When one looks back over the last 40 years and one tries to assess whether ordinary theatre makers in the KZN region have seen their lives improve with the advent of democracy, the picture remains bleak. In Durban, at least, things have become darker recently with a variety of venues closing down over the years. About 10 years ago we had at least fifteen recognised venues at which theatre makers (and I include dancers in this definition) could ply their trade and make a living. This included The Playhouse (which counted for 3 venues – the Opera, the Drama and the Loft), the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at UKZN, The Courtyard Theatre at DUT, the KwaSuka Theatre, the Catalina Theatre, the Heritage Supper Theatre in Hillcrest, the Izulu Theatre at the Sibaya Casino, the Seabrooke’s Theatre at Durban High School, the Barnyard Theatre at the Gateway Theatre of Shopping, the Rhumbelow theatre, the Pumpkin Theatre in Ballito, The Dockyard Theatre, the Stable Theatre and various ad hoc venues at the Sun Coast Casino (either the Super-Nova Cinema or the Zone marquee seasonally made available).
Today, six of those venues have closed, namely: the Kwasuka Theatre, the Catalina Theatre (albeit temporarily), the Heritage Theatre, the Pumpkin Theatre, the Dockyard Theatre and most recently the Barnyard Theatre for a variety of reasons like lack of support, lack of access to funding, prohibitive rentals from unsympathetic landlords, non-renewal of leases etc. All of these venues were central to giving a platform to free-lance performers from the region. With their closing many job opportunities were lost.
There are still another 9 venues available one might argue. Let’s take a look at how accessible these venues are to the run-of-the-mill theatre maker out there. Beginning with the Playhouse: unless you are able to get some sort of in association deal going with the Playhouse company, the rentals for the venues are very high and quite prohibitive for the ordinary theatre maker trying to eke out an existance (the last time I looked the rental for the Opera venue was R85 000 per week plus 5% of your gross revenue); The Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre: is not anywhere near as expensive as the Playhouse Theatre but is much in demand and is booked up a year in advance by mainly commercial companies and UKZN’s CCA which runs regular and annual festivals (Time of the Writer, Poetry Africa, the Durban Film International Festival, the Jomba dance festival); the Casino venues are not offering regular programming opportunities and seem to gravitate towards comedy, & music-revue with rare serious dance or theatre;the Stable Theatre: is closed more often than it is open (we are told it will be opening its doors again soon); the Seabrookes continues to be used regularly and attracts small audiences.
The point is for the young up-and-coming urban theatre maker, there is still very little access to main-stream theatre venues. This was the case during apartheid when all the venues were reserved by racial classification. Now they remain exclusive by economic classification. If you are fortunate enough to get major funding from the Lotto, you might be able to hire the Opera, the Drama, the Loft or the Elizabth Sneddon Theatre, that is if there is a decent slot available. If you do not have such funding, which is most of the up-and-coming theatre community, you are not able to have access to these venues.So, in effect, the disadvantaged still have little to no access to the venues that were inaccessible during apartheid.
The venues themselves are under pressure from their principals to be more cost effective and self-sufficient and to do this they have to lean in the direction of highly commercialised product to the detriment of more serious artistic endeavour or new untested works.
It is a complex issue, which can only be resolved with focus and debate including all of the stakeholders ie. the three tiers of government, the academic institutions that own some of the venues, the dance and theatre community, the unions, the civic associations like CCIFSA (Cultural & Creative Industries Federation of South Africa) , DATNET (Dance & Theatre Network of KZN), KUMISA (KwaZulu-Natal United Music Industry of SA) and even the Arterial Network who may be able to bring a continental perspective.