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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

ART MATTERS (article first published : 2008-01-23)

January inevitably tends to be a time to take stock - a new year with its infinite possibilities and predictable challenges. So what does the new year look like for the arts industry of this fair province? A mixed bag of some great opportunities and some rather scary realities.

The frothy frenetic festive season is over – how did we fair? We were reminded that fabulous, wholesome family entertainment can still deliver. In this case Kickstart and the Playhouse Company’s Aladdin came out triumphant – the production was delightful and the audiences responded enthusiastically to it. Gcina Mhlope’s African Mother Christmas and Themi Venturas’s De Compleat Hstry of Dbn reminded us of the need to tell our own stories, to challenge the cultural and gender stereotypes and rejoice in our own colourful and unique heritage.

The staging of the Broadway hit Guys and Dolls at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre led to a vociferous email and media debate which allowed for some interesting dialogue and circumspection. There was useful discussion about the role of artistic criticism in the creative process and debate about theatrical choices. This level of engaging – if not taken personally – can be healthy and helpful in making sure that we don’t become complacent and careless. Grappling with issues around responsibilities and choices is surely a good thing.

The new year has a surprising almost worrying calm to it. Not too much on the theatrical horizon - the phones are quiet, the diaries empty. Theatre heavy-weights sigh nervously as plans can’t be put into place without funders confirming and partners agreeing. Like Mother Hubbard, the communal arts pantry is mostly bare. We become the proverbial stuck record, our new year’s wishes haven’t changed from year to year – our pleas and prayers remain the same. Unless the industry only churns out commercially-viable tribute bands, tried-and-tested musicals and established plays, new innovative, relevant, challenging contemporary theatre and dance can’t exist without financial patronage.

Last year saw valiant attempts to address industry needs and begin to grapple with a cultural vision for us all – “bosberaads” held respectively by the Playhouse Company, Ethekwini Municipality, Durban Arts and Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism (Ethekwini cluster) among others, all separately started to explore a way forward. Noble attempts certainly to be applauded – but nowhere near enough.

The regional role players and funders need to join hands without ego, political agendas and with humility – share resources and employ national (or if necessary international) arts and business facilitators to guide us. The ideal would be if the various arts-makers and arts bodies in the city can jointly work towards a single vision, responsibly, efficiently and decisively spending the allocated arts money to worthwhile arts endeavours.

It would be so good to move away from the shot-gun, appease-all, visionless, politically expedient, random distribution of arts funding which seems to be the current norm. This approach in recent years has led to the demise of artistic centres of excellence. The nurturing of innovative, professional projects and companies is vital for the well-being of our industry. Besides, without them, how do emerging arts-makers learn their craft?

There is much flurry and anticipation about the ISPA Conference (International Society for the Performing Arts) to be held at the Playhouse in June 2008. Hats off to Linda Bukhosini and her team for securing this prestigious international arts conference at which we (hopefully) can learn, share and engage with the industry’s world leaders. Wouldn’t it be great though it the city could speak with one united vision and voice. Something to work towards in the months ahead…

One important lesson for us theatre practitioners to learn is, in the context of “bosberaads” and conferences, we need to stop complaining about parochial issues and move beyond the inconsequential anecdotes. We have to start looking at the bigger picture and not get stuck in the smaller, less significant, detail.

While we ponder on these profound opportunities – the Durban theatre community has started the year as it means to continue – by jumping in the theatrical deep end with one of the industry’s most valuable festivals: the Musho! theatre festival of one and two person theatre staged by the Performing Arts Network of SA currently on until January 13 at the Kwasuka and Catalina Theatres in which some of the finest theatre-makers from South Africa and abroad stage new and innovative, creative and affordable theatre for one and two actors.

Festivals like Musho! play an absolutely vital role in the continued well-being of our industry. They provide valuable opportunities to explore, engage and be daring. With the marketplace being increasingly so commercially-driven, there are precious few opportunities to create theatre that is not motivated by the need for immediate financial success. Festivals should provide the right to fail – how else do the Fugards, Kentes, Ngemas and Slabolepszys of tomorrow hone their craft and explore new ideas? The journey from rehearsal-room to Broadway does not happen overnight. Shows need “off-Broadway” seasons to allow for re-writing and tweaking. Festivals provide that valuable opportunity.

Incidentally the ever-supportive Eric Apelgren in his public address when opening the Musho! festival last weekend, agreed that the arts in this town needed more funding and support. Along the lines of: what is the point of having big schmoozey stadiums if we can’t afford the entertainment to fill them? Bravo Mr Apelgren. Hear, Hear! Now please, please, please help us to make this happen!

Incidentally, if you need more info as to what’s on offer – drop me a line on illa@pubmat.co.za or visit www.pubmat.co.za

Illa Thompson, Publicity Matters - arts and culture publicist, Secretary: Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA)




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