Stumped by an Apple: the need for new blood in this industry

apple

THE FRISSON OF excitement at the start of a new play is in the air. The audience is exuberant but alert, as soon as the lights drop, silence prevails. And focus. The play begins. He walks on stage. And out of his mouth sprout words I do not understand. Is my evening ruined? Should I run out in high dudgeon? The performer has agonised over this work, he’s rehearsed, he might be nervous. What would happen if I stayed and listened?

The actor speaks isiZulu, but he does so with such a directness, with such body language and such engagement that even without a respectable knowledge of the language, you’re swept away in the current of the work. And as you stretch your mind and your focus to attempt to see what he’s doing, as you listen to the response of your fellow audience members who do understand, something remarkable happens. Actually two things happen.

Firstly you quickly gain some inroads into the language. The more you listen, the more you begin to recognise things. You recognise the names of characters. You recognise repeated elements in the story that lead to a climax in pace, in narrative. You begin to make assumptions about the prepositions in the language and the beauty of the sentence construction. And the use of timing. The props clearly represent different characters, and the dialogue with the props flesh these things out. It’s a very interesting – and humbling – exercise which is as much about seeing a work from the outside in, as it is about the idea of empathy.

Secondly, it’s a fascinating South African exercise. I do not understand isiZulu because I am white, because I was educated in the 1970s and 1980s during the thick intensity of apartheid, and because I was raised by a family who didn’t think it necessary for me to do so. And the years have passed and the enthusiasm it takes to learn a new language sits on a back burner.

Sitting in an audience where everyone is falling about with laughter at the tragicomic elements unfolding on stage and not being able to understand them is intensely disempowering, but it also puts you almost in the shoes of thousands and thousands of South Africans for whom English is maybe their eighth language, and their awareness of the nuances and asides you can conjure up in English might not be that strong. It’s a case of almost because most black South Africans without the privilege of an English-medium education who work in urban centres are able to use English as a tool, by necessity. Us locally-born whiteys managed to live for generations without the need to learn anything beyond, perhaps, Afrikaans, which was, in any case compulsory in the schooling curriculum.

Yes, given that English is generally the language of common parlance in Johannesburg theatres, it was remiss of the theatre in question not to have advised that the play is all in isiZulu. But having said that, had they done so, I would not have elected to see it. My Zulu is far from sufficiently sophisticated to understand the words, let alone the nuances of a play. And had I not seen the piece, I would not have encountered the focus and energy and intensity of Sifiso Zimba, a performer who I will be interviewing on this blog shortly.

So, what does this mean? I saw Apple, a piece by Zimba, directed by Omphile Molusi. I know Molusi’s work and have been following it for some years, which is why I elected to see the piece. I loved it, and I was moved to tears at points in it, but I didn’t understand why. Maybe I didn’t understand anything at all, and was simply influenced by the people around me. So, I cannot review it. But there are so many young South Africans who could.

The arts writing industry, thanks to social media and the apparent immediacy it presents, makes every person with a Wi-Fi connection and a keyboard able to tout their own opinions, no matter how foolish, biased or downright vicious they are. What lends art criticism credibility? Not the sensation or the glamour but the track record of the critic. So many young publications, or young editors, fall into this trap of getting people who know not what they do to voice a critical opinion on the arts, because with the current machinery of publishing, you can and it’s cool and trendy to give the next generation a chance.

Traditional art critics, who write not for that shimmer of sensationalism, but for the value they believe they give the industry, who go the extra mile in ensuring their criticisms are balanced and justified, are fast becoming a dying breed. Why? No jobs. No money. No interest.

But what happens when a young Zulu-speaking person in the audience reaches for her keyboard or pen to say something about this work? Whether she says it in English or isiZulu, suddenly something begins to turn on its axis. Maybe her theatre opinions need refining or justifying. Maybe she’ll shoot from the hip and voice an emotional opinion which feels raw. But the investment she will make of her time to do so, has the power to begin the momentum that will in time make that pendulum swing back.

And back it shall swing to a world of proper arts writing, but it shall swing with the added bonus of a respectful multiculturalism: an acknowledgement of the joys and horrors of how language can empower and can handicap you. A fantasy? Maybe. But one worth articulating. Congratulations to Wits969 for giving Apple, straight from the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a platform.

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Oh, Pretoria: you’re breaking my art

PAMoped

How does a municipal structure in place for decades, get broken with abandon? Is it a process? What breaks first that is deemed not important enough to fix? The abysmal current state of Pretoria Art Museum is a crying shame to its proud, polished history. It feels as though the best solution is to shut it down and give the vagrants who dry their smalls on the Bartholomeu Dias sculpture in the museum’s park, a roof over their heads.

You drive into PAM’s parking lot – the museum campus occupies a full block of central Pretoria, including lavishly sized grounds and a generously structured building. It’s a weekday at the end of the year. People are on leave from work. Children are not at school. The parking lot has two police vans parked at random in the shade. Their occupants sit in their vehicles, doors open and legs out. It’s lunchtime. They eye you quizzically over their greasy burgers: “What are you doing here?” they seem to ask. There are no other cars.

You ignore that. Mount the stairs to the 1970s-styled venue. And look to the right. The grass is bald; freshly washed T-shirts are drying on the bronze public sculptures.

The security guard sits in her belted bulging regulation trousers, fingers at her weave, phone at her ear. She clearly uses all her airtime and battery power in this job, daily. With her chin, she instructs you to sign the visitors’ book; she doesn’t deign to pause in her conversation to greet you.

You enter the space. The next security guard, behind the desk grins vacantly: R22 he asks. He doesn’t offer a receipt. And if you think of the numbingly boring life he must lead day in and day out sitting in that chair, with maybe three visitors a month you feel this arbitrary sum can be viably chalked down to charity; you let it go.

You ask where the Keith Dietrich exhibition is; the man gesticulates vaguely. “There’s art everywhere,” he frowns. “This is a gallery.” He returns to his catatonic lassitude immediately.

The first thing you encounter on your left is the museum’s curious collection of ceramic art. It’s so precious and fragile no one is allowed to see it. You’re only allowed to peer through the thick and dusty glass at how the works are irretrievably ramped against one another, frozen in time.

And there is Dietrich’s show. It’s a gem in a slum. <<See my review of it here>> Having had your fill of this beautiful, terrible, sophisticated reflection on society and slavery, your instinct is to flee, at once. But fatal curiosity holds you back. And oh my goodness: cheek by jowl with Dietrich’s show is a group of the most wretched little JH Pierneefs imaginable.

Exhibiting art is a complicated exercise. It’s about PR as much as it is about art history. But, it’s also about the behind-the-scenes magic that makes a theatre set design into a whole world, and a dance venue into a place of dreams: an art gallery needs proper lighting. Maybe the Pierneefs in this show are not wretched, but with stunted lighting and a devastating sense of sameness, your mind gets numbed. The works are ignominiously killed. Your sluggishness drags you forward.

There’s an exhibition by contemporary photographer Michael Meyersfeld in the next space. It features giant texts on the wall which scream out at you so loudly they destroy the work completely. You come away unable to remember what the words say or the photographs depict. It’s not clear who made these aesthetic decisions or sanctioned them. Or why.

The next space presents the work of Artists’ Proof Studio artist Bambo Sibiya. Beautiful drawings and extraordinarily fine linocuts hang in a place where clearly the lighting guy got side-tracked. It’s also a space where the low ceiling fights so obviously with the work exhibited, you can’t breathe properly.

Had enough? Probably. But the day would not be complete if you’d missed PAM’s final disappointment. This dreadfully dry potted history of South African art, from San Rock art, through the mists and mothballs of high apartheid to art produced in protest and concept, has been on show for at least a year – I brought students here last February – and everything’s still in the same dusty sequence. You come away from it with moist eyes. From lots of yawning.

It’s in the long, potentially elegant space of the Albert Werth Hall, named in honour of PAM’s first curator, who enthusiastically took up the museum’s reigns in 1963. From the 1990s, this was where the Sasol New Signatures competition happened. [Curiously this competition is still hosted at PAM, but clearly not in the Albert Werth Hall]. It was here where the remarkable, fabulous work of Dutch-born artist Daphne Prevoo was showcased in 2005, an unequivocal highlight for that year, if not that decade, searing images into visitors’ minds that are still there <<see my review of that here>>.

Art history is a funny discipline. While it contains the rollicking beasts in the hearts and sensibilities of talented, sensitive people on the forefront of society who saw things differently and had the courage to say so, it’s about beauty, as it’s about politics and circumstance. And it’s about fun. And horror. But an exhibition is seldom a self-generated miracle. A curator’s hand matters.

Steven Cohen’s Selfish Portrait (1999) an upholstered chair silkscreened and hand-coloured, is the gem on this side of the slum, but it isn’t exhibited in a way to make you swoon.

There’s also lovely Walter Oltmann, Cyprian Shilakoe’s represented, as is William Kentridge. But the show is stripped of wow, bleached of life.

You exit the building. All you want to do is blindly hit the highway, saving off your thirst for the first cheerful roadside fast food place. There’s nothing here to offer you solace. Or even refreshment. Drinking toilet water feels dodgy. The Spar over the road looks skanky. Besides, you haven’t stamina to walk further than your car.

While PAM reeks of apartheid thinking, it really did evolve: the collection started in 1930, in Pretoria’s town hall. PAM’s erection was completed in the 1960s. Indeed, South Africa’s prime minister HF Verwoerd – the architect of apartheid himself —laid PAM’s foundation stone. But the forward thinking in the collection from its very inception was kick-started by work bequeathed from the estate of Sir Max Michaelis (1852-1932), a mining magnate and art patron.

Michaelis’s collection, valuable though it may have been, largely comprised work by Northern Dutch masters from the 17th and 18th centuries, which was already well represented in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It did, however also include work by local masters: Pierneef, Pieter Wenning, Frans Oerder, Anton van Wouw and Irma Stern.

The city council developed PAM’s focus on local talent; the initiative developed its own momentum.

The space was enlarged in 1975 and 1988 and upgraded in 1999. But then what?

Not only does the space today have paltry visitors, creative energy or attention to curatorial detail, not to mention no sense of the sacredness that would make the very idea of hanging freshly washed broeks on the side of a sculpture anathema to even a vagrant, but it also has no internet presence.

It’s unforgivable. Yes, times are tough; money’s too tight to mention and arts funding is always in business’s cross-hairs. But by the same token, this creative industry is replete with talented, brave, passionate people who understand how earning money and doing things that matter must balance. Come, come, Pretoria. It’s time to think out of that box. Or surrender it to the homeless.

<<This article was posted five days ago, on December 25. There has been unprecedented response to it, including a blog which looks at the broader sociopolitical situation. Read it here.>>

Cheap tricks and gimmickry to make you look

tat

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.

Don’t put your baby in the audience, Mrs Worthington

BabyOped

Corrupting Noel Coward’s lyrics a bit but celebrating the intent of his 1947 song that warns a woman against putting her child needlessly on the stage, I cock a snook at the young mommies and daddies who bring their relatively freshly-hatched babies, still in swaddling clothes to the theatre. Are you absolutely intent on destroying any chance of your child having a real love for the theatre? And why would you punish them thus?

It’s a mystery to me – not very different from the mystery as to why people insist on using their cell phones in a darkened theatre – conjoined with all those values of utter selfishness that many of our theatre-going audience exude. I’ve had this conversation many times. I’ve been asked to remove a posting on facebook by a theatre when I ranted about an 18-month-old child sitting next to me during a huge, loud musical at a big daunting theatre complex, specifically for an adult audience. The child in question teetered between extreme distress, overwhelming boredom and dizzyingly offensive bratty precocity. And then it needed a nappy change. I’m funny that way: the smell of other people’s poo doesn’t do it for me.

And indeed, the theatre was correct (and the post was removed): My comments would bring them bad publicity. While they can state on the tickets and the walls and the telephone and the internet until they are blue in the face that the production is not geared for children under a certain age, the relentless and arrogant idiocy of the paying audience member who insists on bringing their sproglet to the theatre, is louder: is the customer always right? Will the theatre earn a bad name if, at the door, an usher says, “I’m sorry madam, this child cannot go into the theatre?”

Invariably, and sadly, it will. Those members of our society who feel that their money can thrust them into any given situation are not shy. They’re also not unaggressive. Given the current state of the theatre in this country right now, no one can afford to create an unpleasant scene with a customer who barges their way into any scenario without the vaguest notion of how revolting their behaviour actually is. They are paying their way, aren’t they?

And you may argue your baby is exceptionally intelligent, which is why you take it to the theatre. Why, of course it is! It’s yours, isn’t it?

Your baby is a baby and its job is to kvetch and make a noise, to cry and have a short attention span. Plonking a child in a nappy onto a theatre seat in a dark theatre that will erupt into loud music and bright lights should be a sin that’s up there in terms of the multitude of ways in which incompetent and psychiatrically sick adults abuse children. Can you imagine how unbelievably terrifying it could be to be in that situation? Without the ability to talk properly or rationalise sensibly, or understand that the situation is about this great concept called entertainment, a little mite might well be terrified witless by the experience.

And that’s just the child. Your child is brilliant and beautiful and flawless because you made it. But not everyone in the world might see its brilliance or beauty or flawlessness, particularly when it’s running havoc in a theatre’s aisles or crying its head off. Other people have paid money to see a production and seeing the fruit of your union showing off under the stage lights is not what they’re here for.

And I say all of this in absolute cognisance of the genre of theatre directed at the so-called ‘0-year-old’. There is, indeed, such a thing, but it is arguably at this stage, a fledgling discipline in South Africa.

So, don’t bring your baby into the audience, Mrs Worthington. Wait a few years until it can walk and use a potty competently. Wait until it fits the moniker ‘child’ properly. Wait until its attention span has developed long enough for it to sit through a story and listen to it. The children’s theatre industry in South Africa is ripe with magic for your little one, but give him or her a chance to become a person first. For your child’s sake. And the world’s.

Bums on seats; asses in the audience

Our times: Where it's more (aggressively) important to record those memories than to live them. Photograph courtesy cavinteo.blogspot.com

Our times: Where it’s more (aggressively) important to record those memories than to live them. Photograph courtesy cavinteo.blogspot.com

They bray like donkeys when a performer makes a move they’ve never seen before. They clap hysterically at any pause in the music or the movement, assuming this is their cue. They give standing ovations for anything at all. These are our people: South African audiences might have the money to attend productions, but their behaviour demonstrates their supreme lack of sophistication. Or basic manners.

It’s a curious reality, which you don’t get at Dance Umbrella, arguably South Africa’s most important spotlight for contemporary dance. But you do get this indiscriminate fawning behaviour in the auspices of Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre, here again after 17 years. The company is performing at arguably one of Gauteng’s finest venues, the hype around the production is so enthusiastic, it’s monolithic, and the tickets are not cheap.

However, our local audience behaviour reflects so shamefully on the mawkishness of our community that we collectively seem impervious to the fact that not only do our cell phones ghoulishly light up our own stupid little faces when we open them in a darkened room, but they also upset the focus of maybe ten people sitting around us. It’s also so appalling for a grown person to surreptitiously take photographs when this has been expressly forbidden. Are these the lot that cheat and steal, murder and rape behind closed doors because they don’t think that rules apply to them?

It’s a difficult scenario and I don’t know how it gets addressed. The money these cretins pay is necessary. The fact that they willy-nilly destroy the preciousness of a live production for probably the whole audience seems moot. They don’t do this maliciously, but out of sheer basic ignorance. What does the theatre establishment do? Do you shame them and stop the show? What does an audience member who has paid the ticket and wants to see the show do? Do you wrench the phone from their hand and throw it with conviction as hard and far as possible? Do you stop seeing shows because of the potential fools that might be sitting next to you?

From where I sit, I cannot understand the need to twitter and email while a stage production is in flow. Has our society lost the ability to retain a thought for 90 minutes before it shares it with others? The man next to me at the opening of the Alvin Ailey showcase could not sit still for a minute. He was checking his phone, drinking his water, checking his phone again, trying to take photographs in secret, drinking more water. He was scratching and fiddling. A show is 90 minutes, generally. If one is medically or psychiatrically unable to sit still and look and experience for this space of time, they really shouldn’t do it. The unpleasantness it affords everyone else is not necessary.

Attend any of the Dance Umbrella productions which arguably stretch your understanding of aesthetics, and challenge your perception of what dance or performance mean, and you won’t see this.  Should the seeing of dance be restricted to a dance-savvy audience? I do believe, having been in myriads of productions with very different bunches of audience, that there is a move in education where young theatregoers are being infused with an element of etiquette in a space filled with other people and where live performers are on stage.

The brayers and indiscriminate clappers are not children. They are not from a financially thwarted context. They probably are well educated. They’re arrogant and consumed with their own sense of self and the horrendous and idiotic habit of taking ‘selfies’ in that very same darkened theatre, attests to their grotesque and unwarranted sense of their own importance.

I am not speaking audience participation: the shows that are abused so horribly are straight down the line convention proscenium-style theatre, where the production happens on one side, and the audience sits and watches.

So where do we go from here? Do we hold tight and stay at home, waiting for the next generation to reach its zenith, hoping that the boors and behavioural midgets of this world who tout their mediocrity with such abandon, will soon slip out of trend, and that their despicable behaviour will be revealed for what it is? Or do we tough it out? Maybe: the art world is at this point in this country, in this world, so beleaguered from so many points of view – no critical arts space in major newspapers, no funding, no opportunities, that maybe a poorly behaved audience is small fry in terms of the bigger challenges.

Bring back the music

music

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy? The eponymous Norman Jewison musical from the 1970s, based on a series of stories by Shalom Aleichem may be high schlock to most contemporary audience members, but it retains its status as a modern classic, for a whole rash of reasons, ranging from the fit of lyrics and music to the way in which narrative touches history.

Having rewatched it again – after a childhood which was determined by listening to the LP a million times – there’s another bit of quirky magic which I believe ties the work ineffably to the traditions of Chagall and Yiddish storytelling, but which also lend it a sense of the unexpected and the unequivocally beautiful and skilled that so little of what we see on our contemporary stages has the ability to emulate. I speak of the fiddler. On the roof. He’s performed by violin virtuoso Isaac Stern in the musical, and the skill and the wisdom of this one little instrument sets a whole huge musical with a million values quietly and directly on fire.

What is it about the commodity of music in a contemporary environment that makes people think that louder is better? I’m not talking of those people who drive little cars with big speakers, leaving the “doef-doef” rhythm all over the street, like a bad smell, late at night. I’m talking of educated artistic practitioners creating a work for an audience to watch. So many of them punctuate their precious, honed, sacred work with noise that, as you sit in the audience, vibrates in your teeth and your bowels. And you take it home in your head like a pall over your face.

No one has been able to explain to me why music for contemporary dance needs to be so very loud that it is actually distorted. I daresay I should be thankful that the trend of doing contemporary dance to ‘white noise’ has passed. Enter the trend of loud music, so overwhelmingly terrible and unashamedly bad that it affects your ability to actually see the work.

Money, theatre practitioners might bleat. We can’t afford orchestras. We don’t get funding. So they put in piped noise attached to speakers that don’t fit properly with the space that it’s supposed to fill with sound. Does it work when the auditorium is empty and do the sound designers forget that a full auditorium resonates differently? It’s a mystery to me. What’s wrong with having one instrument on stage? Like a violin. Or a penny whistle. Or a clarinet? Most of the venues that are used in urban theatre settings in this country have some modicum of acoustics in their structure. But even if they don’t. Why is it that young and sometimes even seasoned practitioners feel the insufferable urge to scribble away any nuances and subtleties in a work with music that has the volume ramped up as far as it can go?

Last year, there was a work on Johannesburg and Grahamstown stages that featured a ‘cello. A simple unadorned ‘cello.  No ‘doef doef’ in the background, no slaughtering of a European composer through bad acoustics in the foreground. It was a ‘cello in all its humble directness. It became a character in the piece, a beautiful monster that moved and swayed with the words that flowed over it. This is a country replete with musicians – many of them do not have regular work – is there a real reason why theatre and dance directors are not able to collaborate or converse with musicians?

Bring back the hypothetical fiddler on the roof, I say. Sanitise him of schlock. Let him be eerie and moving and witty and bold. Let him sit precariously and develop a persona and a voice on stage and allow us, in the audiences the chance to breath and listen and respond to a work and not be flooded out with noise that makes our noses bleed.

In Praise of Dictators with Vision

A giant: theatre director Barney Simon during rehearsals for "Silent Movie", 1993. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

A giant: theatre director Barney Simon during rehearsals for “Silent Movie”, 1993. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

“Compressor Pump” we used to call him, behind our hands, behind his back. Nasty caricatures were drawn of him on toilet doors and in the margins of lecture notes: a man with a big stomach, his nose in the air, a red face. He was the king. We hated him with the petulant and benign hatred young adults use to confront authority. This was Professor Alan Crump: a man who, with a straight-talking tongue and a clear hand defined excellence in the South African visual art world, arguably like no one since has done. He died from cancer on May 1, 2009 and his absence remains obvious and unsurpassed. But his presence in the art world, over the years when he reigned as such, attests to the truth that democracy has its flaws and that dictators with vision – people with the guts to say “no” to people not sufficiently talented – are necessary.

Consider Bill Ainslie, the founder of the Johannesburg Art Foundation, in 1971. A quiet man with a vision of fire. Consider Martin Schonberg, the founder of Ballet Theatre Afrikan in 1996: a brilliant dancer and unrelenting teacher. Consider Jacques Lecoq, the irrepressible founder of a mime school in Paris in 1956, that was immensely popular and influential to a myriad of directors and performers all over the world, including South Africa. Consider Barney Simon, the life blood of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre and priceless mentor that inspired and infuriated hundreds of artists. These individuals, amongst many of their ilk, are or were people of huge vision. Intensely gifted, maybe unpopular as teachers, because they were not considered gentle, but ultimately people who understood the weight of what they were teaching, who they were shaping and that it mattered. These people were the gatekeepers, the line drawers, the nurturers of talent and the individuals with the courage to keep the sacred space of their disciplines sacred and accessible to only a select few.

But all these potent and fiery leaders, with the sense of a movement in their vision, were human. And mortal. And what happens in their wake? Someone must fill their shoes. Or must they? So many of these initiatives were the fruit of the dreams of maybe one person. Put someone else in the driving seat of a project pioneered a generation earlier, and that someone else is at a disadvantage from day one: it’s not their dream. Or their investment. It becomes a mere job. The challenge of driving someone else’s project to a new height is almost bigger than giving your own dreams voice.

Ultimately, the editor who slashes your precious writing to pieces with a blue pencil, deeming it “a pot of shit”, but inviting you to address its errors and redress its red herrings, is significantly more valuable to the developing – or even experienced – writer, than the guy who lets everything through.

I believe that the integrity of the microcosm of our South African art world is under grave threat right now.  In tune with shouting the values of democracy, it seems anything goes and as a result, Johannesburg’s stages, galleries, dance spaces generally hold no bars in allowing material that would never have seen light of day, in years past, to be presented to the unsuspecting and paying public. Not every dancer is a choreographer. Not every actor is a director. Not every artist can teach. Not everyone who can wield a paintbrush is a giant with vision.

Critical arts platforms are weakening and haemorrhaging writers because the newspaper industry seems to have lost its way and so many people with huge egos and scant skills reign because they are not challenged as they thrust themselves forward into a world which is not theirs. And what’s left, by and large, is people too afraid or uncritical to voice real opinion. Who suffers? Everyone – from the readers, to the audiences, to the artists.

The next generation of arts practitioners is budding. Perhaps amongst it will emerge one or two unstoppable voices of conviction: people – call them dictators if you like – with the perspicacity, the vision and the skill, the teaching gift and the largeness to lift our art world from the mire the idea of democracy has given voice to.

And yes, obviously, it’s politically inappropriate to praise a dictator. Democracy is a popular buzzword. But in a contemporary art framework, this is a fake democracy, which fuels mediocrity: when everyone has a say, in fact, no one does.