such an economy provides for the broadest possible expression of the arts.

In conclusion

Unfortunately, the manner in which South Africa’s mixed economy is being administered by its cultural institutions–an often nightmarish chimera of neo-liberal globalized capitalism and a dirigiste, developmental state–has left the economy of the arts decommissioned, falling between two stools. The result is the state of theatre we have today and its executioner economics. New forms are inevitably emerging in response, but the literary theatre of the well-made play is now in its death-throws.

Trite observations can make for thin arguments. But until the invisible hand of economic forces in the theatre is recognised more transparently and fessed up to, we will not be able to fashion a system that encourages integrity, acknowledges bravery, and creates a space for theatre of national consequence.


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[1] Brent Meersman has since 2003 been theatre critic for the Mail & Guardian. He is the author of two novels, Reports Before Daybreak (2011) and Primary Coloured (2007) and a collection of poetry, Ophila and the Poet (2010). His short stories have appeared in What Love Is and The Invisible Ghetto and his poems have been published by New Contrast, New Contact, Botsotso, and Green Dragon

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