“Through the ages, the arts have survived many pandemics. This is not the first and it will probably not be the last… We must never give up the belief that the theatre is a sacred temple which humanises us…Artists will have stories to tell about pain, grief, isolation and survival. The audiences will be hungry for these stories because in the retelling of these stories in creative ways our society will find healing, compassion and the strength to live again. Ismail Mahomed, CEO Market Theatre Foundation, talking to TheCapeRobyn [April 2020] about the arts in South Africa lockdown and what happens in post pandemic times as we move towards re-opening of theatres.

The arts industry – theatre, fine arts, film and all the rest – has been shattered by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the global lockdown, we have seen innovation and digital entrepreneurship on digital platforms. Much of it has been offered on a no-fee and/or pay what you can basis. Gigs have been cancelled and income lost.  We don’t know when venues will be able to open to stage live performance, film screenings, art exhibitions and other events.  In addition to concerns with public health [people in confined spaces of theatres], the reality is that it may not be economically viable to operate theatres with limited seating. Operators may need to wait months until it is curtain-up. What is next for theatres? No answers are possible. We must however engage with the issues and look to a future of re-igniting live performance.  Ismail Mahomed. CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation applauds the resilience of creatives in overcoming and transcending roadblocks. The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, was established in 1976 by Barney Simon and Mannie Manim. The iconic theatre has brandished the mantle as hub of creativity and arts activism and hopefully, post Covi-19, the complex will once again become a vital platform for creatives to tell their stories.

TheCapeRobyn: The lockdown in South Africa has left creatives feeling gutted. We are hearing that people are reluctant to return to theatres because of health concerns. Will the arts survive?

Ismail Mahomed: Through the ages, the arts have survived many pandemics. This is not the first and it will probably not be the last. With every pandemic theatres and galleries were shut but they re-opened with a new energy and a new vision. I believe that the same will happen after this pandemic. Artists will have stories to tell about pain, grief, isolation and survival. The audiences will be hungry for these stories because in the retelling of these stories in creative ways our society will find healing, compassion and the strength to live again. We must never give up the belief that the theatre is a sacred temple which humanises us.

TheCapeRobyn: What happens after lockdown – will The Market open – even if attendance numbers are limited –and it may not be viable to operate with reduced houses?

Ismail Mahomed: Once the lockdown regulations are eased and the authorities provide consent for theatres to resume with presenting work for audiences in assembly rooms we will open our doors to the public. During the Lockdown the Market Theatre Foundation postponed several productions so these productions will be rescheduled when re-open our Theatre doors. The Market Theatre Foundation has four performances spaces. We have productions scheduled for all four of these spaces. Our primary focus will be to present work on our stages so that artists can earn an income.

TheCapeRobyn: Is the Market confident that audiences will go back to the theatre?

Ismail Mahomed: The lyrics in a famous musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is If I were a Rich Man. Right now, it is now only artists who are singing that song. The downturn in our economy has forced many people to silently sing that song including us at the Market Theatre Foundation but our institution has a history of tenacity for survival. We were founded as a non-funded theatre during apartheid. For over a decade, we kept our doors open through sheer passion, vision and commitment. When the inner-city of Johannesburg began to decay it was a significant threat to the survival of the Market Theatre. We survived that era and we are now one of the most significant properties in Newtown. When the National Lottery stopped funding State-funded theatres we adapted to the new regulations and we survived. I am confident that even this shall pass. We will survive by adapting to whatever the post-pandemic era brings. Theatre never dies. It only evolves into new ways of surviving.

TheCapeRobyn: Insights into “new ways of surviving”?

The greatest threat to theatre is not so much the threat of funding but rather the failure to innovate, be creative and engage with audiences. Throughout the Market Theatre Foundation’s history it has survived various social, political and economic change; and through this very same period the Market Theatre Foundation has largely survived because it has reached out to newer audiences, developed new performances spaces and found new ways of presenting works. Over the last decade, the Market Theatre Foundation’s audiences have become younger. They are more representatives of South African demographics and they are more engaged on social media. The Market Theatre Foundation has made a concerted effort to stay relevant to these changing conditions. Whilst we continue to honour and celebrate our historic legacy we are not nostalgic about it.

TheCapeRobyn: New ways of surviving? How about increasing outside performances? Busking festival?

Ismail Mahomed: The Market Theatre precinct has always been open to buskers.  We will continue to encourage artists who wish to busk in our precinct. In addition, we already have a number of events planned for the outdoors as part of our regular repertoire.

TheCapeRobyn: When lockdown measures are loosened, what is the Market putting in place for the months ahead? Social distancing – seats between people etc?

Ismail Mahomed: The Market Theatre Foundation has adopted a proactive approach to the National Lockdown. We are following trends abroad and remaining fully engaged with the South African authorities and other relevant civil society forums about what life will be like after the Lockdown period. We are cognisant that audiences will be cautious about coming into public spaces for a long while and we also cognisant that as a result of the economic impact of the lockdown audiences may not necessarily have the disposal income to spend on theatres. We will not compromise the safety of our artists, audiences, employees or stakeholders so when we do re-open our doors it will be with rigid adherence to the guidelines provided by the relevant authorities. Until such time we will continue to develop programmes online.

TheCapeRobyn: Any way of the Market getting funding and then paying artists, paying production costs and offering tickets at no charge– in order to get in audiences – and build up loyalty?

Ismail Mahomed: The Market Theatre Foundation has various audience development initiatives which includes offering complimentary tickets to audiences in a very strategic way to build loyalty for the Market Theatre Foundation. Whatever our strategy for bringing our audiences back to theatre is going to be it will be built on sound business principles that guarantees the sustainability of the theatre and does not compromise the already shrinking economic opportunities for artists.

TheCapeRobyn: The challenge for The Market Theatre in Johannesburg – with its huge legacy in struggle theatre – is to come up with viable models in the post lockdown period? 

Ismail Mahomed: The Market Theatre Foundation was built on a legacy of social justice, social activism and social change. Throughout our forty three year legacy we have passionately engaged with the vision of our founding fathers. During the Lockdown period we have ensured that some of our part time staff are supported financially. We have also arranged through our Human Resources Department for our ad hoc staff to apply for UIF. We presented a free online seminar for artists on how to access and engage their labour rights during this time. We had more than 1 200 artists join the online seminar. We have provided administrative assistance and reference for artists with their applications for various relief funds. Whilst we will continue to support and empathise with artists wherever and whenever we can we will do so with objectivity of just how far we are able to stretch our resources. The sense of despondency in the arts sector is a result of poor policies and poor vision by the Government. It requires a collective effort by the arts sector to address these issues at various levels of government. If there is one positive thing that we should all learn from the National Lockdown it is that in South Africa for many people, including artists, the struggle is far from over. It must still be Aluta Continua!

TheCapeRobyn: The Market is a receiving and producing house. It produces its own work and hires the spaces out to independent artists and companies. The independent sector has been flattened by the pandemic. Are you looking at assisting artists with production costs etc?

Ismail Mahomed: The Market Theatre Foundation works with several partners on co-production deals and in-association arrangements. We have a long history of offering our spaces to various arts initiatives at either reduced or no cost arrangements. In doing so, we are cognisant that we can only do so on the principle that we do not sink our own sustainability. Whilst we certainly will reach out to assist independent artists we will ensure that we do not endanger our own stability. We will be very realistic about how far we can extend our assistance and generosity.

TheCapeRobyn: How is the Market funded? How much of the operating budget is state funded and how much is through the private sector?

Ismail Mahomed: The Market Theatre Foundation’s operational and infrastructural costs are subsidised through a grant from the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture.  This is 78% of the Market Theatre Foundation’s budget. We generate 22% through various initiatives which includes fundraising, box office and rentals.

TheCapeRobyn: The Market Theatre is hiring. It has put out a call for applications for “Stage and Technical Services.” That is great. Is the Market – operating – albeit – with people working from home?

Ismail MahomedWhilst there are no productions currently in any of our theatres due to the National Lockdown the employees of the Market Theatre Foundation are working from home. The position for a Production Manager in the Stage & Technical Services Department became vacant in March this year; and an advertisement to fill the vacancy was put out. Depending on how long the National Lockdown will prevail, we intend to recruit the person for this crucial position in our theatre; and like all employees the incumbent will work online with management for the duration of the lockdown.

TheCapeRobyn: Artists have been creating work on virtual platforms – comments on shifting from virtual to physical – or a combo of both?

Ismail Mahomed: The online medium in which artists are currently engaging with their audiences can never ever replace the intimacy and the energy of a live performance. The current response is a necessary response to stay connected and creative. However, whatever levels of experimentation that are currently evolving are exciting interventions which can be integrated with live performances when the opportunity to return our theatre is given back to us.

TheCapeRobyn: Any examples that you can give in this regard? Would The Market for instance look at screening monologues that have been streamed digitally? Would it consider looking at a monologue on panic buying and be open to developing that as a live piece? [Panic Buying is being developed by Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s who is one of the artists involved in The Virtual Creative platform, initiated by Cape Town theatre makers Cassandra Tendai Mapanda and Mphumzi Nontshinga].

Ismail Mahomed: The power of theatre is in its immediacy. What is created now may be a response and relevant to this moment. What we create in this moment does not necessarily have to be repeated when we are past this past; but what we have learnt from this moment, the processes that we have developed from this moment and the ways that we have been engaging with our audiences can be taken into the future. The processes could remain relevant. The content that we develop after the pandemic will need to be relevant to the new moment. If an artist proposes a piece on panic buying or for that matter the frustrations of not being able to buy cigarettes it will go through the same rigid process of assessment to decide whether we want to stage it. Is it artistically sound? Is it relevant? What is the artistic intent? Does it have a potential for a successful run are just some of the questions that we will ask.

TheCapeRobyn: What is the Market offering online during the lockdown and going forward? Where to access this content? Facebook? Website?

Ismail Mahomed: The Market Theatre Foundation is offering various online programmes during the lockdown. In partnership with the Embassy of Sweden we are offering six episodes of online discussion on theatre, dance, music, literature and fashion. This six week series is available on both the Windybrow Arts Centre and the Embassy of Sweden’s Facebook pages.  In partnership with the Hear My Voice NPO we are offering a series of poetry and spoken word programmes. This is available on the Windybrow Arts Centre and the Hear My Voice group’s Facebook page. On the Market Theatre Facebook page, we have a series of dramatized monologues as well as an online career expo for high school students. The Market Photo Workshop is offering an online exhibition and talkback sessions with photographs. In all these initiatives our participating artists are being paid a fee. When the President announces the Stage 4 phase of the lockdown we will respond accordingly with programming within the constraints of the revised lockdown rules.

TheCapeRobyn: Does the Market have a specific post pandemic incubator programme in place to take work that has been created during lockdown and to develop in a live context?

Ismail Mahomed: The Market Theatre Foundation is responding to the pandemic in the moment that we are living. As all theatres across the globe we will be approached by artists who will want to present work about surviving through this pandemic. There will be personal, political and real human life stories to share; and we will be open to developing these stories in line with the rest of our programming.

TheCapeRobyn: Lastly, there was some action recently on an article that I posted on TheCapeRobyn, in an interview with Blythe Linger [South African Theatre on Demand], regarding fair play of auditing on arts projects. Can you please explain the situation re entities that receive state funding and specifically the checks and balances that are in place at The Market?

Ismail Mahomed:  Blythe Stuart Linger referred to the five Performing Arts Institutions (State Theatre, Artscape, Market Theatre, Pacofs and Playhouse) as State-run theatres. I clarified that there are NO State-run theatres in South Africa. There are State-funded arts institutions in South Africa. These institutions are governed in terms of the Cultural Institutions Act No 119 of 1998 and are accountable to the Department of Sports, Arts & Culture (DSAC) of which the Minister of Sports, Arts & Culture is the political head. 

The Councils of these institutions are responsible for governance of these institutions. The members of the Councils are appointed by the Minister of Sports, Arts & Culture. The CEO’s of these entities report to the Councils. All staff at the institutions account to the CEO.

The institutions are subsidized by the DSAC. These funds approved by the National Treasury is for operations and infrastructure; and only a very small percentage (in some case R2million is for productions). This model is not any different to how institutions are funded in most parts of Europe. In both South Africa and Europe where such models exist, the institutions raise independent funding from donors, philanthropists and foundations to support content. State-funded institutions in South Africa are excluded from qualifying for any funding from the National Lottery Commission. In Europe, donors receive large tax rebates for contributions to the arts. The South African Revenue Services does not provide this incentive to arts donors in South Africa; and hence South African agencies cannot be compared with their European counterparts.

While institutions may be entities of the DSAC the ownership of the buildings vary. In most cases, the buildings are owned by the Department of Public Works or the City Councils; and hence some of the subsidy is utilized to pay for utility bills due to these ownership entities. 

In the case of the Market Theatre Foundation in Johannesburg, the old heritage building which was the former Fruit & Vegetable Market is owned by the Johannesburg Metro. The Market Square is owned by the DSAC. The Windybrow arts Centre building is owned by the Department of Public Works. The stores building is owned by the Market Theatre Foundation. There are utility bills for each of these venues which must be paid from the subsidy.

While the salaries and infrastructure of the Market Theatre Laboratory and Market Photo Workshop are subsidized by the DSAC, all the operations of the two “schools” is funded through self-generated income and donors.

In the case of the theatre, while a portion of the R2 million Rand is for content for the three theatres, the bulk of the funding required to run all three theatres all year round is derived from donors, in association productions, rentals and box office.

All institutions have to devise a five year Performance Plan (SPP) and an Annual Performance Plan (APP) which is line with the National Development Plan and the development goals of each five year administration of government. Institutions need to submit a Quarterly Report to the DSAC on how they’ve reached their targets and how they’ve spent their budgets.

The subsidy that institutions receive as well as any funds that they self-generate is governed by the Public Finance Management Act. Any payments that institutions make is regulated by Treasury rules and policies of the institutions. In independent institutions where a theatre producer may have the autonomy to make purchases the situation in State-funded institutions is fairly complex in that procurements must comply with policies and must be vetted by a Supply Chain Committee which operates according to rules set by the Kings IV governance process. 

The institutions have an internal audit as well as an external audit which includes auditing by the office of the Auditor General. The financials of the institution are published annually in an Annual Report which is tabled to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Arts & Culture. The report is also published and made available for public scrutiny on each institution’s website.

Once the Annual Performance Plan is approved by the Councils of the institutions and submitted to the Department the institutions may not make any deviations unless such deviations are approved in writing through the appropriate government bureaucratic channels. Any deviation without following this process will result in an audit finding.

With regard to artistic programming while the institutions have liberties guaranteed by Section 16 of the South African Constitution in terms of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Creativity any such output must be directed towards the attainment of the National Development Plan i.e. redress historical imbalances, job creation for designated groups — youth, women, disabled and other historical communities, social cohesion, promotion of national legacies, etc, etc. all of this may sometimes take precedence over artistic integrity because of the argument that public funds must be used for the public good and not serve narrow artistic agendas.

While the system may provide financial security for the institutions in terms of its infrastructure and operations it certainly has shortcomings in terms of the financial security that it can provide to artists. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the institutions. It is weaknesses in the current government framework through which institutions are subsidized. One can only hope that the newly adopted White Paper on Arts, Culture & Heritage will address these shortcomings.

Image credit: The Market Theatre, January 2019. Pic: TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen.

The Market Theatre- travel ✈ advisory [we are looking to the future- so yes- travel advisory]

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