It’s alive!

We Didn't Come to Hell for the Croissants proved you can still get audiences to flock to a show.

Jemma Kahn and Roberto Pombo in We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, which proved you can still get audiences to flock to a show.

For the second year in a row, a minor media storm erupted in the midst of Cape Town Fringe.

Last year, the inaugural one, there was Rebecca Jackman’s front page article in the Cape Times claiming “Artists cry foul over CT fringe” which was almost as shoddy an example of journalism as Tat Wolfen’s “Quo Vadis, theatre?” (question mark in the headline and all) in the Saturday Star’s ‘arts section’ during this year’s event.

Jackman’s article, despite being rather thin in content and short on balance and context, did accurately tap into a rift between some members of the Cape Town-based theatre community and the National Arts Festival which had been playing out on Facebook since the 2014 Grahamstown fest.

The stone-throwing began before the first Cape Town Fringe even started, after By my Grave, a play by disgraced Wits lecturer Tsepo wa Mamatu, who had been found guilty of sexual harassment and dismissed from his position, was withdrawn from the fringe programme. Questions as to why his play had been included in the first place. While there were other concerns, they seemed to involve more axe grinding than a desire to enter into a constructive dialogue over how best to create a new platform for the performing arts.

Last year’s complaints over lack of consultation with Cape Town theatre venues and managers, opacity of the fringe selection process, and lack of township venues did not arise this year, possibly due to a combination of NAF’s critics realising the constraints NAF has to work within, NAF taking what was valid in the criticism on board, and natural atrophy of a debate that involved a very small circle to begin with.
However, I may be speaking too soon, the knives could come out.

This year, rather than bickering internally, theatre makers countrywide turned on Tat Wolfen following his woefully under-researched, spurious article published in the Saturday Star on 26 September. The irony, of course, was that not only did his spread make no mention of the 62 shows on the Cape Town Fringe underway at the time of publication, nor the host of other theatre festivals which take place around the country, it also appeared in a newspaper which is woefully short on local arts coverage. Rather, than covering local artists, the small arts section in all Independent Media’s newspapers, as in most other papers, is filled with Hollywood gumpf. It is the print media, rather than theatre, which is in its death throes.

Thus united in opposition to the straw wolf at the door, the Cape Town Fringe was able to carry on with the business of creating a platform for theatremakers, which they did admirably and with a team of techies who I believe are among, if not the, best in the world. Fortunate enough to have been privy to late night conversations which can never be repeated, I know the NAF techies slew dragons of red tape to ensure the shows could go on.

Audience numbers were of concern though. The official ticket tally isn’t out yet – it should be available in a day or two – but NAF CEO Tony Lankester reckons the number of people who attended this year’s fringe was about the same as last year’s, which was 18 569.  Except, there were 62 productions this year rather than last year’s 92, which means there were more people per show, which is good for the performers.

More people need to come to the party though. I sat through too many shows where there were only between 10 to 20 people in the audience, sometimes a third or more of them involved in other shows or working in the performing arts, and the music items I watched were particularly badly attended. At least one show – Ella’s Horses – cancelled performances because too few, or no tickets were sold.

However, all four shows of We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants were sold out. Jemma Kahn and Roberto Pombo’s perfect mix of cheap thrills balanced by dark humour and the word of mouth a titillatingly good show spreads ensured there was not a ticket to spare.

I’m wary of laying empty houses at NAF’s feet, it is not entirely their fault that Capetonians are so housebound when the weather is bad, and beachbound when it is good. Or that they’re so tuned out they didn’t know what was going on in City Hall. A couple of Capetonians I know who are not involved in theatre said they had not known Cape Town Fringe was happening. To them I could only say: “If you didn’t see the posters on all major roads, the banners around the city, hear the constant radio adverts (on Cape Talk at least) or read the articles in the newspapers (okay that I can understand – why read newspapers when they’re full of such kak journalism?) then you really should pull your head out of your arse.”

I do worry about the paucity of theatre-goers. Because I love theatre and want performers to make money so they can afford to buy me drinks, and because the more theatre-goers we have, the more readers Critter might have, so that perhaps one day I can pay my electricity bill and then buy performers drinks.

First prize would be to significantly improve our education system and place humanities on an equal footing with maths and science so that our scholars and students realise the value of art and arts appreciation as a means of broadening their perspective, developing greater empathy toward fellow humans, exercising their imagination and deepening their understanding of what being human is all about.

That’s a long-term project in the best of worlds. Given the state of our State and education system, it will probably not happen in my lifetime.

In the meantime NAF, and organisors of other festivals, do spend money on getting scholars to see shows in the hope the bug may bite them, organisations such as Assitej work hard and exposing children to the joy of theatre and of course the Grahamstown Foundation hosts the South African Schools’ Festival. I’m sure there are many more organisations and individuals involved in audience development, please name them in the comments section.

I know theatre companies are struggling to make ends meet but it would be in their best interests to be more proactive about their own publicity. Organisations like NAF can provide the platform and publicise the event as a whole, but can’t be responsible for getting audiences to individual shows. Instead of cancelling shows, for instance, Ella’s Horses could have done some impromptu performances at the Cape Town Fringe Club set up at the City Hall, or outside the City Hall, or even at the V&A Waterfront which was a stone’s throw from their venue. Given the City of Cape Town’s draconian by-laws, it would not have been hard for them to get themselves arrested, which would have been worth tens of thousands of rands in publicity and had people flocking to support them.

I don’t see a lot of chance-taking, not much getting out of the theatre, not enough creative thinking, no rule breaking. Perhaps South Africans have become conservative. Or perhaps conservative is our default status and only a righteous fight against an oppressive system is able to goad us into the street. Perhaps we like the safety the theatre itself offers – the audience there, performers here, lights, backstage, established conventions. Only the Yellow Glove Collective got fringey and performed outside the theatre. They chose the Alexander bar (not the Alexander Upstairs theatre) for their work Barred, which was, from what I’ve heard, pretty good.

There certainly seemed to be a lot of conventionality on the programme, given that it’s a Fringe. Or perhaps the Amsterdam Fringe is just so out-there that I’ve been skopped left field and am still making my way back. But it’s Fringe dammit, a platform for experimentation, a place to try and fail, or succeed. And although there were a lot of good shows on the programme, and a spattering of very good to great, the overall impression was rather tame.  Again, I’m hesitant to blame NAF for this. Not because they advertise on this site (okay maybe a little bit) but because they can only work with the applications they receive and without seeing what those applications were, I can’t make that call.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, our conservatism may well be based on a need to literally pay the rent, hence leaning on the tried and tested. Only thing is, the tried and tested has been tried and the test results are not always all that great, unless you have a great show, of which there weren’t really enough. And sometimes not even great shows, such as Detritus for One, pay the rent. Not initially at any rate. And I suppose that’s what needs to be kept in mind while reading that rent arrears notice, the arts is a long game. There are very few people (I can think of one, maybe two) who are able to create a show that can make money on its first outing, and even those two, (maybe three) people in South African independent theatre who can and have done so, have paid their dues, have in the past returned home from the Grahamstown fringe with less money than they had when they hit the road. At the risk of sounding like the brand gurus I despise, building a reputation in performing arts takes years and only then will people who aren’t regular theatre-goers buy a ticket to see your show. So why not break a few rules in order to find out which ones are breakable?

Moaning about audience numbers is of no help and anyway, as We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants proved, there is an audience for innovative work, especially if expands on a winner (Epicene Butcher) with the addition of a pair of breasts with tassles. Sometimes you don’t even need breasts, James Cairns’s El Blanco coined it on the fringe in Grahamstown this year, despite it being a new show, and sometimes, as in Detritus for One, you’re probably never going to get a full house, no matter how deserving your work.

Certainly a number of shows lost money at the Cape Town Fringe. Some because they were bloody awful (which is fine, mistakes can be made) and some due to being newcomers who people didn’t want to take a 70-buck chance on. That’s the nature of things. What is also certain is that there were a heartening number of new names on the programme and a number of young performers and directors got the chance to get their work known through a new platform which did not exist 18 months ago and will hopefully go on to create the next El Blanco or Croissants.

I know new connections were made, that representatives from Amsterdam and Edinburgh were scouting, that we were able to see the imported beatboxing brilliance of Jamie MacDowell and Tom Thum, that the Fringe Club dance floor rocked until four on at least one morning, that hangovers were created and that it will take me a week to recover from the last eleven days of celebrating independent theatre that proved Wolfen wrong.

Also, barring any Act of God or the DA losing Cape Town, it’s going to happen again next year.

Steve Kretzmann

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