Trade Fair: Enough with the complaining

‘No more complaining. Let’s do it.’ Sibusiso Khwinana and co are making shit happen.

When the question of where arts and culture should be aligned within the ANC’s policies arose at the fateful Polokwane conference that saw Zuma elected party president in 2009, only two voices in support of the arts were to be heard.

It was writer and director Sello Maseko and actor Meshak Mavuso, as Youth League chair of zone of Soshanguve and Alexandra branch chair respectively, who were alone in arguing that arts should not fall within the sphere of recreation, but be recognised for its essential role as an industry in itself. And not just for its ability to create jobs and spur economic growth, but for its ability to speak truth to power and uphold the tenets of free speech and democracy.

Representing the State Theatre yesterday on the second day of the Arts Incubator’s Trade Fair at the Market Theatre, Maseko told the story as part of his urging trainees from South Africa’s six publicly funded arts institutions to stop complaining and start empowering themselves.

“We need to influence from the inside,” said Maseko, who is also advisor to the provincial Sports, Arts, Culture  and Recreation MEC’s office.

He listed a number of municipal-owned theatres in Gauteng which were either derelict or stripped of their equipment and now only rented out to church groups. However, when municipalities developed their Integrated Development Plans, he said artists were nowhere to be seen.

“Artists are not there contributing their voice to what should be in the budget. They are not involving themselves in real politics.”

He said the concerns about young performers and theatremakers not getting access to the stages had been addressed at the State Theatre with the formation of the State Theatre Youth Desk two years ago, which focuses on education, youth and children’s theatre at the institution. As a result, he claims 60% of shows on the main stage are now directed by young people and feature young people.

Part of this was due to the development of festivals such as the Youth Expressions Festival in June, during which 40 productions are chosen and provided with a R70 000 budget each to stage their show. As a means of making the institution more accessible to independent theatre groups, the State Theatre also has the Indispotlight programme. Following callouts, independent artists and theatre companies can benefit from the theatre’s resources to stage their work on a 50/50 agreement in which they receive half the budget of a main production, and take half the ticket earnings.

While activists such as Maseko are helping to open mainstream doors for young theatremakers, it’s the innovation by young theatremakers such as 25-year-old Sibusiso Khwinana and other member of the Independent Theatremakers Movement which are most impressive.

Khwinana, who has participated in State Theatre workshops and is attending the Trade Fair, has helped set up the Station Theatre in Pretoria and TX Theatre in Tembisa.

As part of Blank Page Entertainment, and together with Black Ink productions, Peu productions and TX Theatre productions, the group of about 20 artists and theatremakers have taken matters into their own hands.

Khwinana said they were rehearsing in the old fire station in Pretoria and were thinking of where they could stage their show.

“We sat down and said ‘let’s just use this space to stage our show’.”

He said they had a policy of taking 10% of any funding or earnings and putting it toward investing in equipment of their own, so they had lighting which they set up on tipper stands at the fire station. The Station Theatre was born and has gone on to host the four-day 012 Theatre Festival last year, as well as the 012 Monologue and Duologue Festival. The second 012 Theatre Festival is due to run from 25 to 28 October.

The TX Theatre in Thembisa is a venue they also activated, taking it out of the mordant hands of the municipality which runs the arts centre there.

The group book chunks of time at a R50 per day rent to the municipality, and manage the venue. Independent theatremakers wanting to stage work thus work through the Independent Theatremakers Movement which provides marketing and equipment and in return takes 30% of ticket sales.

Khwinana said shows at TX Theatre are very well attended. “We have never had to offer comps there.”

To raise funds to take his show Best Friends/Worst Enemies to the National Arts Festival, he staged a four-day run in June and the company made R14 000, which was R4 000 more than their target.

Then in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) they received an Ovation Encore award and came back with a profit, which is almost unheard of for a debut show on the fringe.

It has since been invited to play at University of Pretoria.

Opening up new spaces and investing in their own equipment and hardware is only part of their mission. They are also investing in the future, building new audiences to ensure the sustainability of theatre. They do this by organising taxi specials for people facing prohibitive transport costs, to go see shows at mainstream theatres. Their goal, he says, is to target three shows a month.

They identify a good theatre production and then put out a call out on a community Facebook page, such as Thembisa’s. Once they have at least 10 people signed up, they take out a block booking and use the ticket discount, and the discount from booking a full taxi, to subsidise the overall ticket and transport costs. This brings individual costs down from about R160 to about R100.

The group booking also enhances the experience for the theatregoers who would otherwise have to endure a long and lonely and possibly unsafe journey to and from the theatre.

Khwinana says they take no money from this venture, doing it solely to reach new audiences and get people to experience, and fall in love with, theatre.

Now, he says, they get calls from people asking when they are going to organise the next theatre trip.

People need to see the power they have withing themselves, says Khwinana.

“No more complaining. Let’s do it.”

Khwinana was interviewed at the Arts Incubator’s Trade Fair at the Market Theatre, which has sponsored The Critter’s attendance.


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