Godwin Muzari Arts Editor
Despite having many theatre venues in various cities, the country has witnessed a serious decline in theatre productions over the past few years. The local theatre industry used to have competing theatre production houses, but only a few are still active as the genre continues to fade.
Theatre is one creative sector that has a capacity to drive the arts industry as it produces stars that can also have roles across genres.
But our industry is suffering and urgently needs a saviour.
It seems the closure of the old Theatre in the Park venue contributed massively to the decline of interest in theatre because it was a consistent in presenting plays.
And the coming of the new Theatre in the Park venue should be good news to theatre practitioners and fans.
Although Reps Theatre, Zimbabwe Hall (Highfield), Charles Austin Theatre (Masvingo) and Bulawayo Theatre have maintained a momentum in the genre, a lot has to be done to save the genre.
Efforts from Tafadzwa Muzondo and his Edzai Isu Trust at Zimbabwe Hall, Raisedon Baya in Bulawayo, Leeroy Gono in Masvingo and the Reps Theatre team need to be seriously complemented.
Daves Guzha and his Rooftop Productions team have come up with a massive calendar for the new Theatre in the Park venue, but a lot has to be done because many talented players in the industry have gone inactive.
Most theatre practitioners now wait for festivals to prepare plays and this is not healthy for the industry.
Most players in the genre have complained that lack of funding has destroyed the sector.
But Guzha feels the new crop of theatre practitioners is obsessed with the issue of funding at the expense of passion.
He said during their early days, they used little available resources to come up with plays.
“The issue of lack of funding is over-emphasised. When we stated we were driven by passion and we need people that have such passion to save our industry,” said Guzha.
“I remember there was a time I would steal my mother’s clothes for costumes for female roles in our plays because we did not have money for costumes.
“One day she discovered it and I had to apologise by inviting her to our production.
She was surprised to see me donning her dress on stage and she began supporting me from that time. That should be the spirit. If we continue crying for funding and doing nothing on our own the industry will die.”
Other theatre practitioners had various views on the issue and below are their views on the state of theatre and funding in the country.
Patience Gamu Tawengwa (Harare-based director/producer)
I think there was reliance for funding for theatre from organisations whose core business is not the arts. I believe what was happening was that once in a while our interests as artists and that of the NGOs that were giving funding would intersect and we could tap into those funds but that was not and is not a sustainable model at all.
From what I gather from my own independent polling of why people do not pay to watch our local productions, the responses range from people saying we are not presenting plays that compel them to come to the fact that some say our publicity campaigns around plays are not good.
We can do well if we adopt a purely business model for our arts. If these donors who claim to be committed to the growth of the arts industry in Zimbabwe are sincere, they need to start putting their money behind sustainable business models in the arts.
We also, however, need to take the initiative ourselves as Zimbabwean artists. The Hollywood we admire so much is based on a business model where investors invest and get returns.
Peter Churu (Harare-based director/producer)
Zimbabwean theatre must find alternative funding models. Zimdancehall has been a good example of what can be achieved without funding.
By being consistent, improving quality and going to their audiences through their “pasa pasa” activities dancehall musicians have created demand, appeal and audience who are prepared to sacrifice the little money they have to support the genre.
That is how they have been able to fund new productions, going back into the studios to create more music. They have also been able to go to their audiences and sing about issues that matter to those audiences.
That is the model that theatre needs to adopt to gain relevance and a paying audience.
We also have to lower our expectations of the returns that we can get from our projects.
My experience is that it can be done but the obstacle was always around ownership of those alternative spaces for theatre. For as long as I had no ownership of a theatre venue, I was always going to be pushed out or sidelined as owners responded to profit dictated by the laws of supply and demand. Anyone paying more than theatre naturally got preference over my initiatives.
That is why you have seen Rooftop putting everything into creating Theatre in the Park. That ownership will have a direct impact on their productivity and viability.
Stanely Makuwe (New Zealand-based director/producer)
The mainstream media can help a lot to promote theatre, just as they have done to promote music. I think music is where it is now because of the major role the media has been playing.
After the recently-held NAMA, the media was right in the forefront to talk about the wins by musicians such as Winky D and Jah Prayzah to a point of other arts such as theatre being forgotten or being mentioned in passing.
About the issue of productions, I think the quality has to improve. There is nothing new in companies or organisations requesting an artist to write a play based on what they want.
But I think there was a time there were too many “political satires” that it got to a point where the audience got tired of them.
I think artists should cast their nets wider in terms of creativity. Theatre gets to a point where the audience get tired of the same thing. A variety of productions would be great.
Yes, funding is a big thing. Having that kind of support from funders plays a big role.
My experience in New Zealand is that productions are funded at different levels. We have Creative Communities which is meant to fund productions at community level.
Then there is Creative New Zealand which funds commercial productions. We also have theatre funds from Auckland City Council. Such organised structures that are there to promote theatre go a long way.
The other thing is making sure artists get paid for their job. It assures aspiring artists that there is life in theatre.
But if you see “big names” in theatre still struggling to make a living, then it’s difficult.
I also think ministries should have the right people in positions. I had a bad experience while promoting my play, “Chimbwido – Girl of War”.
I went to the ministry of arts and culture to invite the minister or a representative to come to the show. I was told the minister was off sick. His secretary said she would notify him on return. She asked me where the show was.
I told her it was at Alliance Francaise. Then she went on to ask me where that place was. This is the minister’s secretary who has no clue where such a cultural facility is! It makes no sense.
Then there is the issue of grassroots. That word has been used to a point of being over-used, but it is a word that sums up fact. Theatre, like sport, must be introduced to kids from a very young age. They have to grow up understanding that part of the culture.
We have to mould the culture in children so that they appreciate it in later life.
Theatre practitioners should also improve on publicity.
Talking about a play three days before a show will not bring the audience. Publicity has to start at least a month earlier.
Then you slowly build up the noise as the season approaches.
I see musicians putting put adverts in newspapers, whereas theatre practitioners tend to run away from that.
With the current situation in Zimbabwe, there will have to be a lot of effort to make so much change. People are used to doing things in a certain way that has become acceptable.
If we had the right people in charge of arts then I am sure things would improve. It may take time to change things, but change will happen if someone stick to their guns and lay the rules hard on the ground.
Leeroy Gono (Masvingo-based director/producer)
Producing a quality play with international appeal requires money even if one intends to just show to the local community
Now with the little funding of the sector, this has caused a lot of short cuts thereby diminishing the quality. Even if you look at these past few years, not much theatre is being produced because there is no funding
Here in Zimbabwe it is quite difficult to recover money you put in theatre because of low turnouts at shows.
But we are partly to blame. By producing low-quality theatre, we chased our audiences away. Also because of harsh realities of the nation, the crippling economy, the disposable income of our fans has dwindled
Art needs to be taught in school first so that people develop an understanding and a passion for it.
If the Government can support the arts then everything becomes easy.
We have the capacity to produce over 10 to 12 plays a year, but if you look at it, we would rather focus on one or two good plays because there are no resources.