The term theatre system (or theatrical system), refers to the dynamic network of activities and interactions that go into the making of theatre industry in a country, shaping the nature of each of the specific performances or theatre events taking place.
Not to be confused with the technical terms, referring to the technological equipment (i.e. supporting technical systems) employed in staging a piece of theatre , nor with concept of a home theatre system or entertainment system, developed for home use.
Origins of systemic thinking
Based on early sociological thinking about open systems (or systems theory), the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901–1972) developed a concept he called general systems theory. These ideas were adopted by others in the 20th century, including people working in mathematics, psychology, biology, game theory and social network analysis, including Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann, who used the approach in order to describe society.
These ideas had a significant impact on the study of literature and the arts in the second half of the 20th century, and by extention also on the study of theatre and performance.
The theatre as system
Starting from the creative activities of writers, performers, designers, directors, etc, through administrative and other basic and support activities, such as marketing, ticket-sales, agencies. It also includes external matters (censorship processes, copyrighting, publishing, sponsorship, etc). The notion is a simplified version of the more complex ideas espoused by general systems theory.
A useful variation of this thinking is Itamar Even-Zohar's concept of polysystem theory, which evolved from his attempts at modelling and describing the interdependency of socio-cultural systems and explaining the complexity of culture within a single community and between communities. In his view such systems are heterogeneous, versatile and dynamic networks. He first articulated these ideas in a seminal article in Poetics Today (1979).
South African theatre as (poly)system
The idea of applying a systemic approach to the study of South African theatre was first explored by theatre sociologist and historian Temple Hauptfleisch in the 1980s. Adopting Even-Zohar's idea of a polysystem, he later explored the idea in a series of models, papers and articles, in which he sought to articulate an inter-disciplinary and encompassing view of complex dynamics active in the multi-cultural South African setting. The gist of these ideas are articulated in his 1997 monograph Theatre and Society in South Africa: Reflections in a Fractured Mirror.
Much of the original thinking behind and basic structure of ESAT is derived from this notion of interconnected systems and sub-systems.
Itamar Even-Zohar. 1979. "Polysystem Theory", Poetics Today 1(1-2, Autumn) pp. 287–310.
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