Some of the cast of The Little Prince who are part of the new Kwasha! theatre company which provides Market Theatre Laboratory graduates a platform to perform professionally. Photo: Jan Potgieter
In a dim, low-ceilinged National Arts Festival venue at the top of a hard-to-find staircase within the maze that is the Victoria Girls School complex, I watched a community theatre group stage a play called The Red Flag some years ago.
It was before The Critter was founded in 2014 and I was then writing on the Artsblog, which was housed on the National Arts Festival home site. Unfortunately the hundreds of reviews on that site were lost during some redesign, but I remember being impressed by the ideas the play presented, the dedication of the actors, and the potential of the script which, prophetically, dealt with a future militarization of local politics.
The director of the play was a very young Thabang Gabogope, who had no formal training other than the odd workshop or short course. But keen to develop his talents, Gabogope enrolled for the Market Theatre Laboratory two-year theatremaking course last year. This year he returned to Grahamstown as co-director of Marosee, along with Aalliya Zama Matintela, with his name printed in the pages of the Main programme.
The ability of young committed theatremakers who have worked their way into the sector through community groups to receive professional training outside the hallowed confines of universities and leapfrog from cheap confined venues on the fringe of the Fringe, into the Main, proves the value of the Market Theatre Laboratory.
It’s value and contribution to the sector is further cemented by the achievements of its graduates. Tswalo, which has been raking in the awards and is hot on everyone’s lips, is one such example of the work being produced by ‘Lab graduates. In this case Billy Langa and Mahlatsi Mokgonyana. Other successful productions in which ‘Lab graduates are to be found at this year’s fest include Firehouse, Born Naked and Galela, proving that the Market Theatre’s impact on the national platform that is the festival in Grahamstown, goes way beyond the productions it brings every year.
And this year, besides the acclaim received by its student productions Marosee and 21 Wandah!, festinoes were treated to The Little Prince and Dikakapa.
21 Wandah! which was presented as a game show, was particularly enjoyed by Critter Mike Loewe. He says it is “hellSA awsome” and “ sublime”, while Marosee, presented by the same group of 11 students, was positively reviewed by Matebello Motantsi on Cuemedia.
Taking a departure from the on-the-ground South African stories The Market Theatre is known for, the children’s theatre production The Little Prince, written in the early 1940s by the Frenchman Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, delighted fest audiences. It received a glowing review on Cuemedia from Sam Spiller and a thumbs-up from Sheena Stannard on this site. It was a victory for the brand new Kwasha! Theatre company which forms a professional bridge for the Market Theatre Laboratory graduates. The new company is housed within the revamped Windybrow Arts Centre, which is managed by the Market Theatre Foundation, and this was not only the first production Kwasha! has staged at the National Arts Festival, it was also placed on the Main, which is almost unheard of. And then to receive such high praise on top of that sets up some big expectations for the new company.
Part of their success is likely due to the ‘Lab’s approach to preparing their students for working professionally. Clara Vaughn, who co-directed The Little Prince with Mwenya Kabwe, and works at the ‘Lab, said the students are expected to be hands on with all aspects of their productions, from doing the backstage sound and lighting to taking responsibility for marketing and social media so that they know how to produce their own show once they graduate.
The fourth show The Market Theatre brought to festival this year was Dikakapa, produced by Generation of Stars from Sharpeville. It won at the Zwakala festival presented by the Market Theatre, which provides a platform for theatre groups from disadvantaged communities to stage their work in a professional theatre.
Unfortunately it did not garner the Standard Bank Ovation Award bestowed on last year’s Zwakala winner Tau, but it gathered very good houses, said Vaughn. That, on the cut-throat fringe where audiences are thin on the ground, is a significant achievement in itself.
Not only did students, recent graduates, and the Sharpeville theatremakers from Generation of Stars get to experience producing their own shows at the National Arts Festival, they got to be in it too.
Thanks to the introduction of artists passes, they got free entry to other shows and so could see the the work of their peers and veteran professionals.
“As a learning experience it was invaluable,” said Vaughn. “They had the opportunity to absorb all the different art forms, experience interdisciplinary work, be informed by new ideas and see work they would not normally be exposed to.”
There was also the value of meeting and networking with artists from elsewhere in the country, the exchange of ideas, and genesis of future collaborations that will lead to new work at future festivals.
So if you missed the Market Theatre’s productions this year, make sure to book your tickets next year. With their track record, it’ll be a pretty sure bet.
This profile is sponsored by The Market Theatre.