Theatre is immortal - but it needs your support

1 Jun 2020 - 08:45
The Baxter Concert Hall. Image courtesy www.baxter.co.za

By Lara Foot

There is a Covid-19 panic in the arts – journalists and policy-makers, artists and audiences are in a state of fright and flight, turning to every imaginable device and platform to “save theatre!” This is an international and universal crisis.

As a director of one of South Africa’s most vital theatres, I understand that I should be joining the flurry. But I am not.

Theatre as an autonomous activity was first recorded in classical Athens in the 6th century BC. Imagine the plagues and scourges that it has conquered since then. The Bubonic plague of 1346 to 1353, the Spanish flu of 1918, several wars, droughts, earthquakes and other natural disasters, numerous recessions and depressions. Theatre is immortal. While we humans are on the planet, there will be theatre, of that I am sure.

In South Africa, a certain kind of arts prevails, there is a hardiness to us, we come from a history where there has always been a long drought. What must it have meant to grow up in the township in the 1970s and become an artist?

There is nothing that can replace the intimate and trusting connection between artist and audience member in the safe space of storytelling. This is the value of theatre, the invisible thread that binds each audience member to each performer and to one another. This is the space that transforms lives, celebrates humanity, shines a light on taboos, offers comfort in sameness and otherness and argues with the world and society to simply be better and do better.

I have no fear that theatre will not survive the coronavirus, nor that the arts will be defeated by Covid-19.

If anything, theatre and the gathering together of communities, to understand and share, will become far more vital and delightful and perfect. We just have to wait it out and while we wait, try to use our skills and facilities to serve our greater community in any way possible. At The Baxter we have offered our staff and skills, both to the University of Cape Town, where we are helping to facilitate distance-learning for students without internet and to the City of Cape Town, where we have offered to construct beds and cubicles if needed.

The real concern is far more basic. It is simply the business of things, the bread and butter issues. This is urgent. Artists, meaning people who make their living from the performing or visual arts, need to survive like all other people, and theatres need to remain solvent, like all other businesses in this time. This is where artists need to be creative and possibly turn to whatever platform might make them a living, and here live-streaming or radio or televised plays can play a role.

We have to find ways to help one another. It is as if we might need to play a different game for a while. We have to support all the artists and all the arts centres so that they might weather the storm. That’s all. Artists need to be crafty and innovative; arts centres need to be prudent; the government needs to take responsibility and audience members need to be compassionate and patient. There is no need to take our eye off the ball and to be distracted from our core business and value. We do not have to spend money trying to reinvent the Acropolis. We need to save our money and spend it on nurturing and developing great productions for the openings of all our theatres. Audiences are going to need good theatre.

The precarious state in which the theatre industry currently finds itself – in terms of sustainability and the welfare of artists – has long been in the making and through the coronavirus, the cracks are even more exposed. The white paper of 1994 – which supported state-funded theatres as rental houses, banished full-time companies and imagined the equal distribution of funding to independent artists and companies via government bodies – was a dismal failure. Independent artists were not supported by managements or structures and the money they received was far too little to afford the exorbitant rentals of the ironically state-funded theatres. Thus, many state-funded theatres continued to showcase the work of less than a handful of elite producers, and struggling artists became poorer in trying to present their work at arts festivals.

We don’t need years of policy-making, we don’t need anger and polarisation. We simply need a department of arts and culture where the employees are passionate and knowledgeable about the arts.

The new white paper of 2017 looked much more promising. It refers to resident companies, to the upliftment of all artists and companies and puts forward a pension scheme for performers. Sadly, this white paper has been stuck in Parliament for several years and the plight of the artists and the industry remains disquieting, due to government inaction.

We hear the same voices on social media platforms demanding policy-making, and artists bandy together to express their urgent needs. Then one or another loud intellectual voice enters, and policies are notated, meetings are held, votes are counted, and nothing happens. Nothing changes. Why?

Perhaps we should not start with policy. Perhaps we should start with the artists. What do artists need to make a living and create work? They need spaces to work, they need a livable wage, they need security and respect and they need access to a pension fund and a medical fund, just like everyone else. It is not rocket science. Artists need to work with dignity. We don’t need years of policy-making, we don’t need anger and polarisation. We simply need a department of arts and culture where the employees are passionate and knowledgeable about the arts.

We need well-structured playing spaces for artists where the core business is to make possible the dreams of these creators. These homes or theatres or galleries or platforms should be equipped and staffed with people with arts backgrounds and who work to make as much art happen as possible. The vast majority of the funding should go to the artists, not towards the upkeep of empty buildings, or to the salaries of many non-skilled administrators and arts officials who hardly ever go to the theatre to see a show and engage with artists.  The Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) must show vision, it must get on with the new white paper and it must choose a team of top theatre leaders (not necessarily performers, but leaders and educators) to come up with a simple strategy to put simple systems in place. Systems which are cost-effective, create thousands of job opportunities and which serve the arts community at large.

Funding bodies urgently need to do a study of the effectiveness of their money spent. How many jobs are created? How many artists are employed and for what period of time? There is not a lack of funding in the arts, there is a shameful waste of money!

Perhaps the current situation of Covid-19 is precisely the disruption necessary to ignite the action which is so desperately needed from the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.

On the 25th of March DSAC announced a R150 million relief fund for artists, athletes, technical personnel and the core ecosystem of the sector, for the period of March to June. To date, approximately R9,6 million has been distributed to individual artists and a lesser amount to athletes. As far as I am aware, the “ecosystem” in the arts has been ignored, no independent theatres or partially independent theatres have received any relief funding, and neither have Arts Festivals which were cancelled over that period. One must ask for transparency in relation to the rest of the funds.

Going forward, the department is required to listen deeply to the fears and needs of artists and be prepared to act swiftly. Artists need to keep working, despite the trying conditions in order to develop product and content in the advent of theatres opening. Managements have to find a way to employ as many artists as possible and find a way to stay afloat. Audience members and arts lovers should please find an arts institute of your choice and make a donation and then state on their donation that this contribution must be paid to an artist in distress over this period. If they don’t have a favourite theatre then please contribute to the Theatre Benevolent Fund (TBF), which is well organised and does good work.

Soon we will all meet again in a sacred space, where the darkness envelopes us back into that ancient ritual, and the lights come up on new offerings. DM/ ML

Lara Foot is a writer, director and producer. She is the CEO and artistic director of the Baxter Theatre Centre.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick's 'Maverick Life' section on 29 May 2020.

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