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Towards an understanding of the state of the South African theatre industry

Report by Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA) funded by the Royal Netherlands Embassy

Anton Krueger

Mike van Graan has been running two-day colloquia in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg in which he's been presenting the findings of an extensive report undertaken by PANSA on the conditions of the theatre industry in the country today. What follows is a very broad summation of these findings.

Definition of the industry
The report kicks off with attempts to define the field of the creative industries. It contrasts definitions of theatre as a "social good" or cultural necessity to the view of seeing theatre as an "industry", with the concomitant ramifications of a profit motive. Most players in the sector still seem to consider the sector to require public funding and support, and the greatest sticking point here is that most performing arts companies are not driven by the market:

Whereas other industries create products or adapt products to the needs and desires of markets that are often well researched, in the creative industries, products are created out of the individual artist's pursuit of truth, beauty and aesthetic excellence (4-5).


Many artists would consider it a contradiction of their calling, a compromise of their artistic integrity to create something that satisfies a market (5).

Creative industries are thus divided into two sections: the commercial sector, and the subsidised sector. And yet, the report points out that it would be a mistake not to see non-profit organisations as contributing to employment, and shows that these organisations create many jobs and provide a range of skills and experiences. For example, the NPO sector employed 654 316 full-time workers in 1998, which is more than the total involved in the mining industry. A further 1,5 million volunteers were also actively involved in NPOs in 1999, adding enormous value to the marketplace.

Cultural goods are also products which can be exported and imported. More than half of all cultural exports and imports in the world come from five countries: Japan, the USA, Germany, the United Kingdom and China. These countries dominate world culture, and the point is made that it is not as if they have more "raw material" in terms of creativity, but because "culture" is often considered a luxury in developing countries. It has also become cheaper to import cultural goods and services than to produce them locally. In addition to this, expertise and business acumen are often lacking in the developing world.

It is an inescapable fact that creative products carry with them the "values, worldviews, ideas and interests" (10) of their countries of origin, and that the overwhelming dominance (particularly by the USA) in creative industries is flattening out, and often destroying, local markets. The USA is particularly stringent about attacking all quota or tariff systems which might infringe on their dominance. Henning Camre of the Danish Film Institute, commenting on the massive domination of the European film market by American movies says:

All these countries lie open to being colonized by foreign product, to ideas and ideals foreign to their own realities and cultures ... Cultural products deriving from one's own cultural environment can promote and encourage the growth of self-esteem, sense of dignity, pride in own culture, and belief in own strength. People must have their say in which images, stories and human values they want to impact upon the minds and memories of their children (10).

One of the consequences of this global cultural domination (besides the fact that it limits one's freedom of choice) is that worldviews and ideas that support the interests of a minority are homogenising global ideas, and also that it is leading to "the loss of identity" and the fact that a people are not able "to tell their own stories and memorialise their histories and their people" (12). So the consequences are not only financial, but more problematically, that we "aspire to be like foreigners" (12).

After outlining the importance of building a local industry, both in financial and in sociological terms, the report turns to a summation of the process of transformation over the course of the past decade. This is one of the most hard-hitting sections of the study and describes the tortuous route over the past 11 years to transform the state-subsidised theatres.

The report documents the decline of the Performing Arts Councils and the policies which lead to their becoming "receiving houses" instead of "production houses". Currently a minimum is paid out to allow the administration of these houses, though no money is contributed to the production of shows themselves. And yet, the report shows that theatres are still receiving the same funding and producing the same money, even though they no longer have full-time companies.

Repeatedly what Van Graan refers to as "ad hocracy" pertains to grants and funding, where decisions have been made which are not transparent, such as allocating funds for the Market Theatre and the Windybrow without allowing other theatres to apply for the funding. Also, for example, the Playhouse has been building up a reserve of 28 million while it still obtains its annual subsidy, whereas other theatres are struggling to stay open.

Van Graan and his team reflect on what the process of transformation has entailed:

On the face of it, we have done exceedingly well in transforming the leadership and management and staff of our public bodies and the civil service. However, we cannot ignore the fact that many institutions have been plagued by gross mismanagement, poor corporate governance, corruption and financial misappropriation. The quality of leadership has often been poor, resulting in huge losses of taxpayer funds, and in the demise of many jobs (27).

This is as a result of the way in which transformation has been implemented, rather than a reflection on the ethos of the process itself. "Transformation," the paper states, "has become a smokescreen for the pursuit of naked self-interest" (27) and a litany of crises are listed which have stemmed from the problems associated with the transformation from theatres to "cultural institutions". These range from the closure of the State Theatre to the management scandal at the NAC. In addition to this, it seems that almost every subsidised theatre has, at some point or another, produced severe auditing discrepancies.

The report maintains that transformation is necessary in order to build markets and create new theatres, and yet so far the management of this transformation has been by and large disastrous. The sector has declined in terms of both quality and quantity:

... [T]en years later, transformation has realized at best, mixed results and at worst, racial polarization, incredible wastage of public resources, and alienation of the skilled and experienced in favour of the politically connected, the politically correct and the politically safe (31).

Ultimately, the practice of changing the theatres into "receiving houses" has failed, since they are now generating exactly the same money (from rentals) as they were from productions. This means that international touring companies, like the St Petersburg Ballet, hire the venue and take home most of the profits, so foreign artists are making the money previously made by the local Arts Councils.

Questionnaires and statistics
Turning to funding, all the facts and figures of the spending by the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), the National Arts Council (NAC), and Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) are listed. Wide-ranging surveys were also done of companies that sponsor the arts, as well as those who don't. Theatre-makers’ experiences of funding agencies were collated by means of questionnaires, and the number of shows and employment provided by all major theatres carefully charted.

The report also analyses festivals in detail, including responses from auditors, audiences, producers and artists. It also includes a breakdown of the emphasis of the curricula of the twelve national drama training institutions, and their throughput rates and interests are analysed.

The working conditions of theatre-makers are also quantified as far as possible, including comparisons of salaries and conditions. Unsurprisingly, Johannesburg offers the highest rates, while Durban has the lowest. It seems that most theatre-makers generate their income from teaching as well as work in film and television. A surprising number of theatre-makers (about half) own their own homes and have medical aid, and a high percentage indicate the need for a union.

Audiences were questioned about their interests and actions; the responses showed that word of mouth and repeat business are the greatest factors which contribute to filling houses. One surprising discovery was that there was a high interest from audiences in serious drama, more so than in comedy and only slightly less than musicals.

Although many people who filled in questionnaires said that lower ticket prices would encourage them to go to the theatre more often, the theatre which charges the highest prices of all (the Civic) had the highest attendance figures out of any theatre in the country last year – more than all the other theatres together. On the other hand, the offering from the Civic involves a large content of international shows and it seems that audiences are willing to pay exorbitant fees for international pieces, but not for local content.

The report also includes a list of all awards and competitions, as well as all bodies and organisational groups involved in making theatre.

In a section on the media, the lack of a critical or analytical discourse on current theatre is the most disturbing feature highlighted. For one thing, 60 percent of the space allocated for arts and entertainment in mass media is taken up with advertising. What little remains is said simply to represent the content of what is on offer and serves as little more than a press release. At most, only 25 percent of arts content can be said to be analytical or critical. In addition to this, international artistes receive a great deal more attention than local artists and only 2 percent of arts coverage goes to the rest of Africa. The bottom line here is that the "lack of young, skilled arts journalists coming up through the ranks is considered a crisis for the future of the profession and for arts generally" (82).

This is a meticulously detailed examination of every conceivable aspect of the current state of theatre. In this summation I have only been able to indicate some of the larger issues which are addressed by the report. I suggest that anyone interested in examining the 101 page document in more detail contact Tammy Ballyntyne directly to request a copy.

For more information about PANSA, visit

LitNet: 13 June 2006

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