Monday, 9 July 2012

Chasing an audience!

I did not post last week, as I climbed in a quantum last Monday morning to travel to Grahamstown for the opening of CHASING (directed by Nicola Haskins) at the National Arts Festival. Two days of travel, many stops for Wimpy coffee by our cast members (and rooibos tea for me) a pub and Bed and Breakfast in Colesburg and we arrived in Grahamstown ready to perform.

The wall at the Horse and Mill Pub in Colesburg, where in 2009 the cast of Three Wall Temple, which I was in, wrote their names on the wall. It was amazing to return and see it again this year.


Saturday evening, at 22:30 at the Centenary Hall in Grahamstown we started our last performance of CHASING for the National Art’s Festival. Now, finding an audience to watch a show by a university little known for physical theatre and a thousand kilometres from our friends and family is a challenge. Even though we are doing what has been considered by the few who have seen CHASING to be a fantastic show, we struggled to get audiences. 

Last year the same director, and almost exactly the same cast, won a Standard Bank Ovation Award for the piece we took to The National Arts Festival. Last year we also performed 6 shows at the beginning of the festival in comparison to the four we did this year, and last year we only really started drawing audiences with our fifth and sixth shows. This year we ate a healthy serving of humble pie. Our first show was free, so we had a relatively large audience. Our second show we had about 30 people. Our third show we performed to an audience of 5 and for our ten thirty show that evening we had had no pre-booked tickets, even though an audience member of our first show considered it to be so good that we got invited to perform at the Fringe festival in Washington DC. We learned the value of an intensive marketing strategy this year.

After learning that we had no pre-sold tickets for our last performance our director, Nicola Haskins, and my long-suffering boyfriend hit the streets and pubs of Grahamstown with a pocket full of complementary tickets to try and bribe an audience into watching our show. Between the two of them they managed to hand out 30 tickets to pub-hoppers, drinkers and generally bored students at Grahamstown’s Long Table and we eventually did our best show so far to an audience of about 15 complementary tickets. Thank heavens the university was footing the bill and we were not at the festival to try and make any money.

Making a living from a show, or simply covering your costs is so much more than simply putting on a good show. You need to market your show like mad. Posters and flyers and engaging with potential audience members and creating hype on social media are all part of the process, and something which our more inexperienced cast members didn’t realise. Part of being an actor is ‘whoring’ yourself for an audience.  We awaited any news as to our potential audience with baited breathe. Breathe was baited for different reasons. Some cast members were hoping that we wouldn’t have to perform in the cold. I was hoping that my boyfriend and Nicola would pull the metaphorical rabbit out of Grahamstown and we would perform to an audience greater than 5. Nicola returned, claiming that all thirty comps had been given out, and that my boyfriend had been superb in chatting up potential audience members. To this I received, with the greatest respect: “What a good little whore you have”.
“Yip, and I’m the pimp!”  

Speaking to people, getting them excited about your product, about the brand that you have created is as much part of what we do as the acting and dancing and warming up. For me it’s not simply ok to accept that we didn’t have an audience for our last show. I felt that we had gone all the way there, travelled and worked to get a good piece together and that accepting the fact that we did not have an audience for our last show was a great defeat in my eyes. Especially as I had performed our first show that day on an injured knee.

I somehow managed to damage my left knee during the second run of our show. I felt fine during the day, as I climbed the stairs in the evening I realised that something wasn’t right. By the next afternoon, before our third show I had, what one of the cast members described, as one thin knee and one fat knee which could neither extend properly nor bend entirely. I panicked. I considered cortisone injections, amputation and suicide. I had to perform two dancing shows in the freezing cold of Grahamstown, and I know that as an actor you are only as good as your last performance. I knew I had to do them well, and that doing them well was the only option. A cast member asked me if I was going to ask our director to perhaps cancel the show, seeing as we had no pre-booked tickets. I replied, simply, that doing so is career kamakazi. I would bite on my teeth.

My director was quite concerned, and called in one of the lecturers in the cast that had performed before us. She looked at my leg and her first words were “Don’t over medicate yourself”. I found this amazing, because the first thing I wanted to do when offered anti-inflammatory medication was to swallow the entire cartridge. She then recommended ice, and performing so well from the waist up the no-one even looked at my pumpkin knee. My director was amazing, and we quickly decided where it would be appropriate for me to perhaps stand out of the choreography or change it. I slapped on a deep-freeze plaster, swallowed some pain killers and did the show. The evening show was much harder due to the cold, but I survived and we did two amazing performances to our limited audience. I’d been in a serious car accident before, and my body feels worse for wear today than it did then. I’m stiff and sore from performing in the cold and I look like a pirate with my fat knee. I have a few days of rest before I fly back up to Pretoria to start the process all over again, and I couldn’t be happier. We are already making plans for the show that we will be taking to the National Arts Festival next year.

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