The Sunday News
SOME years ago, we took our play to Bulawayo Theatre with the sole wish to have it seen by the white audiences that patronised the theatre. To our shock, not even one white person came to see the play. We debated about this and as a group we came to the conclusion that we did not market the play properly.
We put another show. We went to great lengths to market the show, posters, newspapers, social media. We even asked the Bulawayo Theatre Management to email all their members about the show and they did. But on the day of the show there were less than three white people in the audiences. We were really hurt. We felt snubbed.
It was then that we deliberately made an effort to put up shows for people from the other side of town and convince them to come to the Bulawayo Theatre. At first no one believed we would get people to the theatre, then slowly the numbers started rising. And we started getting some respect from the Theatre Management who realised we were serious about what we were doing.
We then started having shows that would attract good numbers. Then we started having informal conversation with the management. One day they said to me, “Raisedon, white people don’t relate to the issues you guys present in your plays. They will never come and watch your performance. Do something they will relate to. We have a lot of good plays in our library. Do one or two of our plays and see what happens.” If they had said these words years back when we really thought the colour of one’s audiences was important then you would definitely have seen us producing old British and American classics.
However, when that conversation happened — we had made our discovery. That is what is important at the theatre — putting people on the seats. It doesn’t matter the colour of the people. What is more important is the people that are prepared to pay and enjoy what you offer on stage.
The main reason why our theatre, in Bulawayo and everywhere in this country is lagging behind is because most of us started wrong. Most came in after the successes of Amakhosi Theatre, Black Umfolosi, Rooftop Promotions, Over the Edge and others that were already touring. So, we all wanted to do theatre that would tour. What this means is all wanted to do theatre we thought white people would enjoy because our dreams were about travelling and touring Europe.
The reason why most left the sector frustrated is they never got to travel or tour any plays. The reason why our theatre has failed to rise and develop is we have been making it for the audience we don’t know, an audience we imagine is waiting for our plays to tour Europe. The same fate has befallen our dance. We are always producing for an unknown audience, an imaginary one. And look where we are. Stuck in one place and waiting for the proverbial “Godot”.
Audiences are critical. Very important to the development of a particular genre. Audiences make or break artistes or arts genres. In 1921, Alexander Brjanzew, speaking on the importance of knowing and developing one’s own audiences said: “The audience — that is the single indisputable starting point on which every theatre must be artistically based. The theatre which finds its audience is also capable of finding its own style and own voice. The theatre which separates itself from its audiences loses its voice, style and its reason to exist.” And he was right. Our theatre writers and directors need to start there. Who do they want to write and produce the plays for? There is a need to introspect, to rethink. Out of hundreds of plays we produce, only one or two are being seen outside the country. So clearly, we just need to sit back and agree we are producing for local audiences and then go about trying to find what local audiences want.
So, everyone working in our theatre, whether they are an artiste, or technician, working in design or administration need, first and foremost, to ask themselves what they can contribute to making local audiences feel at home in local theatre. What can they contribute to make a theatre experience in Zimbabwe unforgettable? That is where were need to start.