Zwakala Festival: A feast of the finest community fare

 

If you’re down to your last R100, do you spend it on 20 packets of Niknaks or do you get one lekka (trigger warning for vegans) tshisa nyama to see you through to the next paycheque?

The Market Theatre has chosen the second option for this year’s Zwakala Festival. The days of scores of community theatre productions playing over a week are gone. It’s quality over quantity as The Market exchanges a vast spread of snacks for a hearty meal of four carefully chosen, meaty works to vie for the chosen spot this coming weekend. Also, each of the works are playing twice over the two days, so it’s easy to gorge on all four courses before the one with the best of the best ingredients is announced on Sunday night.

It’s a recipe that’s been refined over the past few years as The Market Theatre refuses to sacrifice excellence even as the belt has been tightening around the already skinny arts funding hips. But in order to keep the important, 26-year-old Zwakala Festival running, one other compromise other than size had to be made, and that was to let go of the old notion that it is a national festival and accept that it is now a search for the best among community theatre productions in the province.

And so Market Theatre artistic director James Ngcobo and team has been driving, rather than flying, to watch 32 community theatre productions with an eye to developing them for a Market Theatre stage.

What they have been looking for at the community theatre group stagings is “a play that already has a story we can develop”, says Ngcobo, who is interested in work that is dealing with issues the young theatre makers are wrestling with. Work that brings the dust and sweat of life onto stage, which is a hallmark of The Market Theatre itself.

As a result, eight plays were chosen for the Kolapeng Showcases, with four mentors from The Market Theatre Laboratory tasked with each helping to develop two of the works. These were then whittled down to the four works being staged at the Zwakala.

The limited production space means that all eight semi-finalists (if you forgive the barely suitable sporting term) have merit.

“We’re setting the bar high,” says Ngcobo. “To get into Zwakala you have to work really hard as a group.”

The limited numbers also means the Market Theatre can really focus on the original intention of the Zwakala Festival, which is to provide mentorship and groom the work and the theatre makers who developed it up to professional standards. This means not only do the plays stand proudly alongside the acclaimed shows that have gone before on the Market Theatre stages, but the theatre makers are assisted in stepping over what can be an abyss, to the professional sphere.

This dedication to mentorship goes beyond the Zwakala winner getting a proper run at the Market Theatre. The 2016 winner, Isithunzi, unsurprisingly won at the inaugural Arts Incubators’ Trade Fair and the 2017 winner, Dikakapa, won a Standard Bank Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival. The real success story, however, was 2015 winner, Tau, which won a Gold Ovation Award in Grahamstown (now Makhanda) and gathered three Naledi awards after being nominated for seven.

The way these plays have opened doors for their creators is due to not just the platform The Market Theatre presents with the Zwakala Festival, but the dedicated mentorship provided. Neither is this support confined only to the winner. All eight Kolapeng Showcase plays received invaluable support and advice, and the four at Zwakala each have their own dedicated mentor who has been working with them to fine tune the work to the best version of itself.

“For me nothing is bigger than putting people in a room who have created bucketfuls of theatre with someone who reminds them of themselves when they were young,” says Ngcobo. “And the best thing is the mentors also learn from the mentees.

“We’re very choosy about our mentors, about bringing people to the Market whose passion for doing things mirrors ours. Have to find the right people who understand our mission, who create room for self actualisation.

“Passing on the baton is something we shouldn’t talk about, it’s something we do.”

There’s also an upsurge in the use of indigenous languages on stage as South Africans begin to find their voices outside the confines of English. So this year the plays are in Zulu, Xhosa, and local dialects. But the beauty of theatre is that when it is well directed, it reaches beyond language.

“If a piece of theatre has a director’s hand and it has heart, language is no barrier. Surtitles are not something we do, because then what happens is you read a play in English instead of experiencing the play in seTswana,” says Ngcobo.

“There are audiences who are waiting to feast on the bounty of their languages.”

It’s all being dished up this weekend at the Barney Simon Theatre.

Check out the show schedules here, and remember, entrance is free.

  • This post is sponsored by The Market Theatre Foundation

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