WHEN YOU PAY your money to see a production on a stage, implicit in that fee are at least four rights you are entitled to; rights firmly endorsed by the international theatre community: You expect that you will be safe – and that you will feel that you are safe – while you are watching a given show. You expect that should you at any point wish to – or need to – leave the space, you will know where the exit is to the production and to the theatre itself. You expect that you will be treated by the theatre staff with appropriate dignity and respect, and that the theatre staff know what they are actually doing and understand what a theatre is. And finally, you are entitled to expect that you be duly warned as to the nature of the show: should children be present? Is there an age limit? Are there strobe lights used? Are there particular elements to the piece which are decidedly frightening to sensitive viewers, such as very loud sounds in an extremely small space? That type of thing.
However, if you were at the South African State Theatre in the heart of Pretoria, once the celebrated gem of this country’s industry, on Sunday December 8, to see Albert Ibokwe Khoza’s work Red Femicycle, you may have experienced exactly the opposite of all of these basic principles, to the disgrace and shame of the theatre industry.
So, you enter the underground parking, where you discover a man in a security uniform who leers a little too much over the change you get from your payment for parking, pushing things just a little too close for comfort because he wants you to give him that R5. You are told to follow someone – an ununiformed man – to the place where the play will take place, up the slippery slope of the theatre’s driveway in the rain. If you are a woman on your own, there is already something distinctly threatening about the situation: you are not even sure that the man you are following is taking you to where you want to be.
Once you reach the stage door, you are told unceremoniously to sit on a series of broken plastic chairs, with their upholstery vomiting out of holes in their surface, until someone comes to assist, all the while, men and women in security outfits, chew gum, laugh and shout among themselves. Finally, they produce a couple of bow-tied ushers who lead you a circuitous route through the building’s bowels, finally losing themselves. Indeed, you are the one to make the right guess as to which door to go into, which happens to be correct.
You reach the production’s reception area. The tiled, tatty and unfriendly space feels like the disused vestibule of an abandoned hospital. You want the toilet? There’s a scrawled handwritten piece of paper pointing you to the third floor. You want to sit down? You can’t: there are four chairs, and they are all occupied. Five minutes before the show is scheduled to start, an usher loaded with a pile of chairs and a trunk of drinks creates an improvised bar on a folding steel table. This, you remember, is the State Theatre. The one supported by government money, which employs a huge staff, that one. Not a hole in the wall. Not a student initiative. The State Theatre.
And then, the production begins, a good twenty minutes later than promised. And it’s a violent show. A confrontational one. One which is designed to force unsuspecting audiences into thinking differently about themselves in the world. Are there ushers present to make sure things do not degenerate into total havoc? Or to make sure that you are safe in this environment? There aren’t. You don’t understand where you are supposed to be, or where the parameters of the work are. You do notice a couple of security staff or ushers escaping the work in a lift. There are open flames on the floor. A young man wields several shamboks, shattering the silence with his voice. A whistle is blown in a small passage, shattering your eardrums.
Ours has become a world replete with sensitivity to people with different disorders. A teaching environment often has students who will announce that they suffer from anxiety. Service dogs have become present in many contexts to assist people with mental or physical issues. Was this a chapter in State Theatre protocol that everyone bunked?
When the production is over, you are left on your own. One disinterested security woman with a curly weave tells you to get into an elevator and go to a specific floor, in order to leave the building. But when the lift stops at another floor, because it does not go to the floor you’re meant to reach, you emerge to find endless corridors stretching to what seems like infinity this way and that, there’s no one to help. There’s no one there. You walk what feels like miles down one corridor and discover the glass door where it concludes is locked. It’s enough to trigger a panic attack, even if you’re not prone to one.
The audiences at the State Theatre on Sunday evening, were mainly young, middle class and clearly with disposable incomes. It is arguable whether these people may have experienced theatre protocol in other contexts or countries. By so blatantly disregarding basic theatre protocol, the State Theatre is doing a fabulous job in lowering their expectations from skanky mediocrity to nought, and giving them to understand that they are not worthy of better treatment. It’s a whole generation’s worth of audience education down the tubes.
The gloves should be off: The public and theatre industry should openly condemn the South African State Theatre for its appalling management of the theatre in terms of undermining the image and respectability of what it is to be a theatre, for performers, stake holders and audiences. What would wake you up, State Theatre? A death in your audience?