THEATRE RUNS RED: end of an era

Theatre Runs Red - photo by Tyler Dolan Photography
Photo credit ~ Tyler Dolan Photography

Durban, South Africa: not every local band calling it a day warrants an article, but Theatre Runs Red was never “every” local band. The entity was majestic. And it pains the metalheads of our nation deeply to speak of the Blackened Death Metal act in past tense today; as evidenced by the sheer volume of posts shared on social media since yesterday when its members collectively announced the end.

In this article I will celebrate the band that was, but I’ll mostly focus on a bigger, broader issue which the announcement by Theatre Runs Red raises a red flag towards.

Theatre Runs Red: a moment to celebrate a 14-year legacy

How is it that one band might enjoy such devotion by so many others from all spheres of the national Metal community? There are many factors we should consider.

Firstly and most basically, we expect the band to embody the essence of heavy metal.

Theatre Runs Red offered this in spades! In some ways we could say that this band, in fact, championed the nation’s embodiment of the extreme metal aesthetic. This embodiment was as complete an example as anybody could hope for locally. It’s members encapsulated each part of what metal represents to most of us in a uniquely holistic manner.

Theatre Runs Red, live at RAMfest 2014 in Johannesburg

Let’s list several more.

Wild, extreme music. Theatre Runs Red, whilst looking good and capturing the imagination through presentation, also lived up to every expectation once performing on stage. The band dribbled chilling darkness in an endless trail from start to finish, from among the most capable Metal musicians Durban has to offer.

Majestic visual aesthetic. Their artistry transcends being “music only”. Theatre Runs Red was more than a band. As the name suggests, it was a theatre, with make-up and costume to match any at any place around the world.

Performance and artistic integrity. Not only in musical delivery, but in a situation where the band members are the stage props, Theatre Runs Red understood the dynamics required. In particular, a special mention has to be made for the enigmatic presence of frontwoman, Ebony ” Lilitu” Aberdein; herself being the centerpiece of this macabre spectacle. I have to add that one subtle, or maybe not-so-subtle detail, is how in performance she always portrayed herself as genderless. Whether by accident or design, I think that this was a stroke of genius which captivated me from the beginning. As frontperson, she removed any notion of “sex sells” or other mainstream dogma from her art.

Bloody nice people. On a personal note, having had many opportunities to work with Theatre Runs Red, the band seldom (if ever) formed the nucleus of any controversy or drama; being that dealing with staff of clubs or festivals, or in broad public forum. They’re just high class in every way, and this is a quality too many musicians and performers don’t regard highly enough. It carries a great deal of weight, however. Kindly and humble off-stage versus beast mode on-stage. I’ve often found it uncanny that it’s even the same people.

Why now, Theatre Runs Red?

This is where the article gets heavy and you’ll have to commit to read till the end to find the answer to the question. The truth is nothing short of tragedy, in my point of view. I have feared this situation for many months since realizing that the pandemic scenario was not going to be over quickly.

My following words, however, though they might reek of cynicism, are not written to call doom and shame upon us all. I am simply hoping that with the awareness – this evidence presented – that we who love Metal and Underground culture can take a moment to reflect. Look upon the challenges we face. Then know that we can allow very little room for pettiness and clashes over minor differences if we wish to see our arts community survive. If ever there was a time to represent a united front, then those times are surely now and everlasting. South Africa is bleeding at every level. It’s affecting every sphere of life, be it work, play, or artistic expression.

Theatre Runs Red
Photo credit – Ink Black Photography – Theatre Runs Red supporting Behemoth live in JHB, 2014

Exhibit A: Art – the more beautiful it is – often requires greater input of resources

Q: What’s the worst-kept secret of the South African Metal Scene?
A: The more you put in, the worse it’ll eventually bankrupt you.

This information is freely available to anybody who simply asks the experienced metal musician nearest to them; and yet many do ask and either don’t believe it, or just refuse to heed the warning. And strangely, we’re okay with that. It is, after all, art. Artists need to express as much as they need to eat and breathe.

Q: Who are the greatest patrons of the (Metal) arts in South Africa?
A: By far, in terms of supporter-to-artist-ratio, it’s the musicians themselves.

See, as it is here (and I’m sure for many in most other parts of the world), the amount of personal resource that a Metal artist pours into his/her musical expression will typically outweigh what many of even the most diehard supporters will ever put in.

Just a standard gig night for most artists; each band member will likely spend more on simply being at the show than the average supporter has to spend, even with cover charge. Often, long hours mean more purchases on food and drink, and carrying equipment around means less chance for car pooling, etc. Few venues offer much (or any) form of artist hospitality. Most times, any money raised from performing barely covers reimbursement on personal expenses by each band member, let alone costs of band room rent, equipment maintenance and/or loss of income from people who work in the service industries and have to pass up real work in order to be able to perform.

Supporters don’t think a lot about these sort of things; but in truth, why should they? We are entertainers, after all, and through our artistic expression we hope to entertain and we’ve made that choice. We are the primary patrons to our own art. Most of us know this and are okay with it, provided that we can continue to do it!

Theatre Runs Red Live

Exhibit B: South Africa is a nation in socio-economic decline

In no part of the country can we witness such a sudden and rapid drop in socio-economic circumstances as in Durban and surrounding areas during 2021. Following the “unrest” (as we are now all calling it) of July month, in which hundreds of businesses and thousands of jobs were destroyed in just a few days by rampaging looters, many are finding it impossible to recover to where they were prior to the incident. For most who can recover, it’ll take many years to get back to pre-pandemic financial wellbeing. It’s a disaster within a disaster.

Whilst the “unrest” impacted other parts of the country as well, Durban – home to Theatre Runs Red – seems to have been the epicenter of destruction. We won’t even go into the appalling unresponsive attitude of the governing party or even thoughts on how complicit they might have been – this is not our purpose on this website – but we do have to look at how a major hit on the economy of a region will impact the arts output of such a place. After all, these events ripple through the day-to-day lives of those who create art.

South Africa has been in a long, slow cycle of decline, and now perhaps accelerated by the pandemic. It’ll take many years and extraordinary political leadership to turn this corner. Arts and culture struggle to survive under such circumstances. Not only does South Africa face the “brain drain” of skilled labour leaving the country and an eroding tax base, but many of our artists are indeed among those who make up this skilled labour and tax base. We, like anybody else, are seeking opportunities for a safer life – and prosperous lifestyle – elsewhere. And by “lifestyle” we’re not talking excessive grandeur; no, we’re merely talking about being able to create and share our art; and perhaps with a chance to augment the financing of it just a little bit by its own output (on top of our regular jobs).

Such opportunities, as used to be relatively freely available to us, are under threat.

This is the fate of Theatre Runs Red.

If the band existed in another city, or another country, we’d not be saying good bye. It feels ironic to say: but any “lesser” band might have faced a better chance of survival. Let’s acknowledge, however, that lesser bands are easier to forge together. Theatre Runs Red was a phenomenon that demanded extraordinary input from each member at every level. Such extraordinary people and talents are rare to find, and more so when damage to livelihood and risk to family forces migration and scatters those who came together.

At metal4afrca we’ve been honoured to witness Theatre Runs Red, and indeed to work with its fabulous people over these many years. It’s been a treat we won’t forget.

A bleak forecast with a silver lining

It’s going to get harder out there. Let’s take care of ourselves. Let’s take care of each other!

We talk a lot about “community” at metal4africa. That’s because we believe in the idea of community; the idea of common cause. There will always be differences of opinion. Although, we don’t have to agree with everything in order to stand by each other. Sometimes it feels like we’re working against each other, but let’s always remember one thing; fundamentally, we metalheads are mined from the same shaft.

Yes, times ahead will be hard. But we can see in other parts of the world where circumstances are even worse than here that the heartbeat of metal always prevails. We might just lose a few really good ones along the way, and that is incredibly sad.

See more pictures of Theatre Runs Red on Instagram