This is the time of the year again when the Zimbabwe theatre industry evaluates its performance during the year and plans theatre actions for the following year. The review of the 2012 theatre season is necessary in order to ensure that some of the pitfalls encountered can be avoided in 2013 and strategies for growing a vibrant and viable theatre industry are considered.
One of the leading Zimbabwean thespians, Raisedon Baya - the Bulawayo-based playwright, stage and television drama director, theatre administrator, producer, theatre critic and manager of the Intwasa ko Bulawayo Festival - has identified a number what he thought were major challenges faced by the theatre industry in 2012.
Baya has cited the dwindling patronage of theatre. He stated: "The audiences continue to come in drips." This was clearly demonstrated in Harare where huge audiences that fill up Theatre in Park on free entrance opening nights of theatre productions reduce dramatically during the run of the productions. In some cases audience numbers increase on the last lap of a two-week run.
This development tends to support the view that both in Bulawayo and Harare people tend to know about theatre productions by word of mouth and poor publicity or promotion of theatre productions in Zimbabwe is mainly responsible for small theatre audiences. One actor recently urged theatre producers to take a stance where all patrons to the official opening of theatre productions to pay the require entrance fees.
The placement of publicity posters and banners about the theatre productions only at place close to theatre venue and not all over the city was cited as a poor theatre promotion strategy. However, the actions taken by the new independent radio stations to interview writers, directors, actors and producers of the plays has been welcomed as a means of improving theatre patronage especially if the interviews are held before the performances of the plays have begun or during the run of the performances.
Baya has also indicated that another major challenge faced by the Zimbabwean theatre in 2012 was the "absence of funding especially for the theatre creation process. Again this is evidenced by the fact that in 2012 funded theatre productions were a very small number. Also those theatre groups that received funding for play creation were not able to raise enough income from entry charges to fund performance tours of the plays to venues outside Harare and Bulawayo.
Baya believes that one of the major reasons for the decline in theatre patronage is that "everyone seems to be writing politics. That is a sad development as our theatre lacks depth and variety. Throughout the year our audiences were subjected to the same subject, treated almost in the same way."
Also noted by Baya as a major challenge faced by the Zimbabwe theatre industry was "the lack of training - proper and meaningful training in all theatre departments. The tragedy at the moment is that people who never got proper training are the ones going around doing workshops and training others. This has a serious effect on the direction of our theatre."
Baya, however, pointed to a few positive developments in the Zimbabwean theatre industry in 2012. He cited the fact that schools "particularly in Bulawayo have become vibrant theatre beds. Young talent is coming out of schools and all it needs is nurturing." He highlighted that during the Intwasa ko Bulawayo Festival the Plan International-sponsored "drama theatre festival showed some improvements. The presentations from the schools were good and better than some of the productions by semi-professionals and community groups that are well known."
During that festival the productions of Wole Soyinka's "The Lion and the Jewel" and Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" by the Bulawayo-based Centre for Talent Development were well patronised by schools within and outside Bulawayo. This was due to the fact that these plays were set books for 2012 O-Level examinations.
This approach where professional theatre companies receive unlimited access to schools with theatre productions of set books is a sure way of funding theatre and of nurturing a committed theatre audience. These text- books do not necessarily have to be of literature courses only but of all other subjects through innovative theatre in education approaches.