WHEN A MAN comes on stage just before a heavily touted show starts, to announce his great respect for all the people performing here because no one is earning money for doing so, is this a thing you’re meant to clap about? There is a huge problem in the arts industry when expensive tickets get sold on the backs of performers giving of their time with no serious acknowledgement of their skills. When amateurs take to the stage and real money changes hands for the questionable privilege of watching them do their shtick, who suffers? The industry itself, which includes the performers who leap at the chance to work, even if it is under people who know not what they do; and the audiences, who get royally conned of their time and their money and more seriously, perhaps, the idea of what good art actually is.
It seems reasonable to expect, when a production is professionally marketed, on radio stations and social media, when it is staged at a mainstream auditorium and when it comes with a price tag of between R200 and R475 a seat, that what you will pay for will be something of quality. You might not be condemned for wanting to understand it to be about a sense of event, not in terms of the bling in the audience or the food served at interval, but because of the bottom line technical expertise injected into the work itself. You might expect this, but contemporary Johannesburg, it seems, is flooded with something of a different stripe.
Call it unabashed mediocrity. Call it kowtowing to the idea of the money generated by promoting something and pretending it were professional. Call it blatant disregard for the real structures, effort and challenges that make performed theatre, opera or dance so difficult. Call it what you will, but the danger in this type of show that’s flourished and touted as a great wonderwork and collapses in a rush of angry people leaving at interval does more to damage the industry than it does to build it.
And yes, the corollary is blatant and feels extreme: would it be better to have dark theatres and nothing on stage than to fox would-be audience members with way under par productions, where the orchestra is too thin, the performances devastatingly bland and the ensemble laughably weak? Maybe it would. What would this mean? People with talent would lose their dreams or leave the country to chase them. Or perhaps they would go the extra mile in finding whatever it takes to make, mount and stage a work of unequivocal quality.
Perhaps this industry needs to take a step back and consider how easy it is to stage a show at a major theatre in this country. How easy is it to publish fiction? How easy might it be to show work at a major art gallery? Is it about the flash of some money at the right people? Is it about a spot of nepotism or curtseying in the direction of SEO talk? The wheel does turn and quality has a tendency of always, eventually rising to the surface; but when big budget productions are mounted, marketed and received with no regard for skill, or for acknowledging skill and paying professionals properly, we all suffer.