MIKE VAN GRAAN
Covid-19 and its Existential Challenge to Theatre
The impending death of theatre has been prematurely – and in hindsight, wrongly – pronounced at many times in its long history. The novelty of radio was going to bury it. Then television and its myriad stay-at-home-channels were going to shut down theatres. Social media, including platforms such as YouTube and direct forms of entertainment on one’s mobile device, were going to render theatre redundant. Then came movie-streaming platforms that would make it completely unnecessary for people to leave their homes in search of entertainment or intellectual stimulation.
While all of these no doubt had some temporary and real impact on theatre attendance, plays continued to be written and produced, audiences continued to pay for tickets for live theatre, and theatre schools continued to produce theatre-making graduates.
Social media, radio, television, movie-streaming and other forms of entertainment were all to present existential threats to theatre by offering something different, something new, that would draw audience attention away from theatre, undermine its economic sustainability and thus lead to its collapse. This has not happened. Yet.
And yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented existential challenges to theatre like no other alternative entertainment form. Will theatre survive? And if so, how? Will theatre be a COVID long-haul patient?
The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the economics of theatre
In the very year that the Fugard Theatre – one of Cape Town’s most loved theatres for its architecture, vibrant shows and engaging staff – was to mark its tenth anniversary with its first season of newly commissioned work, it was closed, first temporarily and then permanently. The Fugard had a very generous patron in Eric Abraham, but without the theatre being able to operate optimally during lockdown conditions, there was no economic sense to keep it open.
At the outset, gatherings were deemed to be primary vectors of the coronavirus, and since theatre audiences fall within the “gatherings” definition, theatres and festivals, the major entities for commissioning, producing and distributing theatre, were shut down immediately. Productions were cancelled, actors, directors and crew lost income, and the sector was plunged into financial and its related emotional and psychological unwellness.
In recent research conducted by the Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation into the impact of the pandemic on theatre-makers, 63% of the respondents indicated that they made more than half their income from theatre, pre-COVID. During the COVID-19 lockdowns however, 95,4% said that they earn less than 50% of their income from theatre, with a massive 82,1% indicating that in fact, they derived less than 25% of their income from theatre during the lockdowns. In addition to the temporary and permanent closures of formal spaces, theatre, a precarious sector even in the best of times, is being impacted upon economically in a range of different ways by the coronavirus pandemic.
Sponsors of festivals, initially sympathetic to the plight of the festivals and the impact that their cancellation had on artists, are beginning to reconsider their sponsorship as festivals are no longer delivering on the aims of such sponsorship. Some of the country’s major festivals, those that are able to take place only because of private sector sponsorship, are under threat.
Formal theatres with bar services that generate a not insignificant income from such services, have been unable to offer these either because of COVID-related restrictions on catering (to limit the handling of goods), the banning of alcohol sales, sending audiences home immediately after shows to avoid gatherings that were not socially-distanced in foyers, or through curfews that limited post-show social gatherings, even though they may have conformed to requisite social distancing.
Theatre-makers that earned some of their income by touring productions abroad and earning foreign currencies with favourable exchanges towards South Africa’s currency have been unable to tour with international bookings cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus and its multiple variants. With the poor vaccination rollout and the rapid rise in the third wave of infections locally, countries that would generally welcome South African theatre, have banned travel from South Africa for the foreseeable future.
STAND Foundation’s research also explored audiences and when they may feel it safe to return to theatre. Of the sample, nearly 84% were older than 45 with 63,6% being 56-years-old or older, placing them within the age group considered the most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, but who also form a significant part of the contemporary theatre market. More than 50% of the sample attended theatre at least once every two months, while a third attended theatre twelve times per year or more. 46,9% attended at least one festival featuring theatre each year.
However, since the COVID-19 lockdown from March 2020 to June 2021, 58.2% said that they had not attended a theatre performance. Of those who attended theatre performances during the lockdown, most had not attended more than three shows. From this, it is clear that the box-office income on which numerous independent theatres rely was decimated during the lockdown period.
A similar percentage of the audience sample indicated that the primary reason for not attending more theatre during the lockdown were that the theatres they usually attended were not open (44,8%) as well as those who feared contracting the coronavirus (43,8%). The balance of the respondents were equally divided between theatres not offering attractive enough options and having better options for home-based entertainment (7%).
When asked “under what conditions would you become a more regular theatre attendee again?”, 37,4% chose the option “when I am fully vaccinated”, while 36,4% said that they would be happy to attend theatre now with audience restrictions imposed by government. 14% said they would return when they are convinced that the theatres are instituting the necessary COVID-19 protocols. Of the public spaces that respondents had visited during lockdowns, shopping malls scored highest, followed by restaurants and then school/university/office and beaches, with theatre being attended the least. Respondents felt least safe from infection in shopping malls, public transport and restaurants. Theatres reflected the smallest percentage of public places of concern.
In summary, the existential threat posed to theatre in the short-to-medium term by the adverse impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economics of theatre, is exhibited in the decline of private sector sponsorship of festivals, the reduction in box-office income and the fears of contracting the virus by a core part of theatre’s audience, the curbing of opportunities to earn foreign currency income through international tours, and the restrictions on supplementary sources of income such as bar sales and merchandising.
Against this background, it is theatres that are supported by the national, provincial and/or local public purse – generally ‘receiving houses’ – that are managing at least to stay open as their sustainability is not contingent on box-office income, private sector sponsorship or international tours. However, they, too, are impacted adversely by audience restrictions, curfews and other COVID-19 protocols that render the theatre experience a less than attractive one.
The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on theatre form
With the traditional forms of theatre distribution – theatres and physical festivals – being shut, postponed or so severely restricted as to make productions economically unviable, a number of theatre-makers, producers, festivals and theatres explored online platforms as an alternative. 44,8% of the sample of theatre-makers in the STAND Foundation research said that they explored the online route as they needed to earn an income. This was the main reason given, with two further reasons being the desire to explore the online space and learn skills for this platform, and the need to showcase their work. While the need to earn an income was the main reason for staging work online, the overwhelming majority of those who did – 72,4% – said that they had recouped less than 10% of their costs through online platforms.
Blythe Stuart Linger bravely initiated the South African Theatre on Demand (SATOD) platform, a NETFLIX type platform with audiences being able to pay for theatre as and when they wished, but this platform was relatively short-lived as the subscriber base was not strong enough to sustain it.
52,6% of the audience sample indicated that they had watched international theatre during lockdown while 42,4% watched local theatre online. Of those who watched theatre online, 59,7% said that they liked it and that they would watch online theatre again. 19,4% said that they started watching but gave up without watching the whole show while 14,5% responded that they did not like online theatre. Nearly a fifth of the respondents said that they started watching but did not watch the whole show; this resonates with research undertaken by the Edinburgh Festival that showed that on average, audiences watched eight minutes of an online show, the same show that they may have watched fully at the Festival.
When asked what their primary reason would be for not watching theatre online, 57,5% in the STAND Foundation audience sample said they believed that theatre should be enjoyed live, while 20,7% were not aware of online theatre. 8% said they prefer television and Netflix or Showmax. 53,5% of the audience sample said that they would pay for online theatre versus 17,2% who said they would not, while 29,3% said they would pay under certain conditions. Of those who would pay, 23,8% said they were prepared to pay more than R100 per online show; 38% said they would pay R76-R100 and 19,1% would pay R51-R75. In other words, 80% would be prepared to pay at least R50 for an online show. Despite most of the sample saying that they believed that theatre should be enjoyed live, there appears to be a market for online theatre, with international productions setting a benchmark for such a market.
Respondents in the theatre-makers sample were given five reasons from which they could choose as many as were relevant for their not engaging in online theatre. That “theatre is the live encounter between performers and audiences” garnered 62,8% support and the next highest reason was “I do not have the resources to present online theatre”. “I did not have the opportunity to do so”, “I do not have the skills to present online theatre” and “I do not know how to monetise online theatre” all receive the same level of support.
The majority of both theatre-makers and theatre audiences believe that theatre should best be enjoyed live, with theatre-makers asserting the belief that theatre exists in the live encounter between performers and audiences. Theatre-makers are educated to believe that no theatre performance is the same, as it is the audience-performer relationship at the particular show that makes theatre unique, unlike mass produced forms of entertainment such as movies and television programmes. However, precisely because COVID-19 has decimated the opportunities for live encounters between performers and audiences, an increasing number of theatre-makers are exploring the digital space: could this, too, represent an existential threat to theatre, or at least lead to a redefinition and understanding of theatre that will then have implications for training institutions and the kinds of skills that theatre-makers would need to acquire?
From recent experience, there appear to be at least five ways in which theatre may be brought to, or integrate audiences on digital platforms, or using technology:
1. Live-streaming a performance with a live audience to audiences outside of the theatre space, both nationally and even globally (the performers would then interface with their live audience, and the secondary audiences would experience the performance both through their own lens, as well as it being textured by the experience of the live audience).
2. Live-streaming a performance to a local, national and global audience without the performers having a live audience, so that although it is being watched in real time, the performers would have no idea how audiences are reacting and would not be able to feed off any energy from the audience.
3. A recording of the theatre performance in front of a live audience, which is then broadcast on digital platforms or downloaded through On-Demand platforms (some of the plays made available by the National Theatre in Britain were recorded in this way).
4. Theatre productions being filmed particularly for television or film screens, so that multi-cameras are deployed and scenes are broken up for filming as opposed to the production being filmed as a full run through in real time (Kyknet and Woordfees undertook such an exercise under the banner of Proscenium with film and theatre directors collaborating on productions to ensure that the audience had the most theatrical experience through the filmed production).
5. There have been a number of experiments with performers and audiences being on Zoom together, or plays being produced and distributed through WhatsApp or the use of TikTok to share at least excerpts of pieces of theatre or short theatre pieces.
Technology and online platforms have already had significant impacts in shaping other creative industries so that it is possible to read literature on a kindle, download music without having to purchase a CD, watch a movie on demand in one’s home without going to the cinema and even experience an art exhibition on-line.
Some creative forms are more able to be consumed through certain devices such as mobile phones than others. With the high cost of data too, it is unlikely that consumers will watch a full-length theatre production on their mobile phones, although they may download a production onto their IPAD and watch it at a time convenient to them. It is relatively early days yet, but it is almost inevitable that COVID-19 and the exploration of the digital space and technology will impact on the aesthetics and form of theatre, as well as the distribution of theatre in future.
The livestreaming of the Baxter Theatre’s The Life and Times of Michael K as the production to open the recent Theater fur der Welt Festival in Dusseldorf shows the potential for theatre’s global reach and the economic and marketing benefits that this holds. The State Theatre has entered into a partnership with Ster-Kinekor, a cinema chain in South Africa, to screen musical and other productions filmed by the State Theatre during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
While many traditionalists may insist on the understanding and definition of theatre as the live encounter between performers and audiences in real time, COVID-19 will have a medium-to-long term impact on shaping the aesthetics and understanding of theatre, so that the lines between theatre and film and other audio-visual means become more blurred. This will require training institutions to devise courses and offer programmes in which theatre-makers acquire the gamut of skills necessary to produce work for social media and online platforms.
The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on theatre-makers
While there may be theatre without theatres and festivals, albeit a different experience, there can be no theatre without theatre-makers. The coronavirus pandemic appears to have taken a heavy toll on the emotional and psychological well-being of theatre-makers. 45,8% of STAND Foundation’s theatre sample said that they have thought about leaving the theatre/arts sector for more sustainable income in other sectors of the economy. A similarly high percentage – 46,6% – said that they were not optimistic about the future of theatre industry in South Africa.
Some of the reasons given for the pessimism were:
There is too much uncertainty.
Theatre has always been a hard industry. With no festivals and big venues opening up soon, it’s going to be hard to make a profit. People are lethargic and the longer people stay at home watching TV, the harder it will be to get them out of the house.
A huge depression has descended upon our industry which has made many question its function and future post-COVID. It will recover but will take a long time to find its feet again.
There has to be massive public money support across the board and this will not be forthcoming.
We have lost too much in all areas of theatre-making and presentation.
Audience loss. Professional skills loss.
Theatre is heavily dependent on government funding for sustainability and reach particularly in a developing country such as ours where theatre, not too long ago, was made only accessible to the minority around city centres. With the lack of support/diminishing support of an already crippled sector, I’m afraid one just finds it difficult to remain optimistic.
It was challenging before COVID-19, and this has just made it even more difficult to attract an audience.
The general state of the economy in SA pre-pandemic neglected an inclusive arts sector funding policy. The economy is even more stretched due to state capture issues exacerbated by poor planning, poor implementing and poor delivery. So not much hope for a sector that apart from a few government-funded entities and projects is largely self-funded.
In addition to the general sense of loss within the theatre sector, there is also the very real – and substantial – loss of theatre-makers over the last 17 months. What started as a trickle has become something of a flood with almost daily social media posts about someone in the creative sector having been lost to COVID-19. The financial precarity of many who work in the sector means that they do not have medical aid or the economic means to afford sound medical care should they take ill, making them vulnerable to the ravages of the virus.
With many theatre-makers physically lost to the industry, with many others having left or thinking of leaving the industry for more economically viable sectors of the economy and with there being no viable options for new entrants to the industry, it is likely that the local theatre industry will shrink over the foreseeable future.
To summarise, the South African theatre sector will suffer the long-haul effects of the COVID-19 pandemic through its economic base being eroded, its form being questioned and even transformed, and its practitioners declining and losing faith. Which brings us to the question of the future: what hope is there for the future of South Africa’s theatre industry?
Towards the future for the South African theatre sector
It is not surprising that there is an overwhelmingly sombre feeling within and about the theatre sector. This is not unique to South Africa; theatres in most other countries have experienced exactly the same challenges with some being more able than others to ride out this period because of government support, both for the subsidized and the independent theatre sectors.
There have been some positive developments and activities within the theatre sector over the last 17 months that include:
theatre that has continued to take place in community-based spaces like Tin Town Theatre, TX Theatre and Sibikwa Arts Centre in Gauteng
the exploration of the online space and the creation of work for digital platforms such as Kyknet’s Proscenium project and the State Theatre’s relationship with Ster-Kinekor
the realization that festivals and theatre productions can reach global audiences through technology
the coming into being of organisations such as Theatre and Dance Alliance (TADA), STAND Foundation, Theatre and Dance Employers Association of South Africa (TDEASA) to advocate for theatre both during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic
the capacity and preparedness of organisations and producers within the sector to challenge government and state institutions in court for the first time since 1994 when these institutions make decisions that are not in the interests of the theatre sector (e.g. the National Arts Festival court challenge to the National Arts Council’s unilateral changing of contracts related to the Presidential Economic Stimulus Programme funding)
the formation of an organization like Tribuo and the work of the Theatre Benevolent Fund that provided relief to those in need in the sector
the support of traditional theatre audiences and their empathy with the sector so that this bodes well for the future
the resilience and innovation of entrepreneurial individuals who have gotten on with finding new ways of working around and through the challenges posed by COVID-19
While a high percentage of theatre-makers expressed pessimism about the future of theatre, more than half (53,4%) of the respondents in STAND Foundation’s research sample expressed optimism.
Some of the reasons for their optimism were:
Theatre people are passionate.
South Africans are incredibly resilient and can overcome all sorts of obstacles thrown at them.
If theatre is in your blood, you can’t even think of a life without theatre.
We have come together and shared as never before. This, and collaboration, bodes well for the future.
Theatre has faced similar challenges throughout its long history.
The creativity that exists. The hunger from audiences to connect.
Where there’s life, there’s hope.
The opportunity for reinventing is ripe.
Artists in the country are finally taking government to task. One day the sector will be alive and active under new governance.
People need stories and we have the ability to tell them in ways no other medium can.
You won’t be able to squash the immense talent of our theatre people.
Audiences want to attend live performances. They are, in fact, hungry for it.
Artists are tenacious and audiences will come back.
To confirm the optimism about audiences expressed above, respondents in the audience sample were given six statements from which to select the one that most accurately reflects their attitude to the impact of COVID-19 on South African theatre. 32,3% said “I wish I could do something to support theatre but my own resources are thinly stretched”. 31,3% believes that “Government should be doing more to support theatre” while 26,3% indicated that they have tried to support theatre and theatre-makes however they could during this time. No-one was unaware of the impact of COVID-19 on theatre, while only 2% thought that “The theatre sector should be doing more for itself rather than feel sorry for itself”.
The support from the general theatre-going audience for theatre is solid. There is no reason to believe that theatre audiences have migrated elsewhere, or that COVID-19 has forever alienated traditional theatre audiences from theatre. As testimony to this, some of the comments in the space provided for comments include:
“Would be fantastic to get back to theatre.”
“I love live theatre and it is tragic what is happening.”
“Wish life becomes normal and I can attend theatre again.”
“I am looking forward to attending live theatre again.”
“New ways to make theatre sustainable must be found – we cannot afford to lose this valuable resource.”
“I wish that government could understand that artistic spaces like theatres are vital to our mental health.”
“Would love to help actors and the arts in general to back to their feet.”
“I think that all theatre-makers and production crew should be vaccinated (or offered the option of a vaccine) and that audiences should be as well.
Shift in theatre policies and funding
With the rise in representative theatre structures and activist bodies, this has also been a period for reflection on the policies and public funding strategies that underpin the theatre sector. Theatre does not take place in a vacuum but in very real socio-economic conditions and if theatre as a sector has had, and is having, major challenges, the broader South African context provides even more challenges to its relevance and sustainability.
South Africa’s designation as one of the most unequal societies in the world is reflected in the divide between the 20% of the population who earn 70% of national income and the bottom 40% who have to make do with 7% of national income between them. The theatre “industry” is predicated on, and generally serves, the elite, the 20% with disposable income.
Our current official unemployment rate is 32%, while the extended definition – that includes people without jobs and who have given up looking for work – is more than 43%! Over half our population lives on less than R2400 per month, making them unlikely markets for contemporary South African theatre. What about the majority of South Africans who have been, and remain excluded from theatre? What about their right to “…participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts” as per Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
There is public funding for theatre but national government has allowed to continue, and indeed exacerbated, the inequalities inherited from the past by subsidizing four theatres from the apartheid era – the State Theatre, Artscape, PACOFS and the Playhouse – and adding the Market Theatre to this list. In June 2021, the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture designated the former PE Opera House as a cultural institution and renamed it the Nelson Mandela Bay Theatre bringing the number of nationally-subsidized theatres to six for a total subsidy in excess of R340 million in this financial year. The question is: is this – the funding of infrastructure that may not be appropriate to the needs of most in the country nor to the forms of theatre that are most practiced – the best way of using the available public resources for theatre?
STAND Foundation has published a Discussion Document outlining a vision for the future of theatre. As opposed to the prioritization of infrastructure, the document proposes support for 15 theatre companies and 15 dance companies, each with an average of 12 members, and with each province having at least one subsidized theatre and one subsidized dance company. (The more densely populated provinces will have proportionally more companies). With each of the 30 companies receiving an average subsidy of R3,5 million, this would amount to R105 million, a third of the amount currently allocated to 6 theatres, and yet, it would do more to create and distribute theatre nationally, and reach audiences – both those who can afford to buy tickets and those who cannot (the subsidized companies will not need to generate income from such audiences).
The document proposes a national circuit of at least one nationally-subsidised venue per province that can accommodate professional theatre and dance productions without having to cost an average of R55 million each (as the current state 6 theatres do!). The Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture tweeted that
“Theatre is alive and well”
in January this year and unleashed a storm of protest and a petition that called for him to be fired. He apologised for his insensitive tweet, but he has come in for increasing criticism because of the National Arts Council’s mismanagement of the PESP funding meant to assist the creative sector. He made a large contribution to this debacle by appointing a new Council to take over in the midst of the PESP project which had 31 March as its deadline, and without any induction so that the new Council has made major errors that have impacted adversely on the sector and ruined the Council’s credibility.
This may be a time when the theatre sector – if it is able to come together around a vision for the sector – can advocate for future theatre policies and funding that would allow for a more sustainable and impactful theatre sector nationally, at the same time as continue to mount political pressure for the minister to be replaced. This will create a window of opportunity for new policies to be formulated and implemented with government and civil society working together for the first time in decades.
As for the future of the theatre sector, it is likely that there will be at least three phases to its recovery from the impact on the COVID-19 pandemic: Lockdown Tight to Lockdown Lite which itself will see different levels of audience attendance. This will be followed by the immediate COVID-19 aftermath where audiences will still take time to return to pre-COVID levels at festivals and at theatres. The final phase will be when everyone feels safe to attend theatre again either because they have been fully vaccinated, or because trustworthy sources have announced that we have achieved herd immunity.
In STAND Foundation’s audience sample, the question was posed: “Should you return to theatre under restricted audience conditions, would you be prepared to pay more as part of a smaller audience?”
41,8% said “Yes” and 50% answered “Depending on the production”.
The next question asked was “If yes, and considering tickets pre-COVID cost in the region of R150, what would you be prepared to pay per ticket?”
74,2% replied that they would pay R250 per ticket (66% more) while a fifth indicated that they would be prepared to pay double (R300) per ticket.
From this, it can be assumed that traditional theatre audiences understand the need for higher prices should theatres reopen under restricted conditions. This does not mean that audiences will simply support theatre for its own sake as might have been the case at the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020 when there was much sympathy for the plight of theatre-makers. Now, audiences reserve their right to discretion – “it depends on the production”.
In the immediate future, from the current level lockdown level 4 to lighter restrictions as the infection rate subsides, theatre makers and producers should prepare and plan for:
productions that have small casts making them more economically viable with restricted audiences
productions that feature actors older than 50 who may be vaccinated and may be less likely to be infected resulting in the closure of productions such as occurred with the recent cases with The Life and Times of Michael K and Kiss of the Spiderwoman at the Baxter and the Drama Factory’s The Unlikely Secret Agent.
targeting audiences that have been vaccinated such as medical personnel, teachers and those in the relevant age categories
hosting small-scale productions in non-formal spaces both to allow creatives to have work and for audiences to return under safe conditions as was the case with Woordfees’ artists’ week where creatives produced new works with mentors and then presented these in spaces like former galleries and shops in Stellenbosch that had closed down during the pandemic
exploring online and hybrid forms of communicating with theatre audiences through readings of new works, interviews with international and local practitioners, presentations of recorded work, etc
Rather than the blanket limits imposed on theatre numbers by government or arbitrary percentages, theatres should be allowed to have up to the maximums possible depending on their capacity to accommodate audience members safely within COVID-19 physical distancing protocols. To have a theatre limited to 50 or 100 when it has normal capacity for 1500 in the same was a 150-seater is limited to 50 or 100, makes little sense. If shopping malls, restaurants and other businesses can take the necessary precautions, there is no reason why theatres – depending on audience attendance both for its existential and economic rationale – cannot be given the same leeway.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major – and adverse – impact on the theatre sector. We are still in the midst of the pandemic and it is probably too early to anticipate what exactly the medium-term future will look like. However, there is much that we can reflect on and learn from with the last seventeen months – and international experience – having been good tutors. There is no doubt that the pandemic has posed an existential challenge to theatre like never before, but it is most unlikely that theatre will die. The sector may shrink in size initially, but its practitioners are too passionate and its audiences too supportive for theatre not to survive into the future.
That it may morph into more hybrid forms and require different sustainability models may be necessary and no bad thing for a sector that has shown resilience through the most challenging of times. Ultimately though, it would be short-sighted and not deserving of generosity if the theatre sector in South Africa does not reflect more deeply on the macro-conditions in which it lives and needs to reflect. Rather than seek and celebrate its own survival, the theatre sector should be challenged by these times about the contribution that it can make to the lives and the quality of life of the majority of the country’s inhabitants whose existential crises are more real, and more profound, than that of theatre and its relatively privileged practitioners.
Download the research document that this article is based on.