Saturday, November 24, 2007

Log on to your patrons.

The perennial grumbling from producers about dwindling numbers in the auditorium may be traced down to a flaw in their relationship with patrons. Many theatre groups have no profile of their customers. Consequently, they have little clue of what to offer them or what it takes to keep them coming back and build on the numbers.

The occasional post-show mingling with only some patrons over a drink may be enjoyable, particularly when expressions of admiration are plentiful. But it is seldom useful in capturing the pulse of the larger audience. In this age of ICT advances, it should now be possible to relate with just about each and every one of our patrons and benefit from their insights on a regular basis. It is strange that most theatre groups do not even have an email address, let alone operate a website. Both of these tools are available for free on the internet. That only a handful of theatre groups are putting them to use is a humbling indictment of our ‘artistic’ aptitude.

Without constant interaction with patrons, development of all theatrical aspects will remain stunted. Artistes need to set themselves free from this warp, set up websites, activate discussion forums therein, send regular email updates, link up with other practitioners and catch up with e-commerce.

It is not creative to keep mumbling the tired lines of destitution when the necessary tools for emancipation are available.

Monday, November 12, 2007

How much to charge for a show?

Theatre groups in East Africa have for a long time grappled with this query and, almost always, have left the mathematics to ‘usual custom’. So that despite economic dynamics, entry charges to shows have remained static for years as if they are meant to be tokens from sympathetic patrons. The fact is that these charges are a revenue item in the productions’ profit goals and, like other factors, should reflect true inherent value.

And how do theatre houses fix their auditorium hire rates if, as is common in these parts, they are not involved in the nitty-gritty of the show production? Is there a costing process that guides their rates or, as is suspect, do the theatre managers simply calculate backwards from the bottom line expected by the house owners/shareholders? Callous as it may seem, the owners/managers are under no obligation to negotiate rates with theatre groups especially when the house is a private/company investment. Sadly for the groups, the hire rates constitute quite a big chunk of their meager expenditure budgets.

The low entry charges, high auditorium charges and pathetic marketing strategies set the stage for a cycle of box office commercial disasters, low quality shows and dwindling patronage. The numerous idle and dusty auditoriums are a sad monument to the inability of theatre groups to grasp business principles or keep pace with changes. Rather than concede this, most are content to blame the public for not being appreciative of theatrical performances and being lukewarm in their support.

The reality is that the theatre groups have inflicted upon themselves this festering wound. They have continued to price themselves out of business with commercially senseless rates that even demean their ‘brand name’ amongst potential patrons. They have been slow to acquire entrepreneurial skills to enable them manage engagements with other businesses for reciprocal support in the form of, say, advertisements. The number of their stage performances is inconsistent to impress theatre houses into arranging contractual hire rates… their foibles are seemingly endless.

It is time that artistes stopped the perpetual grumbling that theatre does not pay. It won’t pay, if they don’t make it pay!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Safety on stage

In these days of low-budget productions, little attention is sometimes paid to the inanimate objects that go to give the stage performance a complete ‘face’. A keen inspection would shock one at just how close we prance around disaster with such a casual approach to personal safety on and around the stage.

Are the artisans we engage in the crafting of movable/immovable stage props capable of not only comprehending the stage managers/directors instructions but also complementing them with their own knowledge of what is not only feasible and aesthetic but safe? Or do they just “how high?” when instructed to construct, say, a winding set of stairs? Engaging actors and their neighbors in this craft is risky. Your neighbor may be able to act in some crowd scene but asking them to help craft that set of stairs requires a tradesman who will identify where supporting beams or trestles would be required. Hiring one will of course rearrange your budget unpleasantly but think of opening night and your resplendent queen of Sheba comes crushing down with half of the winding stair case!

What about the lengths of electric wires which crisscross the stage floor and side flaps in an attempt to have the crucial sound effects of phones ringing and door bells going off ‘realistically’. Granted, they are often insulated and when not, convey insufficient electric current to electrocute anyone. But in the flurry of an exciting scene, masking tape that holds them in place is scrapped off the floor and a little later, a leg or two is entangled in wire… and humpty-dumpty they go down. The dialogues they invent to explain away the abrupt butt bouncing after they quickly arise are usually to the director’s horror.

And so it is with glassware, especially the idle ones that grace dining tables but never get to be used; and the butcher knives threateningly pointing at thieves of peoples’ husbands; the cigarettes drawn by ‘mean gangsters’ who have never smoked one in their lives; the floor drop after a husband’s disciplinary slap; the running chases around and over furniture…

It is one thing to wail skillfully on stage over the prostrate body of a dead uncle and quite another to discover that his stiffness on the stage floor is in part caused by a sizable splinter of wood sticking from his backside! Courtesy of some poorly constructed/broken prop. All this dangerous effort is understandably an attempt for authenticity. If the script says brandish a machete, machete it is. If the script says uncle drops drop dead, drop.

But what happens when that accident happens? How many theatre premises are insured? Indeed, how many theatre houses have in place functional fire fighting equipment? Or first aid kits appropriately stocked and located? Does any theatre house arrange for regular safety audits? Do they have fire teams amongst their staff? Do the theatre groups have amongst them persons with even basic skills to administer first aid? Do the theatre groups take some form of insurance cover?

We are talking lives. Those of your artistes and patrons. Think safety. Let not crossed-fingers be your safety sign. Impress upon your charges endlessly to always think safety first and tire not to inculcate a safety culture at your theatre premises.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Lights! Action!… power bills.

Harnessing something as elusive as the human imagination to create a set that will complement and enhance a dramatic production is every stage designer’s goal. Needless to say, well used stage effects will give every production that extra polish that greatly reflects on the artistes’ abilities.

Unfortunately, many theatre groups commonly find themselves saddled with obsolete equipment for their stagecraft. To start with, of course, they don’t own any theatre house and I bet very few are thinking along those lines. Most theatres in existent are of course monuments of our history for which not many would quite countenance to bring them down for the sake of modernizing.

But this is not to say that sections of them cannot be “touched”. The accessories and consumables for this old equipment are now hard to come by. I would not be entirely surprised if one our recently graduated electrician were to raise his arms in surrender were he to be asked to do a re-wiring job at, say, the “Little Theatre Club – Mombasa” (established in the 1930’s). Inevitably, costs for maintaining and/or hiring equipment for the good old theatre will continue to soar.

Producers need to get more pro-active in partnership with theatre managers in sourcing for modern day stage technology. Without a doubt, these accessories are now manufactured in a wide range of sophistication and at much lower prices - products covering all types of stage lighting, dimmers, moving lights, smoke machines, architectural lighting lamps, colour changing lanterns, video projectors, screens, star clothes, flame clothes… all with user-friendly modern control panels. Search and you’ll well be surprised to find that the friendly good old “dukawalla” that has been your supplier for a generation or so, has actually been ripping you.

Enriching the theatre experience for your patrons should not beyond you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Applauding mediocrity

Promoting mediocrity is not easy. True, the perception of what is and what is not good quality may be highly subjective. But the subjective eyes that determined yesteryear’s work to be of high quality are the self same eyes that are condemning most of today’s work as poor quality. Should we lower standards to accommodate everyone that puts pen to paper? Greatness will not be thrust upon budding playwrights. They must earn it. The problem with some of them is that they expect it at the first or second attempt. Do they have the capacity to persist, learn and achieve? Some of our contemporaries have a strange urge to be prolific even when they are churning out works that are consistent only in their dullness. Cobbling up colorless and uninspiring lines that are forgotten with the turning of a page or drawing of the curtain.

Contrast this with how effortlessly we are able to quote Okonkwo (Things fall apart). Or Mulili (Betrayal in the city).

The writers ought not to blame the reader or the publisher for their predicament. The reader is perhaps even more demanding than the publisher. And our writers’ weakness is their inability to gauge what the reader appreciates. It is not for the writers to “proclaim their tigritude”. And the publisher is certainly not in business to smooth over their foibles. They must simply measure up to expectations. Or be damned into carrying manuscripts in their coat pockets.

Ngugi, Mazrui, Imbuga are not messiahs. But there’s no denying that they and many of their contemporaries were inspirational writers. Their works have stood the test of time and provide a sensible starting point in an attempt to find out “when the rain started beating us”. We, today, are soaking wet, shielding ourselves with porous umbrellas. Ngugi, Mazrui and Imbuga are home and dry. Once in a while I look back with nostalgia and wonder why we haven’t taken after them. There must be something terribly amiss if I have to google for the “great” writers of my time. Good works are self evident and I will not attempt to trash their effort.

My plea to my brothers is to keep at it. I look forward to the day I’ll be singing their praises, not out of patriotic favor but in salute of greatness. It is not unachievable. Let us not go down as the generation that “got beaten”.

My grouse with the budding writers of the day is that they seem to be stuck in second gear. Perhaps too much praise from the assorted festivals and competition they attend has gotten to their heads. My challenge to them is to stop deluding themselves that they have “reached” and stretch their limits. They are the chicken that not so long ago had their legs tied with string to keep them captive at the market. They’re home now and need a little prodding from you and me to remind them that they’re now free. Free to read and write and do all that appertains…

Friday, October 5, 2007

Play reviews, artistes and quacks

There was a time when a play review would give a reader fair, all round peeks in the production. Probably the newspaper editors no longer find theatre arts worthy of their talented scribes, hence their contentment with shallow pieces from an array of quacks masquerading as critics/reviewers.

There is no denying that theatre artistes need the services of the print media. True, too, that placing a decent advertiser’s announcement is beyond most production budgets, leaving any chances of coverage to an editor’s whims. To many a desperate artiste, therefore, any coverage would be better than none. But then, but what value can possibly be added to a production by a three-paragraph “review” written in bland style by a wannabe scribe. None, I think. Unless an artiste thinks that a month’s mental and physical exertion by way of rehearsals can be sold off like a second-hand pair of shorts at the local market.

There is need for producers to interact closely with media editors to put their case for enlightened coverage. This means that producers themselves must of necessity be skillful and coherent enough to navigate their way in the corporate environment. Leaving things to fate will invariably invite shoddy treatment from a business that is forever cutting corners to beat deadlines. Some ‘reviews’ do really look like hurried copy-paste jobs to fill up blank space. A mention in the press may well excite a publicity-starved producer but its potential to disappoint an audience may well render it a valueless service. The theatre group will likely spend the ensuing days absorbing vilification from irate patrons while the scribe, the real con-artiste, will probably be ordering for another keg of malt, barley and hops. The not-so-creative fellow is not to blame for he does only that which is within his competence. Or lack of it.

It is infuriating to see some third-rate stringer fumbling with words to cobble a review of work they have neither read nor seen, profiling actors they have only heard of and generally committing acts of plagiarism.