People are trying to save theatre all the time. I recently sat in a circle of shell-shocked arts administrators at the PANSA Western Cape offices in Salt River and saw the zeal glinting from underneath the exhaustion. They try to grow theatre in townships and preserve particular art forms like dance, puppetry or spoken word. They battle bureaucracy and antipathy. Many of them started in the ‘industry’ as artists, gradually realising that art depends on someone filling out forms and sending out fifty emails a day. They wrestle and they keep going – some of those present represented companies that have been operating for over 20 years, each year entirely uncertain. Looking around that circle it’s hard to lay the blame on the arts administrators for the dearth of funding allocated every year.
Not represented except by myself were the ‘independent’ theatre makers (I can’t the label ‘independent’ seriously. I depend on so many people willing to do favours and take risks that I am more dependent than any company able to raise funding). It’s not that they couldn’t benefit from a workshop on fund-raising; it’s that they don’t believe in the funding system. I know I don’t.
Independents rely on a forward momentum to build in their careers. They start off shoving hard against a Sisyphean boulder; sweating and losing money they earn working for the establishment. Eventually people start calling them, start arriving at their openings and experiments and offering them better jobs, roles, collaborations, etc.
But neither of these strategies counts on the audience arriving.
The wild card ‘independent’ theatre makers try to get people with money to love theatre, and try enticing the intelligentsia and that massive stratum of Cape Town’s young middle class, the designers and advertisers.
However they will fail. And it’s not entirely their fault.
Newspapers and some radio stations maintain an interest in the theatre world and it’s possible to draw an audience through these narrow canals alone. However, they are reaching the people who already like theatre, who read the paper looking for a show to watch. My crisis of marketing is not how to reach those people (although on my list of things to work out is: ‘how to reach them sooner’) but how to reach the intelligentsia, the hipsters, the wired generation. I’m looking specifically for vectors that (in the words of the PR Institute of SA) objectify the information. Word of mouth is more valuable than a flyer not because you pay nothing for it, but because you can’t pay for it.
But what do we do when reviews become homogeneous? Surely positive feedback is good for marketing? Yes and no – if no one disagrees with your opinion then no one is listening. A hard statement, but if theatre is to be relevant then a spectrum of critical opinions must exist and they must be accessible. So I am left with this conclusion: I want people to criticise my work and to do so vocally. However, some reviewers will hold back a negative engagement because they feel it’s impolite or under the mistaken idea that their silence is a favour. I know some theatre makers and companies who believe that is true. I am not one of them, and I am just arrogant enough to believe I’m right about this.
There are people who are trying to save theatre and so they treat it with kid gloves. I think theatre needs to get smacked in the face a couple of times.
So, with thanks, I link to Scarlet’s review of Owl.