When Sibongiseni Mkhize took over the Robben Island Museum in 2010, he inherited an organisation plagued by labour disputes, cronyism and corruption. By the time his five-year contract was up, the world heritage site had largely cleaned up its act, boasting consecutive clean audits.
Now, Mkhize has been appointed chief executive of the SA State Theatre — and hopes are high in the arts world that this new broom will help revitalise Pretoria’s state-funded playhouse.
It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, not least because he is re-entering the performing arts fray (Mkhize held the reins at the Market Theatre Foundation prior to his Robben Island stint) during a fraught time for the sector. Producers and managers are desperately searching for the secret of filling theatres.
The State Theatre is still red-faced after receiving a qualified audit opinion for the 2014/2015 financial year, for inadequate internal financial controls and asset management, and for failing to spend a R20m capital expenditure grant from the department of arts & culture (which had been transferred into its account on the last day of the financial year).
Relatively minor though these infringements may be, Mkhize is not taking them lightly: “If your books are not in order, it limits your other funding opportunities,” he says resolutely. “How can you look after other people’s resources if you can’t look after your own? We are putting measures in place to deal with the qualification.”
The State Theatre is under close scrutiny as a public entity that receives in the region of R45m/year from the department for operating costs. It brings in roughly R25m in box-office receipts.
With annual visitor numbers sitting at around 135,000, it has to juggle its mandate of attracting new audiences with retaining existing ones — while developing performers, writers and directors and staging a diverse platter of works that pulse with artistic excellence. A significant employer in the sector, last year the theatre created 1,660 short-term jobs through its in-house productions.
Mkhize admits he is joining the theatre at a tough time for the performing arts, with a shrinking funding pie and audiences increasingly pernickety about how they spend their entertainment buck. But it was a challenge he simply couldn’t pass up.
“I’ve always been interested in joining the State Theatre,” says Mkhize. “It fascinated me that the Market had a distinct audience appeal, but what would be a big hit at the Market would often fail at the State Theatre. I enjoy a challenge — when I took over at the Market in 2004, it wasn’t an easy time, and Robben Island was an even bigger challenge. I seem to be attracted to these kinds of positions ... I’m an optimist. I wouldn’t have gone to Robben Island if I weren’t — and now here.”
All three institutions are funded with taxpayers’ money, and Mkhize says he places a high value on accountability and good corporate governance. At Robben Island, he had to make some tough decisions to bring back stability “and a sense of respectability” — “with no dodgy deals”, he emphasises.
“I had to embed a culture of consequences,” he says.
Aside from crunching the numbers, he also wants to bring a “buzz” back to the State Theatre. The Pretoria CBD is not widely regarded an entertainment “destination”, but he has a vision of a bustling theatre precinct circled by restaurants and shops.
Having recently headed a tourist magnet, Mkhize believes that the State Theatre should capitalise more on the cultural tourism opportunities that its location in the country’s administrative and diplomatic capital offers. Higher visitor numbers will have spin-off benefits for feeder industries such as hospitality and transport.
“We can contribute to the growth of the city’s economy,” he says animatedly. “Artists must contribute to the economic transformation of the country, so that young people, actors, technicians and so on benefit. And the more vibrant and busy we become, the more benefits there are to the city.”
Top of his to-do list is embedding good corporate governance, but he confesses that “the issue of audiences worries me ... to have 57% attendance on an opening night [for the recent production of Craig Higginson’s The Imagined Land] when you should be turning people away raises a red flag for me”.
Referring to the six Naledi Theatre Awards received by artistic director Aubrey Sekhabi’s musical on the Marikana massacre, he maintains: “It’s good to get recognition from the sector, but how do you translate that into audiences? Our audience development team has a difficult task, because the worst thing is a dark theatre. I hope an improved relationship between the local communities and the theatre will translate into audiences.”
The artistic programme for the next 18 months is a varied one. The theatre has enlisted the services of Bernard Jay, former chief executive of the Joburg Theatre and currently a producer-at-large (whose projects include the pantomime at his former place of work) to work his magic north of the Jukskei. He will produce a string of big-ticket hit musicals for the State’s massive opera venue — including Saturday Night Fever, Burn the Floor, Memphis: The Musical and The Color Purple. Most of these will feature SA performers.
But, warns Mkhize: “The bigger the show, the bigger the risk. It doesn’t guarantee it’ll make money. We need to find the right kind of product that will be supported by the right paying audience.”
Sekhabi, who was also the theatre’s acting CEO for a lengthy spell, says Mkhize’s appointment will enable him to get on with programming the complex’s six venues, with seating capacities ranging from 120 to 1,300 — by no means the easiest job in the world.
His artistic plan encompasses 10 programmes, including the main (or commercial) programme, community theatre, bubbling-under artists, jazz and stand-up comedy nights, work by independent producers (who receive 60% of the door takings), and “home theatre” that takes solo performances literally to Pretoria residents’ doorsteps.
“We know what we’re doing at the theatre until June 2017,” says Sekhabi. “We are now on a roll! It gives artists certainty, knowing they have work 18 months down the line and have plenty of time to apply to the National Arts Council and the lottery for funding. It makes our lives a lot easier.”
The theatre has made strides in building black audiences over the years (in December, for example, Ringo Madlingozi packed out the opera house), but Sekhabi is unambiguous about the intention of staging the big-ticket international musical hits: “Bring back the white audiences, and encourage more mixed audiences.”
By including musical dance works such as Siva by former Standard Bank Young Artist Luyanda Sidiya, Sekhabi is consciously trying to build an appreciation for contemporary dance in Pretoria. He also wants to attract the school-going market by including more setworks. But he’s been listening to what the people want too.
“The response from audiences has been: ‘Give us a break from one-and two-handers. We want more excitement, more vibrancy, more people on stage.’” So his challenge was to “stage new work that’s relevant and provides ample job opportunities for artists”.
Highlights for 2016 are a reboot of the musical play Sophiatown, directed by Malcolm Purkey; new play The President’s Man by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom (about how an embattled police commissioner is protected from criminal charges by his political overlords); and Gauteng Opera’s triple bill of short operas about Chris Hani, Breyten Breytenbach and 19th-century linguist Lucy Lloyd.
Also worth looking out for are Kgafelo Magogodi’s “jazz operetta” Songs of Nongoma, inspired by Credo Mutwa; Paul Slabolepszy’s new play Today Suddenly as well as his classic Mooi Street Moves; The Line, Gina Shmukler’s award-winning play about xenophobia; Afrikaans works by Jannes Erasmus (As) and Janel Jordaan (In Opstanding); a new play, Cell No 4, written and directed by Presley Chweneyagae of Tsotsi fame; and Mama, I Want the Black That You Are by Mpho “Fats” Molepo, dealing with the prejudice faced by people with albinism.
“We would love to have 2,400 people across all our venues in a day,” says Sekhabi. “If we managed that, we’d be firing on all cylinders.”
Perhaps it’s not for nothing that the registered name of the SA State Theatre is the Renaissance Theatre: hopefully a new dawn is imminent for the performing arts in the nation’s capital.