I returned to my home in Newcastle at 4pm on Thursday 8th July, having left Grahamstown at 12pm on Wednesday. I can’t remember ever having spent so much time waiting for things: taxis, aeroplanes, shows...
...Later that night i was listening to music and thinking about the experience i’d just had. My home is hardly opulent, but the poverty of the black South Africans I’d seen in Grahamstown in comparison to my life humbled me. I’ve been proud of the collection of African masks in my lounge but for a while i couldn’t even look at them.
I went to the festival to represent the Sustained Theatre project, see theatre, make connections and identify opportunities for exchange between South African and UK artists. An overriding distraction for me was my concern about how much of the obvious additional income the festival generated ‘trickled down’ to the black African people who live there, who don’t own guest houses and bars or sell ‘craft items’ by the side of the road or in the markets.
I think I was most disturbed by kids of perhaps 9 – 14 who put some sort of grey makeup on their faces and would strike sometimes quite inventive tableaux all over the town to solicit small change from passers-by. I saw two of local youth theatre shows; both dreadfully staged, lit and confusingly written but performed with breathtaking energy and accomplishment. They sang and danced as if it was innate and effortless.
When I began to think about somehow those kids ending up in UK to perform – even if we could get through the labyrinthine workings of the UK Border Agency and organised (say) 3 months of touring, what would they have gained after it? I have no doubt that the energy and commitment of their performances would inspire some of our pampered teens, but eventually they would return to a place where their options are limited and their futures with it.
South Africa is still a place where white people Have and black people (in the main) Have Not. The contrast is stark and obvious. The creative industries provide one path out of poverty but we need to be very careful that any intervention on our part, however well intentioned, does no harm and is sustainable. The trip gave me new perspective on minority arts in UK. We don’t know we’re born in comparison to many parts of the world! I met actors for whom a debate the definition of “black” would be the luxury it is were it not for more immediate concerns like earning enough to live.
Sustained Theatre is not about what can be done for an individual, a group, a company, a region but for minority ethnic performing arts in England. There IS room at the table for all concerned if we don’t adopt ‘positions’ on things that ultimately block development. I am not suggesting that we meander about avoiding disagreement and accepting the unacceptable for the sake of a mythical “quiet life”, but that we negotiate those obstacles in a spirit of openness.
The picture is bigger than us: I return from Grahamstown with a commitment to sustainable and on-going international collaboration and a belief that, to be effective there needs to be a groundswell of participation from UK artists, venues and infrastructure support organisations. It’s not about “What’s in it for us?”; it’s about stating our individual contribution to Sustained Theatre and delivering it.
There is criticism and cynicism about Sustained Theatre from several sources, I don’t think it’s perfect BUT; the best thing about it is that it exists: It is a programme that is developing out of the contributions of creative professionals, it is organic, it has only begun to grow, nothing is being chiselled in granite, good ideas are welcome, there is still time to influence and change. If we brood and fume over what went before we will lose the opportunity to move forward to a successful future. If we are out-voted in a democratic process; do we withdraw and criticise from the outside or continue to contribute our skills and experiences anyway?
Grahamstown made me recognise my position of privilege, I am committed to supporting its development so that it CAN be a palpable force in the creative industries in UK and internationally.
Posted by Web manager, Monday 24th May, 2010