BY BILLY SUTER
MANY South African theatre practitioners and fans are excited at last night’s government announcement that local theatres will soon partially open again, albeit with restrictions still to be announced, but “the excitement is misplaced” and there are some grave concerns.
This is the view of Ismail Mahomed, chief executive officer at the Market Theatre Foundation and former artistic director of the National Arts Festival, who adds that “anyone who believes this is a viable option has little or no understanding about the dynamics or the economics about running a theatre”.
He was reacting, on his Facebook page, to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that theatres, cinemas, casinos and business conferences, as well as beauty and hairdressing salons and most accommodation, will soon reopen following government adjustments in restrictions over the Cornonavirus pandemic. Full details on conditions of the move, as well as the date from which they will take effect, are scheduled to be announced in the next few days.
There were immediate concerns from members of the theatre community about probable restrictions on audience numbers and additional costs arising from sanitisation and safety measures.
“It is going to cost between R5 000 and R8 000 to sanitise a theatre each day after every use (that, too, depending on the size of the theatre). For subsidised theatres this cost may be easy to bear because it becomes one more added cost to the already overburdened operational costs, which is cause for most subsidised theatres operating as receiving houses rather than production houses that can generate work for artists,” explains Mahomed.
He adds: “It is inevitable that the majority of receiving houses will shift these added costs to presenters/hiring managements. In a cultural landscape with already so much tension between receiving houses and independent producers about accessibility, these costs will only further impede accessibility for small-time producers.
“Add to these costs the loss on potential box-office income which will be caused by social distancing seats in a theatre. With reduced capacity per performance the chances of hitting bottomline on box-office returns is rendered almost impossible.”
Mahomed says that if the number of people at an assembly/gathering is going to be restricted to 50 people “this essentially means that the box-office capacity can only be determined after deductions of cast, crew and front-of-house staff is made. Just how viable is that?”.
As with most theatre co-production agreements between receiving houses and independent theatre producers the 70/30 split rule applies. Neither of the two parties are likely to benefit financially with socially distanced seating and added costs for safety protocols, he says.
“For independent theatres the economic returns are more often made from the foyer bars and front–of-house concessions. If these restrictions still prevail a major source of income for theatres will still be inhibited.”
The current ban on booze consumed on premises is also a big concern for supper theatres and Roland Stansell, who manages Durban’s Rhumbelow Theatre group, believes much needs to be clarified and carefully considered before the Rhumbelow theatres can fully operate again. He says he agrees with much of what Mohamed says and will be taking a “wait and see” approach before making any decisions about reopening the theatres.
Mahomed says another concern relates to theatre complexes with multiple venues: “This essentially means that in order to adhere to the regulated maximum number of people in a theatre complex not more than one venue may operate at any given time”.
He adds: “It also needs to be noted that in theatres that produce/present the less contemporary work the audiences are to a large extent elderly audiences who are most susceptible to risks. Would these audiences be rushing out when they are the most vulnerable?
“If the regulations require persons over 60 to remain at home how do theatres control pre-box office sales? Do theatres ask for age/ID when pre-booking? If a 63-year-old buys a ticket online can theatres turn the person away at the door?
“Do theatres place an usher at the main door to check ages of persons from their IDs? Or do front-of-house staff judge a person’s age by their looks; and then have discrimination cases to deal with?
“Will theatres be required to keep a manifest of every audience member attending the show so that if there is an infection in terms of regulations for notifiable diseases how does every member of the audience get tracked?”
Mahomed also has concerns that if a member of a cast or crew is infected a production will inevitably have to stop; and all cast and crew will need to go into self-isolation:
“This means the cancelling of a production. Inevitably, it also means that the force majeure clause in production contracts will kick in. If this happens the artists and crew who are contracted for the run /season do not have to be paid (force majeure). Who ARE going to be the losers? The artists!”
He says if the temperature of audiences is to be taken as they enter a theatre, a person with a temperature over the maximum will have to be refused entry. This means that the person will need to be refunded.
“Theatre is a social event at which audience members seldom arrive alone. If the person is declined admission, it inevitably means that whoever is accompanying the person will also need to be declined admission. In ordinary theatre principles this means that the patron will need to be refunded.
“Two conundrums – the first is that the ticketing agency fee is pre-deducted. Who now bears this loss? The venue or the presenter? It cannot be the venue because it is not the venue’s show? It can’t be the presenter because it is not the presenter’s FOH staff who authorized the refund. Fight it out!
“Conundrum number two: if the show is a 70/30 deal in which the presenters often also enter into a split of the 70 with the artists inevitably it means that artists risk being shortchanged because a pre-show manifest may show a higher figure without the potential refunds.
“In the event that an infection is reported by a person attending a performance and if such person wishes to prove that the infection was picked up at the theatre because the theatre was negligent who bears liability — the venue owners or presenters? This could make for very interesting indemnity clauses in a contract!”
Mahomed concludes his response with: “Because the State cannot deliver economic relief to artists through strategic ways, it chooses instead to open theatres and compromises the safety of artists, presenters, venue owners and audiences – this is particularly irresponsible when the numbers are spiking!”
Luke Holder, manager of the Hilton College Theatre, says of Mahomed’s responses: “This truth, utterly eloquent, still casts a long shadow over our industry. Running a theatre venue, while social distancing measures still exist, remains the elusive unicorn for all of us”.
Holder adds: “As a theatre manager of a venue that seats 472, and employing social distancing measures in 360-degrees, meaning spacing viable seats 1,5m apart not only next to each other but also in front of and behind, we have comfortably managed to make allowance for 45 patrons (four of which are allocated to people with physical disabilities who may not, due to prevailing co-morbidities, be able to join us anyway, one technician, two full-time cleaning staff and two people on stage.
“The cost of additional cleaning measures, PPE, seat cleaning after each performance and sterilisation of an artist’s set, props and costumes will have to be billed to the client.”
He says that, under current restrictions, patrons will have to work with an entirely online booking system; will need to arrive hours in advance for pre-screening and to fill out registers for both screening records and contact-tracing purposes; and the venue reserves the right to deny access to people with moderate to severe co-morbidities, or those that can’t pass a simple temperature test.
“Having experienced most of these scenarios now filming the virtual National Arts Festival (with the exception of an audience), I am almost inclined to discourage people from wanting to hire the venue in light of crippling financial overheads, a terrified (or irritated) audience base and a run that may have to extend for months in order to just break even.”
He adds that the risks “far outweigh the benefits, and sadly, the new ‘normal’ still does not serve the best interests of our industry.
In conclusion, Holder states: “On the plus side, we are allowed to record, stream or broadcast content, without an audience present and observing all of the Disaster Management Act protocols; this may be the only way forward as we navigate the various pitfalls of bringing our art online”.
Discussing the government announcement, Durban theatre practitioner Musa Hlatshwayo says on Facebook: It’s a trap. I’m honestly not happy with this one. I feel it’s a ‘let them eat cake’ type of a situation.”
Also not very happy with the situation s actress Sarah Richard: “What about the actors’ safety? You can socially distance an audience, who can all wear masks, but what about the performers? Besides the producers not being able to make their money back, I think the health risk to performers is just too high.”
Actor, singer and dancer Jarryd Nurden was among theatre personalities looking on the bright side: “It’s one step closer to earning a salary again! It’s been extremely difficult, but as thespians we adapt and I’m sure with our creative minds we’ll make a plan to relive our passions and see our theatre’s light up again ! I’m feeling slightly relieved.”
Durban’s Rockwood Theatre at Sibaya Casino has excitedly announced that its programme for the rest of the year, as well as future protocol procedures, will be announced soon.
Approached for comment, a theatre spokesman says: “We are waiting to hear the confirmed restrictions. Hopefully, these will be gazetted soon. We will take it from there and make it work – anything to keep the theatre and arts alive!”
NOTE: This article will be updated when further announcements are revealed by government this week.