South African artists struggle with Covid theatre closures

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South Africa’s once-thriving cultural scene is under threat because coronavirus restrictions have made it difficult to stage public events but some artists have found new ways to show off their creativity, as Mohammed Allie reports from Cape Town.

News of the closure of Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre last month was greeted like the demise of an old friend.

“Another icon has fallen to Covid 19,” John Kani, one of the country’s most famous actors, tweeted.

In just a decade of existence the theatre, named after world-renowned playwright Athol Fugard, had become a much-loved venue that put on work by local writers as well as internationally known plays and musicals.

For the artist community, its closure came to symbolise the struggle that it is now facing more than a year after coronavirus measures came into place.

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Under the current restrictions theatres can use just half of their seating capacity up to a maximum of 100 people at indoor venues and 250 people outdoors, subject to strict Covid-19 safety measures.

For most theatres the limits on audience numbers has made the staging of productions economically unviable.

This has forced a number of artists into desperate circumstances.

‘Forced to live in a car’

“It’s very bad. The arts have always been in a difficult space in South Africa but the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown have made things even worse,” Blythe Stuart-Linger, an arts administrator and producer, tells the BBC.

“Just as an example, when I put a post on Facebook that I was looking for someone to help clean my house, I got at least 50 replies from artists that I’ve seen on stage and people that I’ve worked with.

“I also know of artists who have been in the profession for many years who have had to sell their houses and live in their cars. We are losing a lot of talented performers.”

One of those seriously affected by the pandemic is Andile Makubalo, a member of the popular Cape Town-based marimba band, Abavuki.

“We had to cancel 35 gigs since last year including four tours to Europe, Asia and Africa,” says Makubalo.

“I’ve been unable to generate any income over the past year and I’ve only survived through my family providing for me.”

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The trouble in the creative sector has been magnified by the failure of a government initiative to support struggling artists.

President Cyril Ramaphosa committed $20.6m (£15m) as part of his stimulus plan announced last October to help the arts sector.

Some have received funding but there are many artists who are still awaiting payment.

‘Where’s the money?’

The delay resulted in a sit-in at the offices of the National Arts Council (NAC) in Johannesburg led by internationally acclaimed opera and jazz singer Sibongile Mngoma.

They were joined by angry artists who staged demonstrations in other provinces.

At Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre, protesters held placards bearing messages like “Respect Artists”, “I need to pay my rent” and “Where’s the money?”.

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Mngoma herself has been badly affected by the lockdown.

“I’ve moved a few times because I’ve had to downscale and downscale and downscale some more so it’s been quite hectic.”

With the arts sector having played an important role in the struggle against apartheid, she believes the government needs to take the industry much more seriously.

“The arts are the soul of any nation and in this country particularly, the arts have driven our democracy and won us a lot of freedoms.

“To suddenly think the arts are irrelevant now that we have a new dispensation is very short-sighted.”

The artists have accused the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture of having a lack of vision, strategy and little understanding of their sector.

The minister responsible for the stimulus fund, Nathi Mthethwa, admitted to the press that the money had been mismanaged by the NAC and apologised.

‘Our eclectic programme continues’

With state funding and some creative thinking, some venues, like Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre and Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, have remained open.

“At the moment we are staging some shows to members of the public but it is financially prohibitive,” Fahiem Stellenboom, marketing manager of the Baxter, says.

The Baxter has had to be innovative in finding ways to generate income.

“We have encouraged production houses, advertising agencies and people involved with filming to use the venue. Over the past few months we’ve had a few photo shoots and film productions done in our main theatre.”

In contrast to the Baxter’s approach, James Ngcobo, artistic director at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, has been determined to continue staging productions within the lockdown regulations.

“I took a decision that whenever there are windows for us to do so, we will stage our productions,” he says.

“What is so beautiful is that every night we have been getting a wide cross-section of people coming to the theatre. We are continuing with the eclectic programme that the Market is known for.”

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Ngcobo believes state-sponsored theatres like the Market have a duty to assist their independent colleagues who are battling to stay afloat.

“As managers of these spaces we need to think about how do we help to give the industry a little oxygen at this bad time.”

‘The pandemic has opened avenues’

But there is also a sense from some that the arts, and artists in general, are traditionally resilient in South Africa.

“We are always able to reinvent ourselves,” Stuart-Linger says.

In that vein, Buhle Ngaba, a multi-award winning actress, writer and cultural activist, has found new ways to develop and present her work.

“South African artists are resourceful,” she says, “so this has been a great opportunity for us to really recognise and see one another, [to see] what we can do by pooling our resources even if that is just our creativity. Our creativity is everything.”

Ngaba says the closing of traditional venues prompted her to quickly find new platforms on which to perform.

Last year, she recorded a show for a virtual festival on the stage of the Artscape.

“That would not have happened pre-pandemic – a stage of that scale for a young black African woman to tell a story that she’s written herself wouldn’t have been possible, but I took it. That’s the difference and I was ready for it.

“The pandemic has opened avenues through our own creativity and our means.

“I know of actors who are now writing, directing, organising on the ground. We’re no longer just doing just one thing, we’re doing everything because we don’t have a choice. At the end of the day we also need to eat.”

While an increasing number of artists are now using the online platform to deliver their work, the amount of money it can generate is not on the same scale.

Mngoma also says nothing can replace the authenticity of being on stage to perform in front of an audience where they can be close to those watching and feedback is immediate.

“It’s easier for someone like me to actually go on stage and perform than it is to put on an online performance. Unlike other forms of music, with opera you really do need to be in the theatre.”

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