There have been a plethora of truly inspiring Artistic Directors in the mainstream theatres of South Africa some of whom have shaped my own sense of the canon that could be regarded as South African Theatre. One calls to mind the late great Barney Simon, whose days at the Market Theatre established that theatre as the cutting edge of new SA work in the International arena.
Barney influenced many of the established theatre directors and actors in South Africa. He created a body of work, some his own, some in collaboration with others, that is recognised as being among the classics of SA theatre. One thinks of John Slemon, at the Baxter Theatre and even Lara Foot, the current Artistic Head, whose many collaborations were celebrated throughout SA and abroad. The innovative and cutting-edge, Brett Bailey whose projects continue to speak to us and the whole world.The works of James Ngcobo, the new AD of the Market Theatre.
What is the role then of an Artistic Director in the new SA?
In the commercial theatre world, where shows are self-funded and the commercial risk high, I would imagine the role of the Artistic Director would be to choose works that sell, cast them with drawcard performers who will ensure the sale of tickets, employ the best production team available to deliver a superb production. If the audiences don’t buy tickets, or the production team selected do not perform at the level required, the production might be deemed a failure and the Artistic Director’s job would be at risk. South Africa has very many successful AD’s of this ilk: Bernard Jay at the Jo’burg Theatre, Pieter Toerien at his various theatres around SA, Daphne Kuhn at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square, Steven Stead & Greg King in the young & dynamic KickstArt and many more. All of these people make Artistic and Commercial decisions with their own money and are entitled to make them as they see fit. Their success is ultimately determined by the votes of their audience who buy tickets. Most of the decisions that are made, whilst governed by high standards of the craft of theatre-making, are really commercial decisions designed primarily to sell tickets to their regular audience. Seldom do they venture into the realm of ‘new’ work unless they have cash to spare that they are prepared to lose!
In the publicly funded theatre sector, Artistic Directors have very different obligations and drivers. Apart from the odd commercial decision, they are required to bear in mind cultural development issues and job creation. The selection of the shows in my opinion should be governed by criteria that fall outside the commercial theatre sector. Here are managements that should not be ruled by commercial criteria. Here are managements that can afford to risk ‘new’ work. These Artistic Directors should be focussed primarily on developing the ‘new’ SA voice in theatre, if there is one. So questions that should be asked when applying vast sums of Public money are: Is the work advancing the development of South African theatre? Am I creating employment for my constituents? Is this work developing the new audience? Is it speaking to our SA ‘soul’? These are huge questions for any Artistic Director to have to deal with and some are rising to the occasion. One calls to mind Aubrey Sekhabi at the State Theatre in Pretoria who has doggedly launched amazing works by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and others, including the award-winning RIVONIA TRIAL. This is balanced out with some more traditional works in collaboration with some of the commercial companies that abound in Gauteng, like Deon Opperman’s ONS VIR JOU! and the like.
Most AD’s worth their salt should not choose a work that they cannot cast and when they are publicly funded, one could go as far as to say they should not choose a show that they cannot cast from within their own constituency. After all, it is the money from the taxpayers in their constituency that provides the capital for the production concerned. Money that should be used for job creation in that constituency, money that should be used for cultural development of that constituency. So then, this calls into question decisions made by the Artistic Directorship of the Playhouse Company to do the Broadway musical WEST SIDE STORY. Now, no-one doubts the credentials of that fabulous piece of musical theatre, nor it’s subject matter which still echoes clearly in SA today. But why do a show that you cannot cast from your local constituency. Why import all the leads and most of the production team? By choosing to do this show the AD of the Playhouse has not created employment for their constituents.
Recently, I had the pleasure of witnessing the ACT/Nedbank/DALRO scholarship awards for the studying of Musical Theatre. For the fourth year in a row the scholarship was awarded to a Durban hopeful. Proof that we have the talent. Come on Playhouse when are you going to support your locals?!!Or at least choose work in which they can be employed.