Where is the theatre audience?

2008-10-02 08:05

THE old question of how to get the proverbial bums onto theatre seats came to the fore again this weekend when the Hexagon and Drama Studies department on the local campus jointly staged a Theatre Minifest with 10 performances of five shows on Friday and Saturday.

On Friday evening, Hexagon director Peter Mitchell said that KwaZulu-Natal now seems to be suffering the malaise that struck the rest of the country around three years ago - no-one wants to go to the theatre. He recently had to cancel the second performance of Inferno Opera due to poor bookings and theatres in the province are generally facing lean times. But if the rest of the country is picking up, maybe KwaZulu-Natal will too - if performers and management can afford to hang in for however long it takes.

There are creative ways of going about it - Mitchell says word of mouth is the main way to get people into shows in Pietermaritzburg but with runs of two and three days, that hardly has time to work. Durban has its Live Wires, an initiative set up by Caroline Smart, in which people with an interest in theatre get a couple of free tickets to an opening night of a show, on the condition that they e-mail 10 friends with a short review of what they have seen and a suggestion that they try it out, copying their e-mail to the Live Wires database. It seems to work in Durban and maybe if someone in Pietermaritzburg has the time and energy to liaise with the various theatre venues and set it up, it might work here too.

The two shows I saw at the minifest - Tokoloshe! Come and Go on Friday and Born Thru the Nose on Saturday - were in fact both pretty well attended and the consensus afterwards was that numbers were probably better than the organisers had expected them to be but support from students played a big part in that. The general public were thin on the ground.

Tokoloshe! Come and Go comes from Durban pair Liam Magner and Jacobus van Heerden and was a hit at both last year's Witness Hilton Arts Festival and Musho! in Durban two months ago. It is young, fresh and funny, performed with huge energy and joie de vivre and is an ideal piece for this kind of festival. Bheki Mkhwane's Born Thru the Nose has been around for some time and the polish it has acquired from prolonged work and the experience and skill of Mkhwane, Ellis Pearson and Greig Coetzee is considerable. A tale of the fault line that exists between the traditional and modern worlds, it also offers the audience some food for thought, very pertinent in this country and at this time.

The other shows were Spun, with Liam Magner again; Janet van Eeden's Expletive Deleted with Thomie Holtzhausen and Gumbo, a show from a Cape-Town based company of deaf and hearing theatre makers - from the hip: khulumakahle (FTH:K). This last seems to have gone down particularly well.

FTH:K are in the lucky position of being able to travel with Gumbo. They have managed to raise a fair amount of sponsorship for their work and are currently touring, taking in the minifest on the way. Ex-Maritzburger Rob Murray from the company says it has not been easy - their first approach was to go to potential funders and ask for big sums. The answers were depressing but a change of strategy to ask for smaller amounts from more people has paid off - but it is time consuming and hard work. A quick look at their website shows a long and comprehensive list of supporters, including the National Lottery, the city of Cape Town, Transnet, Old Mutual, the National Arts Council, Business and Arts South Africa (Basa) and the Arts and Culture Trust.

One thing the minifest has shown is that creative people, with energy, can get productions onto the stage. It would be a tragedy if they failed because their potential audience lacked the energy to go to the theatre and see them.

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