Lockdown Level 4: Theatre-makers respond to the Department of Arts and Culture

Unveiled in 2012, the Soweto Theatre is the cultural hub of vibrant Soweto, showcasing local theatre, dance and choir events. (Photo by: Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Unveiled in 2012, the Soweto Theatre is the cultural hub of vibrant Soweto, showcasing local theatre, dance and choir events. (Photo by: Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

On 4 May, Minister Nathi Mthethwa hosted a briefing, updating the public on the actions of the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, following the announcement of a R150-million relief fund on 25 March. 

With the arts sector heavily impacted by the state-imposed coronavirus lockdown, this fund seeks to alleviate financial pressures on sports people and artists. With South Africa moving from Level 5 to Level 4 lockdown, many sectors are allowed to return to partial productivity. The minister announced that theatres and playhouses would be permitted to return to a working statuses, but for filming and broadcasting purposes only. 

READ: Minister Nathi Mthethwa provides an update on the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture's Corona relief fund

According to Government Gazette No. 43269, the proposed mitigating measures apply to "Performing Arts Institutions or Playhouses that have the relevant infrastructure or facilities for the creation and production of local content". These institutions, referred to in the Gazette as "facilities", are permitted to produce content for "streaming and live-streaming without audiences. Monologues, minimal cast and technical support are required."

Screengrab from Government Gazette

Fahiem Stellenboom, the marketing manager of The Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, is not of the opinion that any of the Level 4 lockdown mitigating measures apply to the Baxter Theatre, or any theatre that does not fall under the purview of the Department of Arts and Culture. The Baxter Theatre has in previous years had some support from UCT, but has recently found itself having to find new ways of being self-sustaining. The theatre recently launched the #BaxterCoffeeAngels campaign, with the aim of attracting 30 000 patrons to "buy the Baxter a cup of coffee" by donating R30 a month.

"The Baxter Theatre is not funded by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture and therefore does not fall under the group of theatres that report to it. It is our understanding that only those theatres which are entities of the department are required to open their doors for artists to create content (without an audience) and which can be live-streamed. It stands to reason that we cannot be expected to do so when we do not receive any such funding," Stellenboom responds. 

The Baxter

             The foyer of The Baxter Theatre

A number of South African Theatres operate as public entities under the title of Performing Arts Councils. The Artscape in Cape Town, the Market Theatre and the Windybrow Theatre in Johannesburg, the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State in Bloemfontein, the State Theatre in Pretoria and the Playhouse Company in Durban all enjoy the support of the DAC.

The Soweto Theatre in Jabulani is a municipal entity of the City of Johannesburg, and is managed by Joburg City Theatres. Nomsa Mazwai, the theatre's general manager, says that the Soweto Theatre welcomes the minister's statement, as "it creates ways in which artists can think creatively around continuing to provide their craft to the public. This moment in time, while devastating for the industry, also creates an opportunity for us to think innovatively around the future of performance art and how best we can create new revenue streams while safeguarding the health of our supporters."

Jackie Cunniffe is the director of the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, managed by the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Arts. Like the Soweto Theatre, she welcomes the mitigating measures as they they allow for creation of digital content. This makes it possible for UKZN to use the Sneddon Theatre as a space for the generation of academic content, and other content relevant to the university. However, it is unlikely that the theatre will be able to use digital media to generate an income during this time.

"The Sneddon does not have a production budget and is predominantly a venue for hire to outside production companies, relying on theatre rental, beverage sales and a percentage of ticket sales to generate an income."  

"Thus, unless somebody is being paid to produce digital content and/or has sufficient capital to hire the Sneddon for this purpose, the theatre's income stream will remain stagnant during lockdown."            

The exterior of The Fugard Theatre (Photo: Supplie

                                           The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town ( Photo: Supplied)

The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, which has been cancelled all planned productions for 2020, is launching a digital platform called The Fugard at Home. Whilst Greg Karvellas, the Fugard's artistic director does not believe that the platform will "replace the magic of theatre", this online arm facilitates connection between artists and a larger viewing community.

"Theatre has always evolved and adapted during challenging times and been a beacon of hope. Our digital portal aims to do the same." Currently, The Fugard has made "Master Harold and The Boys" available for free streaming, exclusive to Friends of The Fugard members.

However, Cunniffe is not convinced that theatres will be able to compete effectively in this space. "It is my concern that there is so much music and theatre digital content already available for free, that the market is already flooded and the ability for local producers and artists to actually make money using this platform is limited. Most theatres struggle to get audiences to attend live shows who are willing to pay for their tickets, let alone pay for something that is digitally streamed and does not present as well as it would in a live context."

*Written by Lindokuhle, editor of Arts24.

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