The Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards: two steps forward….?

1.    Introduction

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 (even though this may be valued subjectively) 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.

2.    Stakeholders

There are four primary stakeholders in the ecology of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards

  1. the pool of practitioners who stand to be nominated i.e. performers, designers, directors, writers, etc
  2. the managements, producers and decision-makers who decide which works to stage or produce, which decisions impact directly on the pool of practitioners from which nominations are made
  3. the panel of Fleur du Cap judges who see the productions and select the nominees and ultimately the winners in each category and
  4. Distell, the sponsors, without whom the Awards would not be possible, but with the Awards comprising only a portion of their corporate engagement in the arts sector

2.1  Practitioners

There is no shortage of talent, commitment, creativity and hard work within the local theatre industry.  There can be little argument that practitioners are motivated, less by awards, than by seeking to do their best possible work in the production in which they are working at the time.

With regard to the Awards, practitioners are largely passive i.e. they go about their work generally with great professionalism and commitment, but they have no say in the nomination or selection process.

Few practitioners see as much of the theatre that the Judges see (more than 60 productions per year), so few are in a position to judge the relative merits of the nominations, although more would be likely to have seen the productions from which the nominees emerge.

The nature of the Awards – as with any awards – is that only a few will win, a few more will be nominated and stand a chance of winning, and the vast majority will be overlooked.  There would be joy among the few winners and more disappointment among those who did not win.

What practitioners would hope for is that decisions about winners are made on the basis of merit (since the Awards are for the “Best” in each category).  “White” practitioners would not want to feel that they were overlooked because of politically correct considerations, while persons of colour would not want to feel that they are “quota” or “affirmative action” selections.  

2.2  Managements, producers and decision-makers

Last year (2012), there was much anger expressed against the judges for the exclusively “white” winners in all the award categories.  However, in an analysis of the productions that were eligible for the awards, the point was made that the judges could only select from what was available to them i.e. the problem appeared to be less with the judges and more with the theatre industry – producers and managements – that were not providing opportunities for persons of colour within the industry.

As indicated in that article:

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.

This year, the figures are significantly different, particularly in the actor categories. 

There were 68 productions under review in 2012, spread over 9 managements or theatre complexes.  These were the Baxter Theatre Centre (18), Artscape (11), Kalk Bay Theatre (11), the UCT complex, including the Arena, Little and Intimate (10), Theatre on the Bay (9), the Fugard Theatre (4), Magnet Theatre (3), Maynardville (1) and Richard Loring’s theatre (1).

The various categories had the following numbers of potential nominees i.e. the number of people eligible for nomination from these productions, in the various categories in which awards are made:

Best performance by an Actor in a play: 59

Best performance by an Actress in a play: 26

Best performance by a Supporting Actor in a play: 72

Best performance by a Supporting Actress in a play: 36

Best performance by an Actor in a Musical/Musical Theatre: 7

Best performance by an Actress in a Musical/Musical Theatre: 11

Best performance by a Supporting Actor in a Musical/Musical Theatre: 11

Best performance by a Supporting Actress in a Musical/Musical Theatre: 11

Best performance in a cabaret/revue/solo show: 27

Best Director: 60

Best Lighting Design: 50

Best Set Design: 42

Best Costume Design: 38

Best Sound or Original Score: 25

Best Puppetry Design: 1

Best New South African Script: 23

The following table outlines the number of persons of colour (insofar as it could be ascertained from the information provided) per potential nomination category, the number of persons of colour nominated in each category and the categories in which persons of colour won awards.

 

Category

Potential

PoC’s

Nominees

Winners

Best Actor   (play)

59

13 (22%)

2 of 4 (50%)

1

Best Actress   (play)

26

  9 (34%)

1 of 4 (25%)

1

Best Supporting   Actor (play)

72

29 (40%)

1 of 4 (25%)

1

Best Support   Actress (play)

36

10 (28%)

1 0f 4 (25%)

1

Best Actor   (musical)

  7

  3 (43%)

2 of 4 (50%)

1

Best Actress   (musical)

11

  1 (9%)

0 of 4 (0%)

0

Best Supporting   Actor (musical)

11

  6 (54%)

3 of 4 (75%)

0

Best Supporting   Actress (musical)

11

  5 (46%)

1 of 4 (25%)

0

Best Performer   (cabaret/solo)

27

  3 (11%)

0 of 4 (0%)

0

Best Director

60

  6 (10%)

2 of 4 (50%)

0

Best Lighting   Design

50

  2 (4%)

1 of 4 (25%)

0

Best Set Design

42

  0 (0%)

0 of 4 (0%)

0

Best Costume   Design

38

  1 (3%)

0 of 4 (0%)

0

Best Sound or   Original Score

25

  2 (8%)

0 of 4 (0%)

0

Best New South   African Script

23

  6 (26%)

1 of 4 (25%)

0

TOTAL

498

96 (19%)

15 of 60 (25%)

5 of 15 33%

In 2012, the number of people of colour provided with work opportunities in plays in the Western Cape, represents a significant improvement on 2011.  In the first 8 categories – best and supporting actors and actresses in plays and musicals – of the 233 potential nominees (or people provided with work in these productions), 76 are persons of colour (33%).  In the first four categories – only those dealing with plays (not musicals), the numbers are similar with 62 of the 193 potential nominees being persons of colour (32%), in both cases a substantial improvement from the approximately 10% of the previous year.

The 68 productions were shared between 8 theatre complexes/managements as follows: Baxter Theatre 18, Artscape 11, Kalk Bay Theatre 11, UCT Theatre complex (including Little Theatre, Arena Theatre and Intimate Theatre) 10, Theatre on the Bay 9, Magnet Theatre 3, Richard Loring’s theatre 1 and Maynardville 1.

In the four play categories, the Baxter Theatre and Artscape each made available 54 opportunities for actors and actresses (these include their own productions and rentals), with the productions at the Baxter including 28 persons of colour (52%), an average of 1,6 persons of colour per production, and Artscape 18 (33%), a similar average of 1,6 persons of colour per production.  The Magnet Theatre provided ten opportunities including 7 for persons of colour (70%), an average of 2,3 persons of colour per production.  Kalk Bay Theatre, Theatre on the Bay, the UCT Theatre Complex, the Fugard Theatre and Maynardville provided a total of 75 opportunities between them, with 8 opportunities for persons of colour (11%). (Richard Loring’s Theatre which provided work for a number of people of colour, is excluded from this assessment as their production falls into the musical theatre category and this is to compare these play categories with those of 2011)

Given our apartheid history, “race” will feature for some time as a significant factor in providing a yardstick for the transformation of the theatre industry, as indeed it will be for all other industries.

However, it is also interesting to reflect on the gender dynamics of the industry, and to assess the racial demographics against the gender demographics in the final selections of winners.

The table below outlines the number of women eligible for nomination in categories where both men and women are eligible, the number of woman nominees and woman winners.

 

Category

Potential

Women

Nominees

Winners

Best Performer   (cabaret/solo)

27

  9 (33%)

2 of 4 (50%)

0

Best Director

60

13 (21%)

1 of 4 (25%)

1

Best Lighting   Design

50

  8 (16%)

0 of 4 (0%)

0

Best Set Design

42

11 (26%)

0 of 4 (0%)

0

Best Costume   Design

38

21 (55%)

2 of 4 (50%)

1

Best Sound or   Original Score

25

  3 (12%)

0 of 4 (0%)

0

Best New South   African Script

23

  7 (23%)

1 of 4 (25%)

0

TOTAL

265

72 (27%)

6 of 28 (21%)

2 of 7 (29%)

Women who played lead or supporting roles in plays totalled 19 at Artscape, 12 at the Baxter, 11 at the UCT Theatre Complex, 6 at Maynardville, 4 at Kalk Bay Theatre and Theatre on the Bay each and 3 each at the Fugard and Magnet Theatres.  This constitutes a total of 56 roles for women during 2011, compared with more than double the number of roles for men at 131.   Lead or supporting roles for women amounted to 43% of those for men in that year.

Except for the Costume Design category where they represent 55% of the eligible workers, women are under-represented in all the technical categories such as lighting, set and sound design and even in the directing category women constitute only 21% of potential nominees.  Women comprise just over 25% of those eligible in the New Script category.

Persons of colour are even more under-represented in these categories (the ones in which women and men are eligible i.e. primarily technical and design categories) with only 10% in the directing category, 4%, 0%, 3% and 8% in the lighting, set, costume and sound categories respectively, and a quarter of those eligible in the New Script category are persons of colour.

Some obvious conclusions to draw from these statistics are that

  1. there is a need for greater investment in training, mentoring and providing opportunities for persons of colour in the technical and design aspects of the theatre industry in the Western Cape
  2. there is a similar need to grow new writing talent both among women and persons of colour
  3. managements and producers need to give greater consideration to the selection of plays that provide work opportunities for actresses and for women directors (note: the primary theatre markets generally comprise women) and
  4. the upward trend in persons of colour cast in lead and supporting acting roles in plays needs to be sustained, but this needs to be extended beyond the Baxter, Artscape and the Magnet Theatre

 2.3 The Judges and the 2012 awards

 The panel of Fleur du Cap judges comprises an array of individuals who vary in their training in, experience of and exposure to theatre.  They may have different cultural values, different aesthetic tastes, and varied notions of excellence.  Invariably, each judge will respond to a piece of work and the performances within it, from a subjective perspective, rather than some universally accepted understanding of “excellence”.

With regard to these awards, and similar awards where there is a panel of 12-15 judges, ultimately, that which is rewarded and recognised is determined by majority opinion (which, in some cases, may include unanimity or consensus). 

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”. 

Of the total number of potential nominees (498), only 19% were persons of colour and yet, the total number of nominees selected by the judges comprised a total of 25% persons of colour (15 of 60).  Even more unlikely, the winners were persons of colour in 33% of the categories. 

It is true that in the first four categories there is mathematical consistency i.e. that persons of colour constituted 31% of the total number of potential nominees for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress in a play, and that the nominations reflected this (5 of 16 nominations were people of colour for a total of 31%).  However, persons of colour made a clean sweep of those four categories, even though in three of those categories, a person of colour had a one-in-four chance of being a winner.

While persons of colour stood a 1 in 5 chance of being nominated, they actually comprised 1 in 4 of the final list of nominees and were 1 in 3 winners, a remarkable statistical/mathematical achievement.

While it may be countered that a “white” person won in a category where he only had a one-in-four chance (the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical category) and a designer won the Set Design category where his competitor was one designer nominated for three different productions and so had a three-in-four chance of winning the category, that a person of colour won in each of the first four categories purely on merit, is mathematically/statistically improbable.  The only likely explanation is that judges felt pressurised (not necessarily consciously or as the result of a collective discussion or even because of any pressure from sponsors, but precisely because they would all have been aware of the 2011 controversies) to select winners that would be more politically acceptable, or less politically controversial.

When one considers that in 2011, the number of persons of colour who were nominated (about 12%) was consistent with the number of persons of colour provided with work opportunities in the four actor categories (10%), and when one considers that this year, the proportion of women nominations (21%) and winners (29%) is more or less proportionate to the number of women who worked within those categories (27%), then it is far more difficult to accept the disproportion of winners in the four acting categories where persons of colour won (100%) against the number of nominees (34%) and the number of persons of colour eligible for nomination in those categories (33%). 

If the aim of the judges is to correct historical imbalances (and given our history, this is not a bad thing), then this needs to be communicated to the theatre industry.  As it stands at the moment, the public silence should not be mistaken for an absence of disquiet within the theatre industry who may consider it politically incorrect to raise the issues, or who genuinely feel elated for the winners and so do not wish to undermine their awards or who do not want to alienate the judges for fear of compromising their own chances of future nominations and awards.

But, in the interests of the industry and of the Awards, questions need to be asked.

Some further questions raised by the 2011 Awards are:

  1. why can a designer be nominated for 3 different productions (and so stand an increased chance of winning) and an actor be nominated in only one production in a particular category, even though s/he may have acted meritoriously in more than one production – is this to spread the awards or nominations around in the more competitive play acting categories?
  2. why are men and women combined in the best performance in a cabaret/revue/one-person show category (presumably because there is not a critical mass of nominations in this category), but there are four categories for those in musical theatre where on the evidence of this year, there is not a substantial difference between the total number of potential nominees (27 in cabaret and 40 in musical theatre)?
  3. when does a script that owes its conceptualisation, themes and plot to another writer become a “New South African script” as was the case with Mies Julie?
  4. are the awards about “giving other people a chance” so that those who are regularly nominated and/or who win e.g. Jeremy Crutchley and Anthea Thompson, are deliberately overlooked to “give others a chance”?
  5. what is the purpose of an “audience award” when it can so obviously be manipulated by a producer to appeal for votes for the production (including from those who have not seen it), when the most popular productions can be relatively easily ascertained from ticket sales?

Greater clarity and communication on the part of the judges and/or organisers would assist the theatre community in understanding how nominations and selections are made.

Since the judges sit in judgment over the work of professionals in the theatre industry, it is not unreasonable for the theatre industry to request the credentials of these judges.  We know their names and some are well-known and respected within the industry, but generally, what are the judges’ skills, experience of, exposure to and knowledge of theatre that enables them to select “the best” in each of these categories?  Perhaps the CVs of judges need to be posted on the Fleur du Cap website as a start?

2.4  Distell, the sponsors

Distell, and any other private sector company, is not responsible for the theatre industry and for what the theatre industry chooses to stage annually.  Neither is Distell responsible for what the judging panel selects as their nominees and their final list of winners.  Distell is the sponsor, the enabler of the awards.  (Some may argue that Distell is indirectly responsible by virtue of appointing the judges – and this is true, but ultimately, one would assume that it is the judges who decide without any intervention or direction from Distell.  It is the same as Distell sponsoring a theatre production; they make the production possible, but they have no say in its content and form – and the artists involved would resent it if they had any say by virtue of their sponsorship).

The primary responsibility of Distell in the Awards would be the Awards event.  No sponsor wants to be associated with controversy or to have its image tarnished, especially when it believes that it is doing something that is socially worthwhile or commendable.  But Distell was legitimately criticised in 2011 for not sufficiently anticipating the potential fallout of the 2011 awards with its all-white winners (they would have known the judges’ decisions beforehand), and ensure that at least the Awards event was a celebration of the diversity and excellence of the theatre industry in the Western Cape.  The all-white presenters and the semiotics of the dancers kneeling subserviently in presenting the awards at the event compounded the controversies of the 2011 Awards.

By all accounts, the Awards event of 2012 was a huge improvement on the 2011 event, and for this, Distell needs to be commended.  It is to be hoped that despite what the managements and producers within the theatre industry decide to do and notwithstanding the decisions of the judges, Distell will in future at the very least continue to endeavour to present an awards event that recognises and affirms the rich diversity of and excellence within the performing arts sector in the Western Cape, so that the event projects a vision of what the theatre industry in the Western Cape could, or should, be.

Conclusion

While the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards have a long history, predating the political changes of 1994, and while, since 1994, there has probably been a great anxiety (if not external pressure) on the part of judges to select people of colour as winners, the 2011 Awards (with the event in 2012) probably marked a turning point in the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards.  The controversies at the time were not a great experience for the industry, the judges, the practitioners or for the sponsor. 

Yet, there has been significant progress in some areas even within a year, but it would appear that there has been an over-reaction to the 2012 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.

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

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About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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One Response to The Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards: two steps forward….?

  1. Michael Williams says:

    Insightful as always, Mike. And the burning question I have posed is when will the opera company’s contribution to the theatre scene in Cape Town be acknowledged? Our productions also have designers, directors, etc. and singers are no less actors because of their vocal ability. Best wishes Michael Williams

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