You can save Theatre on the Square from certain demise

The Sandton based independently run theatre needs R2 million to survive Covid-19 induced closure as it launches crowd funding campaign.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

City Life Arts Editor – Edward Tsumele

The theatre is well situated and is accessible to the middle and upper classes of South Africa being at Mandela Square in Sandton. And for the past 27 years, this theatre run by playwright turned theatre administrator Daphne Kuhn has indeed delivered quality theatre, running as a business and not relying on government grants.

But come the Covid-19 Pandemic, the many years of toil and hard work by Kuhn and her team is threatening to unravel, unless something is done and done soon to save this important cultural institution in the northern suburbs, and of course in the country. And If this independent theatre is forced to close its doors for good, the implications are huge, and not only because The Fugard Theatre in Cape town, named after one of the country’s theatre luminaries Athol Fugard, has just closed, but because it will be harder for independent theatre in future to attract corporate funding again. This is because would be-corporate funders  would cite the two examples of independent theatres closing down as enough emperical evidence to support the view that there is no room for independent theatre in South Africa as they are not commercially viable and are not sustainable.

However Theatre on the Square has managed to survive over the years by programming its arts offerings meticulously, making sure that not only is its entertainment menu in general, and its theatre mix in particular, commercially driven, but that the quality is good too. For in theatre quality is everything, otherwise a venue starts losing fee paying audiences once it slacks as quality productions on its stages as they immediately go elsewhere. And these days options are plenty in the time of Netflix, Showmax, cinema, television soapies, music festivals, concerts and competition from casino based theatres in the case of Theatre on the Square as these are also based in the same locale.

But also  over the years, the theatre has survived through the business acumen of its owner, as Kuhn has managed to navigate the often elusive corporate Rand, by using marketing gimmicks such as prefixing the name of the theatre by the name of the lead sponsor and that is why at some stage the theatre was known by various names such as Liberty Theatre on the Square, Old Mutual Theatre on the Square and Currently Auto&General Theatre on the Square. Money talks as they say and something flies.

But unfortunately these marketing tools unfortunately only work well during normal times. In nay case they also have their course, which inevitably comes to to an end at some stage. But even more crucially, these are not normal times as Covid-19 is here, pushing many cultural institutions to the red line of closure, and Theatre on the Square is currently on that line.

But of course something can be done to save this theatre, and that is a call has been put out for Good Samaritans to prevail and donate funds, any amount through crowd funding.

Theatre on the Square has therefore launched an appeal on Thundafund seeking to raise R2 million to stage a full reopening with a repertoire of  dramas, musicals, comedians and concerts. Anyone can support its ‘Keeping the Lights On’ campaign by donating from R1 upwards, or by opting for one of the reward packages that gives them a return on investment.

“Our theatre has brought joy, upliftment, entertainment and education to thousands of theatre lovers, always embracing diversity and challenging minds. It cannot be allowed to die,” says Daphne Kuhn, its founder, owner and artistic director. “Every day I get requests from artists, musicians, playwrights and directors asking when we’re reopening.” 

Kuhn had already devised a fundraising campaign with a variety of benefits, and that has seen some money rolling in. But launching the appeal on ThundaFund allows people to donate instantly by just clicking on the website. 

Crowdfunding works by allowing hundreds or thousands of people to pledge whatever amount they choose. If a tipping point is reached by a set date, the money is given to the campaign. If the tipping point isn’t reached, all the donations are reimbursed and the organiser gets nothing. Those rules ensure that people only end up contributing to ventures that are financially viable. 

The theatre’s Keeping the Lights On campaign has set a tipping point of R300,000 by August 8. That would be enough to cover the first few months of reopening until the income from ticket sales carries it forward. But the dream goal of R2 million would ensure a full programme of high quality live entertainment for at least a year.

Its rewards packages start at R500 for individual membership, giving donors 50% discount on tickets for all shows produced by the theatre, plus invitations to special evenings, previews and discussions with the artists. Sponsoring a seats costs R1,200 a year, with your name inscribed on a seat and discounted tickets. Life membership for R10,000 gives you two complimentary tickets to the shows and your name inscribed on a plaque. Corporate membership for R10,000 a year comes with 12 complimentary tickets a month, the company name inscribed on a plaque, and its logos in the theatre programmes. 

The Theatre on the Square has been financially viable and artistically successful for 25 years, thanks to corporate sponsors and personal investments by Kuhn. But the Covid lockdown forced it to close, at the same time as seven years of corporate sponsorship from Auto & General came to an end.

More than 2,500 productions have been staged at this 200-seat theatre over the years. Kuhn and her team have sourced, financed and produced numerous new shows, giving many young playwrights and performers their first break. They have imported successful foreign plays, and hosted local musicians, comedians and children’s productions. Those shows have created work for thousands of actors, musicians, playwrights, directors, designers and technicians.

But it will now close permanently unless individual theatre-lovers and corporate sponsors come forward. The lockdown has already forced Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre into permanent closure, and Kuhn is afraid the Theatre on the Square will follow. “It’s a tragedy to see theatres closing, especially at this time when healing and upliftment is needed more than ever,” she says. “The arts are on the bottom of the priority list for financial support, but they’re an essential service that should be supported to keep South African culture alive.”

Kuhn hopes to reopen before the end of the  year, with all health protocols in place. The promised line-up includes local comedians Nik Rabinowitz, Loyiso Madinga and Ntosh Madlingozi; a new play by South African playwright Paul Slabolepszy; the international play Love and Money; a new musical revue; comedy sketches by local satirist Mike van Graan; and a new play starring Sylvaine Strike and Andrew Buckland. Lunchtime classical music and jazz concerts will also make a welcome return.

“This theatre is part of the cultural life of Johannesburg and has created productions that have toured the world, with the careers of many well-known artists launched here,” Kuhn says. “Live theatre is absolutely magical and we cannot possibly lose this amazing art form.”

The theatre’s Keeping the Lights On campaign is at:

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