Outside Market Theatre - Felix Maponga Photography

South African theatres could do with a lot more excitement. That’s not to say we’re lacking on great narratives or talent. Actors and actresses on our television screens, who started their careers in theatre, are proud of this. For them, theatre is where rawness and up-close talent is nurtured and witnessed. Best actress, SAFTA award-winner (for her role in e.tv’s Scandal), Masasa Mbangeni, says theatre audiences are somewhat predictable. “It’s almost like you know who’s going to come to watch a play,” she says.

Getting theatre to be abuzz and relevant means young people have to be excited about it. When the youth are involved, word gets around fast because their fingers are ever ready to take a picture, start a conversation, convey a message or debate issues on social media.

A visit to the Market Theatre, a historical monument that incubates South Africa’s heritage and raw talent in the Johannesburg inner city, becomes a thought-provoking one, considering the recent metamorphosis of its surroundings. Opposite the theatre is Newtown Junction, a mall that was officially opened in 2014 and is always teeming with young people on their phones.

Could social media be a gateway to helping South Africa’s dwindling theatre audiences fall in love with the stage again? Bonolo Sekudu goes in search of the answers

The idea that fresh audiences aren’t growing as expected is a concern. Since the opening of Newtown Junction, newly built apartment buildings and offices, one would imagine that people would not only pass by but that they would take interest in going into the theatre, but sadly not.

The increased presence of young people in the area hasn’t translated into bums on seats at the Market Theatre. Brand and Communications Manager at the theatre, Zama Buthelezi explains that they’ve made a commitment to unearthing new talent and exposing upcoming writers, directors and performers. “We want to make theatre less intimidating,” Buthelezi says. Are people not going to theatres because they feel it might be for specific folks? Or is their preference elsewhere?

Legendary playwright, producer and director, Welcome Msomi whose most famous work, uMabatha, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was written in 1943 when theatre was at its peak, concedes that theatre audiences have declined over the years. “To keep theatre alive, social media or digital trends need to be exhausted for it to be continuously relevant,” says Msomi.

The evolution of technology and a new generation means a disruption of existing norms. In townships, where theatre’s footprints were first set, the medium was not just storytelling it was entertainment and a way of life, a powerful medium of expression in apartheid South Africa. Today theatres in townships, that once housed the finest entertainment, are dilapidated and decayed buildings. Audiences seem to have moved on. The convenience of bingeing on a TV series is too attractive. In 2016, gadgets are the preferred mediums of entertainment, convenience and comfort. Take for instance, Netflix – subscribe to it and you get to stream movies, documentaries and TV series at your leisure via a smartphone, tablet or even laptop.

Why the numbers are stagnant in theatre could be attributed to the fact that what was entertainment then for young people, is not a widely preferred outlet for entertainment today. Inside the Market Theatre, there’s a mature and wise perspective on the status of theatre in South Africa. Known as the godfather of South African theatre, Dr. John Kani, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Philosophy in 2013 by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, commands my attention with that unmistakable voice of his. “Theatre will never die. It is timeless, theatre is the descendent of the great storytellers. Theatre is not just entertainment, it is art and a lens through which we view our society,” declares Dr. Kani. You can’t argue with a man who has an empressive 40 year-plus body of theatrical work. But you can reason with him...

Masasa Mbangeni in The Dying Screams of the Moon, seen here with fellow cast member Tinarie van Wyk Loots

While there is talent and interest in townships, he says it’s challenging to access theatres in urban areas. The perception that theatre is accessed and enjoyed by the elite, predominately white audiences, is one that Msomi protests against. To him, “theatre practitioners need to find a way to make theatre more accessible for different demographics in the country,” in order for the art to be passed over to the next generation.

Dr. Kani and Mbangeni are currently working together on a play, written twenty years ago by arguably one of our country’s best writers, Zakes Mda called Dying Screams of the Moon. It was prophetic of Mda to have written that work two decades ago because today, the subject of land and identity is being debated, and this is at the core of what the play’s about. At 73-years-old, Dr. Kani says content in digital spaces lacks insightful and influential ability. But I tend to disagree. Young people have simply moved their conversations to different platforms. Identity is an issue young people have taken interest in on social media. Debates about racism and land redistribution are always trending. The cyberspace has become confrontational and personal; opinions and questions are uncensored. These might not be expressed through art but are a reflection of our society today. The challenges in South African theatre are not isolated. Solutions are being constantly forged. International counterparts are not letting theatre die, instead they’re using technology to engage audiences by making theatre available on the Internet. In Britain, sites like Digital Theatre allow for people to view theatre via social media just by clicking a button to purchase the entertainment. In America, extensive marketing and advertising on social media seems to be working, what with the success of Fela! on Broadway in 2012. Although South African theatre might not have big budgets, it has social media, and it may be time for our theatres to rethink their marketing. “If we could have anything from America’s theatre industry, it’s their budget and marketing abilities that’s all,” laments Mbangeni.

Theatres need to be mindful that new audiences may come when a new approach is used. It’s not that young people don’t care – they do. They tend to engage with platforms they perceive to be cool, easily relatable and accessible, the way social media is. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the future of theatre is in need of rigorous and targeted social media interaction.

South Africa’s Historic Theatres

Market Theatre: The iconic Market Theatre, situated in Newtown, opened in 1976 and challenged the apartheid regime by addressing social and cultural issues at the time. The venue has three theatres, two art galleries and a cabaret venue. Today the Market Theatre still tells stories that tackle identity, racism and other issues that shape South Africa’s society. www.Markettheatre.co.za

State Theatre: The Pretoria Theatre on Church Street in the CBD was opened in 1981, and has five theatres featuring shows like opera, ballet, musial, drama and cabaret. It embodies the preservation of heritage, and embraces culture and local talent. www.Statetheatre.co.za

The Joburg Theatre: Previously known as the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, and owned by the City of Johannesburg, this theatre was opened in 1962 and rebuilt between 1987 and 1992. The Braamfontein complex stages home-grown productions and Broadway musicals, and houses four theatres, including the Nelson Mandela Theatre, and it also has dance studios. www.Joburgtheatre.com

Artscape Theatre: is the main perfoming arts centre in Cape Town. It was opened in 1971 and features an opera house seating almost 1 500 people, a theatre seating 540 people, and a small venue for 140 people. It was formerly known as the Nico Malan Theatre but was renamed when it was privatised in 2001. www.Artscape.co.za

The Baxter Theatre Centre: Built in 1976, the Baxter was a pillar of hope during the apartheid era. By leveraging its strong relationship with the University of Cape Town, the theatre was able to present multi-racial, progressive work at a time when all other racial interaction was banned or censored. The Baxter boasts a world-class theatre, rehearsal rooms and a studio stage. www.Baxter.co.za

The Playhouse Company: was originally opened in 1935 in the heart of Durban on Smit Street. It offers a variety of theatre experiences and incorporates an opera auditorium, drama auditorium, cinema for corporate presentations, a loft and an intimate venue used as an experimental theatre. www.Playhousecompany.com