Keep Digging

As the winners of the various categories basked in Fleur du Cap’s glow and the spectators and commentators prepared their annual dissection of the event I happily kept working on my own projects. Every year people question the issue of representation. It’s not new. It’s not edgy. It’s not journalism. It remains the stubborn, flatulent elephant in the room that we all know is there. It doesn’t only hang around in the auditorium where the FdCs are being held. It’s at the opening night of Maynardville, it’s in the wings waiting for it’s cue in the majority of productions and also sitting in the audience at most shows.

By far the most articulate of the commentary so far has been Mike van Graan’s defence of the awards. He uses good solid numbers to peel away the first layer of blame that Lara Foot’s speech unleashed. But he could have gone further.

In digging past the FdC panel he showed us the disproportionately white industry – “how can the FdCs show transformation when they must reflect this?” he argues. He raises an example of a mostly white company, the Mechanicals, as something that could offer great experience and training for young black actors. He raises questions about why there are so few. And then he doesn’t deign to do any of that research that made the rest of his article so compelling. He doesn’t ask them to comment on why, he doesn’t propose a theory and look at the available evidence.

Mike van Graan’s article is a successful attempt to exonerate Distell and the FdC awards. He is right. They are not to blame. So he looks around and vaguely gestures at the “theatre managements and independent theatre-makers” who need to be more inclusive, at “the Cape Town’s theatre sector” who need to rise to the challenge, and at “the people of colour across the theatre industry” who need to participate and have opportunities created for them.

In the end, despite Mr van Graan’s well reasoned and researched opinions, he can only cast the blame over everyone. I would appreciate if in the final paragraph he at least had the good grace not to refer to the Cape Town theatre industry as ‘it’ and instead owned up to his conclusion with ‘we’.

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Punching Theatre in the Face

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.

Getting Schooled in Public

Do I need to point out that I talk about marketing a lot? I’d talk more about writing or directing but I don’t think I have any great insights into those (my only advice, if you’re looking for some, would be: read more). I write about marketing because I write about what I’m learning; I write about wrestling with my ignorance. I’d love for someone to give me the answers – wouldn’t we all? But that’s not going to happen for a simple reason:

No one wants to look dumb.

No one has all the answers, but we can’t admit it. We are success-obsessed and only reveal our mistakes and flaws to our friends after a beer. We’re the classroom of silent kids not asking the teacher to go back and explain it again for fear of looking like the slowest. Except there is no teacher, just another kid reading off the blackboard.

Fortunately I am a slow kid. I’ve got a certificate to prove it. So I’ll ask the questions that everyone else seems to find obvious and I’ll show my worksheet to the class so we can make corrections.

My play Owl opens soon and at the end of the run I will post a full report here. The budgeting, the marketing, what proportions of my emails got replies, how I got people to come and most importantly: how many people I got to come. I will post concrete numbers and I will give my best crack at guessing why. I’m hoping that Owl is a success, but even if it is a terrible failure I’ll post the results and people can either learn from my mistakes or take this as the excuse they’re looking for to ignore what I have to say. I’m hoping I’ll start a trend – that other groups will post too. I’m hoping to start a conversation where people can talk about what works and what doesn’t.

The first step to wisdom is figuring out just how ignorant we really are.

Where the Audiences are

A list of Theatre Capacity in the Mother City

Ever wonder where the audiences are? I don’t have an answer for you, but I know where they could be…

425 are sitting in the Fugard (145 in the Studio and 280 in the Main) while 372 are at the three theatres on Hiddingh campus: 72 in the Arena, 75 in the Intimate and 225 in the Little. 225 are in Camps Bay at Theatre on the Bay while next to the other ocean 78 are chilling in Kalk Bay Theatre and 171 are at the Masque. Over in Obs there are 60 at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective, 55 at Obz Café and 148 sitting in the old match factory that is home to Magnet Theatre. For the outdoorsy types Maynardville can pack 690 folks on cold chairs with warm sherry. 1674 could be inside the tower of brick work that is the Baxter Theatre Centre, but only if they ran the Flipside (200) at the same as the Main stage (666), more likely that they’ll just run one of them with the Golden Arrow Studio’s 172 and the Concert Hall’s 636. But if all the theatres I’m counting are full then chances are that Wally would be hiding out among the 2157 strong crowd at the Artscape. Maybe with the Arena’s 129, or the Main’s 541, but most likely he’d be half hidden by the woman with the ugly hat in the Opera House where it’d be almost impossible to spot him among the 1487 people.

All numbers are subject to variations, some more than others, for instance empty box spaces like Hiddingh’s  Arena or Fugard’s Studio have completely changeable seating, while bigger theatres like the Artscape or even the Little take out or add rows of seating depending or orchestra pits and aprons.

Have a pie Chart!

A colourful Pie!

Magnet

148

Hiddingh Little Theatre

225

Hiddingh Intimate

72

Hiddingh Arena

75

Theatre in the District

180

Fugard Main

280

Fugard Studio

145

Baxter Main

666

Baxter Flipside

200

Baxter Studio

172

Baxter Concert Hall

636

Artscape Main

541

Artscape Opera

1487

Artscape Arena

129

Theatre on the Bay

255

Masque Theatre

171

Kalk Bay Theatre

78

Theatre Arts Admin Collective

60

Maynardville

690

Obz Café

55

Open Door Collectives

Thoughts on artists, FTH:K and particle accelerators

The internet is a good place for ideas. It’s sort of like that Hadron Collider thingy, smashing bits together at high speed to see what does or doesn’t come out. Here’s an interesting sentence I tripped over in an article on New York theatre troupe Superhero Clubhouse:

“Superhero Clubhouse describes themselves an open door collective, embracing both the value of longstanding relationships as well as the transient nature of artists.”

I’ve seen a number of companies get formed and break up. This week I heard the official news that FTH:K was losing two more of its key people: Rob Murray and Liezl de Kock, who’ll be heading out to work with Ubom! in the Eastern Cape (their blog for more about this). The company is emphatically not breaking up, but it does put the question of its future into the scrum. But there definitely will be a future.

As captured in the quote, artists are transient. They like collaborating and creating, they don’t like repetition. After 6 years it’s probably time for a change – it’s good for the company and good for the artist. Much like the particles in that super collider thingy, artists need to move about and come into contact with new ideas and people at high speed if they’re going to change (I’d say grow, but that’d definitely be mixing up the analogy).

Like Superhero Clubhouse, our institutions need to understand artists and let them move, the problem being that for any company less than 10 years old it is a monthly, weekly, daily struggle to survive. Finding funding is hard. Even what we think of as established companies like Magnet and FTH:K aren’t immune. What will happen when the founders move on? Will there still be a company?

FTH:K has always emphasized the management side of its operations. It has everything in place to continue, having mentored and nurtured the next wave of its ranks to take over. Could this be the first South African ‘open door collective’ in a truly sustainable sense? The next couple of years will tell, but I have faith in the staying power of a good idea well executed.

How to Sell Yourself

Think positive. Act confident. Highlight your good points.

Today I was reading the Cape Times and in one article about fracking they referred to the Karoo brand. Not about the brand of spring water, or hotels or something – just the Karoo, it’s a brand. That’s the world we’re in today.

We are in an age when interconnectedness makes infinite variety possible and yet instead jargon and practices are becoming homogenized. Art should be exploding into that realm of potential but instead the systems of capitalism have spread like a monkey-borne lung-melting virus. Branding, marketing, selling. That is what we do as creatives. And we do it in the same way as every other salesman.

Tweets, updates, blog articles – be positive, be interesting. Don’t be critical, don’t be challenging. Take whatever publicity anyone offers, if you’ve been in business 6 months it’s a perfect time to get celebrated as a success. And the press will help you. They are hungry for a success story since the depressing daily grind of most artists won’t make it past their editors.

Spin, spin, spin. Get dizzy, fall over.

What is the point of art if we don’t care about the truth? We can add adjectives to everything we say and write to make it upbeat, fabulous, sexy, funky, cutting-edge, awesome, ground-breaking, successful and amazing but that doesn’t change the industry. I look around at South African theatre and I see a dire situation. Too many clubs and cliques and not enough audience. We are irrelevant to 99% of the city. We’re too busy telling ourselves we’re thriving to really think about changing. That’s the danger of the ‘we are awesome’ marketing strategy – you start to believe it before the audience does. And of course the other problem is that everyone else is doing it too.

I’m deadly serious. We have 2 strategies of marketing theatre in Cape Town, ‘we are awesome’ and ‘it’s theatre’. The Fugard gets a little better by knowing who they’re selling, ‘it’s Athol Fugard’ or ‘it’s Sir Anthony Sher’.

Maybe I’m not angry that we’re so infected by marketing speak. Maybe I’m angry because we’re so infected and yet still are doing it badly. Can’t we bring the interesting, honest, creative spirit off the stage for a minute and ask it to talk to the press? Or write a press release? All the craft that’s put on stage is wasted if it is not met by an equal craft in the selling of the show. How can we take risks on stage when we aren’t willing to take risks off it? With our reputations, with the status quo, with our money.

Selling doesn’t have to be compromise. Selling isn’t compromise. And that we think the only way to get audiences into our work is to create indistinguishable brands and mutual appreciation societies shows that we are not the challenging, creative, daring industry we like to pretend we are.

 

Art is the word

Irony used to be smart. Now it's just hairy.

Art. Possibly the most contentious piece of polysemy in my orbit, it’s a staple of late night beery rants. A recent one I listened to was the decisive and slightly slurred differentiation between Art and Craft. So I got talking in defense of crafts as arts and later I got round to actually thinking about it. Why Art is so provocative in its multiple meanings is twofold; the first thing is that ‘art’ can be either the personal journey of improvement through practice and innovation or it can be the cause of visceral emotional or intellectual upheaval in the audience. The debate around this second meaning is fraught with PhDs and many, many books and drunken pontification. My view is very much informed by John Carey’s What Good are the Arts, which I read a year ago. In it Carey does an amazing job of tearing down various definitions of Art. Unfortunately his own attempts are not much more useful.

You see, it all hinges on the article, the definite one. ‘The Art’ is different to simply ‘Art’. For instance I could discuss the art of origami, and only an ironically mustachioed dude would try to correct me and call it a craft. Unfortunately there are many in Cape Town, fortunately I don’t hang out at the Power and the Glory so I’m mostly safe. The contrast between referring to ‘the art of painting’ and ‘a painting as art’ is certainty versus uncertainty, objectivity versus subjectivity. Why is that? Why are they different? Returning to the Mustache, such a dude wants to collapse the multiple meanings of the word Art into a single meaning of religious potency, never mind the world demands ambivalence at least from any signifier. Maybe that’s OK though, since he’s trying to boil it down to its most contentious one: Art as the indefinable label.  Such people thrive on irony.

For myself I go the other way. I’d rip the nebulous definition down off its pedestal. I’d consign it to nothingness because ultimately it is so subjective, so indefinable, that it almost ceases to be useful. It is the x in algebra that only ever equals another x. A term that’s fine to have around as long as no one looks directly at it. Earlier I said it meant the cause of visceral emotional or intellectual upheaval in the audience. The closest Oxford gets to agreeing with me is: ‘5. Excellence or aesthetic merit of conception or execution as exemplified by such works’, which can pretty much be sliced any way you like it. It gives a definition that depends on a value system. But on whose?

As Carey shows us, it’s easy to tear down other people’s definitions or the value systems that underpin them, but it’s nearly impossible to replace them. Yet Art does exist. In artifacts and experiences, both deliberate and accidental. Yesterday I walked across the city bowl, the air was clear and cold and I was hung over. The combination of my inner psychological and physiological state with the sharp focused urban landscape was an indelible experience. Was it Art? Can being alive be Art? Perhaps Art simply hangs at the ends of the moments when we ask ourselves, “What was that?”