Opinion: The Gong Remains The Same, Or Getting Star-Stuck

April 19, 2015



Before this year’s Naledi Awards, there was a Facebook kerfuffle about the nominations, and during and after the show, there was more of the same sort of chatter – verbally, this time – in the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City and in the lobby outside.

The Naledis have always been a troublesome enterprise, sometimes because of factors that are difficult to change. One of those is a lack of the sort of significant, sustainable sponsorship that would free organisers Des and Dawn Lindberg from the necessity of relying on the same small group of supporters to get the show mounted and marketed. Another is the politically-charged role that arts play in South Africa (for better or worse) and the exponential increase in pressure on commentators on those arts – in this case the Naledi Award judges, and perhaps those who judge them – to toe the line when it comes to trying to please at least some of the people all of the time.

The rest of the people, and this is not a fixed group, are the actors, writers, designers, producers and other creative sorts who are up for the range of awards on the Naledi roster each year. Each – bar perhaps the rookies, the young and the naïve – is acutely aware of the shortcomings of the system that’s been set up to reward their work. They also know that there are painfully few platforms, and only a couple on the scale of the Naledis, on which any theatre work is rewarded.

This knowledge quite often results in a difficult dichotomy: nerves and a sincere hope that their name will be inside one of the envelopes in a year in which they’re nominated, and cynicism and/or scorn (depending on a number of factors, including the number of glasses of wine consumed during the pre-show cocktail reception) in those years in which they haven’t made the nominees list.

This emotional seesaw has continued for over a decade now – the awards show turned 11 this year – and the ups and downs are starting to wear on certain members of the community the Naledis are designed to serve. The fact that a different group of artists will be nominated each year as different shows are launched and have runs (successful or otherwise – box office receipts don’t come into the reckoning here, which is good, though sometimes disturbing) means no individual is likely to have the same perspective on the failings and strengths of the awards two years in a row. This means other than the simmering dissatisfaction that occasionally boils over – as in this year’s Facebook scenario – there are no really solid reasons to overhaul the system, and even if there were, taking the accumulated labours of 11 years and gambling them on something that may be no better than what currently exists can hardly be considered an attractive option for the producers.

So where to from here? Creative temperaments, egos and politics are an imflammatory mix at the best of times, and when the money connected to a cause is thin on the ground, those aspects of the situation become the major currencies. An obvious plus would be to make the awards less about acclaim only and more about concrete concerns, More bluntly put, decent wodges of cash would go a long way to keeping artists committed to the awards, as bonds, medical expenses, petrol, food and other such niceties remain concerns whether an actor is working or not, or whether what they’re doing has any artistic value or otherwise.

The Jerry Maguire line “Show me the money!” doesn’t, however, work on corporates or government departments, so this simplistic (vulgar?) solution to the problem can’t, in all likelihood, be factored in to planning for next year.

There are, however, some minor nips and tucks (some of which have been mentioned before) that wouldn’t go amiss as the Naledis bring up their dozenth instalment next year.

For one, it’s a theatre event. As things stand, hosts and presenters often have little to do with that industry, except in a peripheral sense. There will be members of the TV community who tread the boards and vice versa – indeed, director Bobby Heaney, who received one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night when receiving his award for helming Pale Natives, is a popular member of both camps – but in a big room packed with theatre professionals there are certainly enough attractive, smart, talented people to handle reading a couple of paragraphs off a tele-prompter. And letting a few more of them do so may help to build more of a feeling of general solidarity, or at least ensure that in-jokes find a receptive audience.

That said, the addition of Conrad Koch and his popular Chester Missing puppet gave a welcome edge to proceedings, constantly drawing attention to theatre foibles without mocking those whose sillier traits were thrust into the spotlight. His cut-and-thrust approach also meant that the pace of the evening was good, with Chester helping to move things along at the speed of, er, beige. Similarly satirical takes on matters are likely to remain effective going forward.

Decent pacing doesn’t help when time that might have been saved is filled with the addition of new awards, however, and even the addition of another War Horse puppet (the production and in particular the Handspring Puppet Company received the inaugural World Impact award) to the cast list couldn’t disguise the fact that unwieldiness remains an unfortunate touchstone of this event.

There are annual mutterings about the Naledi judges and the way the system works, and that’s to be expected for any event where winners and losers won’t – can’t, really – agree with the official line on an ongoing basis as their position on or off the podium changes relative to the judges’ opinions.

But having a known, more or less static group of people responsible, year in and year out, for theoretically giving the careers or a range of creatives a shot in the arm doesn’t make a huge amount of sense in integrity terms. The theatre industry in South Africa is not a huge one, and apart from there being the problem of individuals simply not liking other individuals and letting such feelings cloud their judgment, there is also the issue of there being men and women who are playing more than one role in the business – a producer who occasionally acts, a critic who also does PR, an agent who also dabbles in scriptwriting and so on – whose ability to separate their roles may come into question.

A rotation system would be relatively easy to organise, with judges having three years on and then an obligatory sabbatical year out of the loop before becoming eligible to judge again. Apart from making the judging more obviously, even measurably, impartial, such a system would also help to boost buy-in from critics and other potential panel members, increasing the sense of ownership the Naledi organisers must be hoping to inspire in the ceremony’s audience. The often troublesome question of political correctness might also be better handled – or the conclusions reached more widely accepted – if different judges with different agendas had a chance to give their input.

Get all of that right and the rewards of winning would very likely become more meaningful. Cash might still be unforthcoming, but if the focus is squarely on theatre folk and their direct affiliates (journalists and critics who care about the art involved, rather than the social possibilities of a glamorous night out), that bunch of people will leave the auditorium convinced that each year’s winners should be snapped up for new projects immediately before their mojo wanes.

From there, the final step is to make the Naledis about vision rather than personalities (other than the nominees). Put another way, that’s like thinking of the Disney phenomenon in terms of the magic and possibility that comes with wishing on a star – “naledi” in Sotho – rather than paying R70 for candy floss.