Many hidden gems in our arts industry will remain hidden as long as our socio-economic status determines the opportunities to become a theatre practitioner.
This is the view of Kgomotso Christopher, the newly appointed chairperson of the Naledi Theatre Awards. “Fewer and fewer children will view a career in the arts as viable and many who attempt to pursue the career, as writers, stage managers, lighting technicians or performers will simply give up on their dreams,” she says.
“There are many community theatre groups that are creating beautiful works of art that are never shared with audiences for lack of funding. Ironically, one also finds that some of these groups will receive donors and invitations to perform abroad while receiving the same support here at home is near impossible.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Christopher, a prominent theatre practitioner who has carved her name both on TV (Isidingo) and on stage, illuminated the plight faced by the theatre in South Africa.
She believes the private sector could play a far more significant role in sustaining the arts sector in South Africa, adding that “while we do have institutions that see the investment potential and benefit of partnership with arts ventures, we are a long way away from our international counterparts.”
She feels that support is also an operative word which needs to be used sparingly in discussions regarding the arts and the role that business plays within the sector. “I believe we need to move away from the traditional notions of theatre or the arts being seen as ‘charity cases’ in need of a few donations from business.
We need to extend the model of public-private partnerships between the arts and business. Business and Arts South Africa (Basa) is an institution that is spearheading this type of approach to sustaining and developing the arts.”
Asked her thoughts on the state of theatre in South Africa at present, she told me: “Through the Naledi Award adjudication process, as judges and arts practitioners, we are given a window into the vast, rich and vibrant tapestry of current South African works.
These range from brilliant new works to revivals of South African classics given fresh twists in order to expose them to the new theatre generation, and from international pieces to musicals.
“The Theatre For Young audiences concept is also growing and thriving.”
What hits home, however, is the lack of funding for the arts in general and theatre artists in particular, she notes. “There is a dire need for state funding and financial injection into this sector. Access to theatre is still an issue we grapple with. Most of our mainstream theatres are in the cities and primarily in white suburbia. While it’s a welcome development to have the Soweto Theatre, we need to move forward in affording other communities and townships state-of-the-art spaces such as the Soweto Theatre.”
Christopher maintains that fresh young talent is being given a reasonable voice to be heard. “We are not where we were two decades ago. More could be done to give financial access to new South African voices.”
She is passionate about acting and theatre and feels fortunate that this is also her career. “I am always looking for opportunities to help improve the state of the arts in South Africa.”
For the past four years, Christopher has been a Naledi judge for children’s theatre and spent a great deal of time discovering stage content for young audiences. Even more importantly, though, she gets to be re-inspired by the performances of young, future theatre-makers.
Christopher reveals that she took a keen interest in the arts from an early age and was creative in this field. “I can’t point to a specific person who influenced me in my formative years, given that in the 1980s and 90s while many brilliant black South African artists toured world stages, as young Africans we had no access to their works and talents.
“However, a confluence of experiences and exposure to the arts throughout my life led me to my chosen career path. In the small Tembisa township school, I attended, visiting community theatre groups ignited my love for performance. From a young age in school I included drama, dance and music as part of my extra-murals and ultimately matriculated at The National School of the Arts with a Drama Specialisation. I also took this further by obtaining my Master’s degree in theatre arts at Columbia University in the US.
Christopher sees her new role as creating and implementing the strategies and goals of the Naledi Theatre Awards, and working closely with the Naledi board and chief executive Dawn Lindberg.
“I will also serve in the capacity of spokesperson and representative of the awards in general.”
The Naledi Theatre Awards, which were recently held at the Teatro, Montecasino, in Fourways, have been in existence for 14 years and are recognised as the premier awards event on the Gauteng theatre calendar.
Its mission is to recognise and reward excellence in the performing arts, to raise the profile of live theatre and to create awareness of the abundant talent alive and well on South African stages.