Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two Zimbabwean Sitcoms: What Sitcom?

Samuel Ravengai

Sunday Mirror Review, 11 April 2004
Zimbabwe Television (ZTV) has so far produced two sitcoms – namely, Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva.  In 2003, Susan Makore, the then Kidznet and Television Services head announced a new television season by emphasizing that a new sitcom Chatsva would be part of the new menu.  I waited with nudging anxiety to watch Chatsva as the previous so called sitcom Timmy na Bonzo, though sometimes funny, had failed to fit into a genre which it was being asked to belong.  When the new season opened, I followed all Chatsva episodes with keen interest until ZTV itself decided to take it off the air.  It was neither interesting nor did it belong to the situation comedy genre.  At the present moment (April 2004) ZTV is screening a sitcom called Waiters produced by Creative Native, the video production arm of Rooftop Promotions.  The question that comes to mind is:  What is there about a particular show that makes it fit into the situation comedy genre? I attempt to answer this question and provoke others as well. 

The answer to the first question motivates shocking revelations at Pockets Hill. In this Art Talk column, we have revealed time and again with concrete evidence, that some dramatic serials, which are being screened as soap operas, are in fact not soap operas.  When the visuals of Amakorokoza are pointing to something far removed from a soap opera, ZTV news anchors, reporters and presenters brand Amakorokoza a soap opera.  The same naming crisis comes to light with regards to Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva.

Who at Pockets Hill allows and endorses those erroneous names to programmes that do not belong to such genres? The Productions Strategic Business Unit sanctions these dramatic programmes. Sources privy to the issue reliably inform me that executive producers of this SBU meet every morning to check the quality of programmes that will be aired on a given day. The drama unit executive producer Dorothy Chidzawo should voice those concerns to those who commission the programmes so as to protect her reputation. I believe that the commissioning team should be made up of people who are thoroughly grounded in television production. I understand Norbert Ferro, Emma Shamuyarira and until recently Noel Sibanda comprised the Commissioning Team. I have great respect for these individuals as artisans. However, I doubt their ability to read works of art and pass unquestionable judgments on them. It looks to me that they cannot distinguish chrome from mampara, gold from silver and lead from tin. All of these minerals, to them, are the same (metaphorically speaking). If a seller sells his silver as gold, they will buy it as gold without verification. Some mechanism has to be put in place that will ensure that mediocre programmes are cast in the recycle bin before they are beamed to the viewers.

And now to situation comedies. Because of the shortcomings of the commissioning team, such programmes as Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva were named situation comedies. Lawrence Simbarashe and Marjory Mugoronji could have gotten away with it had their programmes been interesting as I suspect Amakorokoza will be. Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva were a false start. The real start is Waiters. It should go in the history of broadcasting that the first Zimbabwean made sitcom was Waiters.

Jasen Mphepo played Marcelino in the sitcom Waiters

What is there about a particular show that makes it fit into the sitcom genre? In situation comedy a special funny thing happens to a special set of characters. As opposed to other dramatic genres, this special set of characters will appear at the same time during the coming week in another funny situation which will be entirely nondependent on what happened in the previous episode. One is tempted at this stage to ask; wasn’t Timmy na Bonzo like that? However, there is more to it than just this ‘funny thing’. Hansen (1991) defines situation comedy as “plot centred and involving setting up new and interesting situations into which familiar characters move”. Being ‘plot centred’ is where the real crux of the matter is. The plot of a sitcom falls into four basic parts: exposition (teaser), complication, confusion and more confusion, and finally alleviation of confusion. Both Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva registered the first part in their stories but they seemed to end at that level without taking the story forward. In one episode of Chatsva, Mbanje falls hungry and conjures a plan to get a free meal from their workplace canteen by faking illness. The situation doesn’t take off from this level as the rest of the characters ritualistically follow the same trick crafted by Mbanje. There is no confusion that ensues leading the story to remain flat and hypnotically dull. What should ideally happen is that when the situation has been established, it is the one which precipitates the complication that follows. Take Marcelino of Waiters for instance. He goes back to Mozambique, but mistakenly locks Mariyawanda and Adam in the restaurant. What are they going to do with no help in sight? This is the complication. The complication leads to confusion. At least Adam has a cell phone, so he can phone to solicit for help. But before he phones, the handset drops down and breaks into pieces. Confusion. There is power failure. More confusion. The more thorough the confusion, the more the audience is let in on a joke that will backfire on the characters, the more comic the episode. Nothing is done out of malice. Everything happens by mistake or out of good faith. When confusion has reached its peak there is the alleviation of the confusion and everybody is happy. The balance of power returns back to its original position; as it was at the beginning of the show.

Timmy na Bonzo does not present a situation but a series of situations in one episode which are not given time to develop. Four or so situations cannot be fully developed in less than 24 minutes. However, as individual artistes, Tapfumaneyi, Lawrence and Arumenda have great potential. They have two options: either to look for a talented scriptwriter and director who will do what they cannot do better or revert back to their trade as standup comedians. We don’t have many of them in Zimbabwe and that is a grey area!

Like soap operas, the space of a sitcom is always internal. There is nothing of substance between houses and office blocks. Movement from one place to another is accomplished by means of fade-out or fade-in. It is only Waiters which passes this generic code. The other two programmes flirt around with all kinds of spaces. Chatsva would move to fuel stations while Timmy na Bonzo would go to grave yards, climb up trees, open spaces and so on. Waiters is, however, consistently internal as it should. The standard of living in these internal spaces is based on comfort and neatness. There is only shabbiness or disarray when called for by the script.

At the centre of the situation comedy are the characters. Sitcom characters are not fully developed, as the plot formula does not allow real psychological development. They are very predictable, as they will behave the way they have always done and will continue to do within their stylistically individual manners. They are not fully human, but humanoid. Though they have the appearance of humanity certain qualities are exaggerated to the point of grotesque. Take Marcelino for instance. His more stupid side is emphasised more than any other quality. Sally is garrulous, soft minded and very fastidious. This is what she will play for the entire life of the sitcom. While there is great potential for Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva characters, they can only be more useful if all other generic features are present in the narrative.

Situation comedies have types, namely action comedy (actcom), domestic comedy (domcom), pseudo domestic comedy (pseudo-domcom). Waiters is more on the actcom side while Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva are not firmly located in a specific genre.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Are so called Zimbabwean Soap Operas on Course or still Groping in the darkness?

Sunday Mirror, 7 March 2004
Samuel Ravengai

In 2002 the first Zimbabwean soap opera came on air. Thereafter, several others emerged and I got increasingly worried about the idea of a soap opera which, at that time, was not properly understood by most producers. I decided something needed to be done and wrote this article, parts of which appeared in the Sunday Mirror. I won myself a lot of enemies and friends. I guess that is the prize for impacting on lives. Here is what I wrote then:

 The 2003 new television season began with much fanfare as the then head of Radio and Television Services Ms Abigail Mvududu announced to the nation that a home grown soap opera Studio 263 was going to be part of the menu. Kabanana, from Zambia and Fragments by a Zimbabwean producer King Dube were to follow. I believe by now Cont Mhlanga and Sithokhozile Zulu are at an advanced production stage with their soap opera Makorokoza. However, the real crux of the matter is can everything which is a dramatic serial be given the tag of a soap opera? We saw the production and screening of Ziva Kwawakabva, Mavara Azare Ivhu, Inongova Njakenjake, Zim Life, Kwiyo Muzukuru, Nzungu Muriva 1 and 2; the list is endless. All these television dramas were dramatic serials; not to be confused with soap operas.

Let us look at the origins of soap opera and see how it evolved to become what it is today. Although the term soap opera was listed as a new word in 1945 in American Speech, there is overwhelming evidence that this word existed well before 1945. According to Allen (1985) it appeared in the American magazine Newsweek as early as 1939. In the literature of that period soap opera is referred to as a ‘daytime dramatic serial’. The term ‘dramatic’ is full of ambiguities as it seems to embrace other television dramatic genres. Soap Opera has got its origins in opera. The opera invented its own structures by borrowing from three European performance traditions, namely the church, pageants and the masque. From the tenth century medieval church, opera borrowed from morality plays, mystery plays and miracle plays which contain almost all its bare essentials- music, narrative, costume and scenery. From the pageants, certain elements from quasi-pagan festivals and royal weddings were adapted. A shining example from this performance tradition is the play The Pilgrim which formed part of the entertainment at the royal wedding of Ferdinando and Christine of Lorraine in 1589 in Florence. The play contained six dramatic musical interludes, which are a familiar feature in contemporary opera. From the masque, which is a type of courtly entertainment in 16th century Europe, opera borrowed some of its elements like speeches, poetry, song, instrumental music, dance, games and revels. These features were borrowed, reinvented, restructured and reorganised to form a conventional system which is today called opera. The soap opera borrowed heavily from opera. Since radio is older than television, soap opera began on radio before it was taken over by television. The problem with defining a soap opera from a radio perspective is that the visual dimension is sidelined while the audio dimension is given prominence. The Dictionary of American Slang (1975) defines a soap opera as ‘a daily dramatic serial program broadcast by radio usually lasting fifteen minutes each day, concerning fictitious domestic crises and troubles and often characterised by little action’. This could be true to radio, but it certainly does not suffice for television. I have no problems in viewing Mopani Junction as a radio soap opera as it has all the attributes that a radio can possibly handle- a dramatic narrative, music, domestic crises, lack of closure etc. Television is an audio-visual medium and therefore a television soap opera definition has to take cognisance of this fact. From opera, television borrowed music, elaborate costume, elaborate set and of course heightened drama. However, these elements were not taken as they were. Television by its very nature creates its own version of the traditional popular arts by inventing a new structure which when used over a period of time becomes a formula. The soap opera has developed its own ways and techniques which it uses to shape, rearrange and repackage cultural products that were already in existence. These techniques jelly together to create the soap opera generic code which enables viewers to read a television product as a soap opera and not any other genre like a courtroom drama, western, horror movie, documentary, musical, science fiction, spoof, police and so on. There are conflations here and there. But how did the term “soap” come into being? Allen (1985) explains ‘the soap in soap opera derives from sponsorship of daytime serials by manufacturers of household cleaning products: Proctor and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers’.

A soap opera is a serial narrative whose world is populated by mostly middle class characters. All over the world, this class of people is not the majority in the population demography. However, in the soap operas wherever they are produced in the world, the number of middle class characters is disproportionately high compared to their distribution in those societies. In the Daily Mirror of 14 January 2004, Talkmore Chikumbirike castigated Studio 263 ‘for abandoning the rural life, concentrating on an urban setting’. Other television genres can handle those rural characters and settings quite well. On this generic code Studio 263 is on course although the earliest episodes were off-track. Proportionately, the workplaces and residential areas depicted in soap operas are those associated with middle class occupations and leisure- corporate offices, restaurants, clubs, posh houses and cars, law firms and so on. The dressing code also complements the softness and class of the characters as outlined by Newcomb (1974): “For the most part the people are elegantly but tastefully groomed. The men dress conservatively even when casual. The women are carefully trimmed in stylish fashions, coiffed in the most fitting styles. The appearance is carried into their homes” Studio 263 seems to be doing well on this aspect. Mrs Huni is always dressed to kill so are all the girl characters and everybody else except Themba, Mr Jari and Tendai.

Another aspect related to characterisation is that soap opera characters exist independently of the actors and actresses who portray them. If for any reason an actor decides to leave the soapie, he is replaced by another unless of course the head writer decides to write the actor out of the cast. I understand Chikumbirike’s concern over Studio 263’s dragging when Stephen Chigorimbo decided to throw in the towel. Shannon McNicol was also not replaced leading the soapie changing direction. Studio 263 executive producer has to realise that a soap opera is very flexible as the audience will quickly adjust to any change of actor or actress. Incompetent actors and actresses can also be fired (and they are quite a number) if better ones are available. It is also permissible in a soap opera to resurrect dead characters. Mary, Manson’s girlfriend in Santa Barbra was raised from the dead many times. I must also add that the soap opera text must exist independently of associate writers or dialoguers as they are known in certain production houses. The script must not bear the mark of a certain writer. In Studio 263 there is a writer who is given to verbosity and overwriting. There is another or maybe they are quite a number who do not have the art of writing at all. They present lectures to the viewers and take them through boring routines. They forget that good intentions are not enough for the material must be interesting. The most interesting characters to watch are those who have a certain attraction towards each other yet they have the most conflict. There is another one who writes in a much better way and can be groomed.

A soap opera is also a serial narrative whose world is mostly set in the interior. It shares this generic code with a sitcom. As the viewers are allowed access to the soap opera community and as they enter house after house, their eyes are not allowed access to the outside world/space. There is nothing of substance in the soap opera realm between these physical spaces. The interior spaces depicted must be commensurate with the middle class taste of the characters. The furniture and electronic gadgets are solidly middle class. The taste in furniture and design ranges from traditional to modern. Everything in the spaces is soft and comfortable. Studio 263 straddles the course regarding this generic code. Its selection of internal spaces is accurate. The furniture in Tom Mbambo and Huni’s houses is indicative of their social and economic positions. Those in the lower middle class- the Jaris and Muwengwas are also fairly represented. The only problem with Studio 263 is their inclination to external spaces- the construction sites, fishing expeditions, airport farewells, out of court space, car parks etc. This use of space is not seen in many established soap operas like Santa Barbra, Generations, Isidingo and so on. This must be completely avoided as this is the domain of the movie and other television genres. By its very nature of running from Monday to Friday, a soap opera is a mass produced product which does not require the rigours that are associated with shooting those scenes. At Rotten Row Court, we ended up with Tom and the journalist as the only people occupying the car park. That place, on a normal working day is filled up with all sorts of people and cars. Where would PSI get the money to pay all those people who should make the place look more realistic? Big budget movies can afford that luxury.
The third soap opera generic code is that its narrative is family and/or community centred as opposed to character centred fictive television genres. There is not a single protagonist and an antagonist as we would find in a movie or a properly written television drama. The crises that occur in the narrative blast the whole family and not just an individual thus they are aptly labelled “domestic crises”. The family forms a subplot which is linked to other family subplots by family members who relate with other characters from a different family. The cumulative effect of these intra and interpersonal relationships is the formation of a community of anything between forty and fifty regular characters and a host of other irregular and new characters who continue to be added as new subplots are added and expanded. These relationships are based on kinship, friendships, business, marriage, and romance including interracial. In certain societies where relationships on the basis of the above are not a norm, minority groups are not represented in the cast. It is not uncommon in America to find an all white cast in a soap opera. This is not the norm in Zimbabwe and any race can be part of the cast. Admittedly, there is a group of characters who are more prominent than others in any given episode, however none can be separated and given that special role of a protagonist or antagonist. We simply have main characters and supporting characters. Who is the protagonist in Generations? In Studio 263? In Days Of Our Lives? Difficult to say eh! On this generic code Studio 263 passes the test.

To add to this, a soap opera is a serial narrative which is unending. One television critic Marya Mannes once said about soap operas ‘all is suffused, formless, unresolving, unending’. In other dramatic television genres like a movie, TV drama and so on problems are created in order to be solved towards the end of the narrative. The protagonist achieves his goal or fails to achieve his goal but accomplishes something nonetheless. The old order is reinstated at the end and sometimes a new one is established. Contrastingly, in a soap opera, the operative phrase is ‘growing suspense’. If this is to be achieved, new questions continually suggested by the growing action must be created at a faster rate than answers. The story is in no hurry to solve the problems and the story goes on forever, but without losing its entertainment value. This is the major challenge facing Studio 263. Ever since it began in 2002, about six subplots were established- Kenge subplot, Tom subplot, Jari subplot, Muwengwa subplot, Dread Welly subplot and the James subplot. The question is what is the contribution of these subplots to the overall story? If a subplot is contributing very little to the superobjective, it has no reason to exist. What does the Dread Welly subplot contribute to the story? Can the story cease to exist without it? Godwin Mawuru must revisit the story. A year now has passed and no old subplot has been killed nor a new one formed. The story is going to be exhausted very soon and force the soapie to be like any other boring TV drama.

Furthermore, a soap opera is a serial narrative which underscores nearly all its scenes with music. This generic code is borrowed from stage opera. It is now extensively used even in other stage performances like melodrama and also TV genres like documentaries, movies and game shows. Since a soap opera is a world of emotional extremes, it extensively exploits music to accentuate the emotional response it strives for. Music is not just used willy nilly; it provides transition of time and place. Apart from that, it is used to offer aural representation of the character’s state of mind. It predicts the disaster or excitement that is to follow a given incident. Special use of lights can also help this endeavour. The Studio 263 composer is not doing a fair job. Not all the time do we have music at the aforementioned points. There is need for a variety of sounds to suit each situation. The interpretation of the script rests with the director and he needs to say what he wants at pre-shoot briefs so that his director of photography and lighting designer can be more creative. Independent creativity emanates from the production concept created by the director. Yes there is music in Studio 263, but more creativity is needed in that department.

Another soap opera generic code is that its structure is non formulaic. Other television genres have a formula which has been widely copied by broadcasters and independent producers to gain extra mileage from its commercial success. Wallace (2000)’s book You Can Write a Movie lists a total of sixty-nine genres of movies. All of them use the same formulaic structure of exposition, inciting incident, complications, crises, climax and resolution. This structural arrangement is usually described as Freytag Pyramid. Although the soap opera has got some aspects of the above formula, their placement within its plot does not form a pyramid. The soap opera structure is a labyrinth. Some writers have used the term ‘formless’ for it. Allen (1985) rightly compares the plot movement of a soap opera to that of an uncertain tourist when he says ‘the movement of the reader’s wandering viewpoint along the frontiers of the text is not that of the driver of a sports car down a superhighway, but rather that of the uncertain tourist provided with a rather sketchy map, who frequently stops to look back where s/he has been, occasionally takes a side road, and constantly tries to glimpse what lies around the next bend’. This is where Studio 263 totally misses the point. The story is always moving forward and at high speed like a sports car down a superhighway. Each episode has an average of six scenes. Each subplot is normally given a scene of its own and once the issue has been dealt with, the story moves to another subplot. It is no coincidence that in a story with six subplots, the average number of scenes in each episode is six. The result is that the story has no gaps or blanks to allow the process of ideation on the part of viewers. I have read many views from the press and from ZBC itself complaining about lack of suspense in the story. Blank creation is one of the many ways of building suspense.

This brings me to the last generic code of a soap opera, which is redundancy. There is intraepisodic redundancy where the story revolves around the same issue which is shared by the characters in each episode. In one 1998 episode of Santa Barbra, Lionel’s wife throws in the towel. In the Cruse subplot, Santana is sick in hospital. For many weeks to come Lionel is begging his estranged wife to reconsider her stance. Cruse continually comes to visit Santana in her ward. Access to the CC subplot is gained through the technique of interior monologue. In fact many subplots thrive on intraepisodic redundancy. A thirty minute episode ends without much forward movement of the plot. Allen (1985) correctly puts it “reduced to its syntagmatic axis, the soap opera becomes an endless string of excruciatingly retarded subplots, related in episodes whose redundancy gives them an almost Sisyphean tiresomeness”. I appreciate the use interior monologues in Studio 263 as a way of introducing redundancy, but the scriptwriters need to be properly trained in the art of creating gaps and dialogue writing. As I have already indicated, Studio 263 is moving far too fast. However, it is not as fast as it used to be when it began. One would have thought it was not going to last another two months then. The writers have managed to slow it down a bit, but it needs to be slowed once more without losing its entertainment value. Once an issue has been exhausted, new problems must be created. We now know who sponsored the drugging of Vimbai on the eve of Miss Zimbabwe and the story shouldn’t dwell any further on that issue; new complications must be introduced.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

While Performers Shined at HIFA, Zimbabwean Directors Were Exposed.

Samuel Ravengai
Sunday Mirror, Mirror Review 30 May 2004
The Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa), which opened on the 27th of April and closed on the 2nd of May 2004, left a mark on the Zimbabwean cultural calendar. I have been following reports on HIFA since its inception while still in the Diaspora and this has been my first ever attendance. I am aware of a myriad of debates that HIFA has generated ranging from organisational issues, politics, race, culture and many others. I am not prepared to delve into these issues in this article as my major preoccupation is on art itself.

There were a variety of shows I attended ranging from dance, (Moving into Dance) music, (Ismael Lo and Soweto Kinch) and theatre, (Two Hungry Men, Independence Day, Vivace, Unveiling, African Macbeth, Harry, the Brother from Another Mother, Wedding Night, Mathew and Jimmy Show). As you can see from the choice of shows, I am a theatre person and therefore incompetent to give insight into other forms of art. All I can say is that on a subliminal level the dances and music motivated an instinctively satisfying feeling and they uplifted my spirit. I cannot wait for the 2005 HIFA!

In all the shows that I watched, performers generally excelled in their craft of acting. However, they were key areas that needed directorial intervention. Most of the failures were noted in the visual dimension of theatre, which encompasses the ground plan, composition and picturisation among other things. But let us first investigate the way performers handled the craft of acting. The Unveiling cast was fabulous. What I admired about Watson Chidzomba, John Dhlakama and Eleanor Madziva was their excellent ownership of lines. The words were very fresh and they were exchanged between them as if they were spoken for the first time. Their voices were well coached by their director Susan Hains. We could hear every word, breath, syllable and consonant. The area of voice is Susan Hains’ speciality and she demonstrated beyond doubt that she is a voice expert. Although the action was restricted around the two sofas and a coffee table, we had very good moments of performers’ picturisation where they gave the audience an internal story by showing motivations, actions and feelings. When Vera and Michael dominate Ferdinand, the story is told in words as well as gestures, voice modulation and bearing. I will bring out directorial challenges of this production shortly. My only concern was with Watson Chidzomba. I have seen him perform in many stage and screenplays, but what is worrying is that he tends to give the same package for all different characters he is playing. I would like to see him play different characters differently. The same criticism can be levelled against Dylan Wilson-Max who featured in Harry, the Brother from Another Mother. I have seen him perform in three television series and one stage play so far and like Watson, he is offering the same package.

The craft of acting was also handled well in other theatre shows. The Walter Muparutsa directed Wedding Night was highly entertaining. All the performers did well and I am in agreement with NAMA adjudicators who voted Joyce Mpofu the best actress this year. Kevin Simomondo and Lucky Saungweme of Two Hungry Men were good in terms of using their bodily instruments and silence. They could have been better had they given attention to their articulation. Part of the problem was the way their script was written. It was constructed from complex and multiple sentences that did not reflect the way people talk in everyday life. This affected elocution and sometimes the audience missed on key issues that were deliberated on. The Independence Day cast was equally good- especially the main actress Sara. However, the cast’s energy needed directorial intervention. They employed the Amakhosi bravura melodramatic style of acting, which was inappropriate for a work based on a classical realist text – Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. It all looked overacted and the director Thoko Zulu should have intervened and brought individual energies down to the same fundamental beat.

In all the aforementioned Zimbabwean productions with the possible exception of Wedding Night, quite a number of directorial challenges were evident. The most obvious one was the disorientating use of space. The use of space must be logical and should aid the illusion that the director is trying to project. The arrangement of properties did not aid the creation of a three-dimensional quality to staging. Take Unveiling for instance. It had three acting areas – the sofas, a coffee table with beverage bottles and a music centre. This should be applauded, as an effective ground plan should have a variety of acting areas. However, all these acting areas were placed along the lateral plane. It was difficult to reinforce the illusion of a living room as we did not know how wide or deep it was. The properties were not strategically positioned to define the space. Consequently, this arrangement forced the performers to use more of the lateral plane than anything else. Only two dimensions of the living room were clear; the third one was missing as performers had no or little motivation to move into the upstage area.

The same can be said about Harry, the Brother from Another Mother. The director Mandisi Gobodi arranged furniture – bed, cupboard, two chairs and a coffee table along the lateral plane. The blocking of the play was limited to those areas with properties. The same movements were observed in Thoko Zulu’s Independence Day. She had just one couch stretching along the lateral plane. All movements were executed left and right along the axis defined by the couch. Directors should realise that theatrical space is three-dimensional and that illusion should be impressed upon the audience all the time by directing movements in all three areas. This helps in creating a variety of body positions rather than the monotonous full front and profile positions. A variety of body positions embellishes spectacle. ‘Variety of body positions’, according to one of the best American directors, Converse, ‘adds a great deal of visual interest to a scene, and is a very powerful communicative tool’.

I have already commended the directors for coaching well the performer’s language and speech skills. The same rigour should have been exercised in the area of visual communication. The visual dimension encompasses how performers and properties are arranged on stage in order to achieve an instinctively satisfying clarity and beauty. On a subliminal level, the visual aspect of theatre if well executed gives the audience a sense of completion and artistic wholeness to what is presented before them. Apart from the clarity and beauty radiated by the stage pictures, the visual aspect of theatre must also tell a story. In the aforementioned productions, the major compositional technique employed by the directors was creating emphasis through varying the heights of performers – sitting and standing. All things being equal the tallest figure gets the attention of the audience. The triangle was the most prevalent shape noticeable on stage in performer relationships, probably because in these plays only three performers could be seen on stage at any particular moment. While these are good compositional techniques, the directors should have searched for a combination of other techniques to create a variety in emphasis. Monotony is a state which in real life is very boring. In art it is a taboo to be avoided unless it is used to gain a special effect. A variety of compositional techniques should have been used to enhance spectacle. In as much as the word is important, the visual dimension is also important as elegantly described by Eugene Ionesco: ‘the theatre appeals as much to the eye as to the ear’. It is more than words as it also speaks in images. In fact the audience comes to watch and not to hear theatre. Our theatrical productions should go beyond the standard of an excellent radio play. Of the four productions cited, the Walter Muparutsa directed Wedding Night was ahead of others in its use of space and execution of compositional and picturisation techniques. No wonder Muparutsa was chosen the best theatre director during this year’s NAMA. E-mail this writer at

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Studio 263: A Focused Pro-Development Soap Opera

By Samuel Ravengai
The Herald 29 March 2005.

Response to an article authored by Wonder Guchu entitled ‘Studio 263 Storyline Loses Focus’ which appeared in the Herald of 7 March 2005 refers.

Characters from Studio 263
This article should be applauded for its depth of analysis. Rather than the openly judgemental reports that we normally get from most of the journalists in this country, this article was rigorous in its analysis of thematic issues that Studio 263 is grappling with. The level of understanding of characters and what they stand for was very good. It tallies with our original conceptions; for when characters are conceived, they are not fictional beings, but symbols of poetic vision. When we give them goals, values, obstacles, commitment and some such things, we breathe life in them and transform them into fictional beings. We also agree with Mr Guchu in his submission that there is no central family in the story. That problem was noted about a year ago. The characters were inherited from A.C Moyo like that; however, efforts are being made to redress it. However, we do not entirely agree with all the concerns that Mr Guchu has levelled against the Studio 263 story.

The first accusation raised is that ‘with every new episode, the storyline gets more warped and the themes more shadowy…’ This is the premise of the argument. Instead of going ahead to provide substance to support this standpoint, Guchu goes for the entire article analysing the themes of Studio 263 with such amazing dexterity. If they are shadowy in the story, how come they are so clear to him as a reader? Studio 263 is indeed a pro-development soap opera, and it has not shifted from the thematic concerns of HIV/AIDS it originally set for itself. It has only endeavoured to make them more exciting so that they don’t seem forced down the viewers’ throats. Our interest at Studio 263 is to tell a story that has believable characters that reflect the lives of real people in Zimbabwe. We want as much as possible is to avoid stereotypes and two-dimensional characters whose every move is predictable, but at the same time we must remain aware of the show’s raison d’etre, which as we understand it, is to use character driven television soap to educate people about HIV and AIDS with the ultimate aim of bringing about sustained sexual behavioural change in youths. If Mr Guchu can, indeed, prove there has been a shift, we will be too glad to redress the issue. After all, that is the role of critics.

We see no problems in having the story turning and twisting this way and that way (warped). That is the nature of soap opera structures the world over. A soap opera scholar Allen Roberts can help us most with regards to problems that Mr Guchu has when the story ‘warps’. Allen says that when soap opera viewers follow the story they are not like the ‘driver of a sports car down a superhighway, but rather like the uncertain tourist provided with a rather sketchy map, who frequently stops to look back where he or she has been, occasionally taking a side road and constantly trying to glimpse what lies around the next bend’ (1985: 78). What this means is that the story can take a false route, retrace its footsteps, stop and go forward again. It requires a lot of skill to do all these movements with the story. If any reversal was written in an unconvincing manner, we challenge critics to take us on.

While it would please Mr Guchu and his ilk if we cut to the chase and resolved all the conflicts and killed all the characters that – according to him and his sources – are supposed to die young, it wouldn’t work for us in the business of education through entertainment and our target audience. So with this in mind, we would like to clear up some of this, and other writers’ conjecture and maybe help them better understand our seemingly irrational behaviour. Except for Farai Muwengwa, who came to his brother for help when he was already too sick for help, none of our characters are, or ever were supposed to die young from HIV/AIDS. Our aim is to educate people about living positively with HIV, so we would be shooting ourselves in the foot by prematurely killing our message bearers. We don’t know whose plot Mr Guchu is referring to when he says Muwengwa must die and that he must pay for his sins.

The next point is not an accusation, but a fear that Mr Guchu has over what will happen to Tom and Tendai. Without risking telling him the full text of the story, Tom will not ‘transform’, but he will be a very good actor in order to win Vimbayi. ‘Acting good’ and ‘being good’ are miles apart. Tom will act good, while deep down he will remain the same old villain. Mr Guchu shouldn’t also worry about Tendai. This character that was built over the years will not be destroyed. Tendai is living positively facing one challenge at a time. Her HIV status in not, as Mr Guchu puts it ‘likely to fade away’ because Kenge is locked up. Unfortunately, for us filmmakers, we do not have the entertainment reporters’ luxury of arguing and resolving issues within a few paragraphs, so Tendai – like most HIV positive people, will struggle to tell her boyfriend about her status, she will continue to face stigma, she will have periods of depression. She will be human, not a cardboard cut out that fits a writer’s preconceptions about HIV positive people.  A good storyteller must present challenges to the strong character to get the most out of her. Some writers advice that when you have forced the character to climb a tree, you must throw stones at her. We are simply throwing stones at Tendai. She will do the right thing. Sorry if that pains you!

Mr Guchu has also branded relationships in the making at Studio 263 scandalous. He suggests that bringing Mai Jari and Shereni together is a sign that the writers have run out of ideas. What could be so untoward or scandalous if Mai Jari were to fall in love with Shereni? Does being a widow or widower preclude any chance of finding love again? Is it immoral to fall in love after one’s spouse dies? By advancing his argument against a relationship between the widow and widower, Mr Guchu seems to suggest that once married, women become the property of a family and thus cannot venture out even after they lose their husband.

In a telephone conversation with Mr Guchu to find out what he meant by ‘Studio 263 storyline is losing focus’, he indicated that he measured the success of a story by its ability to achieve set goals. To him Studio 263 is generating other issues which seem to drift it away from the set goals. It is quite clear that Mr Guchu is reading Studio 263 like a realist novel. This particular genre is a ‘closed text’ as it aims at pulling the reader along a predetermined path. Every step of the story in a realist novel is structured according to an inflexible project. The pathway constructed by the novelist for the reader leads in a straightforward manner to its end. A soap opera, however, is an ‘open text’ with multiple levels of interpretation built into it. The soap opera reader with sufficient knowledge of the codes at work in the text will read it competently. The elaborate network of character relationships, events, and situations in Studio 263 allows multiple readings in excess of those necessary for narrative functions. We have no capacity and none has any capacity to totally control which codes to be engaged by any viewer to generate meaning at any given time. When such meanings, as those derived from Tamara’s troubles are generated, it should not be misconstrued as lack of focus. We certainly have an idea of what a story has to be. The story for the period January-July 2005 is in place and most of the narrative questions Mr Guchu raised are answered in the master story.

Finally, thanks for your in depth analysis of Studio 263. Keep up the good work Guchu. Mr Guchu may, however, want to know that Studio 263 became successful because we got a lot more things right than we got wrong. We don’t have a template to go by and so we make mistakes and continue to do so like all artistes. But we strive for perfection, which is an elusive goal for art, as that day of artistic perfection will herald the end of the world and the end of art. Nonetheless, let’s face real issues here. Why it is that Studio 263 is one of the few media products exported from Zimbabwe? Why do people continue to watch it and why do advertisers continue to fight for space on Studio 263 shows?

Story Consultant and Associate Director Studio 263

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Strengths and Limitations of Waiters: Zimbabwe's very own Sitcom

The Strengths and Limitations of Waiters: Zimbabwe’s very own Situation Comedy

Samuel Ravengai

The Sunday Mirror, Mirror Review, 23 May 2004.
In the Mirror Review of 11 April 2004 I made a bold claim that “it should go in the history of broadcasting that the first Zimbabwean made sitcom was Waiters”. I had looked at other programmes which claimed to be sitcoms, but found them wanting in most of the generic codes I outlined. However, the mere fact of qualifying to be a sitcom does not render Waiters free from blame. It has got its own limitations that need to be rectified before it qualifies to be an exportable media product. But let us first look at its strengths.

The first strength stems from Creative Native’s involvement of intellectuals in the creative process. It will be remembered that last week I bemoaned the undeclared animosity that exists between intellectuals and production houses in so far as both of them do not seem to be working together for the good of art. However, in this particular programme (which is a rare case in Zimbabwean art) Steven Chifunyise was engaged to create Waiters characters. All of the characters created by Steven Chifunyise are firmly rooted within parameters that define a situation comedy. Edgar Langeveldt, a University of Zimbabwe practical drama graduate is also one of the scriptwriters. A combination of writing skills from Leonard Matsa, a film writer and Edgar Langveldt, a theatre creator helps to catapult Waiters miles ahead of either Timmy na Bonzo or Chatsva. This marriage between artistes and artistic intellectuals is also evident on programmes that ZTV imports. On titles, portfolios like consultant script editor, consultant director or consultant so and so are often a common feature at the end of each of each programme. It goes on to support the view that people who are knowledgeable and action oriented should occupy creative portfolios. However, I must add that the mere fact of being an intellectual, but without passion and discipline does not guarantee a great work of art. I am informed that because of Edgar’s failure to meet deadlines among other things, the task of scriptwriting has been taken back to the originator of the idea Steven Chifunyise.

Waiters has got an experienced cast which makes it an erstwhile programme. Waiters director Marian Kunonga once described her performers as “an intimidating cast”. Dylan, Ehyra, Tickeys, Simon and Jason have got a wealth of experience from the theatre. The bravura melodramatic style of acting, which they got from the stage, suits the sitcom genre, which does not normally rely on close-up shots. These performers are not chancers; they have a passion for art and most of them are trained. In Zimbabwe, some directors still think that performers are born and therefore can be picked from the street in the fashion of modelling schools. They will give their friends and relatives a chance to appear on television and get some little pocket money even if they have never seen an acting school in their lives. The results are obvious on our sets. We are not cursed. We have to kill the enemy of art within ourselves who believes that art is any fools’ game. Art loving directors should repent from this sin against art.
Waiters is very Zimbabwean in its tone, texture and flavour. The opening montage of each episode of Waiters is accompanied by some sweet African jazz theme music played by a Zimbabwean musician Willom Tight. It prepares the viewers to get into an African restaurant with those ethnic colours on the walls. The laugh track plays a typically Zimbabwean laughter. It gives the viewers the feeling that they are watching a Zimbabwean product.

The final but not least strength of Waiters lies in the fact that it satisfies all generic codes of a sitcom- a four part narrative structure, humanoid characterization, exploration of internal space and the inclusion of a laugh track. Let me expand on characterization. There is a great deal of stereotyping in Waiters. It should be noted that whereas in other dramatic television genres it is a weakness to create stereotypical characters, it is a strength in sitcom characterization. Much of the humour comes from this stereotypical depiction of characters. Take Marcelino, for instance as the ‘brandaya’ house cook who is fuss and stupid. Get me right here. I am not insinuating that it is wrong to create a three dimensional character. In fact it is an extra bonus if a scriptwriter achieves that level. Some channels like BBC actually require three-dimensional characters as asserted by Matthew Carless “the characters that force us to reject scripts are often one dimensional or stereotypes”. For those who want to create comedy characters, this is the realm of characterization that they should be operating in.

While Davies Guzha and his Creative Native should be credited for producing Waiters, ZTV Quality Control Committee should be cracking the whip at Creative Native to mend the seams inherent in Waiters. A major shortcoming in Waiters is the absence of a recognizable main character. Everybody in Waiters seems to attract the same kind of attention. This does not help the entertainment value of the sitcom. The main character should carry the bulk of the action and is the one that viewers are supposed to watch for the better part of the episode. Because of the time limits of each episode (24 minutes) it is painstakingly difficult to give every character enough spotlight to make all of them main characters. This is the major dilemma of Waiters. When each character is equally important, each takes away from the others time that viewers can spend with other characters. Ideally, there should be one or two main characters and a sizeable number of supporting characters. Need should be the guide for the inclusion of supporting characters. They should be included to inspire or force the main character to act or react. The nearest Waiters have come to having a main character is when they bring ‘a guest star’ like the MP, Brenna Msiska or Oliver Mtukudzi. In these episodes, the viewers spent more time with guest stars. Dishearteningly, not all guest stars lived up to the expectations of stardom. The result was that when viewers were supposed to have quality time with the so called guest stars, they had torrid times with novices who struggled with lines and the craft of acting. It was much better with Mtukudzi and Masuku as they are   artistes by profession.

Waiters is also limited in its scope of comedy creation. Essentially, the funny thing should come from the situation/story itself. The scriptwriters and the director seem to be doing well in that area, although they are not always successful in all the episodes. There are, however, other techniques of creating comedy over and above the ‘situation’. One way of doing this is through dialogue. In American sitcoms, there is meant to be a laugh every thirteen seconds. Zimbabweans should decide at what intervals they want laughter. However, the bottom line is dialogue must also be funny. This is generated through juxtaposition of two contrasting modes of speech. Ambiguity is another technique. Here an utterance is made in all innocence but is suddenly seen to carry a second possible meaning which clashes with the first.

Puns can also be employed. This is sheer pleasure in the perfidy of language (word play). “the forms of everyday speech are praised but transcended: copiousness of insult, fluency of repartee and inventiveness of word play go far beyond anything encountered in everyday world” (Nelson, 1990). Another source of comedy is visual comedy (Mr. Bean style). Here characters exploit parody, comedy of errors, comedy of manners and so on. It looks like Marcelino is the only character operating in this realm. The rest do not want to experiment with visual comedy. Sutherland (2000), a specialist in sitcom writing warns: “if you are not funny for any length of time, it had better be deliberate and you had better have a good reason”. If all these techniques are employed, Waiters can be a better comedy than it is at the moment.

Another worrying thing found in Waiters is that not all episodes follow the generic sitcom structure. I have watched a good number of them, but here let me single out the one in which Marcelino was dancing through out the episode. A drunkard later joined the dancing but the narrative remained on the same structural level. This did not precipitate further complications and confusion. The climax should not be taken out of the protagonist ‘s hands. If the events are going to be funny but without movement of the narrative, it will most likely put off the viewers. In his Ten Commandments of Writing Robert Mckee explains how characters have to be manipulated: “thou shalt seek the end of the line, taking characters into the furthest reaches and depths of conflict imaginable within the story’s own realm of predictability”. Multiplying complications on one level surely does not help the story, as it also remains static. The same mistake was committed on the 24 April episode where Marcelino got drunk and the story remained at that level without venturing into further complications. The introduction of Willom Tight did not add any further confusion. Viewers cannot be hooked to the screen by stasis.

In as much as I respect Steven Chifunyise, I have problems with his construction of sitcom characters. I appreciate the fact that the characters are unique. Apart from the Mariyawanda- Simon and Marcelino-rest-of-them relationships, the other combinations are not clear to me. A good script should make clear each character’s relationship to other characters in the series. Each character must have a comic flaw which creates potential for comic clashes between personalities and that will make these relationships funny, an excellent attribute of a sitcom. A situation comedy should really be called “character comedy”. We have seen from previous false sitcoms that a series of jokes strung together will not carry the day. Good writing is reliant on strong character outlines, which seem to be lacking in Waiters.  E-mail this writer at  

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Drama of Wiseman Magwa: Njuzu/Water Spirits (1991)

Samuel Ravengai (2011)
The play follows a linear narrative structure, by following the life of the main character Nyika and his antagonist Matope. Like Mujajati’s The Rain of my Blood (1991), the play starts from the time of the liberation war in Zimbabwe and ends in the post-independence era. The play is satirical. Matope, the antagonist is a soldier who is fighting on the side of njuzu (water spirits) whilst Nyika fights on the side of people of the land. In Zimbabwean mythology water spirits are visually depicted as white and it is not difficult to link Matope with white Rhodesians. It is likewise easy to link Nyika with the land hungry African people; and interestingly nyika means land in Shona. The issue of land was to decide the politics and dramatic oeuvre of Zimbabwe from 1997 onwards.
As the play opens, a heavily pregnant woman, Mai Nyasha and her ten year old son are ambushed by Matope, the mermen fighter, who it seems has refused to listen to the Rhodesian Front’s order to stop fighting. Matope subjects them to all manner of savagery by looting the food they were carrying and seriously injuring the young lad Nyasha who refused to co-operate with Matope. When Matope is about to kill Nyasha, he is restrained by his girlfriend Dudzai.
On the other hand, Nyika who fights for the land inhabiting people also seems to have refused to lay down arms and go to the nearest Assembly Point as required by the conditions of the 1979 ceasefire agreement. Indeed, in lived experience there were violations of the ceasefire agreement from both sides. Nyika features addressing the masses at a pungwe (night vigil) amidst dancing, singing, ululating and whistling. Like a political commissar, he explains to the masses the theory and practice of socialism as it would obtain in the new Zimbabwe he envisioned.
As if Matope is on the very brink of getting mad, he sings and dances to himself and even singing liberation songs such as ‘povho yaramba zvamadhisinyongoro’ [povo does not like disorganisation]. This seems less likely from an RF soldier, although this might be acceptable given the near snapping of his mind. Matope is at war with himself whether he made the right decision to stay on in the bush or respond to the ceasefire announcement to come back to camp. He is persuaded by his girlfriend Dudzai to go back to camp and he is finally convinced that unity is better than dissidence. He goes back to camp and is enlisted in the new army- Zimbabwe Defence Forces- which we know, at independence was led by Ian Smith’s army general Peter Walls.
Meanwhile, after finally laying down arms, Nyika returns to his rural home where his father throws him a big welcoming party attended by the chief, the village head and villagers. There is a lot of dancing, singing, speeches, chants, whistling and ululation to welcome Nyika back to village life. After this symbolic return to the source, Nyika finally decides that he wants to stay in the new army, but in the new Zimbabwe, he is confronted by so many problems that he thinks he is getting a rough deal.
·         Most of the senior military positions have been given to the former water spirit fighters
·         Most of the female land fighters were either impregnated or married by former water spirit fighters, perhaps because the mermen were paid better owing to their higher positions in the new army
·         Education in the new Zimbabwe is not free contrary to what he was telling the masses during night vigils
·         Even though he lost two fingers during the war, he was not given any money by the War Victims Compensation Fund because he was considered to be still able bodied.
·         Some ex-land fighters had accumulated too much wealth which was contrary to the spirit of socialism which they were coached to preach during the war. This was to lead to the Sandura Commission which saw several government ministers charged of corruption and relinquishing their portfolios (see Nyarota 2006).
The water spirits continued to own the land while people of the land did not have enough to conduct meaningful agriculture. This was contrary to the reasons for going to war (1991: 31). All this is revealed during a heated debate between Nyika and his fellow ex-fighter Mhungu (pp.28-35).
One incident, however, drives Nyika insane and ends with him living a miserable life. He argues with Matope, his former nemesis, who is now his senior in the army about who was the better side during the war of liberation. They end up fighting and Nyika is arrested by military police, who it appears are mainly composed of the ex-mermen fighters. Nyika is punished but decides to leave the army when an option for demobilisation is offered to him. Without work, he becomes a porter at Mbare bus terminus and like Jemusi in Tsodzo’s Shanduko (1983) or Spencer in Musengezi’s The Honourable MP (1984) becomes a domestic servant washing dishes, napkins, underwear and cooking for the new black land owner Muchengeti. He earns $40 (US$24 at the time) instead of the government gazetted $100 (US$59) in 1991 for domestic servants. Thus like Ndhlovu’s The Return (1990) and Mujajati’s The Rain of my Blood (1991) Magwa’s Njuzu/Water spirits (1991) deals with the theme of the plight of ex-combatants especially at the hands of the new black petit bourgeoisie class.
Samuel Ravengai 2011.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Official Views on Theatre Censorship in Manicaland Province - Zimbabwe

On the 7th of January 2008 Grace Maguri and Samuel Ravengai hooked up with Mr Athanasius Ruswa at the Manicaland Provincial Arts Council offices to discuss issues relating to theatre censorship in his province.  Mr Ruswa was the provincial arts manager. Sadly he died in early July at the age of 55 before I had published my report on censorship and political control of Zimbabwean theatre. He joined the National Arts Council as a provincial arts officer in 1994 and rose through the ranks to become the Provincial Arts Manager. The following is an interview that he gave us.

Samuel Ravengai (SR):            We are on a reconnaissance mission to know the status of theatre in your province. What was the state of theatre like in the early 80s up to about 2000s
Athanasius Ruswa (AT)           All the arts were doing very well. We had a number of theatre groups doing very well in the whole province. They could live from art.
SR        what has gone wrong?
AR        When the economy in a downward trend all aspects of the economy suffer including the arts. We now have fewer groups as compared to the early days. The reasons for that are many. The state of the economy, the political environment which has forced many of our artistes to diversify into cross border traders and into small scale mining.
SR        Let’s talk about the political environment. How has it affected theatre?
AR        Theatre benefits or suffers from both social and political problems of the country. But I like what our national director Mr. Titus Chipangura has said regarding the issue of politics. He has said that NACZ[1] deals with art. Nobody was asked about their political affiliation when they got the job in the Council. The incumbents must deal with issues relating to the arts and not politics.
SR        We understand as Provincial Arts Manager you represent the artistes during Provincial Development Committee meetings. That is a political gathering isn’t it?
AR        Yes and no. We discuss issues relating to development and what is happening in the province. Every sector is represented in this committee…the police, education, CIO[2] everybody. If there is a problem emanating from the behaviour of our theatre groups, it is discussed at that level. As Provincial Arts Manager I am supposed to attend all PDC[3] meetings present and hear problems relating to the arts. Sometimes the police and CIO complain about political issues raised by some theatre groups. I tend to go back to the groups and tell them to recreate so that they don’t get in trouble with the security agents. Our policy is that for all arts to be marketable they must be independent of all political interference. The political side of our committee comes in the sense that the chair of the PDC who is the Provincial Administrator sits on the national board to formulate policies and acts of parliament to solve problems that affect government at provincial level and of course the issue of freedom of expression you were talking about.
SR        What kind of help do you give to groups that would like to perform in your province?
AR        Any group that would like to perform at any school in our province must come through the Provincial Arts Council and get a letter which must be endorsed by Provincial Education Officer. The letter must state where the group must go and when the letter will expire.
SR        Is that a form of censorship?
AR        The reason is that of the quality and morality of the art work. We also want to make sure that one school is not oversubscribed by certain groups. It’s a way of controlling. It’s an operational system which has nothing to do with politics. You may never know about the actual intentions of the education secretary who crafted that circular. To us it’s just a system and nothing else.
SR        Have you ever denied any group the right to perform in your province?
AR        No licensed group has been denied a chance to perform in Manicaland province. I am not aware of that.
SR        How about Vhitori Entertainment who were meant to bring a play called Final Push?
AR        That group was not registered by any association. That was the reason why it was denied permission to perform here. As a matter of fact Daves Guzha and his Rooftop Promotions have brought political plays to this province and we have allowed them to perform plays like Super patriots and Morons. The same thing with Global Arts who have brought What they Said and What they Got[4].
SR        What is your comment on political plays?
AR        If an artiste is sincerely partisan s/he has a problem. If you are an extremist you will face some problems. An artiste must be non-partisan. Anything that I am doing must not play rough on the authorities. If you are political you have lost direction, especially these days when we are moving towards March elections. We shouldn’t be extremists. As PAM[5] we have got a way of helping our artistes out of this. We normally have an end of year meeting with artistes where we discuss and reflect on the previous year. At the beginning of the year, we have another meeting where we advise artistes on themes and the way to avoid politics. I give the artistes the calendar of events like performances at Heroes Day where we normally ask them to perform for free and then performances at Independence Day where all artistes must be paid. We discuss the fees for that year and make recommendations for the new year. This is done so that when I go to the PDC I report on the parameters that we would have set
SR        It was a pleasure speaking to you sir
AR        Thank you.

[1] National Arts Council of Zimbabwe
[2] Central Intelligence Organisation
[3] Provincial Development Committee
[4] This play and Super Patriots and Morons were written by Raisedon Baya
[5] Provincial Arts Manager