The 53rd Fleur du Cap Awards and the making of Witkanda

Introduction

Last year, at the 52nd Fleur du Cap Awards event hosted at Artscape, Mamela Nyamza, Chuma Sopotela, Buhle Siwani and Zikhona Jacobs performed a protest against the pre-dominance of white nominees.  Wielding placards declaring “70 nominees 52 white nominees”, “#nominatelikeits1965” and “#white excellence”, the protestors drew attention to the symptoms of a lack of transformation within the theatre industry in the Western Cape.

There were 16 categories at last year’s awards; this year, there were six additional categories in which nominations were made: Best Performance by an Ensemble, Best Performance in an Opera – Male, Best Performance in an Opera – Female, Best Theatre Production for Children and Young People, Award for Most Promising Student and Best Production.

With the appearance of more black nominees (I use “black” in the Biko sense), and icons such as Faniswa Yisa and Jay Pather winning their respective categories, the critique of this year’s edition of the Fleur du Cap awards has been far more muted.  In fact, so much has the “fare being shared” (relative to last year) that we could almost be tempted into believing that our performing arts industry (at least with respect to theatre, musicals and opera) has achieved a “rainbow” moment, the making of a “Witkanda” if you like.

In an industry of small returns where any kind of affirmation – and monetary reward – is to be applauded, I do not wish to burst any happy-clappy bubbles, but it is in our interests as an industry to reflect a little more deeply on the awards and what they say about us at this time.

History

In 2012, I wrote an article reflecting on the Fleur du Cap Awards event that year, a year after a rather controversial awards event, which approximates almost exactly the events of 2018 following 2017.

The article started thus:

“Six weeks after the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, with the event and the awards having been received significantly better than the 2011 version, it would be of value to the local theatre industry to reflect on the awards.  While there has been a complete absence of controversy around the 2012 Awards (at least publicly), there have nevertheless being questions raised – more discreetly – not least because of the perceived political correctness of these latter awards.

In short, while the controversies of 2011 related to the selection of “white” winners in all 17 categories in which awards were made, this year’s awards are controversial for the opposite reason i.e. 5 of the 15 awards (33% in total), including some of the most competitive awards i.e. best actor, best actress, best supporting actor and best supporting actress, were all won by people of colour for the first time in the history of the Awards, with an additional two awards (theatre innovation and lifetime achievement) made to people of colour.

The purpose of this article is not to undermine any winner (particularly people of colour who historically have been, and remain under-represented in just about all Awards categories as well as within key decision-making positions within the local theatre industry), but rather to interrogate the 2012 awards both for what they reflect about the theatre industry in the Western Cape and for what they reflect about the judging process, in order to contribute to the ongoing development, transformation and celebration of excellence within the local theatre industry.

Their value as an affirmation of excellence in the industry, their consequent marketing benefits and their prize money all affirm that the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards occupy a unique space in the regional and national theatre landscape, a landscape in which there is limited financial reward and recognition for practitioners.  For this reason alone, it is necessary to interrogate the Awards from time to time in order to ensure that they do not lose or compromise their value, but that they continue to recognise and celebrate excellence within the local theatre industry.

The nature of such – and similar – awards is that there will always be some debate about winners and losers, some ill feeling about who was nominated and who was not; this is not what this article is about.  Rather, it is to evaluate what progress, if any, has been made since last year, and where the deficiencies, if any, might lie this year, in order to address these”.

This could very well have served as the introduction to this particular article, except that this one will have a few more personal anecdotes.

The basic conclusion to my 2012 article was:

“While the anger at the Fleur du Cap judges in 2011 was largely misplaced given that they were required to judge what was made available to them by theatre managements, except for the technical, design and directing categories where persons of colour are still woefully under-represented, the Fleur du Cap judges had a significantly larger pool from which to make their selections in 2012.

The 2012 Judging Panel is thus primarily responsible for the decisions made, particularly in the first four categories where the categories for lead and supporting actors and actresses in plays, were all won by persons of colour.

In the light of the controversies of 2011, it is difficult not to conclude that the 2012 judges succumbed to their individual and/or collective politically correct pressures to arrive at their final selections rather than the criterion of “merit”.

…it would appear that there has been an over-reaction to the 2011 controversies which may result in patronising and politically correct decisions and actions that undermine the value of the Fleur du Cap awards.  At best, this year’s awards may be viewed as part of its upward trajectory that will eventually see the Awards stabilising as the theatre industry plays its part in its ongoing transformation and as the panel of judges comes to acquire the individual and collective vision, skills, experience, sensitivity and insights to play the role required of them”.

That was six years ago.  And yet, here we are.  Again.

After that article was published, I received a rather irate phone-call from one of the judges at the time who was most upset that I had questioned their integrity.  Since then, (and perhaps it is purely coincidental), while my scripts (Pay Back the Curry, Brothers in Blood, Rainbow Scars) have been nominated in other awards – e.g. the Naledi Theatre Awards – they have not featured at the Fleur du Cap awards.  I accept that this may simply be that relative to other nominees in those particular years, my scripts were simply not good enough to be nominated locally, but I mention this for three reasons:

  1. to be transparent so that readers can make up their own minds about whether this article – or parts of it – may be coming from a place of “sour grapes”
  2. I do believe that there are consequences for individuals who raise critical questions within our industry (hence the default position of many who would rather remain silent in the face of some form of injustice – which is ironic given that our industry lauds itself on speaking truth to broader powers) and
  3. I further believe that those associated with my creative work are treated unfairly by being ignored in award nominations (let alone as winners); by putting this on the table, I hope that in future, those given power to make judgements about the quality of our work can separate the creator from the many others who actually give the work life

Analysis of 2017/18 nominees and winners

The official media release about the nominees for the 52nd Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards lists 15 categories, each with five nominees and a sixteenth category with three nominees, for a total of 78 nominees. (Some individuals are nominated more than once for different productions, and so are assumed here to be separate nominees).  Of these 78 nominees, 59 – 75,6% of the total – appear to be white, with 19 (24,4%) being black.

There were 4 black (25%) and 12 winners in these 16 categories, approximating the percentages of those nominated.

An award for innovation in theatre was made to the Makukhanye Art Room and a Special Encore Award was given to the cast of The Fall.

This year, with the additional categories, 60 (61%) of the nominees are white, with 38 (39%) being black.  If the categories of 2017 were to be compared against the same categories for the 2018 event, 30 (37,5%) of the 80 nominees in 2018 would be black and 50 (62,5%) would be white, an improvement on the previous year’s nominations in sheer numbers, even without the additional opera categories that provided 6 black nominees.

The key difference between 2017 and 2018 in terms of contributing black nominees appears to be the musicals category with King Kong and Aunty Merle delivering 11 black nominees between them (2017 was a lean year for black performers in musicals with only two of 20 nominations going to black performers).

What is clear then, is that awards’ judges are dependent on the decisions of theatre managements and producers about what they choose to stage; they can only select from what is made available by the theatre industry (by independent, public and private producers and by what theatres allow to rent their stages).

However, as in 2012 – and indeed in every year – the judges are solely responsible for the selection of nominations in each category, and ultimately for the winners of each category, as well as for any additional awards (lifetime achievement, innovation, etc).

Which is why they alone should be held responsible for this year’s selections.

Political correctness

I have chosen not to attend the awards for the last five years, sometimes happily being out of town at the time, and at other times, like last Sunday, simply choosing to watch Carte Blanche instead.

About two days before the awards ceremony, I sent an email to a friend who was going to the event, and “predicted” who some of the winners would be, particularly in some of the more contested categories.

I wrote (some parts edited out):

“Given the outcry last year about a lack of black nominees and winners, the personal prejudices and favouritism that I think some influential judges have towards certain managements/practitioners, the generally parochial nature of the awards (favouring Cape Town productions above Joburg, far more so than the Naledis that are pretty open to productions from around the country), I would not be surprised if the following happens:

The top 4 categories – best actor best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress – have at least one person of colour, and particularly a black African person as a winner. Might even be two…😊

Best Actor would be between Craig Morris and Marty Kintu; Craig Morris should get it, but Marty has a good chance by virtue of the above.

Best Actress should be Charmaine Weir-Smith or Tinarie, but don’t be surprised if Faniswa gets it….

Best Supporting Actor – should be Mark Elderkin…unless the judges are desperate for a person of colour winner.

Best Supporting Actress – Anyone of the five actresses, but don’t be surprised if Renate Stuurman gets it.

Best lead actor in a musical – locals love Mark Lottering.  All the others are pretty much out-of-towners.

Best performance by a lead actress in a musical – should be Ashley Harvey.  But Nondumiso Tembe or Edith Plaatjies could get it.

Best performance in a revue/one person show – Gideon Lombard has won awards in the Afrikaans fests, and Daniel at NAF, but bet on Tony Miyambo for Kafka’s Ape.

Most promising student – probably Luntu Masiza.

None of the 4 technical categories – lighting, set, costume and sound – have a person of colour except Sound which has Neo Muyanga for Twelfth Night and Aunty Merle with Tarryn Lamb and Marc Lottering.  Don’t be surprised if Neo wins….

Best new script – Paul won the Naledi.  Local favourite among some influential types is Louis Viljoen.  But don’t be surprised if Nadia Davids gets it…woman of colour and all.

Best director – all pretty strong contenders.  Might be a need to satisfy the Afrikaans constituency – so Jaco or Lara for Reuk van Appels, but don’t be surprised if Jay Pather gets it.  😊”

By now, we know who the winners in each category were.  As in 2012, the 2017/18 Fleur du Cap Awards judges – in my view – engaged in acts of extreme political correctness in selecting black winners in many of the categories.  It is not that the winners are not worthy of being recognised for their body of work within the industry, but it is moot as to whether the productions for which they won this year was actually their best work, or even the best work relative to the work of others in the same category this year.  Faniswa Yisa, for example, was brilliant in Ityala Lamawele (I’m not sure whether she was even nominated for a Best Actress award for that production), which is why there have been many comments about her recognition being “overdue”.

Six years ago, only 10% of the plays under consideration were directed by black people.  It is almost exactly the same 6 years later!  In 2011/12, there were no black nominees in the categories for Best Costume Design, Best Set Design and Best Sound or Original Score categories and one nominee for Best Lighting.  In 2017/18 – six years later – there are no black nominees in the Best Lighting, Best Set Design and Best Costume categories, with two nominees for Best Sound or Original Score.

This year’s Fleur du Cap Awards, by playing the game of political correctness has whitewashed the ongoing challenges in fundamentally transforming the Western Cape theatre industry, of growing talent and providing opportunities in all areas of the industry.

But hey, the sponsors are happy, the judges feel affirmed, there won’t be protests next year, and the theatre status quo can remain; Witkanda has arrived in the Western Cape theatre industry!

For all the critique of whiteness, it is bemusing to observe how desirous black people are to be affirmed within this space.  But then again, perhaps in an industry of small returns, and one in which black people still generally struggle after 24 years to have critical mass both quantitively and qualitatively (unlike in Gauteng), small victories need to be celebrated, provided that they do not blind industry players to the fundamental challenges that remain.

Beyond racial appeasement, towards the dumbing down of the theatre sector

But this year’s Fleur du Cap Awards have gone even further than the politically correct whitewashing; the spread of the nominees and of the eventual winners reflects a general dumbing down of the sector by the judges.

Last year, the judges gave a special award to the cast of The Fall, an ad hoc decision to recognise a worthy piece of theatre, whose individual components did not easily fit into any of the existing categories.  There was no leading or supporting actor or actress, all the actors made up the whole.  Which is why the judges probably created a new category this year: Best Performance by an Ensemble.

But, bizarrely, the nominees in this category included a part of one cast (the divas of Priscilla Queen of the Desert) as well as plays in which there were leading and supporting actors and actresses.  Craig Morris won the category for Best Performance by an Actor in a play and yet the cast of Tartuffe was nominated as an ensemble.  Even more bizarre is that the eventual winner in this category – What Remains – did not just have one, but TWO nominees in the category for Best Performance by a Lead Actress in a play – Buhle Ngaba and Faniswa Yisa.  I’m not sure why they did not also nominate Denise Newman – unless she, or her surname, were not black enough for their purposes?  By the way, who decided that these two actresses were “lead actresses” in What Remains?  The writer/producer or the judges?  Asking for a genuinely confused theatre-maker….

I confess I did not see it, but apparently the winner of the category for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Musical or Music Theatre Show was Isabella Jane who sang the equivalent of one song in Evita?  If this is true, then one has more reason to question the credibility of the Fleur du Cap judges, and the absolute confusion they cause within the industry about what constitutes an ensemble or a supporting act.

Without winning any of the other major categories, the Baxter Theatre’s production of Marat/Sade was awarded the Best Production Prize.  Last year, there was no “Best Production” category, and it is almost as if at the end of the discussions, the judges realised that the Baxter Theatre – hosts of this year’s ceremony – was largely unrecognised, and so they decided to give them this prize!

In the past, when there has been controversy, the Fleur du Cap sponsors and representatives have always argued that the scoring for the productions is all done independently by the individual judges and then the scores are verified by an independent auditor.  I do not believe this for one minute, and even if this were the case, the spread of the nominees and of the awards reflect discussions by the judges as an ensemble, perhaps with some leading and some supporting judges, who influence decisions so that they arrive at a patchwork of awards that appeases not only critics on the basis of race, but also ensures that all the major producing houses have at least one winner.

This also goes to the parochial nature of the awards; there are winners from outside Cape Town, generally, but local winners appear to be favoured as this is where the judges most have their ongoing relationships.

While some, or even most categories may have worthy winners, one cannot help but have the impression of the Fleur du Cap judges engaging in politics – in the broad sense of the word – seeking to appease various constituencies, including the theatre managements, the Afrikaans theatre industry, black stakeholders….

And so, the credibility of the awards is undermined, some of the categories are farcical and disrespectful of the industry, the theatre community is taken for a ride but remains silent, and the status quo is maintained.

The Fleur du Caps get personal (or why I do not believe this lot)

On 8 February, the Swedish Embassy hosted a “soft ceremony” in lieu of my being awarded the Hiroshima Foundation’s Prize for Peace and Culture.  The next day, a leading Fleur du Cap judge tweeted “Astonishing how men who are quite comfortable treating womyn like shit in their personal space are awarded for promoting peace internationally. #Male privilege.  Some days the world is a very tiring place”.

I cannot think of why she would write this other than because of the paragraphs below from a reflection I wrote on the 2017 National Arts Festival:

“As a reviewer, (Tracey) Saunders has enormous power to influence public thinking about the shows she reviews and about the issues, institutions and individuals she profiles.  In this, she is not, of course, unique.  However, she serves on the Artistic Committee of the National Arts Festival and convenes the Standard Bank Ovations Award panel.  In these positions, she gets to determine what is selected for the Arena (and what not) and is highly influential in the allocation of Standard Bank Ovations (a role she also plays on the Fleur du Cap committee).  Saunders also gets to influence the selection of judges for the Standard Bank Ovations panel so that the power relations and the dynamics on the panel would favour Saunders as the Convenor.

One would hope and expect that those who select work for some form of public acknowledgement do it on the basis of the work, rather than allow personal grudges, or their personal relationships and preferences within the industry or their need for institutional affirmation to inform their selections.  In our industry of small returns though, the capturing on the one hand, and on the other, allowing oneself to be captured in a mutually beneficial relationship, play themselves out in ways other than Gupta-like financial benefits.  Saunders has perks, power and prestige at the Festival, and from the Festival’s perspective, there is one less journalist to interrogate or critique it and its Cape Town Fringe sibling”.

None of this critique is levelled at Saunders because she is a woman, (or even because of her white privilege, although that would be a factor more than her gender); if anyone has followed my engagements over the last 25-30 years, they would know that I have been critical where I believed I needed to be irrespective of the race, gender, class or other extraneous factors related to the objects of my critiques.

What this tweet reveals though is that an influential judge bears a deep personal grudge to the extent that she does not believe that I should be affirmed.  She is entitled to her belief and her grudge, but it is important for the sector to note that personal grudges DO impact on how one’s work is judged within our industry.

Last year, I had a play – Another One’s Bread – commissioned by the Centre of Excellence in Food Security which featured four women characters from Khayelitsha.  It had a long enough run at the AFDA Theatre to be eligible for the FDCs, after which it enjoyed a highly successful run at the Market Theatre where it played to critical acclaim and excellent houses.

However, it was completely ignored by the Fleur du Cap judges, and I cannot help but wonder if the above tweet provides a clue as to why it was not – at the very least – nominated in the Best Ensemble category, for relative to most of the other nominees, this was a true ensemble piece (as pointed out by reviewers in Johannesburg), and even ticked the judges’ politically correct box!

But Another One’s Bread had another strike against it.  One of the four performers (together with Faniswa Yisa, Motlatji Ditodi and Awethu Hleli) was Chuma Sopotela – this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art – but also one of the protestors against the whiteness of the 2017 Fleur du Cap nominees.  Given the way in which (some) judges hold grudges, it is unlikely that they would affirm a piece featuring one of the protestors as this would give the impression of their succumbing to the protest.  And so they engaged in the more elaborate politically correct smoke-and-mirrors undertaking described above. And played that old colonial/apartheid divide-and-rule trick by affirming Faniswa Yisa, an icon within the black theatre community in particular, thereby silencing the protests.

We (or some of us) see you though….

Conclusion

I recognise that all awards are contestable, that there are subjective elements to all of them and that they may all have a political dimension.  I accept that I may have been a political beneficiary of awards in the past.  What I do not accept is that a panel of judges or their sponsors sell themselves as independent, as objective, as having the interests of the theatre sector at heart, and then engage in acts that reflect complete disdain and disrespect for the sector, while giving an impression of progressiveness.

The judges are not accountable to anyone but to themselves and to the sponsors.  Few question them publicly for fear of falling foul of them.  Many of them are connected to news outlets which are unlikely to critique their colleagues, and most outlets no longer have experienced, critically engaged arts journalists anyway.

In my view, based on the selection of this year’s nominees and award winners, while they may generally be lovely people, as an ensemble of judges, they have failed our industry, and should, quite frankly, resign.  How can it be that the work of theatre professionals who work at great financial risks and other costs, can have their work evaluated, judged and presided over by such displays of rank amateurism?  Would this be tolerated in any other industry?

The judging categories should be more clearly and transparently defined than the current state of adhocracy, and individuals with more knowledge of the industry and of how theatre works should form the critical mass of the panel.

But, of course, based on this year’s evidence, the theatre community appears to be very happy to have an annual party to dress up for, to gloss over the cracks in the industry, to accept the crumbs of appeasement and perhaps to wake up in 4 or 5 years’ time for another protest action.

As for me, come the second or third Sunday in March, I will be watching Carte Blanche….

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Towards a more impactful National Arts Festival

This article addresses some of the “how” in relation to criticisms and points raised in a previous article reflecting on the 2017 Festival.  It combines recommendations made after previous festivals on the size of the Festival (2014), reviews and reviewers (2014) and the Standard Bank Ovation Awards (2017).

Introduction

After this year’s edition (2014), there was much debate about the National Arts Festival as a market for the performing arts, and theatre in particular, given that there is clearly an oversupply of theatre on the Fringe for the size of the market that the Festival attracts for this genre.

This debate extended to the economic impact of the Festival in Grahamstown itself and in the Eastern Cape as a whole, particularly interrogating the actual beneficiaries of the Festival as opposed to broad statements of economic impact.

With the National Arts Festival also organizing the inaugural Cape Town Fringe, the questions about the size of the festival, its location and its actual beneficiaries played themselves out in that context too.

In the light of these debates and the critical questions raised, this short paper offers some ideas for how the National Arts Festival can make a real impact on the livelihoods of artists and people who really need it in Grahamstown, while maintaining its status as the premier arts festival in the country.

On reducing the size of the Fringe

Other than for a minority of practitioners who do really well on the Fringe, the general experience for Fringe theatre-makers is that they lose money. This is a direct consequence of there simply being too many theatre offerings for the size of the market.

The resistance to reducing the size of the Fringe has come in the form of numerous arguments.  Key among these are:

  1. audiences want variety and options; reducing the Fringe will take away a key attraction of the Festival
  2. the Festival is a free market; everyone has the same chance to “make it”, so this is an excellent place to learn what the real world is like
  3. theatre-makers come to the Fringe not only for financial reasons, but also to be noticed, to launch their plays – reducing the Fringe would take away such opportunities
  4. who will select and what criteria will be used to make such a selection if the Fringe has to be reduced?

Responses to these arguments

  1. Festival-goers (festinos) want variety

One festino can see a maximum of 77 shows i.e. 11 days X 7 shows per day; which only a handful, if any really achieve.  Most festinos probably see 4-5 shows per day X 5 or 6 days i.e. 24-30 shows (including Main and Fringe theatre, music, dance, etc) for the whole festival.

The first point then, is that there is no need to present 180 plus shows (quantity) on the Fringe, in addition to the Main programme, for festinos to enjoy “choice”.

The Main Programme’s theatre and other shows tend to sell out because they are curated i.e. the festino is aware that some sort of selection has taken place and/or that it (co-)produced by a reputable theatre entity.  The shows that attract “market attention” on the Fringe are those that are produced by theatre-makers with a “quality” brand i.e. whom festinos know from previous festivals and/or theatre productions in major theatres around the country.

The second point is that, should festinos be assured of a degree of excellence (quality), they would be more inclined to book for these shows.

  1. The Festival is a “free market”; as difficult as it is for some theatre producers to make it, this is good practice for the “real world”.

Any analysis of those on the Fringe who generate the most income will show that it is those with brands, with networks and historical privilege that overwhelmingly are the usual top-sellers (the exceptions do not dispel the structural advantages that many top-sellers have).

While the Festival may be a “free market”, it is also a limited market in quantity (it is simply not large enough to support all the productions staged at the Festival) and while the demographics are changing, it is still overwhelmingly white so that black, relatively unknown theatre-makers (of which there is an increasing number), do, and will struggle to attract this market.

It is not that this market has an aversion to “black” work; it is that they are generally ignorant of such work and its producers, and will be unlikely to purchase tickets for these works unless there is a recognizable “brand” association (black or white), and/or they are affirmed through a Cue review or perhaps an Ovation award.

  1. Theatre-makers come to the Festival to launch their work, to be noticed, not only to make money; reducing the size of the Festival will take away these opportunities.

While this may be true, it is more likely that theatre-makers will get noticed if

a. there are fewer productions for producers (international and national) to see

b. fewer productions mean that longer, more in-depth reviews can be written that could attract the attention of producers and

c. there were greater investment in the quality of the work, with better production values being an additional attraction

d. fewer productions mean longer runs thereby giving the production more of a chance of “being noticed” as one challenge is for producers (and audiences) to get to the productions they want to while they are still running

  1. Who will select and what criteria will they use?

There will be no selection process so that no criteria will be used.  It is recommended that self-selection occurs by the Festival placing limits on the number of productions that independent producers may bring to the Festival, and/or to link the number of productions to (experienced) festival producers investing in, and helping new entrants to find a market at the Festival.

An experienced producer or a subsidized production house/theatre may bring any number of productions to the Fringe.  For audiences and producers, they will be more inclined to purchase tickets for these shows, rather than unknown or little known brands unless there is good “word-of-mouth” at the festival about such productions.

Thus, the large(r) number of productions by “good brand” producers may prejudice younger/less well known theatre brands.

It is proposed then that there be a three-tier system (if “tiers” upset you, call it something else, but herewith, the principles):

INDIVIDUAL THEATRE-MAKERS/PRODUCERS

Tier One: Producers/theatre-makers who have staged a show on the Fringe at the Festival for five years or less

Such producers:

  1. are given a minimum of 5 performance and a maximum of 7 slots at the Festival
  2. are required to attend a briefing about producing at the Festival – the pros and cons – in their respective region (the Festival is to establish partnerships with institutions in every province where practitioners could collect toolkits/information packs about Festival production and/or to host information sessions)
  3. are invited to apply for
  4. an artistic mentor to advise/assist with the aesthetics of the play and
  5. a production mentor to advise on the branding, marketing and funding of the play

Members of the theatre community are/will be invited to offer such mentoring services, with producers able to choose (in order of priority) the mentor/s which they would like, and which would be most practical (in terms of geography, but recognizing that such mentorships can be conducted through technology i.e. skype, whatsapp, email, etc)

Tier Two: Producers who have staged work on the Fringe for 6 to 10 years

Such producers will be entitled to one play per year, and a second play if

  1. they have won a Standard Bank Ovation award in the preceding two years
  2. they have been selected for an international festival/theatre as a result of their work being seen at Festival (whether on the Main or the Fringe)
  3. one of their shows has sold the following percentage of the total number of tickets available for their show on the Fringe in the preceding two years:

30% of a 200+ seater (if 6 shows, then 30%+ of 1200+ seats i.e. 360+ seats)

35% in a 150-200 seater

40% in a 101-149 seater

50%in anything up to 100 seats (if 6 shows, then 50%+ of 600+ seats or 300+ seats/tickets) or they serve as substantial (rather than token) mentors (artistic and/or production) for a theatre-maker/producer in Tier One in the year of application for a third production

These criteria point to quality on the one hand and/or market demand on the other.

Such producers may have their two shows considered

  1. for a minimum of six and up to eleven shows
  2. if it is a returning show, for it to have won an award, or having been selected for an international platform and/or sold above the minimum ticket percentages as outlined above

Tier Three: Producers who have staged at least one play on the Fringe for at least 10 (not necessarily consecutive) years

Such producers may have two shows on the Fringe Festival and a third show in any one year, depending on the following criteria:

  1. they have won a Standard Bank Ovation award in the preceding two years
  2. they have been selected for an international festival/theatre as a result of their work being seen at Festival (whether on the Main or the Fringe)
  3. one of their shows has sold the following percentage of the total number of tickets available for their show on the Fringe in the preceding two years:

30% of a 200+ seater (if 6 shows, then 30%+ of 1200+ seats i.e. 360+ seats)

35% in a 150-200 seater

40% in a 101-149 seater

50% in anything up to 100 seats (if 6 shows, then 50%+ of 600+ seats or 300+ seats/tickets)

or they serve as substantial mentors (artistic and/or production) for a theatre-maker/producer in Tier One in the year of their application for a third production

If in two years, they fail to win an award or sell tickets as above, they revert to two shows per year maximum.

INSTITUTIONS AND COLLECTIVES

Theatre institutions and collectives (e.g. The Edge, ExploSIV Productions, Followspot productions) may bring up to seven shows in any one year, provided that

  1. at least two shows are Tier One shows
  2. artistic and/or production mentoring/support is provided to the Tier One shows that are part of its offering

No formal theatre institution (as opposed to individual theatre-makers/producers) – whether state-subsidised or private – will have a show on the Main Programme unless they also support at least one Tier One show on the Fringe.

The rights that individual and institutional/collective producers are entitled to are NOT TRANSFERABLE and can only be taken up by the producer/s themselves.

Conclusion

By applying this strategy

  1. Those who have attended and produced works on the Festival over a long period

1.1  are rewarded/recognized with greater opportunities

1.2  are challenged to produce better quality and/or more ticket-buying work

1.3  are invited to nurture/mentor new entrants/to give something back to the industry

  1. New entrants

2.1  have time to acquire experience of producing on the Fringe

2.2  are able to be mentored and to learn from others

2.3  are incentivized to produce good work/sellable work, and are rewarded with more plays

It is strongly recommended that if such a strategy is implemented – or a version thereof

  1. 10-15 high profile Fringe/theatre practitioners be approached to support the idea and to lend their weight as mentors to the project
  2. the broader theatre community be educated about this, and that it be “sold” as the theatre sector taking responsibility for itself
  3. theatre-makers who have attended the Festival for a while but who still struggle on the Fringe be invited to apply for artistic/production mentoring too

A smaller number of works, but still with brand names, and with greater incentivization towards greater quality and/or marketability, and the lending of “brand” names to new entrants as mentors, the overall quality and marketability of Fringe productions will be encouraged.

REVIEWS AND REVIEWERS

This was written about three years ago, and some of it might still have relevance to the discussion about reviews and reviewing, particularly at the National Arts Festival.

It seems like there are numerous things in place already to improve the general standard of reviewing – training possibilities (e.g. Kobus Burger), funding (e.g. Distell, BASA), mentoring (e.g. SA Writers Circle).  Perhaps we need to take responsibility as a sector, devise a little plan and come up with a mechanism to drive its implementation.

As I see it, the following: two immediate focus areas would be the  National Arts Festival (other major festivals use professional arts journalists attached to media partners like those in the Media 24 stable) AND Gauteng and Western Cape – the main regions of arts activity

Training could be provided by five institutions in particular: Johannesburg/Pretoria: School of Arts at Wits University and Tshwane University, Pretoria; UCT in Cape Town and University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University

Also, an on-line course available throughout the year for freelancers around the country e.g. through Kobus Burger, former arts editor of Beeld, training.

There could be a generic course with specific models aimed at various genres (music, theatre, dance, film, literature, visual arts, etc).

Cue and the National Arts Festival

a. Identify/invite 30-40 senior students (minimum of BA Honours) and academics intent on attending the next festival, and who would be available to write reviews

b. All to complete an online training course in reviewing run by Rhodes University/Kobus Burger

c. All Cue writers are selected only if they have a certificate of competence from one of these course

d. Identify possible mentors to work with writers at NAFEST, to advise and comment on reviews prior to submission

e. All to sign a Code of Conduct to ensure no conflicts of interest in reviewing particular works

f. Festival/Cue to have a website for longer reviews, while Cue, given space limitations, carries shorter ones; the website to be well-advertised (people can access via smartphones easily enough)

Repository of reviews

a. Artslink to be invited to play this role

b. Anyone may submit reviews, categorized according to the production and dates of review so that comparisons may be made

c. A section – possibly – to be made available for only the best reviews, selected by a panel of five, to ensure compliance with “best practice”, to set standards for reviewing, and to celebrate excellence in the field

Annual awards for best reviewing as per existing awards (or additional awards at Fleur du Cap, Naledi, Ovations)

Annual gatherings

Reviewers, practitioners and trainers to meet in annual seminars in Gauteng and Western Cape at least to reflect on improvements/state of sector, exchange ideas, engage constructively, and plan on strategic interventions as necessary.

  1. Coordination

To be driven by a committee comprising representatives of the key producing festivals (National Arts Festival, ABSA KKNK, Clover Aardklop), training institutions and online platforms where review/arts journalism training takes place, SA Critics, funding partners.

STANDARD BANK OVATION AWARDS

 Consideration should be given to

  1. Having separate awards for productions that supported by institutions (productions – and I have had some of these – supported by a subsidized institution will invariably have better production values than most independent theatre pieces on the Fringe – is it really fair to compare them as equals?)
  2. Having separate awards or somehow acknowledging differences between works that have run before the Festival and works that premiere at the Festival (the Festival talks of “premieres” but means works that come to the festival for the first time, even if they have premiered elsewhere. Works that have had a season or two before the Festival are in better shape and thus stand better chances of being rewarded than works which have an audience and all the technical elements in play for the first time at the Festival. Works that have had prior seasons can be evaluated at their first performance, while works that premiere at the Festival should only be evaluated on their second, or preferably, third performance)

 

Use it, lose it.  Am done, and outa here.

 

Mike van Graan

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NATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL 2017: A REFLECTION

Introduction

When I first attended the National Arts Festival in the early nineties, the Spur – located towards the lower end of High Street – often had a queue to get in, particularly in the evening.  A few years later, it moved higher up towards the Rhodes University side of High Street, where it had more space, seemed to have more light, and had fewer, if any, queues, but always appeared to be well-patronised.  This year, the Spur has an entirely different location, is much larger and looks smarter than its previous incarnations, but at the times I went there between shows, it generally appeared to be empty.

In some ways, my experience of the Spur over the number of years serves as a metaphor for my experience of the Festival.  From a bustling environment, to a more, shall we say, spacious one. Except that the Spur’s infrastructure is relatively new, while the Makana municipality creaks.

There is no doubt in my mind that the National Arts Festival is an important event that must continue to exist.  However, if it was not clear before that challenges need to be addressed not only for the Festival’s own sake, but in order to contribute to the development of the industry as a whole so that the Festival is a better reflection of our industry and country, then the 2017 Festival has made this abundantly clear.

This reflection highlights some of the issues (both analytical and personal), and a second piece “Towards a more impactful National Arts Festival” – written after the 2014 Festival and updated this year – outlines how a key issue (that of the size of the Festival) may be addressed.

Signs of decline

This year’s Festival had a number of signs appearing to signal that it is a Festival in decline.  The Main Programme – at least as regards theatre – was relatively shallow, comprising mainly pre-existing productions.  For the first time as far as I can remember, there was no Cue, no daily Festival newspaper with reviews, news and pictorial impressions of the Festival. The Village Green – on the few occasions that I visited – resembled a ghost town (compared with experiences of previous years), and not only because of the apparent absence of a beer tent this year.  It was relatively easy to find space at The Long Table and there was little need for the oversupply of car-guards to point out empty parking bays.

And then, when Vincent Mantsoe attracts fewer than 40 people to a performance…Nkandla, we have a problem!

Interrogating the numbers

Writing in Grocott’s Mail on 14 July, Tony Lankester, CEO of the Festival suggested that “the 2017 Festival took a slight knock in numbers…early indications are that our theatre audiences dropped by about 10% from last year.”   In another report, Lankester said “We experienced a 10,2% drop in attendance to our various events and performances, with overall Festival attendance settling on 202 643”.

According to last year’s official release, overall attendance and ticket sales were listed as 227 524, a difference of 24 881 (suggesting a 10,9% drop rather than the Festival’s “10,2% drop” in “attendance and ticket sales”).

The first thing that needs to be said is that 24 881 is not a “slight knock”; if there had been an increase of nearly 25 000, we would have been told that the Festival had experienced “tremendous” growth, in Trumpian-speak.  25 000 is the equivalent of more than 200 sold-out shows in the Barney Simon theatre at the Market (or 144 sold-out shows in the Baxter’s Studio Theatre).

Secondly, readers need to be reminded that “attendance and ticket sales” numbers do not mean that 202 643 unique individuals came to Grahamstown (after all, Grahamstown can hardly cope with its regular population of less-than-100 000).  If one person stays for four days and buys tickets for 6 shows per day, that would constitute “attendance” of 24, and if this represented the “average” festival-goer, then fewer than 9 000 people would actually buy tickets or attend events at the Festival (the Festival – to my mind – has never corrected the impression given by the Minister of Arts and Culture and by newspapers that it is NOT 200 000 unique people who attend the Festival).  For artists, this is important as the market in which they are vying for sales is significantly smaller than the impression given by the overall attendance figures.

Thirdly, readers also need to know that “attendance and ticket sales” includes attendance at free events, so that, for example, a visual arts exhibition on the Main Programme is counted as having 120 attendees per day while its Fringe counterparts are estimated to have 50 attendees each day (or that was the case in 2014). 9 Main and 30 Fringe exhibitions at this year’s Festival would thus account for (free) “attendance” of at least 28 380 (14% of the total).

So, if one subtracts the “free attendance” figures from the overall attendance figure of 202 643 (and there could be more free events that I have not factored in here e.g. is attendance at the annual street parade counted?), that would leave ticket sales of 174 263.

Let’s – conservatively – allocate 100 000 of the 174 263 to Main Programme events, the popular jazz festival, the large venue symphony and comedy concerts, the theatre, dance and family components, Thinkfest and the Film Festival, etc, that would mean fewer than 75 000 tickets for the more than 280 Fringe shows (family fare, theatre, dance, music, etc), or an average of 260 tickets per show.

But the Fringe does not work on “averages”; it operates as a “free market” with some shows attracting larger markets than others, some generating far more income than others because they are able to charge higher prices by virtue of being in more demand, and some having long runs which builds word-of-mouth advertising and brings in more income.  In the venue in which my three shows were presented – along with four others – the best of the seven sold in excess of 90% of its tickets while another sold less than a third of its tickets.

Although all were one-person shows in our venue, some had higher costs than others with directors, designers and other pre-production costs, costs that would not be recovered at the Festival even if the production sold out all its shows.  The risks and the investment by many Fringe artists and producers in the Festival are thus not insignificant.

Which brings me to the same conclusion as in previous years: the Festival – in terms of “supply” – is too large for the size of its market i.e. “demand”.  The attendance figures emphasise this even more this year.

It is simply not true – as some commentators would have us believe – that this is normal for all Festivals and that artists simply have to deal with it.  Most other festivals – the Afrikaans ones in particular – limit the number of productions, and the ticket prices are higher so that generally, artists do not lose money by participating in the Festival (which is, however, the general experience of many Fringe artists).

Reviews, Awards and Opportunities

Despite the financial challenges and risks, many artists will continue to make the annual trek to the Festival as this is the only national platform on which they can present, test and market their – particularly theatre – work.  There is always the hope that some local or international producer, some theatre, some festival will see and like the work enough to select it for a tour elsewhere, with the potential then for amortising the production costs over a period of time.  Others sell toothpaste, cars and T-shirts to earn a living; we sell our theatre productions; the longer the life of a play, the more chance we have to earn rent, school and gym fees.  The days of the Festival serving as some kind of arts hypermarket are largely over though, but there are international producers like Afrovibes and local festivals like the Hilton Arts Festival that offer additional prospects.

Then there is the possibility of a review, which – in our world of small returns – might be an affirmation of our work or our egos or both, and might even be useful for future marketing purposes.  But, with no Cue, even a positive on-line review meant little at the Festival as its primary market is not – yet – tuned into social media to make this meaningful.  Furthermore, there are few real theatre reviewers left nationally, and those that remain, do not attend the Festival; without Cue, there will be no platform (beyond the limited on-line sites) at the Festival for their work.

There are journalists at the Festival, but the most active among them are of the “embedded” or “captured” variety.

“The Critter” comprising Mike Loewe, Steve Kretzmann and Sarah Roberson are the arts journalists embedded within the Festival, coming out every July to do their “crits” and then hibernating before doing the same at the Cape Town Fringe in September.  They deny that they are “reviewers”, preferring the label of arts journalists, but this does not stop them from offering their superficial opinions about the work of new and older professionals in a demanding industry. When I last read them a few years ago, I had the impression that their “reviews” are more about themselves, their having fun and trying to outdo each other with their versions of wit and poison pens, than with writing with insight and understanding about theatre.  As embedded journalists, they would often be at the forefront of defending the Festival and its management or offering gloating “reviews” of the work of artists close to management, while not being averse to pointing their pens of bile at those who challenge or critique the Festival.

Then there are the captured journalists, like everyone’s favourite reviewer, Tracy Saunders.  As a reviewer, Saunders has enormous power to influence public thinking about the shows she reviews and about the issues, institutions and individuals she profiles.  In this, she is not, of course, unique.  However, she serves on the Artistic Committee of the National Arts Festival and convenes the Standard Bank Ovations Award panel.  In these positions, she gets to determine what is selected for the Arena (and what not) and is highly influential in the allocation of Standard Bank Ovations (a role she also plays on the Fleur du Cap committee).  Saunders also gets to influence the selection of judges for the Standard Bank Ovations panel so that the power relations and the dynamics on the panel would favour Saunders as the Convenor.

One would hope and expect that those who select work for some form of public acknowledgement do it on the basis of the work, rather than allow personal grudges, or their personal relationships and preferences within the industry or their need for institutional affirmation to inform their selections.  In our industry of small returns though, the capturing on the one hand, and on the other, allowing oneself to be captured in a mutually beneficial relationship, play themselves out in ways other than Gupta-like financial benefits.  Saunders has perks, power and prestige at the Festival, and from the Festival’s perspective, there is one less journalist to interrogate or critique it and its Cape Town Fringe sibling.

The 2016/17 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards (admittedly, I haven’t attended for the last four years), under pressure because of the absence of black African nominees, created categories of winners to ensure greater demographic representativeness.  This year, the Standard Bank Ovations dished out awards to 35 different productions (or about 12% of the total number of shows on the Fringe).  That is a lot of awards which makes one wonder about the politics of representation rather than quality, innovation and excellence being real benchmarks as per the supposed intention of the awards.

An award was created this year to acknowledge Daniel Mpilo Richards for his “Stand Out Performance” in State Fracture; do forgive my cynicism and bemusement for thinking that this was a belated and embarrassed form of “apology” for the Ovations panel’s snubbing of Pay Back the Curry last year, a show that achieved the rare feat of selling out all its shows at the Festival, and went on to earn Daniel the Best Breakthrough Newcomer Award at the Naledi Theatre Awards (as well as a nomination for the script).

By the way, with Daniel having won this Stand-Out Performance Award, how are Standard Bank Silver Ovation Awards decided upon?  Were the writing and directing of State Fracture so average as to warrant “only” an Ovation Award (in its own right and/or relative to other Silver Ovation Award winners), or was it the same impulse and personal prejudices that informed the snubbing of Pay Back the Curry last year?

Make no mistake; being critical within our industry does have consequences.  We can so easily see the embedded and the captured within our political world; in our industry of small returns, we have much greater difficulty recognising and dealing with it.

At the risk of protesting too much, I have no problem with not winning awards (how many awards does one need to be an “award-winning playwright”?).  I believe that those of us who have managed to gain some profile within our industry should use that profile to create opportunities for other, younger practitioners, for that is one way in which we will grow our industry.  So what pisses me off is when these young practitioners are prejudiced, as was the case with Daniel in Pay Back the Curry, or when young performers are unfairly critiqued by “reviewers” like Kretzmann “the acting of Siya Sikawuti and Mandisi Sindo was unremarkable…the play needs…possibly a different cast…” (Return of the Ancestors, 2014)

Fortunately, whatever embedded reviewers and judges may think, their opinions and awards have relatively little effect at the box office.  A week before the Festival, Pay Back the Curry that had been ignored by the Ovations panel last year, had sold a hundred more tickets than two shows – combined – in the same venue, that had both won Ovation Awards in 2016. Once the Festival started, one of these shows went on to generate good houses on the basis of word-of-mouth, while the other did less well, despite both being Ovation winners.  By the same token, while State Fracture won a Standard Bank Ovation Award after its first performance at the Festival, this did not dramatically drive up its sales for the next few days (perhaps if Cue had been around to announce it, this might have made a difference). A new show, Helen of Troyeville, a “searing drama” as one reviewer described it rather than a comedy or political satire, sold about as many tickets as State Fracture overall, but, tellingly, it sold more than 50% of its tickets before the Festival even started, before any audience had seen the play.

(As an aside, none of my three shows had a poster – they did have a full-page ad in the Festival programme – and they played to 76%-93% capacity overall.  Posters may be self-affirming, but artists need to consider whether, within an expensive festival, they are a necessary expense).

Those of us who have attended the Festival for a while and have developed followings both at the Festival and elsewhere, are more likely to attract audiences for our work than newcomers or veterans who for some or other reason have yet to “capture” the attention of the Festival markets.  By virtue of having a number of shows at the Festival, in this “free market” of the arts, we do not compete on “equal terms”; those of us with more privileged education, networks, resources, etc generally do better than those without these.  So, the more shows we have, the more we take opportunities, income and profile from others; that is the nature of the so-called “free market” in which we supposedly compete on equal terms, but clearly, do not.

Conclusion

With the broader economic and political challenges of our country, the situation for the National Arts Festival is not going to improve dramatically in the next while.  Accordingly, in my view, the Festival needs to offer fewer, more quality shows and encourage the theatre community to invest in and grow the number of quality shows.  And then, the Festival needs to ensure greater independence and rigour of arts journalism and quality of reviews and award-making so that these actually contribute to the quality of the work, of our industry and thus of the Festival, rather than being content with what passes for these at the moment.

Mike van Graan

July 2017

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CORRUPTION MASTERCLASS

Who needs Model-C schools to teach us

The ruling party has no moral compass

When they regularly declare wrong right

When everyday they make black the white

They said they would rid us of

 

In Biology

Model ANC educated us

Corruption flows through the arms

The submarines

The jets

The helicopters

Into the body politic

 

Head to foot now infected with

Cancerous greed

Red light whores

With blue light brigades

Selling their souls

And a country’s dreams

To vultures

 

Was it not in Maths we learned from Model ANC that

Seven-hundred-and-eighty-three charges of

Fraud

Racketeering

Corruption

Plus one man

Equals a President

Minus a conscience

Multiplying treason

Dividing a nation

 

It was in English

We were taught

That “fire” is a synonym for “swim”

The public purse plundered

For presidential pleasure

Pillage pardoned by a Model ANC parliament

A Public Protector pilloried

For calling the corrupt to account

 

Model ANC principals enlightened us in Accounting

That principles of accountability

Count for nought

Defraud parliament

Be appointed a cabinet minister

Defeat justice

Become an ambassador

Deceive a tender board

Receive a platinum handshake

Defend the Constitution

Get fired

 

Then in Woodwork we were instructed

By Model ANC

How to make a cabinet with

Nuts

Loose screws

Disjoints

Not to display but

Dispense the

Family silver

Somewhere else

 

Model ANC tutored us in Physical Science that

The theory of relativity

Is the practice of enriching your relatives

The gravity of nepotism

Pulling us further down the

Black Hole of

Looted hopes

 

We learn in Geography from Model ANC teachers that

Illegal

Illicit

Just plane ill

Flows of riches are now

More acceptable

To Asia than Europe

To Dubai than Zurich

To Saxonwold than

Soweto

Stanger

Strandfontein

 

Even in extra-mural activities

The football World Cup

Model ANC schooled us

To abuse public resources

Or public office for personal gain

Is practice worthy of

Admiration

Normalisation

Celebration

 

Who needs Model C or

Any other qualification anyway

When Model ANC has shown us

False qualifications

Fallacious CVs

Fake experience

Are sufficient

To run

The public broadcaster

State-owned companies

Government departments

Into the ground

 

And so we wake to another day

To be schooled by Model ANC

In yet another Masterclass of Corruption

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Transformation and the Western Cape Theatre Industry: Proposal to Distell/Fleur du Cap (2013)

The vision

Distell/Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards are committed

  1. to promoting, recognising and rewarding excellence in the theatre industry in the Western Cape
  2. to encouraging, supporting and rewarding efforts to promote transformation within the province’s theatre industry, better to reflect – at least – the province’s demographics in all aspects of professional theatre practice and
  3. to growing audiences for theatre produced in and for the Western Cape province and nationally

Proposal

To this end, and, in addition to the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards that recognise excellence in various categories, Fleur du Cap invites Western Cape theatres, theatre companies and festivals that produce professional, mainstream theatre eligible for the Fleur du Cap theatre awards to undertake programmes to transform the demographics of all aspects of theatre practice in the Western Cape region.

Awards

Each year, at the Awards, Distell/Fleur du Cap will make awards – first, second and third prizes – to companies, theatres, festivals, etc that best promote the goals of transformation, aware that transformation and development strategies often require resources that are not generally available.

This award, to be known as the (Name) Award will take the following into consideration, with companies invited to submit monthly – or annual reports to FDC detailing the following:

  1. the number of roles in theatre productions in that month/year produced by the theatre, and the number of people of colour: male leads, female leads, male supporting actors, female supporting actors
  2. the number of roles in theatre productions by outside hirers and the number of people of colour
  3. people of colour in such positions as

3.1   directors

3.2   lighting designers

3.3   music/sound composers

3.4   set designers

3.5   costume designers

3.6   puppet designers

  1. programmes/mentorships/residencies to develop/provide opportunities for people of colour to enter and/or participate in the industry at the highest levels
  2. programmes/strategies to develop new, sustainable audiences

Evaluation

Proposals to be judged by the FDC panel and/or an independent panel, coordinated by an FDC judge

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Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards: A Reflection (2011)

There has been much exasperation, disappointment and even anger expressed after the recent Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards affirmed white winners in all 17 categories in which the panel of 13 judges made selections.  Considering that only four of the 68 nominees were persons of colour, this should hardly have come as a surprise.

Fingers were immediately pointed at the judges for 2011, the majority of whom were white, and most of these were Afrikaans-speakers.  Some opined that it was little wonder then that awards were given to Afrikaans-speakers in the coveted categories of leading actor, leading actress and leading support actress, best performance in a cabaret/revue/solo performance, most promising student and best director.

The actual awards event with two presenters – one English and one Afrikaans (in a province with isiXhosa also as an official language); entertainment provided by white musicians, and dancers who were persons of colour, covered in mud and who had the unfortunate appearance of subserviently holding up the awards for the all-white winners, as well as the acknowledgement of DA politicians in attendance, added to the perception  – by some – of the 47-year-old awards as, at worst, a relic of the apartheid past, and at best, a confirmation of the Western Cape and Cape Town being “untransformed” and out of touch with the rest of the country.

However, to criticise the judges for the overwhelmingly white nominations and winners, is a superficial response unless it is supported by an analysis of what the judges were obliged – by the local theatre industry – to work with.  Are the nominations and awards only a reflection of the cultural biases of the judges or do they reflect the reality of the demographics within Cape Town’s theatre industry?

According to the award organisers, there were 63 productions which were eligible for the awards, of which 53 (84%) were presented in 6 theatre spaces: the Baxter Theatre (15), UCT’s Intimate/Little theatre complex (9), Theatre on the Bay, Artscape and the Kalk Bay Theatre (8 each) and the Fugard Theatre (5) with single productions spread between the New Africa Theatre, Magnet Theatre, the City Hall, Maynardville, Kirstenbosch Amphitheatre and the HB Thom in Stellenbosch while On Broadway housed two shows.

Four of the six main theatre spaces – Theatre on the Bay, Kalk Bay Theatre, the Fugard Theatre and the Little Theatre/Intimate Theatre complex – provided more than 100 roles for actors during 2011, but fewer than 5% of these were filled by actors of colour.  While the Baxter Theatre and Artscape produce some of their own work (both reflecting greater racial equity in the employment of actors in their own productions), many of the productions presented at these spaces (and the Fugard and Kalk Bay Theatre) are “rentals” i.e. independent theatre companies that hire the space.

The key point is that of the actors employed in plays presented during 2011 at these 6 theatres and who were eligible for the leading actor, leading actress, leading supporting actor and leading supporting actress categories, just more than 10% were persons of colour which was proportionately less than the 12% representation of persons of colour in the Fleur du Cap nominations in these categories.   In other words, rather than the judges being responsible for the lack of nominations of people of colour – and ultimately for the absence of people of colour as winners in various categories – the more fundamental problem is that of theatre managements and independent theatre-makers choosing to do plays and/or casting the plays in a manner that provides the judges with an overwhelmingly white pool – nearly 90% of the total number of actors – to choose from.

The Mechanicals, for example, is a superb company that attracts numerous nominations each year for the excellent theatre work that it does with relatively meagre resources.  It is based at the UCT Little Theatre/Intimate Theatre complex, with most of the company members being graduates from this institution.  And yet, despite UCT graduating a number of actors of colour each year, The Mechanicals seldom has actors of colour in its productions.  Why?  Do actors of colour not get invited to be part of the company?  Are plays selected for performance that generally do not cater for actors of colour?  Are actors of colour not prepared to work at risk like white members of the company?  Whatever the reason/s, it does not help with the diversification of the local theatre industry if young actors of colour are not honing and celebrating their skills in a company such as The Mechanicals.

But if the lack of demographic equity is a major problem in the Fleur du Cap’s acting categories where one could expect greater equity, the situation is even more dire in other categories.  Of the 38 plays whose directors were considered for the Best Director award, only one director – Fatima Dike – was a person of colour, with 7 directors being responsible for just under 50% of the total productions under consideration.

Nineteen productions included music or soundscapes of which of only three were done by persons of colour.  28 of the 32 lighting designs were done by white designers with one person of colour being responsible for 3 of the 32 designs, while no person of colour designed costumes (for 18 productions) or sets (for 29 productions, 21 of which were shared by 10 designers) or puppets.

These facts confirm a much greater problem within Cape Town’s theatre industry, and the “whiteness” of the award nominees and winners cannot be laid simplistically at the door of Distell, the sponsors of the event, nor at the door of the judges who can only select from what they are given by theatre managements, festivals and independent producers.

Given our history and the peculiarities of the industry in the Western Cape, we are – understandably – highly sensitive to the racial/cultural dynamics at such award events.  And yet, there are many white industry players who are not nominated or who do not win awards despite being nominated.  For every white actor nominated in the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor categories, there are at least 13 white actors who are not nominated.   Two directors – Alan Swerdlow and Fred Abrahamse – were each responsible for 4 plays in 2011, but, despite their great experience and expertise, neither was nominated in the Best Director category.  If these two directors were persons of colour, many would believe that they were slighted on the basis of racial or cultural bias, but that – in the context of the demographic composition of the theatre industry in Cape Town – would be highly superficial and simplistic.   This implies that there needs to be much more participation by, more opportunities created for and upskilling of people of colour across the theatre industry in Cape Town regularly to produce a critical mass of nominees who stand a real chance of winning on the basis of merit rather than because of political correctness.

With theatres having limited resources for producing their own work (thus their heavy reliance on rentals), festivals have become the key producers of new theatre productions.  The Suidoosterfees, the Woordfees in Stellenbosch and the ABSA KKNK in Oudsthoorn – all of which serve a primarily Afrikaans-speaking market – produce numerous plays between them annually so that inevitably, many of these plays will be staged in the city’s main theatres and will thus be eligible for the awards.  Given this scenario, it would appear to be less a case of simplistic cultural bias of some of the judges in favour of Afrikaans theatre personalities and more a post-1994 systemic problem of cultural policy and funding that provides a surfeit of excellent Afrikaans theatre productions (few, if any, of which provide work opportunities for “black African” actors, directors or technical personnel).

Notwithstanding all of the above, do cultural biases play a role in the judging process?  Certainly!  All awards of this nature have an element of subjectivity on the part of the judges.  So would the judging panel benefit from being more representative of the region’s demographics?  Absolutely!  Notions of excellence and merit are not absolute, but are culturally-influenced and time-bound so that determining award winners would benefit from robust debate and a diversity of perspectives.  Judges should, however, have the requisite theatrical expertise and knowledge as it would be a great disservice to the sector if awards are made on the basis of political considerations rather than artistic ones.

On the other hand, this year’s awards event reflected poor political, business and artistic judgement.  No company wants its brand – or the events and projects that promote its brand – to be compromised or sullied in any way.  After the 2011 embarrassment of awards being made to the wrong nominees, and precisely because the organisers would have been aware of the nominations and the potential controversies around the winners given similar controversies in the past, the event could have been organised to be more inclusive and more celebratory of the diversity of theatrical (as opposed to music and dance) talent in the city.

The semiotics of an awards event can be easily corrected in future.  The greater challenge of this year’s Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards is to Cape Town’s theatre sector: does it have the vision for and commitment to a theatre practice that serves, reflects and includes the diverse communities of people of the province?

Mike van Graan is the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute and is Artscape’s Associate Playwright.

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A response to the critique that “all the black characters die” in When Swallows Cry and the pessimistic messages that this conveys

Introduction

As the creative team of WHEN SWALLOWS CRY which premiered at the Market Theatre in January this year, we were overwhelmed by the generous and moving responses to the play.  However, there were some who – even though they were thoroughly absorbed by this piece of theatre – had problems with elements of the writing, particularly the perceived pessimistic ending.  This is to acknowledge those concerns, and to engage with them.

Generally, as a writer, once the work is in the public domain, one leaves it to audiences to interpret it as they wish.  However, given this perception of the ending, I would like to offer some insights into what the play is attempting to do. (We were able to address some of these concerns in Q&A’s after a few of the performances, and this is to provide a broader opportunity for such engagement).

There are many who will read this who may not have seen the play, but I do not think that talking about it, or “giving away the ending” will detract from how future audiences will engage with, and be engaged by the piece.

Finally, although this article has been brewing for a while, I am writing this on the same day as a march took place in Pretoria against migrants and refugees from other African countries.  The play deals with this exact theme – African refugees and how they are treated in other countries – although South Africa features only in passing in the play.

Stories of Swallows

When Swallows Cry interweaves three stories set in Africa, or about African migrants and refugees.

The main story features a “migrant” Canadian teacher – initially assumed to be an American – who is captured by a group of bandits in a West African country.  He is held for ransom to generate the funds required to develop the region in which he is held.  As more information about who he is emerges, the leader of the bandit group – Commandant – decides to kill him, while the ordinary soldier does not see the sense in it.  Eventually, the soldier turns on Commandant and releases the hostage.  At the end, when he is presented with an opportunity to do so, the Commandant decides not to shoot the Soldier.

A second story features two Zimbabwean teachers who flee the economic hardships and the political oppression of their country in a boat heading to Fiji where they will not require visas for at least three months. However, the boat ventures into Australian waters and they are held at a detention centre for illegal immigrants, and are marked for immediate deportation to Zimbabwe.  They manage to capture their racist detention officer but realise that they are unable to escape.  The detention officer regains control, and the two refugees are shot dead.

The third story tells of a Somalian who leaves his war-torn country for South Africa, only to experience brutal xenophobic violence that obliges him to seek refuge in America.  He obtains a legitimate US visa but is hounded at the port of entry (the play was written before Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, but the story resonates with this executive order).  One of his tormentors is an African-American official, a descendant of African slaves, but whose job it is to prevent “undesirables” entering America, and threatening their security.  The officials refuse him entry and, rather than return to the countries from which he has fled, the Somalian kills himself.

These stories, featuring three actors playing contrasting characters in the three different playlets, are multi-layered and raise numerous themes about contemporary mobility e.g. the freedom with which the Canadian is able to travel, unlike the Africans.  The stories comment on each other, not necessarily in sequence, but as a whole.

Responses to the play

The primary critical response to the play was that it is pessimistic in that the black characters all die in the end, and that, in addition to them dying, in one story, the black characters allow a white man to come between them.

A few of the critics stated that – presumably because of my Afrikaans surname – black people should tell their own stories (implying that black characters will have happier endings).

Alternative readings and insights

It is to the above criticism that I wish to respond, to provide alternate interpretations and to contribute to the debates that I hope the play will continue to generate.

First, it is not true that all the black characters die.  In the core story, although the Commandant has “the right” (the Soldier betrayed him), the means and the opportunity to do so, he does not kill the Soldier.  Through the Soldier’s reasoning with him, the Commandant comes to accept – though reluctantly – that there is the possibility of some good coming out of the release of the hostage.

This contrasts to the story of the Zimbabwean refugees, where, although the refugees seek to appeal to the humanity of their captor, he refuses to see them as anything but sub-human.  His deep racism simply does not allow him to change, and he acts accordingly.

In the Somalian story, the black American interrogator is less compromising than his white counterpart and treats the Somalian – who hails from Africa, the African-American’s ancestral home – with harshness and disdain.  The Somalian attempts to appeal to his blackness, in the hope of sympathy, but the African-American will have none of it.  He does not act out of racial or continental solidarity, but in terms of his job description, and his job is to keep America safe. He is American, and not African, even though he may owe his ancestry to Africa, and even though he shares the Somalian’s skin colour.  Still haunted by 9/11, for the African-America, the Somalian represents a threat to his country.

In the play, there are six black characters.  Three of them die.  Two are shot by a white supremacist.  One kills himself.  Of the latter, rather than the superficial reading of “a black man dies”, it is more important that audience interrogates the reasons for his death.  The Somalian prefers to die by his own hand rather than return to South Africa where people like him are killed by black South Africans, or to return to Somalia where his countrymen – all black – kill each other in the ongoing violent conflicts there.  Why does a black man prefer to kill himself when refused entry into overwhelmingly white America, rather than return to South Africa or Somalia?  An average of 100 Somalians are murdered in South African annually.  Just two weeks ago, eleven Somalians were killed in Khayelitsha.  That is the more challenging, uncomfortable question that needs to be grappled with; it is not simply a question of black characters dying in the play, it is also about why this particular black character chooses to die.

What makes someone so desperate that they think they would be better dead?  Just this week there was the report of a Ghanaian migrant, Frederick Ofosu aged 33, who hung himself in Malta.  He left a message explaining his despair, that he was made to feel like a criminal when he had done nothing wrong.  Those are the sentiments too of the Somalian character in the play.

The uncomfortable truth in post-apartheid South Africa is that black people kill other black people.  African nationals are killed by black South Africans.  Miners at Marikana were killed by black policemen serving a black government.  More than 100 black, mentally ill patients died because black politicians and supposed care-givers, simply did not care.  More than 40 black people are murdered each day in South Africa, overwhelmingly by other black people.

Living in denial about this, or attempting to explain it away – or even justifying it with ideological and intellectual somersaults does not address the carnage. Facing up to it would be a better first step to stopping it.

It is easy and comfortable self-righteously to shout at Americans that “black lives matter” and engage in Facebook activism when an African-American is shot by a white policeman, or to scream racism when black South Africans are violently assaulted or verbally abused by white people; it is far more challenging and uncomfortable when we have to call out violence committed against black people by other black people.  But, it has to be done.

One of my aims in setting these stories in non-South African contexts is to invite South African audiences to look at these stories with greater dispassion, and so reflect on the meaning and relevance of these stories and themes for us locally.

Second, it is also precisely because of the tendency – particularly among middle-class people and Facebook “activists” – to view almost everything through the lens of race that I chose to write three stories with the three actors playing completely different characters in each story.  With one story featuring two black characters and one white character, the likelihood of the white character being seen to be representative of all white people and the black characters representative of all black people, is great in the South African context, so that by having three stories, with each actor being completely different in character in each story, the invitation to the audience is to understand the character and his motivations beyond the colour of his skin, to see the characters as human beings with agency, rather than as automatons acting according to pre-determined racial mappings, and to identity and sympathise with the characters in their various situations as individual human beings, rather than as representatives of particular groups.

Our failure or inability to look beyond the superficial element of skin colour and to have human empathy is a reflection of the extent to which our own humanity has been damaged, how we have allowed a system of racism and its legacies to demean and rob us of empathy, and how, accordingly, we could end up exactly like the racist Australian detention officer who refuses to see others as human beings – like some South Africans refuse to see African nationals as human beings just like ourselves – so that we can beat, stab, necklace, shoot and kill them.

When we see the Somalian simply as a “black who dies” rather than as a human being, an individual character with a life story who chooses to take his own life rather than be repatriated to a country where he may be killed by others who have exactly the same skin colour as him, or who has his dignity trampled upon by the American port authorities, we reflect our damaged humanity, our inability to look beyond the superficial, and to hear, to listen, to feel as the character does.

Thirdly, the play has the same basis for all three stories i.e. the power relations are wholly unequal between “the captured” and “the captors”.  What the play interrogates and seeks to show is that – while the situations are all essentially the same – the endings to the different stories depend directly on human agency, on the decisions taken by the human characters in each story.  Indeed, some characters are white and some are black, but except for the story featuring the Zimbabwean characters, the endings are wrought less because of the colour/race of the characters than by decisions made as human beings, with agency.  The invitation to South African audiences is again to view the play beyond the limiting lens of “race”, and to evaluate the human and structural impulses that drive the resolutions.   As in real life, the characters are not simply pawns of fate, nor are they mindless tools of macro structures that oblige them to act in particular ways; they can choose how to act.  We often hear the defence “I was just doing/I had to do my job” (security policemen, Nazi soldiers, etc); when confronted with real human beings, those in power have a choice: will they act as fellow human beings, or will they hide behind the “doing my job” screen when wrecking the lives of others?  Admittedly, these are not always easy choices, but they are, nevertheless, choices.  The African soldier chooses to release their hostage, despite the possible consequences for himself.

Which brings me to my fourth, and the most important point regarding this theme as the writer: the play explores the notion of “being civilised” and acting in a “civilised way”.  Western countries project themselves as “civilised”, evolved, with the values and behavioural standards to which the rest of the world needs to aspire.  Those who act contrary to their (western) values and standards are deemed to be barbarians, uncivilised, backward.

In these terms – and this play was commissioned by a Norwegian theatre company so that it will have an international audience – those in Africa would generally be considered to be barbarians and uncivilised while Australia and the USA would be assumed to be centres of civilisation (along with Europe).  However, how civilised a country is or their people are – for me, at any rate – is how they treat the vulnerable, human beings in need of shelter, safety, refuge, etc.  The expectation of “civilised audiences” would be that the western hostage is killed in Africa and that Australia and the USA would be hospitable to those fleeing places of conflict or with low life expectancy and a poor quality of life.

However, this does not happen in the play.  The “civilised world” acts in ways that are barbaric (as is the case in real life – note Trump’s ban on refugees from Syria, Australia’s despicable treatment of “illegal immigrants”, European countries that close their borders to refugees fleeing a war and even Germany – praised for taking in more than a million refugees – repatriating migrants/refugees to countries Germany considers “safe”, even if the migrants/refugees have left those countries precisely because they are NOT safe).  It is in Africa where the characters act with humanity, with reason and with empathy, and that is one of the main points of the play – to juxtapose the brutal endings of refugees in the so-called civilised world, with the happier ending of a hostage in the so-considered barbaric, backward world of Africa.  Unlike the American port officials, the African soldier does not just “do his job” or “obey orders”; he reasons, he empathises and acts accordingly, even at great risk to himself.  Neither is it a simplistic matter of “a white man coming between black people” as some superficially interpreted the piece; the character, Soldier, was not convinced that killing the hostage (the original intention was to sell/ransom him in order to generate funding for the development of their village) would be in the best interests of the village as it would attract the army and perhaps international military intervention.  Despite his deep desire for revenge for what the hostage symbolised, and then for Soldier’s betrayal, Commandant accepts Soldier’s reasoning, drawing a distinction between Soldier being a good man, but a bad soldier.

Finally, in the original text as I had written it, it is the story of the Commandant and Soldier that ends the play, on a more “hopeful” and ambivalent note.  However, during rehearsals, the director – Lesedi Job – determined that the play should end differently with the Somalian story as the climax, arguing against a less “Hollywood” ending to bring home the less-than-happy realities of many African migrants in the world today.  When I saw the production for the first time the day before its first preview, I agreed that this ending was valid and worked theatrically.  Would those who felt that the ending was too pessimistic because “black characters died” have felt differently had the original ending prevailed?  I do not know; theatre is a collaborative affair, with theatrical and dramatic choices made by others in the creative team, as it should be.  I am happy with the ending also because it inspires debate.

This brings me to the trope of “We (blacks) must write our own stories.”

First: absolutely, everyone must tell, write, stage their own stories.

Second, by black, do these populists mean Biko-black (inclusive of Africans, coloureds and Indians) or Jimmy Manyi-black (Africans)?

But, thirdly, which of the “Swallows” stories are “our” stories – as in black South African – stories?  Not a single one. And yet, they are all about human beings in, and from Africa.  It is completely false that there is one “black narrative” on a continent of nearly one billion people and a country of 54 million.  The narratives of human beings from other African countries are not the narratives of the South Africans, for example, who marched against them in Pretoria, or who burn and loot their shops, and shoot them dead.  The stories are certainly related but to assume that simply because people share the same skin colour they have the same story or the same perspectives, is, quite simply, false.  Marc Gbaffour, Chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum said after watching the play “When Swallows Cry is amazing…I could hear the voices of real migrants talking about the challenges they are facing.”

To be a writer does not require race essentialism and/or racial solidarity; it requires human empathy.  This allows woman writers to construct believable, sympathetic males characters; disabled writers to present well-rounded able-bodied characters, and straight writers to write gay characters into life. Details and further texture are provided by other tools of the writer: research and imagination.

Conclusion

All over the world, we are witnessing the rise of populism and the lack of nuance, the inability or lack of will to deal with complexity; polarisation based on half-truths, the conjuring of emotional responses and fear unrooted in rationality and facts.  As much as we can see this and decry it when it is performed by the Donald Trumps, Geert Wilders and Marie le Pens of the world, we are unable to recognise it in ourselves.  However, in my view, it is the flip side of the same distorted coin – a belief in falsities and half-truths that make us feel good about ourselves, that may earn us applause when we shout these half-truths aloud and punish the “other” for their real and perceived sins.  In South Africa, given our history, these falsities and half-truths generally have to do with “race”.

If I do anything as a writer, it is to challenge such intellectual and political superficiality, and to invite audiences to think more, to analyse deeper and to reflect longer on what they have experienced.  And then, to act as empathetic humans in a world and in a society where such action is increasingly necessary, but increasingly difficult to find.

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