I thought I dreamed it. I remember the words “Theatre is dead in SA” on a street pole advert in black type on a while background under the dark blue logo of a weekly national paper, a few days ago in Johannesburg. And I filed the recollection of the image away as a surreal stray pustule of my overactive imagination.
Alas, others saw it too. It was no dream. <<Though as I have subsequently confirmed, the actual wording on the original street pole headline was “Crisis in SA Theatre?”>> Who would do such a sensationalist stunt, other than a newspaper desperate to sell copies?
Entitled ‘Quo Vadis Theatre?’, the article, written by journalist Tat Wolfen in the Saturday Star triggered really angry reverberations amongst arts practitioners across the board. None of them friendly towards the ideas it suggests, but all of them proactive in affirming theatre’s very much alive.
Several people have vociferously claimed Wolfen is a nonentity in the industry, an idiot, a racist and other colourful variations on that theme. In his bitter rant which tars whole swathes of South African theatre-going society with crude brush strokes, this journalist/arts writer with over 15 years experience in the industry reveals his own inadequacies, in collaboration that is, with the editorial, subbing, photographic and publishing mechanisms of the newspaper which brought that piece of writing to public life.
For one thing, the article is illustrated with two photographs which are mischievous at best. The Alhambra Theatre in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, run by Pieter Toerien since the 1980s, closed its doors as a theatre just before Montecasino in Fourways was launched, under Toerien’s steerage in 2000. This was a decision which hinged on demography rather than death of the industry, as such. Showing a dead theatre fifteen or so odd years after the fact is unashamedly sly.
The photograph of a ‘dark theatre’ resonates with silly trickery: theatre is not a whirligig carnival which is all popping lights and activity at any given moment of the day or night. All the photographer needed to do was go to any theatre at a time of day when nothing is performing and photograph the empty seats. Better still, in the dark. While the photographs have the power to grab you by the eye and say a million things that the article might not be capable of, these photographs certainly speak of a hollow agenda.
In his article, Wolfen presents four challenges he considers to be sounding the industry’s death knoll: the assertion that audiences are old; that young people are disinterested; the existence of crime; and conservative tastes. There’s a racial imperative so close to the bone in these qualifiers, you can almost see it, but you can’t.
Society is rich with diversity. There are indeed young people who are “bored and shallow” as Wolfen states, but there are also deeply informed and highly skilled young people who will be the arts shapeshifters in the future. One need only look at the programme of the So So1o festival currently on the boards at Wits Theatre to see their creative personas. The likes of Leonie Ogle, a young director; Tony Miyambo, a young performer; Zethu Dlomo, a young performer; to name but a very few. Are these ghosts? Figments of my imagination? I think not.
Has Wolfen never been to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg? That place where the recent seasons of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule and Neil Coppen’s Animal Farm earned consistent full houses. When you’re at the Market Theatre, you get the whole range: old, young, black, white people all around you, in the audience. Every time.
Has he never attended a dance work, either at the Market Theatre or under the auspices of the Dance Umbrella, where the work might be experimental and difficult but nary is there a vacant seat, and young black, engaged and articulate audience members sit in the aisles, sometimes. These are not the conservative lot who only see The Sound of Music, at all.
A comment that “suburbanites are being raped, tortured and killed … in their houses” raises such damaging invective to this troubled country that it is dizzying. Yes, crime happens. Bad crime. It does. But to bring such scarlet prose into a reflection on the state of the arts is simply irresponsible. Crime is no elephant in the room and it does, indeed, halt a lot of people in their bid to drive to the centre of the city because they’re frightened, but by the same token, describing it so crudely does nothing but further frighten readers.
Further, a comment that there is too high an age profile of audiences is not only inaccurate, but it reflects cringeworthy parochialism. In each of Wolfen’s so-called challenges, there is a kernel of truth but he’s drawn each out to such an overwhelmingly dramatic extent that they have become grotesque hyperbole giving voice to florid overgeneralisation.
The arts are today indeed in a delicate position in South Africa – as are so many industries, including the media at large – from a financial perspective, a skills-based one and in the face of the shifting options that the internet has presented. An article like Wolfen’s taking up a full broadsheet page of precious print space reflects a total lack on the part of the Saturday Star of genuine commitment to the arts. People in this industry, including I daresay Wolfen himself, are here because they love the arts. They’re fighting battles against a whole gamut of challenges. Surely bludgeoning the industry further with overstatement is counterproductive?
Hopefully Wolfen’s article — and the street pole ad that some sub-editor siphoned out of the original story — will vanish from the sensibilities of wouldbe audiences or wouldbe sponsors of the arts if it hasn’t already. Because Montecasino hasn’t yet staged the musical Wicked, it doesn’t mean that theatre is dead in this country, as Wolfen implies. The industry is struggling to reinvent itself, as is much of the whole world right now. Whether the contrivance of ‘part two’ promised next week will work or not is moot. I won’t be buying the Saturday Star to find out.