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