Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Arts in Zimbabwe

An Overview of the Arts in Zimbabwe: Issues and Prospects.
Sunday Mirror Review 13, 2 May 2004

Samuel Ravengai

The 21st century in Zimbabwe is as much an epoch of Agricultural Revolution as it is of Cultural Revolution. The reaction of two statesmen, in different times of history, to the phenomenon of culture is very interesting. When Goebbels, the brains behind Nazi propaganda, heard about the word ‘culture’, he reached for his pistol. Contrastingly, about sixty years later, when Professor Jonathan Moyo heard about the word ‘culture’ he opened his arms to embrace it. I guess he could have jumped into the cockpit of the nearest hawk fighter and fired missiles had control of culture been in the hands of the opposition.
                        Although the divide between art and politics is virtually blurred, let me leave the more overt politics to political analysts and concentrate on art which is the tangible and intangible manifestation of culture. The embracing of culture by Professor Jonathan Moyo is supported by various acts of parliament which encourage and accentuate the production, packaging and dissemination of Zimbabwean art products by Zimbabweans. This Cultural Revolution is already bearing fruits as evidenced by an extraordinary national scramble for the arts in the form of established musicians, upcoming urban grooves musicians, emergence of private and public art schools, and proliferation of various arts groups. National institutions now more than ever before recognise the work done by artistes through annual merit awards as those conferred by ZIMA and NAMA. The corporate world has also more than ever before come on board in supporting the arts. Non-governmental organisations have also added their weight behind this Cultural Revolution. They established the Zimbabwe Culture Fund this year some of whose objectives are to provide financial, material/human support for artistes in all sectors. The Zimbabwe Culture Fund also aims to facilitate capacity building at policy and administrative levels. Their focus is on supporting new and innovative work from emerging mid-level and high level artistes. The juiciest part of their objectives is to help in the ‘commercialisation’ and ‘professionalisation’ of the arts. This is a welcome development in the arts in Zimbabwe.
                        The immerse power that the arts possess has forced the ruling ZANU PF party to retrace its footsteps and rediscover its old self in the face of a stubborn opposition. It has realised that creative arts are an important weapon in winning the hearts and minds of the masses. Those of you who are fortunate enough like me to have inhabited the frontline positions during the 1970s liberation war will remember how liberation movements exploited the arts to win the support of the masses. Their art genre was more on the side of agitprop. The guerrillas gave short speeches during pungwes punctuated by bursts of singing, slogans, ululations and dancing; the type that you see on the sendekera track. They performed mock battles and sketches during the shadowy and ghostly hours of twilight. On the other side of the political spectrum, Mr. Ian Smith, in the fashion of Goebbels, banned art as a subject in schools when he realised its potential to be instrumentalised by those who were against his policies. Most of the traditional performing arts were banned as they qualified to be ‘means or devices used in the practice of sorcery’ under the Witchcraft Suppression Act (1899). Politicians who do not appreciate arts tend to view artistes with repugnance and more often than not as enemies. As one Nigerian artiste Dr. Segun Akinlolu advised “African leaders have to learn that without arts, society is dead”. The present government, through its various ministries, has realised the power that the arts possess in society. But one wonders why the selfsame government did not create an enabling environment for the arts in the last twenty years as it has done recently. In 2001 the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe Director Mr. Titus Chipangura is on record for saying that “the biggest let down for the arts is the government of Zimbabwe through customs people. Government has not realised equipment used by artistes is capital goods”. The government should not wait for political fortunes to dwindle, as they almost did at the turn of the last century, in order to negotiate a marriage of convenience with the arts. Artistes and politician-cum-artistes like minister Manyika, Professor Jonathan Moyo and the soul of the late Border Gezi should examine their consciences and ask themselves if this ‘hypocrisy’ is good. I think that artistes should refuse to be condomised. A situation where artistes are dumped and politicians dump art when political fortunes are high is deplorable. There must be a steadfast, Hosea-Gomer relationship between these two institutions for the betterment of both. However, if the present cultural courtship is genuine, steadfast and perennial, we say well done and I am ready to withdraw my word ‘hypocrisy’.
                        Given this overwhelming support from almost all corners, the question remains: what is the artiste on the ground doing in order to make sure that s/he uses this kind of support to improve his/her artefact? The question of training comes into the scene. Most of the artistes whose works we see in streets, parks, community centres, shopping malls and galleries have trained themselves and have in turn trained others. As for theatre, community institutions have taken the lead in the process of training. Amakhosi takes the lead in Bulawayo, while ZACT and more recently ZAAED are taking the lead in Harare. These institutions being community based, most of their products join the community theatre movement. These community groups value animation of amateurs. Their work is owned by the community as opposed to ownership by the state or private institutions. Their artistic emphasis is on participation as opposed to individual genius. Their standards are more local as opposed to national/international taste. The result is that groups that originate from Matebeleland or are influenced by Amakhosi employ the bravura melodramatic style of acting associated with Cont Mhlanga. Those groups that come from Mashonaland or are influenced by ZACT employ the narrative-song-and-dance style associated with Ngugi wa Mirii. I see a void left by the almost non-existence of a university which teaches ‘art theatre’- the method based approach. A university will establish a national standard that will harmonise all the different styles. A university will help in the democratisation of culture as opposed to the current pluralism or cultural democracy upheld by community art schools. A university will help in the conservation of national heritage and establish an artistic taste palatable to the whole citizenry.
                        In South Africa, most of the performers we see on either e TV or SABC have gone through a university drama school. Achie Moroka of Generations is the external examiner of UCT Drama School. Katlego Danke of e TV’s Backstage is an alumni of UCT Drama School, so is Omotoso of Generations. The list is endless. Where is the University of Zimbabwe’s Theatre Arts Department going wrong? It is not performing at full capacity as it is understaffed. Of the eight people in Zimbabwe trained up to at least a Masters degree in Theatre Arts, only three are at the UZ. The rest cannot be attracted by the meagre salaries that their colleagues are getting at UZ. All legitimate attempts to have them rejoin the department have dismally failed. I feel sorry for Masvingo and Lupane State Universities who want to open mega-faculties of performing arts because they will never get personnel if the fundamentals are not addressed.
                        The other problem is that UZ is too elitist. In order for a student to be enrolled in the Theatre Arts department, s/he needs to have scored at least 11 points at ‘A’ level. Isn’t it disheartening to tell Tatenda Mavetere, Annie Nhire or Ben Mahaka that they cannot be actors, directors or scriptwriters because they don’t have 11 points (not that I have evidence that they don’t). At South African universities, entrance to a drama school is by audition or experience in the theatre and a basic minimal pass at matriculation. And they produce wonderful artistes! In a survey carried out in the Department of Theatre Arts last year, most of the students who enrolled for the course had never applied for it and a good number of them did not know that it even existed. Since most of the students enrolled are not artistes and they don’t even have the passion for art, as soon as they graduate, they rush to go and teach and that is the end of the story. Since Theatre Arts Department’s first students graduated in 1994, to date, no more than twenty of its ex-students are directly involved in the arts.
                        The other problem has to do with established artistes’ attitude towards UZ theatre arts graduates who have a genuine interest in art. There is an undeclared animosity that exists between UZ and them. In the past few years we have not seen these groups working together for the good of art, let alone willing to take on board some of the theatre arts graduates. They want to maintain the status quo. Very few production houses have been willing to cast theatre arts graduates in their soap operas and dramas. They believe actors can be picked from the street. I wish it was that easy! Then how can artistes improve without proper training? All over the world where media arts have considerably developed, training is at the centre of that success. We will forever envy SABC if we don’t put our act together.


Some Talk on 263 Directing

Time that Studio 263 Episode Directors Have to Jump out of their Comfort Zone.
Sunday Mirror Review 12, 20 February 2005.

Samuel Ravengai

In my series of articles in the Sunday Mirror Review, my main target has been the script writing department at Studio 263. Many changes have happened in that department ranging from inter-cutting scenes, focusing on at least three subplots per episode, subtextual dialogue, creation of suspense among other things. The young writers, fresh from the bench, have not yet reached a point of perfection. That is why we live to learn and improve ourselves. I promised I was going to look at the level of directing at Studio 263 and this article is a fulfilment of that promise.

I appreciate the enormous work that the episode directors are doing especially having to deal with mostly untrained performers. I accept the fact that some of the performers have tremendously improved, but they still need prodding from episode directors Joe Pike and Ben Mahaka in order to realize their full potential. We have seen everything that episode directors and performers can do and they now need to jump out of their comfort zone and take Studio 263 to greater heights. In order to achieve that, they need to explore territory which they have never ventured into. In talking about this new territory, three very important directorial concepts immediately come into my mind. I have not seen these directorial concepts implemented in the making of Studio 263.Because of the brevity of my article I am prepared to discuss three concepts- composition/picturisation, movement and tempo-rhythm.

Let me first look at the problem. When a wide shot of any Studio 263 scene is taken it reveals at least two performers who are either sitting or standing and facing each other. There is no variation of body positions to give a sense of how their characters are feeling about each other. This is usually maintained until the end of the scene. Compositionally and picturisationally, the scenes are very dull. The episode directors need to take these concepts on board in order to present more interesting scenarios. Picturisation and composition are among the great pleasures in directing. They are the ‘art part’ of directing and with their absence in Studio 263 I doubt if artistically each episode is taken to another level of strength. Creativity should not end the level of writing. It should be taken at directorial level as well as postproduction. Some movies are known for having been shot with only scenario descriptions and without any written script. At Studio 263 scenarios are written and translated into dialogue by scriptwriters, but episode directors do not seem to take the work any further than what is suggested by the script. One of the best ways of adding value to a script is through composition/picturisation.

How should the directors achieve this? They should rationally arrange performers on the set to suggest their mental and emotional attitudes towards each other so that the dramatic nature of the situation is conveyed to the viewers. This is done in order to convey the emotional texture of the moment and to reveal the relationships between characters. The way performers stand in the frame will express exactly where a relationship is at any given moment. As the situation changes, the relationship between characters often changes. As one director Alexander Dean has put it:
In life the relationship of one person to another and the body expression of the person himself have a definite story telling value. Instinct keeps us away from those whom we dislike, suspect, oppose; near to those whom we trust, endorse, agree with, love.
This in essence should tell the director where to place each character in the scene in relation to others and this is normally derived from the text. If a character is unhappy with another, he may choose to give him his back. If the ignored character seeks attention by moving close to the acting partner, that may motivate a movement further away until the issue at stake is solved. When performers begin to act like that, then they are operating in the realm of picturisation. I have read over fifty Studio 263 scripts and opportunities for composing and picturising are vast, except that they are not taken advantage of by the episode directors. The picture in the frame should be able to tell a story without the aid of the word. When composing the director should ask himself how many people in the scene like or dislike each other? What tension exists between them? Can the picture he is arranging in the frame reveal individual agendas? Etc.

Let me come to the second concept of movement, which again is not highly profiled in Studio 263. I concede the fact that of all television genres, soap operas are the most static. There is more of sitting and standing up than can be found in any other dramatic genres. However, Studio 263 directors overdo this stasis. The only recorded movement in Studio 263 is when a character enters or exists the set or when it is suggested by the scriptwriter. Regrettably, a completely static screen picture becomes boring and the director is encouraged to seek logical motivations for moving performers on set. There are three types of movements – movement from place to place, gesture and business (buz). Some of these are suggested by the scriptwriter in stage directions and the majority of them are invented by the director and performers. A point to take note of is that, regardless of the reason behind any movement, the director should seek to make it appear motivated rather than aimless. In the Jari lounge for instance, what factors can motivate movement? It could be picking up a water glass, opening the fridge to take out a favourite drink and moving to the coffee table to serve it while saying the lines. The motivations are limitless. At JH office, what are the most likely motivations for movement? Collecting bond paper from the table and putting it on the tray of the printer, moving to the shelf to pick up a file, moving towards somebody to score a point etc. I have not seen all these ranges of motivations taken care of. One of the best ways of provoking emotions is to be involved in a piece of action which is normally done through movement. It is no surprise that performers more often than not fail to play emotions convincingly in Studio 263. Movement should be used among other things to influence emotions, to direct attention to the performer who is moving, to indicate the basic situation – highly emotional scenes demand more movement. Performers should also be encouraged to use their faces, heads, hands, and torso as gesture is important as a subtle means of gaining emphasis. Business should also be encouraged by episode directors – eating, drinking, drying hair, brushing teeth, washing etc. This gives life to the pictures we see on the screen. I concur with one screen acting scholar Tucker, P (1994) who argues that “actors often use business to let the audience understand another aspect of their characters, or to mark where a thought is changing … Business is useful for pointing up a performance as long as it does not junk it up …” (pp.60-1). This has to be taken up if directing is to take the creative process to another level. I don’t believe that the only job of a director is taking performers through the lines. Beyond the lines, the hand of a director must be seen.

The last but not least directorial concept which worries me at Studio 263 is tempo-rhythm. I begin first by diagnosing the problem. We have established that performers at Studio 263 rarely move on the set and are even mean with gestures. Except for Tom, Vimbayi and Joyce everybody else talks slowly. They speak, take a beat, and then talk slowly until they come to the end of their lines. There is usually a very small gap before the other performer picks up the cue. The result is a style of dialogue that takes a ping pong fashion. The cumulative effect of all this is the creation of a redundantly boring rhythm. I use rhythm here to mean the measurable changes of elements of art which progressively stimulate the attention of the spectator. Rhythm is a powerful tool that a director can use as it has vitality and power of attraction that is irresistible. When we see a carefully directed rhythmic performance on the screen we grow to associate these rhythms outside us with definite inner emotions and we are able to adapt our emotional responses to the rhythm witnessed. This is the basis of an important control for the director. Why is the rhythm of Studio 263 not as powerful as that of Kabanana or some of the poorly scripted West African movies? Joe Pike and Ben Mahaka need to identify points in the soap opera where they can control tempo-rhythm. As tempo deals with the speed at which a rhythmic pattern is executed, they can decide which characters need to be faster than others depending on the situation? Which characters need to be slower or moderate depending on the situation? The starting point is script analysis to find out the beginning and ending of each cycle of action. This will lead to the identification of points where the rises and the falls of the scene will be located. A scene that begins and ends on the same key is boring and from the scripts that I have read, the writers are beginning to deal with that problem conclusively. To add on to that, every performer must have a characteristic rhythm in movement and speech which can only be varied depending on his state of mind and situation. The directors should encourage performers to telescope – picking up cues in dialogue or movement before the other has finished speaking or moving. This should be led into gradually and continued to a climax. In this way unwanted pauses will be eliminated. Writers are now using ellipsis (…) to indicate interjections. The work should be taken further by the directors.

It is my hope that when these issues are addressed at directorial level, Studio 263 will become a force to reckon with. I am afraid some of these techniques are already being applied by Cont Mhlanga, the director of Amakorokoza. It would be sad to see a latecomer taking the limelight from Studio 263.