Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND)

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The team behind STAND comprises well-known individuals sporting extensive experience in and long-standing commitment to the theatre and dance sector. These include Gregory Maqoma (founder and artistic director of Vuyani Dance Theatre), Yvette Hardie (international president of ASSITEJ, a performing arts and theatre organisation for children and young adults), Saartjie Botha (director of Woordfees), Debbie Turner (CEO of Cape Town City Ballet), Unathi Malunga (entertainment lawyer and creative industries consultant), Musa Hlatshwayo (2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance), Ismail Mahomed (director of the Centre for Creative Arts), Ricardo Peach (director of the Vrystaat Arts Festival), Sbonakaliso Ndaba (artistic director of the Indoni Dance, Arts and Leadership Academy) and me.

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The COVID-19 lockdown emphasised the marginalisation of the arts generally and of theatre and dance in particular, as the latter two forms depend on “gatherings”, a primary factor in the spread of the coronavirus. But, even without COVID-19 restrictions, dance and theatre – more than most other art forms – will require support.

It is possible to download music and to listen through headphones. One can watch movies and documentaries on platforms like Showmax and Netflix. Kindles provide access to the latest literature. It is even possible to view and appreciate visual art and heritage artefacts through an online tool.

South African Theatre on Demand (SATOD) is a new initiative that seeks to provide access to theatre in much the same way as one can download movies. But, while it is, of course, possible to present theatre on web-based platforms, it is the live encounter between performers and audiences that makes theatre and dance unique. Performers feed off the energy of their crowds, and anyone who has watched a stand-up comedian trying to practise their craft in a studio without an audience – or playing to an audience through Zoom during the last five months – will know that it is “not the same”!

Theatre and dance are also the stepchildren of contemporary cultural policy that foregrounds and preferences those forms that can make it in the marketplace. Since the late 1990s, the department responsible for arts and culture has emphasised film, craft, contemporary music and publishing, as these are relatively sustainable in existing markets. Theatre and dance, however, are labour-intensive both in their creation and in their distribution. The best experience of a play or a dance is a live performance, and this requires a company to tour, which requires fees, transport and accommodation costs, per diems and the like, making it more of a challenge for these forms to survive without some form of subsidy or sponsorship.

It is against this background that a few friends and colleagues in the dance and theatre sector and I decided to launch the Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation, whose core purpose is to provide support to South Africa’s dance and theatre ecosystems.

The team behind STAND comprises well-known individuals sporting extensive experience in and long-standing commitment to the theatre and dance sector. These include Gregory Maqoma (founder and artistic director of Vuyani Dance Theatre), Yvette Hardie (international president of ASSITEJ, a performing arts and theatre organisation for children and young adults), Saartjie Botha (director of Woordfees), Debbie Turner (CEO of Cape Town City Ballet), Unathi Malunga (entertainment lawyer and creative industries consultant), Musa Hlatshwayo (2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance), Ismail Mahomed (director of the Centre for Creative Arts), Ricardo Peach (director of the Vrystaat Arts Festival), Sbonakaliso Ndaba (artistic director of the Indoni Dance, Arts and Leadership Academy) and me.

Both symbolically and in real terms, it is also about people within the sector crossing historical racial, language, cultural, political and other divides and coming together to work for the greater good of the dance and theatre ecosystem.

At the launch earlier this week, in his opening speech, Gregory Maqoma, chairperson of the STAND Foundation, said:

Experts dealing with the coronavirus pandemic often repeat the phrase that “we are safe only when we are all safe”; for as long as someone is infected, we are all potentially faced with an existential crisis as we are all at risk of being infected. We have extended this metaphor to our sector … rather than competing with each other for limited resources, or allowing the gap to widen between those who have historical and contemporary privilege and those who don’t, we need to overcome our divisions, to stand together and work towards a dispensation where we all benefit, where our whole sector is vibrant and sustainable …. The last 26 years have shown that we cannot depend on government … we have the right and the responsibility to look after ourselves … both because it is in our interests to do so – we are safe only when we are all safe – and because it is the right thing to do.

Individual patrons have been approached to contribute R10 000 towards the start-up funds for the foundation, and, to date, 28 patrons have pledged their support. In addition, Business and Arts South Africa and the Royal Netherlands Embassy have promised funding to STAND for its initial bouquet of projects.

Rather than provide artists with relief funding, STAND has taken a position to provide opportunities for practitioners within the sector to work and generate an income and so affirm their dignity at this time.

It is early days yet, but if STAND takes off and captures the imagination of both those who make their living within the sector and those who support contemporary dance and theatre, we could have a flourishing of these forms in the near future and, not least of all, a sense of pride and ownership as the sector takes responsibility for its own survival.

Buro: MvH
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