THINK BIG: State Theatre artistic director Aubrey Sekhabi has his programming lined up for this year. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
THINK BIG: State Theatre artistic director Aubrey Sekhabi has his programming lined up for this year. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

DARK theatres drive Aubrey Sekhabi crazy. For the artistic director of the South African State Theatre — who is also an award-winning playwright and director — it’s against the natural order for seats to be empty and stages deathly silent.

Yet this is precisely what has plagued many South African theatres for the past few years, and few have felt it as brutally as the Pretoria playhouse. When you’re running a cavernous behemoth on public funds, to the tune of R40m a year — it’s a huge responsibility. You are directly accountable to the taxpayer. But what makes it even more difficult is that most of the Department of Arts and Culture grant goes towards operating costs and maintenance, leaving a few million in the bank for artistic programming, a piddling amount when an original drama can cost R700,000 to produce.

Sekhabi dryly likens the huge complex to a ravenous animal that constantly needs to be fed — and is never satisfied.

And, subsidised or not, there is no 'golden talisman' that guarantees bums on seats, especially in a venue that was once a bastion of Afrikaner culture and has had to diversify its offering while not alienating its former audience.

Sekhabi, the 1998 Standard Bank Young Artist for drama, does not even attempt to put a gloss on last year, when "the wheels started coming off".

"The audiences were simply not there," he says.

This was most painfully evident in the inconceivable absence of patrons for Yael Farber’s decorated South African adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, renamed Mies Julie. The play came home from the Edinburgh Fringe laden with awards and critical acclaim. It was the toast of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and, more recently, New York, and is playing to packed houses at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. Yet its State Theatre run had to close early due to poor bookings.

"The irony with Mies Julie is that we’d been part of it since day one, and even helped fund it (and take it to Edinburgh). That it didn’t work at our venue — we have only ourselves to blame. I have never been that depressed in the theatre before. When we came back here from Edinburgh, we noticed it was not as ‘out there’ as it should’ve been. This year marks 100 years since the Natives Land Act (a major theme in the play), so the timing of the piece was on point. It was not supposed to fail."

The audience is there for drama, he insists, and the venue’s ticket prices are affordable: "We’d achieved so much, but over the past two years it’s deteriorated and started to rot. We need to tighten our marketing. We must also increase our outside sponsorship … and fund our own projects. Artistically, I think we’ve achieved a lot in the past five years, but administratively we’ve been very poor. We need to become more of a sales-driven organisation this year."

It will require more than snazzy public relations to lure audiences back. It is, therefore, encouraging that the theatre has set out specific goals to achieve by 2017 in its most recent strategic plan. It hopes to increase self-generated income, implement effective sales and marketing strategies and present a multifaceted range of productions that will attract diverse audiences.

Recently appointed CEO Quinton Simpson will also have his hands full, looking at alternative ways of generating income — hopefully his extensive business experience will bring in sustenance to help line the belly of this hungry beast.

Last year was, however, fairly stable on the programming side, with a strong mix of musicals, festivals and drama, most notably Afrikaans theatre maker Nicola Hanekom with her trilogy of cutting-edge site-specific performances, staged around Pretoria at incongruous venues such as public swimming pools.

"Even black audiences loved it; they were blown away," says Sekhabi. "It made me realise how much we have damaged theatre by separating ourselves. Theatre could have played, and can still play, a part in building social cohesion and tolerance. We have missed opportunities for nation-building (that can be achieved) through presenting a South African experience like Nicola’s work. We have to ask ourselves: what have we done to transform audiences?"

He acknowledges that last year’s much-panned musical Drama Queen, based on the life of the late singer, Lebo Mathosa, had its "creative challenges", but maintains it was a step in the right direction.

"Its success showed that South Africans are hungry for their own stories, and it’s about how to preserve the stories and do justice to them. We have the talent and our artists have the experience, but we play it safe and don’t take risks."

On that note, Sekhabi’s latest pet project is helping to develop a quality new South African musical. His vision to engineer the next Sarafina! or Ipi Tombi will, of course, face budgetary roadblocks. But this dream could come true as early as this year, as State Theatre resident director Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom is slated to co-write and direct his first musical, due in September.

Aside from telling local stories, Sekhabi believes developing audiences is critical to the survival of South African theatre. It’s for this reason the theatre complex is being increasingly positioned as a one-stop destination for live entertainment such as jazz, poetry, hip-hop, rock and comedy, not just "straight" theatre. This year will see contemporary dance returning and Sekhabi is eyeing mouthwatering programming such as Sandra Prinsloo in The Sewing Machine/Die Naaimasjien, David Mamet’s Race, Thembi Mtshali-Jones in Mother to Mother and a possible revival of Godspell.

Excitingly, the theatre will be hoping to generate revenue by touring Sekhabi’s acclaimed 1998 play, Silent Voice, as well as Rhetorical, his fascinating, Thabo Mbeki-inspired collaboration with Grootboom, and Vampire, which won the Mzansi Fela award for best production.

But being a publicly funded entity, the theatre also has an artistic development mandate and has made creditable, if largely untrumpeted, strides in that arena. Professional theatre makers and producers showcase their work at the annual Mzansi Fela Festival, which is attended by Edinburgh festival talent-spotters. Last year, the theatre took two promising young directors, Miles Pilzer and Kea Moeketsane, to Edinburgh.

Plus, the theatre cultivates young actors, directors and writers through its fieldwork programme with community theatre groups, and presents the Lottery-funded 52 Seasons artistic residency programme.

"If you look at the actors on the soapies today, it’s all our kids who have been through our training programmes."

The State Theatre wants to celebrate excellence and build audiences, ensuring that children grow up knowing and loving theatre, says Sekhabi, who has almost 20 years as an artistic director under his belt. "We have to ask of a production: is it relevant? And even if it isn’t: is it beautiful? Does it tap into the head? Is there a high performance standard? Can it attract an audience? You never really know."