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Pieter-Dirk Uys

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To be or Not to be: The theatrical writing (or rioting) is on the wall

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, Daily Maverick, 1 March 2019

 

In the 2019 Budget speech, the creation of a South African National Theatre was mooted. But is it a step in the right direction? Many citizens are probably asking: Why all this now? There are many urgent priorities. A new National Theatre will cost billions. Are we going from State Capture to culture capture? Yet another prestige project that doesn't address the real issues?

 

A National Theatre usually evolves from a cluster of provincial theatres where the training is assured among young producers, directors, writers and performers. A National Theatre is the cherry on the cake so to speak, but it needs the right ingredients.

 

We have a number of theatres in our provinces, some arising from the old Arts Councils. But most of them stopped producing any product and some are in a state of dereliction and decline. Provincial theatres, which should feed the arts festivals in their domain, have been diminishing, not only because of a lack of funding, but the audience has been diverted by a cacophony of alternatives — cable television, Netflix, Showmax (to name the few I know).

 

The potential talent in our provinces is growing, not diminishing. Television shows, where talent is rewarded with near-instant stardom and wealth are fuelling much ambition. The reality is, of course, a far cry from this. I can only speak from my experience — drama school gave me the alphabet of theatre, but it was only when I was an usher in a professional venue in my home province or an assistant stage manager and a wardrobe assistant that I really learned the tricks of the trade, on a daily basis watching the best (and sometimes not) deliver their art.

 

How ironic it was that the most valuable lessons were what not to do, which I learned from those who reverted to temperament, laziness, corruption and ego — all dangerous speed wobbles for any professional.

 

Leading by example is the motto of professional theatre. It is in the provinces and at the festivals that the young learn and are inspired to join the theatre either as performers or future audiences.

 

So before putting all our theatrical eggs into one national basket in the capital, let us start with supporting provincial theatres with companies of professional actors. We need regional groups of younger performers, learning their trade and also touring the schools of their province. Theatre need not be everyone’s focus, but a group of nine performers who can entertain a hall full of learners staging the set workbooks and making them come alive through performance, instead of recitation, could reignite enthusiasm for learning and the written word.

 

I have often thought that members of Cabinet should spend a week observing a play in rehearsal as a guest stage manager if they really wish to see what service delivery means. Everything must be 100%: the written script, stage direction, the sound, the lights, the set, the backstage facilities, and the theatre itself must be ready to receive the public. If one link in the chain is not properly delivered, the whole production is off-key.

 

It takes time. It needs patience. A National Theatre cannot stand alone. It cannot nurse or coddle young talent or even revitalise old stagnant careers.

 

People keep saying: the theatre is dying in South Africa. I say: No, we in the theatre are dying because we don’t rise to the challenge. Theatre has been around for 2,000 years. It is used in boardrooms, in school classrooms, in parliaments, in arenas and in homes. We are all actors in this great production called Democracy. Theatre can also be the delivery of hope, of courage, of optimism and belief in what is good in a country where all have freedom of expression. And theatre has also given us the ultimate f-word with which to fight fear: Fun.

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