BWW Blog: On the Meaningful Recognition of Theatre for Young Audiences at South African Theatre Awards Ceremonies

Sispho Mbopha, Lubabalo Nontwana and
Sivuyile Dunjwa in TREE / BOOM / UMTHI
Photo credit: Mark Wessels

I have to publish a correction, it seems. In my column last month on the 51st Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, I wrote that there was still 'no recognition of theatre created for young audiences' within the structure of the formal awards presentation. That said, the presenters had at least acknowledged the outstanding work of Assitej to promote theatre attendance amongst the youth of South Africa in their links.

The exclusion of productions of theatre for young audiences was something I had not considered myself until two years ago when Lindy Abromowitz Sachs commented on an article I had written about that year's ceremony. She asked, 'Now when does the Fleur Du Cap panel begin to recognise Children's Theatre's contribution to the Arts??' I am rather surprised that I had not noticed this glaring omission myself, as I wrote several scripts and scores for children's theatre productions in Port Elizabeth between 2000 and 2007. With each of those productions, I never failed to wonder at the power of theatre to engage children and was always reverent of the fact that no theatre audience more honest than one comprised of youngsters. When I switched up the way that I wrote about the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards this year, reviewing the ceremony itself rather than discussing the nominations, I thought it might be time finally to address the concern raised above myself.

In response to my column, Tracey Saunders, a member of the judging panel for the awards, offered a "small correction" on my Facebook wall. She stated that 'theatre for younger audiences that meet the criteria are eligible and are judged alongside all the other productions'.

SADAKO, the sole winner of a Fleur du Cap
Theatre Award for a production created for
younger audiences in the last five years
Photo credit: Allison Foat

The criteria that productions need to meet for consideration at the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards is a run of eight performances over three weeks in the same venue.

Saunders seemed dissatisfied when I countered her comment, stating that this was a technical inclusion that I found lacked meaning as a gesture of recognition, as it almost without exception has excluded productions of theatre for young audiences from being recognised even at the level of a nomination for a Fleur du Caps Theatre Awards. She replied:

'I believe that theatre for young children is vitally important... as do the rest of the panel. It may be a technical inclusion to you but it means that theatre for [children] is not treated as "less than". I am sure the panel would welcome your advice about to broaden the scope and give theatre for young people the recognition it deserves.'

While this is unarguably a good company line, I wondered to what extent that attitude has translated into action and whether this allowed the kind of access to the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards that this 'vitally important' form of theatre 'deserves'.

De Klerk Oelofse in VLOOI EN DIE EILAND
Photo credit: Michael Hammond

Over last five years, only two of the 373 nominations have been for theatre created specifically for younger audiences. Both were for SADAKO, which the Hearts and Eyes Theatre Collective billed as 'real theatre for young people': Paul Abrams was nominated for his lighting design and Janni Younge for the puppetry award. Younge won in her category. This means that 0.5% of the competitive nominees and 0.3% of the winners in competitive categories have represented productions of theatre for young audiences.

(Could it be argued that De Klerk Oelofse's nomination this year for the pantomime, LIEWE HEKSIE: FLOWER POWER, should be included here? Possibly, but then where does one draw the line? Does THE SOUND OF MUSIC suddenly fit the bill, because it is family friendly and includes children in the cast? I think not in the case of productions of like the latter, but should we add the former into the equation, the percentage of competitive nominations awarded to theatre for young audiences rises to 0.8%.)

The next thing to consider is how many productions in this genre meet the criteria set out by the Fleur du Cap Awards. There are not many. In fact, runs of productions created for young audiences tend to average out at about two weeks, with many running for a shorter time span and only a couple hitting the hallowed three-week mark. On the other hand, a considerable number of productions run for eight or more performances. In the 2013/2014 season at Artscape, for instance, the magnificent TREE / BOOM / UMTHI was performed 29 times in the Isibaya venue, albeit over a period of ten days.

The reason for these more intensely structured runs is an obvious one: many productions of theatre for young audiences are restricted by the length of the school holidays when the school-age target market is available to attend the theatre. Because of this reality, access to the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards is denied to most productions of theatre for young audiences because of very specific logistics that apply to this form of theatre.

Candice van Litsenborgh in
Photo credit: Pat Bromilow-Downing

More of those unique specificities are reflected in the fact that theatre-making processes and performances in productions of theatre for young audiences are disciplines in their own right. Writing VLOOI EN DIE EILAND makes different demands on a playwright than writing SAMSA-MASJIEN does, directing MAKE WAY FOR NODDY! requires strategies that BALBESIT does not, and performing in ALICE IN WONDERLAND requires actors to negotiate different complexities than they might face in WEST SIDE STORY. Simply to judge these elements alongside everything else with the justification that they are not being treated as 'less than' is a denial of the truth that productions of theatre for young audiences are "different than" plays and musicals in mainstream and independent commercial theatre. The acknowledgement of differences between disparate forms of theatre does not equate to reduction. Quite the opposite, in fact: the acknowledgement of a theatre form's unique disciplines is a gesture of respect. Why else would one separate, for instance, performers who act in plays from those who act in musicals?

Tonight, the Naledi Theatre Awards will present awards for the Best Production for Children (Ages 0 - 12) and the Best Production for Young Audiences (Ages 13 - 17), both supported by Assitej SA. An award for the Best Performance in a Children's Theatre Production will also be presented. Were the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards truly committed to recognising theatre for young audiences in a meaningful way, not only would categories similar to those at the Naledi Theatre Awards be introduced, but the criteria for these awards would also shift to accommodate the constraints within which the majority of productions in this style have to be produced.

So, for the record, the correction: in my article on the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, I wrote that 'there is still no recognition of theatre created for young audiences'. The recognition is not non-existent, but it is meaningless, and will remain so until the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards programme embraces the unique role that theatre for young audiences plays in developing the young minds and hearts that are the future of this country.

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From This Author David Fick

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