Market Theatre ‘defies’ Covid-19 to give artists freedom of expression

By Edward Tsumele 

April is Freedom Month in South Africa, with April 27, officially declared as a national holiday in South Africa, and traditionally that day would be marked with colourful ceremonies taking place around the country. However with the global pandemic Covid-19 causing havoc around the world, including in South Africa, the celebrations will certainly take a different form and character this year as the government has declared a State of Disaster and with that restrictions are in place to try and curb the spread of the Coronavirus.

Among those restrictions is the order that no 100 people should assemble in one place anywhere else in the country, and as a result, institutions like theatres, museums, festivals and other mass events such as church gatherings have been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak in a way that has never been experienced before.  

The Market Theatre, like other institutions of a similar nature, has in accordance with these measure announced by President Cyril Rampahosa on March 15, taken steps to protect both the audience, its staff and artists from this health threat posed by Coronavirus.  

But instead of just reacting to the threat from the virus by simply closing its doors until the situation changes, just like in the past, the Market Theatre has taken on an activist role, and this time fighting a new enemy, the Coronavirus, and not the apartheid system of yesteryear. 

Among other measures the theatre has taken to fight for the rights of artists to express themselves and connect with the audience, is going digital on several platforms, to make sure that that although the theatre doors have been closed, and the stages have been rendered dark, the voices of artists are not completely silenced during this difficult times.. 

For example the first step that the theatre took was to protect the students at the award winning theatre school, The Market Theatre Laboratory, by closing the doors school of the school, but not the lessons, and therefore giving the students the freedom to continue receiving lessons even during this lockdown caused by the Coronavirus. 

“We have also suspended all contact teaching at the Market Theatre Laboratory and the Market Photo Workshop. Classes for students enrolled at the Market Theatre Laboratory will continue online.

The challenges of exposing our students to health risks under the current circumstances in crowded public spaces including taxi ranks and taxis is worrisome. Under the circumstances non-contact classes are in the best interests of our students. Our students will be assisted with being able to download data for their lessons. During the Market Theatre Laboratory’s online teaching programme the Market Theatre Laboratory’s teachers will be engaged to work from home to develop learning materials for the students.

In a sector where the sudden cancellation of employment for freelance arts teachers, facilitators and artists has become a major concern because of social distancing we want to ensure that our teachers are not affected by loss of income and that our students are not adversely affected. We are also going to develop similar strategies for students at the Market Photo Workshop. Even under these challenging circumstances our priority is to ensure business continuity, maintain service levels for you and provide care for our artists, audiences, employees and all other stakeholders,” says Market Theatre Foundation chief executive officer Ismail Mahomed (see separate article in this edition). 

Taking on an activist role during this difficult time, however is not something new for this institution. Historically, during the apartheid years, The Market Theatre has a solid track record for advocating for Constitutional democracy and freedom for all as part of its contribution to the struggle for democracy in South Africa since it opened its doors to all races in 1976. Opening its doors to all races, and casting multi-racial casts on stage at a time when apartheid laws did not allow that was an act of bravery, that saw many a time secret visits by members of the notorious Security Branch into the theatre.  

The institution defied apartheid and advocated for social justice through crafting and staging a then new form of political theatre genre known as protest Theatre. It was the first time in the history of theatre in the country that protest theatre became part of the theatre lexicon in the country. 

 The Market Theatre Foundation has been an advocate and watchdog of social and constitutional freedoms.  

The institution protested against oppression then through staging brilliant anti-apartheid plays that have included Woza Albert, AsinamaliBophaSophiatown, You Strike the Woman You Strike a Rock, Born in the RSA, Black Dog – Inj’emnyama, as well as the premieres of many of Athol Fugard’s award-winning dramas” and therefore positioning The Market Theatre’s history as intertwined with the cultural, social and political struggle for freedom in South Africa. 

And so many that have followed the history of The Market Theatre would understand why the institution in the face of the threat from Covid-19, would once again take an activist role, instead of completely silencing the voice of the artists, it is exploring new ways of engaging with the theatre’s audiences through exploring the possibility of live-streaming its productions and therefore also give the freedom to artists, many of them freelance, to express themselves and engage with their audiences even when the actual doors of the venues are closed. 

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