Making Theatre in South Africa

by David J. McGraw
Backstage View of FREEDOM cast warming up at the South African State Theatre
Backstage View of FREEDOM cast warming up at the South African State Theatre
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Three years ago, I used this blog to promote a new Fulbright initiative that supports stage managers and stage management students in cultural exchanges. I didn’t just announce the program; I applied for it myself. Today I finish a two-week residency in Pretoria, South Africa, in what has been an amazing journey.

 

I joined the Fulbright Specialist program, which allows you to apply for requests from professional organizations and universities around the world. The South African State Theatre, the equivalent of our Kennedy Center, issued an invitation for an American specialist to work with their team and to give workshops on stage management, producing theatre, marketing, and grant writing.  Fortunately, I have some experience in each of those areas and they selected me for a two-week visit. I have observed international tours, but I wanted to see how a resident theatre in South Africa produces its own works.

My first impression was that South African theatres function very similarly to American theatres. There are both commercial and non-profit companies. For non-profits, a board of directors chooses a CEO and an artistic director to select the season and guide the company. Most administrative units are comparable, though the State Theatre has a larger Marketing and Business Development team as they have in-house videographers and photographers. Whereas most American theatres outsource many jobs such as media, supply chain (purchasing), security, and parking, everyone here works directly for the State Theatre. It makes for a lot friendlier work environment as everyone is on the same team.

Auditions can yield several hundred performers, many of whom majored in theatre at a university, for a few coveted roles. Veteran actors told me that they had worked at a dozen companies, often alternating between large-scale and small like their American counterparts. Rehearsals tend to run forty hours a week for three weeks, longer for new works and shorter for remounted productions.  Even the tech hours are very similar. After a few previews, most resident companies will run 3-6 weeks of performances.  Having heard about other countries with longer development processes, I was surprised at how both South Africa and the United States use very similar calendars.

Even the personality types by position are very familiar. I watched the leadership team adapt post-show talks to specific VIP audiences. The production manager is constantly solving problems on her phone as she walks between venues (the SAST has 6 performance spaces in one building) but still has the best sense of humor. Stage management is not only hyper-organized but also always keeping a watchful eye on every element and company member. The marketing team is extremely charismatic, and the house management staff know how to say, “Can I help you?” in a way that not only asks if I need help but also alerts me that I have wandered somewhere I shouldn’t be (this has happened more than once). There are ‘old-timers’ on the crew that have a trick to solve nearly every problem, as well as the new technicians who are perfectionists when it comes to getting a light look, sound cue, or projection just right.  

FREEDOM: The Musical
FREEDOM: The Musical

My two-week visit has focused on a new show called Freedom: The Musical that, much like Hamilton, started with a single concept song about a historical event and has grown into a full production. Freedom needs to tour the United States. It is about present-day South African college students who must choose between remaining silent and comfortable or risking everything to stand up for what is right. They must make this choice in both in their education and in their personal relationships. The incredible score ranges from the “I Want” songs and chorus anthems of traditional musicals to hip-hop and the club scene.

Having seen the show multiple times from the audience, I asked if I could observe the stage manager for a performance. Although the South African theatre artists that I have met don’t use the term “shadow the SM,” they do offer the same observation, especially for students and interns. Going backstage felt like going home.

View from the SM Calling Station at the South African State Theatre (FREEDOM: THE MUSICAL)Sitting at the SM calling station behind the proscenium off left (or “prompt side” as much of the world calls it), I listened on wireless headset to the call. I sadly must report that getting audiences to settle in their seats is an annoyance that is not limited to American stage managers. But then the SM took over and, with ice in his veins, called a tight show as his experienced crew made the magic happen. I followed the ASM for several shifts, with both automated flies and four lifts that ran the length of the stage. Multi-story sets took us from a university meeting hall to a nightclub to a dorm to a bus to a shopping plaza to… a dozen locations rose from the traps or rolled from either side on wagons. My biggest moment of jealousy was realizing that BOTH off-stage left and right were the size of the stage – there was so much room for crew to set up the next scene. 

What was the biggest difference discovered in this trip?  Honestly, the answer is how well-informed South Africans are informed about U.S. theatre compared to how little Americans know about South African theatre. We discussed many American plays but I struggled to identify more than the works of Athol Fugard and Sarafina. I hope that it is more a personal ignorance that I can correct, but I fear that it is widespread. Even the tourist guides fail to mention contemporary South African art and theatre. The same goes of the diversity of cultures and modern society. I suspect that, for many Americans, the last we heard about South Africa, aside from individual celebrities, was the end of apartheid a quarter century ago.

At the risk of making gross generalizations about playwrights, I also have noticed a trend in the content of the shows. In the plays and musicals that I have seen over the past two weeks, South African theatre is willing to dwell longer on conflict, whether political, societal, or personal. American plays also call out hard truths, but they tend to give the audience a release earlier. The works I have seen on this trip let the audience stay in the moment of grief or injustice longer. It made me uncomfortable. And that is a good thing.

From one stage manager to another, I urge you to travel. Whether a tourist or working on a tour, find and chat with local theatre makers. You will be amazed by what we share in common, you will learn new ways of approaching identical challenges, and you will come to know yourself a little better.