Cape Town theatre, my truth.

I’m not very good at euphemisms, I have been told often that I have no tact so here is my truth, as an artist, about Cape Town theatres.
I have been performing independently and professionally for 2 years now. Yes, it is a very short time, yes, I am very new in the world of solo artist and navigating the field. Yes, I am still a baby in this world. But I see, and hear and experience the world as the adult that I am, as the woman that I am, as the black South African that I am.
What I see worries me grately.
Cape Town is sitting in a position of comfort, as it sits and the creases in its belly and behind its knees become hard caked cracks. As the muscles on its neck become lax and over stretched, slowly allowing its heavy head to come to rest with chin on chest. We,  who live here, find it harder to navigate the gaps and lines and folds. The paths run deep and are hard to change.
I recently had the pleasure of working with The Masque Theatre’s new manager, Nicola Date. She is a young, enthusiastic individual who believes in the future of our country, the energy of the youth and in theatre, in all of its forms.
In 2015 I had a meeting with the Masque management in which I sat feeling poor, black, insignificant and unimportant. I was told that performing at The Masque Theatre would cost me R 3 000 per day. I planned to perform for 5 days. This would mean that I would spend R 15 000 before I had even done anything.

I sat there, feeling as if my South African stereotype was throttling me. Black, poor, struggling-artist, unable to perform for lack of funding, unable to proudly own a space because the space was designed for richer, whiter, more established owners.

Now don’t get me wrong. The Masque theatre is not one of few theatres who work like this. It is one of all theatres in Cape Town, CBD, that work like this. The Masque Theatre is also one of the cheaper theatres. Some go up to R 6 000 and more per day. I stopped asking at this point. Who the **** has that kind of money?
My question is not rhetorical.

In Cape Town, white artist have that kind of money. White artists with wealthy families or people who get funded, white owned companies with black artists in them. Don’t even get me started on how the funding works!

In January 2016 I met Nicola. She tailor-made a performance financial plan for me that worked for me and for The Masque theatre. She worked tirelessly and created awareness and shouted her name and mine in all corners of Cape Town.

We became a team, a powerhouse demanding attention. She called and messaged me whenever there was good or bad news. We created a completely new theatre-going community in Muizenberg.
If Cape Town is described as sleepy, Muizenberg is in a coma. It took 2 quiet shows, a television interview, 2 radio interviews, newspaper advertising, Facebook and theatre reviews to wake  Cape Town up and get Muizenberg alive.

My production ‘Exhibit S, Ode to Saartjie Baartman by a Black South African Woman’ is a one woman show exhibiting the imagined life of Saartjie Baartman and mirroring it with my own life and the lives of black South African women and women in general. The piece looks at history, freedom and patriarchy. It is not an enjoyable night out at the theatre, but it is an interesting experience and brings people together in unexpected ways.

In my experience, and here I speak generally, white people in Cape Town like a fun show, a feel good show that allows you to sip your drink, laugh and clap. Every now and again you will find young white Capetonians pushing the stereotype boundaries and watching something a little more uncomfortable, a little more accusational. Coloured people are still learning to navigate theatre spaces, while black people think it’s just for the rich white people.
Performing in Muizenberg brought together the real community of Cape Town, brought together my first real South African audience. It was my most racially , sexually and financially diverse audience yet.
Both The Masque Theatre and I had expected very little from the season and we were pleasantly surprised. Muizenberg blew my socks off, Cape Town held my heart.
The truth is rude and ugly, but it must be said. Theatre is not changing because South Africa is not encouraging it to. South Africans are not willing to open their minds.
There are township theatres, Theatre in the Backyard. There are people performing in their lounges, performing in the streets, on the beach. The theatre is a wonderful space but also an uninviting space for those of us who do not have the money to feel like we own the space.
Follow us, support us. Art is art. A good artist can perform anywhere. Follow us into the spaces that we can own.
Until South Africa begins to do thing for its people, we will have to do things for ourselves. Follow us. Follow art. Money should not be the reason for Cape Towns stagnant theatre culture.


2 thoughts on “Cape Town theatre, my truth.

  1. To a new theatre maker from an older one.

    I am glad you had a positive experience at the Masque. Finding affordable spaces for performing is tricky. Traditionally amateur dramatic society spaces like the Masque and Milnerton Playhouse can be wonderful and much cheaper than professional spaces. Also try Theatre Arts Admin Collective, The Alexander Bar, and Rosebank Theatre who all support new work from young artists. Mainstream theatres are expensive to run and that’s not a race issue. You cannot fault the Baxter or Artscape for their diverse programming in recent years, and they both run development and mentorship programmes that support emerging theatre makers of all races.

    Theatres cost a lot of money to keep open. The lighting, stage, and sound equipment needs to be maintained. The rates, taxes, and utility bills need to be paid. FOH, technical, box-office, cleaning, and security staff are a requirement that smaller less formal venues can work around, but bigger venues must budget for. Someone needs to clean the toilets and buy the toilet paper. If you were quoted R3000 a night that, doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Have you costed hiring a venue for a 21st or wedding; a hall for a meeting or symposium; a gallery for an exhibition? Renting space for events in this city is expensive, and no venue has an obligation to mount your event without charging a market-related fee. The artistic directors or creative managers of theatres are tasked with spending their production budget by programming the works they produce in line with their organisations’ vision and with responsibility to their boards. They must also cover the costs of the venues when they hire them to outside producers.

    Access to performance space is challenging all over the world. This is not just a Cape Town thing. Ask a young actor, two years out of drama school in New York, London, Sydney… Nairobi, Harare, Mumbai… if they can afford to hire a venue in one of the mainstream theatres in their city and they tell you how unlikely it is. Like in Cape Town, they need to hustle and start small. They need to get their work known at festivals and in fringe venues, get reviews and experience, and develop a professional reputation so as to raise the necessary capital through through producers, investors, or funders to mount productions at more formal or better know venues.

    I objected to your racial profiling of Cape Town theatre makers and audiences. A phrase like the one you use below is both divisive and untrue.

    “white people in Cape Town like a fun show, a feel good show that allows you to sip your drink, laugh and clap.”

    If I had been your lecturer at CADA I would have encouraged you to do some research before you made gross and racially biased generalisations. Actually watching more contemporary Cape Town theatre might help, but even Googling it ought to give you some insight.

    Please refer to the body of work directed and produced by recognised white theatre makers over 40: Mark Fleishman, Geoffrey Hyland, Jennie Reznek, Lara Foot, Lara Bye, Christopher Weare, Fred Abrahamse, Peter Hayes, Martinus Basson, Jaco Bouwer, Claire Stopford. And the fierce and brilliant younger guard: Penelope Youngleson, Christiaan Olwagen, Tara Notcutt, Joanna Evans, Jon Keevy…This is to take nothing away from commensurate black theatre artists like Mandla Mbothwe, Thoko Ntshinga, Mdu Kweyama, Thando Doni, Warona Seane, Chuma Sopotela, Mandisi Sindu, Thami Mbongo, Faniswa Yisa, Lesoko Seabe, Ntombi Makhutshi, Bulelani Mabutyana, Lwanda Sindaphi, Koleka Putuma… Ephraim Gordon, The truth is that the theatre landscape is troubled by inequalities and issues of race and access to funding and space. But it is also diverse, alive, rigorous, and challenging. Not one of this small sampling of the large number of professional Cape Town theatre makers (black, white, or coloured) creates frivolous and purely entertaining theatre. That’s before I even start on the amazing people at work in related media like performance art, puppetry, and dance. And the extraordinary people in theatre education, arts administration, and advocacy organisations like PANSA, UNIMA, ASSITEJ SA, SAGA, Arterial Network, African Arts Institute, GIPCA.

    None of us is “sitting in a position of comfort” growing fat bellies and cracked heels. We are all working fucking hard to create opportunities, not just for ourselves, but also for young theatre makers and performers. Before you criticise those who have already walked the path you are starting out on, it might be helpful to open yourself to what you could learn from them. There is more generosity and sharing in the wider theatre community and across all sorts of boundaries of race, gender, and age than you might imagine. Take a breath and look for solutions, not blame.


    1. Thank you so much for this meaty reply. I think my words were somewhat misunderstood. I am not taking anything away from theatre creators and artists. I am trying to shout as loud as I can, for them, for us, for me. This issue here is with the support for peoole in the arts, the performers and creators as well as the spaces. I am not a fool. I understand how the system works. Everyone needs to make money to live. This is where my issue is. I am making a stab at the structure, the government. It is the government that allows and encourages the system to carry on functioning the way that it does. If there was more money and support, readily available, from the government, we at the end of the long line, would not be fighting so hard to be something in this world. I know that it is hard to be an artist everywhere in the world, but does that mean that here too, it should be hard. South Africa is young, young enough to start implementing change that benefits all of it’s people. This is what I am asking for.

      I made my comment racial because as it stands right now, the artists that are suffering are the young black artists at the end of the line who did not go to UCT or UWC and do not have a head full of knowledge that will send them in the right directions for funding and such things.
      The information is hard to find and once found, hard to understand. Here in Cape Town, artists, in my expereince, young white artists, are not free and ready to share their knowledge.
      I can not, from my experience, ignore the race that is so obviously knitted into the situation.

      But again, it is not the artist that I take issue with. It is the structure.

      Thank you for your words and time.


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