Many theatre-makers on the Fringe of the National Arts Festival often wonder what they need to do to attract audiences in a highly competitive market with more than 300 productions on the Fringe alone, in addition to the Main programme’s offerings.

The Festival has released its 2016 attendance figures (“…ticket sales and attendance at Festival events totalling 227 524”) and a list of the top 30 Fringe shows in terms of gross income.   What, many may ask, are the “top 30” doing to get their share of the 220 000 plus people attending the Festival?

Both for the sanity of fringe theatre-makers and for informed marketing, it is necessary to interrogate these figures.

The first myth to debunk is that 227 524 different individuals attend the festival in Grahamstown; the town itself has a population of less than 100 000, and it simply does not have the infrastructure to support its own population, let alone accommodate an increase of more than 200% in its population albeit for only ten days.  The Festival statement talks of “ticket sales and attendance at Festival events”, a combination that includes festival attendees who generally buy multiple tickets, and free attendance at festival events such as exhibitions.  The Festival calculates attendance at Fringe and Main exhibitions at 50 and 120 persons per day respectively (that was a few years ago; I’m not sure if these attendance figures are subject to inflation), and such free attendance is included in the overall attendance figures.

To my knowledge, the Festival has never released data of actual Fringe ticket sales and actual Main programme sales per genre that would give Fringe artists a better idea of the realistic size of their potential market.  If one removes the free attendance figures from 227 524, and then subtracts the ticket sales for main programme events, what is the figure for actual Fringe ticket sales?  And, more tellingly, what is the total number of tickets available for sale on the Fringe, versus the actual number of tickets sold?  From actual ticket sales on the Fringe over the last ten years, how many Fringe productions could expect to generate 50% box office income?  My suspicion is that the answer to this question would be “less than 80%) i.e. there are simply too many productions on the Fringe for the size of the Fringe market for the average producer to generate a reasonable box office income.  It is unlikely that the average Fringe theatre producer will make sufficient money at the Festival to cover festival expenses, let alone production costs.

And yet, some are doing well on the Festival Fringe, and the Festival tells us that there were three “sold out” productions on the Fringe, including my own show, Pay Back the Curry.  However, contrary to what one would expect, only two of three “sold out” shows featured in the top 30 sellers at the Festival, which reflects the need for further interrogation of the figures.

Of the three “sold out” shows, Big Boys the Third had 12 shows, Brent – A Mobile Thriller had 16 and Pay Back the Curry had eight.  But, although Brent had the most shows, it could only accommodate a mobile audience of three at each show so that its total “sold out” audience would be less than 50% of one Curry show in the 100-seater Masonic Hall Front.  On the other hand, despite Curry selling out all of its eight shows, it achieved less than 50% of the “Big Boys” total audience since they played 12 shows in the 220-seater Kingswood Theatre.

Being “sold out” means different things depending on the size of the venue, and while it may be theoretically true, “sold out” does not necessarily equate in practice to high income.  Still, it is very rare for a show, particularly a new one such as Curry without any previous profile at the Festival, to sell out all its shows, and even for Big Boys with its previous popular incarnations, achieving this distinction is no mean feat.

According to the Festival release “comedy continues to dominate the National Lottery Fringe accounting for 49% of ticket sales. Follow Spot Production’s Bon Soir 1.5 topped the leaderboard of top grossing productions, closely followed by the same company’s Big Boys the Third and the perennial Raiders franchise from Theatre for Africa.”

Of the 30 top-selling shows, 19 are listed in the comedy category (63%) and 7 in theatre (23%) with illusion (2), dance and musical theatre (1 each) making up the rest.  Twenty-five of these shows (83%) had six or more performances, and 18 (60%) charged ticket prices of R80 or more, with Raiders being at the highest end at R120 per ticket.  (Most of the theatre shows on the Main Programme were priced at R75 or below).  At least 25 of the top-selling shows were presented at the National Arts Festival before, either in their current form or in another form, with the title and/or participants recognisable to the Festival audience.  Even within these top-selling shows, there would be a wide range of “gross income” from the high R40 000s shows to the R200 000 plus shows.

From the above, the following deductions may be made:

1 A combination of a long run (6 or more shows), relatively high ticket prices (R80 or more) and a large venue (150 seats or more) are ingredients – though not definite guarantees – for a top-selling show on the Fringe

2 In addition to the above, having a production in the comedy genre is significantly more likely to attract an audience than the theatre genre.

3 “Brand recognition” in the form of production titles or artists who have profiles at the Festival and beyond, is a significant factor in driving ticket sales.

We conducted some – not particularly scientific – research over the course of Curry’s run at the Festival principally to determine how people became aware of the show, and then what persuaded them to buy tickets.  From the responses to more than 220 questionnaires, we concluded that the primary ways in which people became aware of our show were:

1 through the Festival programme (we had a full-page colour advertisement in addition to the insert that all shows have) (38%)

2 through word-of-mouth (others who had seen the show as part of its development process in Cape Town, or at the Festival itself) (22%) and

3 through a teacher i.e. they attended as part of a school block booking (12%)

The latter, I believe, was significant to our success as it helped to fill up the first two shows (an important strategy both to get out word-of-mouth about the show, and to build ticket-buying momentum for the remaining shows).  Our first show was sold out before we arrived in Grahamstown and the reasons for this may be gleaned from the answers to the second key question i.e. what convinced you to buy tickets for the show?  The primary reasons given were:

1 the comedy genre, thereby affirming the Festival’s release about the importance of comedy for the Festival market (25%)

2 the title of the piece and the writer were the joint second reasons for people buying tickets (15% apiece) followed jointly by

3 the director and being part of a block booking (10% each).

The director, Rob van Vuuren, has a strong festival brand (as is reflected in his having three other shows in the top-selling band of 30 shows), and some schools have prescribed my plays, which accounts for some of the school block bookings.  Word-of-mouth is imperative at the Festival itself based on the quality of the production, but genre and artist brands account importantly for pre-Festival ticket sales (we had sold more than 50% of our tickets by the time we opened).

We did not have a poster (usually an expensive marketing item that is lost in poster clutter), but we did have flyers as well as advertisements in Cue.  Cue does not carry the “Fringe in a Flash” reviews on days when the show is not happening, and with our actor being involved in three other shows at the Festival, we did not run for two days in the middle of the Festival.  We were fortunate to have two Cue reviews (one “Fringe in a Flash” and one from the Cue specialist theatre writer), but from the research, the Cue reviews were less important than general word-of-mouth and other factors listed above, in driving ticket sales.  Through an administrative error, our “Fringe in a Flash” review was not listed on a further two days when we did have shows, but word-of-mouth kept up the sales momentum with numerous punters having to be turned away at the door for the last shows.

There are clues in the above information and analyses that may provide producers with insights about the kind of shows and the marketing of their shows at future festivals.  But, beyond these figures, there is another tale that is being told which the Festival – and more broadly, the theatre sector – needs to address, and this is a tale of inequality within the sector – still principally along racial lines – and as reflected in the Festival in a range of ways.

Applying a general classification of “black” and “white” shows where the participants in each are wholly black or wholly white respectively, and “mixed” where there is a combination of black and white creatives, it would appear that:

1 of the top-selling 30 shows, 21 are white, 6 are mixed and 3 are black

2 85% of the 81 black shows are theatre with 15% comedy, compared with 43% theatre and 57% comedy for 65 white shows, and 40% theatre and 60% comedy for 42 mixed shows

3 85% of black shows have five performances or less, compared with 32% white shows and 31% mixed shows

From the above figures and anecdotal experience of the various shows I attended at the 2016 Festival, it may be possible to make the following generalised deductions (and I would welcome alternative analyses):

1 that black shows are generally concerned with the exploration and depiction of black life experience which continues to be painful and challenging

2 that the Festival market/audience, still overwhelmingly white and historically privileged, has more of an appetite for comedy and escapism than with learning about, or being exposed to “black pain”

3 that most white and mixed theatre producers have an appreciation of this market and provide this market with what it desires

4 that, for as long as the Festival market remains as it is in terms of its demographics and buying power, black shows will struggle to generate income, let alone break even at the Festival

5 that, with the market being overwhelmingly white, there are few brand names in black shows that this market knows or identifies with

6 that black shows are treated differently by the Festival in that relatively few are given 6 or more shows in which to develop an audience

7 that black shows may be “ghettoised” with a number being allocated to a particular venue e.g. the Glennie Festival Centre, with its incredibly poor sight lines (from two rows back)

8 that the Festival structure/system – allocation of venues, lengths of runs, Cue reviews, Ovation awards, etc – does few favours for black shows, and generally favours white and mixed shows

Conclusion

While the Festival claims the Fringe to be a democratic space in which all artists have the right to compete with each other equally, this simply is not the case.  Those of us with theatre and marketing skills, access to resources to create works with superior production values, festival histories, brand recognition within the primary festival markets, who speak and work primarily in English, who live in the more urban centres and who lead relatively privileged lives in the context of contemporary South Africa, are far better able to compete in the Festival market and on the terms set by the Festival.

The Festival attracts public sector sponsorship – from the Eastern Cape government, from the National Lotteries Commission, the National Arts Council and over the next three years, R17m from the Department of Arts and Culture – on the basis of its much vaunted economic contribution to the province and to the city of Grahamstown.   However, there is little interrogation of the actual beneficiaries of the Festival’s economic impact; as with the Festival itself, I suspect that it is largely the historically privileged and resourced who are the primary beneficiaries of the Festival’s economic impact (certainly the stubbornly high levels of poverty and unemployment in Grahamstown over a long period of time do not tell a story of Grahamstown’s indigent benefiting from the Festival).  These public funders either do not have the capacity nor the political will really to interrogate the economic and social impact of the Festival, and appear to be happy to tick some box and to accept the word of the Festival, which at a superficial level appears to be have “transformed”.

In a previous exchange on this theme, it was pointed out to me that the Festival is not only about the economic impact (ironically by someone who drafted the report on the economic impact of the Festival to prove its worth to donors), but also about the opportunities that it provides artists to carve out a name for themselves, to build their brands and to learn from other shows at the Festival.  It is on these premises too that the Festival largely fails black artists on the Fringe.  The Festival presents a huge learning opportunity for theatre practitioners, particularly from less-resourced provinces, to observe theatre from other parts of the country and even the world, and that could inspire them and provide insight into different forms of presentation.  Many black theatre practitioners simply do not have the means to purchase tickets to see other shows on the Main or Fringe, and notwithstanding the artist ticket that allows practitioners free entry into shows when seats are available, in practice, it would appear that a kind of “audience stokvel” prevails, with casts of one black show being provided with free access to other black shows in exchange for similar access, and so that at least these shows have something of an audience.

The Festival has put the municipality on notice, advising it of the potential loss of the Festival if the municipality does not arrest the infrastructural decline e.g. water shortages, that impacts adversely on the experience of festival attendees.  With the changes taking place within the Festival’s leadership currently, and with the availability of three-year funding from the DAC, it is an opportune moment for the Festival – in co-operation with the broader theatre community – to reflect on itself, both as a symptom and as a contributor/perpetuator of the divides and inequalities within the sector, and to take serious, concerted action to address these.

It’s all very well staging and celebrating a production of Animal Farm that speaks to the perpetuation of historical inequalities under a new political regime “out there”; however, we would do well to reflect and do more introspection about the Animal Farm that is us, about the divisions and inequalities between shows and producing companies at the Festival, and the South African theatre sector more broadly.

With less arrogance from the Festival’s leadership, and more of a vision and political will to address these inequalities, it will not take that much in the way of goodwill, effort, time, planning and resources to contribute to real, rather than superficial transformation of the theatre sector and of the Festival itself.

Main Photograph: Pay Back the Curry is framed

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