Local theatre has never been taken seriously in Zimbabwe, in essence the arts sector has for long been viewed as a mere hobby and taking it as a profession loosely viewed as folly.
The same industry has, however, turned the fortunes of many countries, including Africa’s leading economy Nigeria, which is largely centred on the success of Nollywood along with the whole arts industry in its entirety.
Locally, spaces for display of the arts have slowly dropped in numbers along with the sinking economy, forcing most artists to find other means of earning a living.
Following the closure of the old Theatre in the Park, a new state-of-the-art facility situated in Harare Gardens was commissioned recently under the Rooftop Promotions banner.
The Standard Style’s Kennedy Nyavaya (KN) caught up with one of the sector’s reverred artists Daves Guzha (DG), who is also the director of Rooftop Promotions, which runs Theatre in the Park.
Guzha chronicles how he initially came up with the idea of Theatre in the Park from a small rondavel and how they have managed to produce the bigger 600-seater.
Below are excerpts of the interview.
KN: What prompted the idea behind Theatre in the Park and what is the purpose that its meant to serve?
DG: The old Theatre in the Park was a small rondavel next to the National Art Gallery, originally set up to last at least three years. After spending 17 years there, I started asking a lot of questions, like why is it we actually have got a city whose population is growing, but in terms of matching infrastructure for the entertainment sector those things are not growing.
This is part of our key achievements, we influenced a lot, as well for artists, particularly those that wanted to be professional. Our principal role was how to professionalise the theatre sector.
KN: Are there local artists who have made it in this sector?
DG: We have quite a number who have found new space — Tongai Chirisa who is now in Hollywood is a product of that and Edgar Langeveldt. These are some of the guys who performed when we gave them slots for lunch time theatre, so there has been a lot, too many to mention.
KN: In constructing this new place which stakeholders did you engage, and how much was spent?
DG: Our stakeholders have been Harare residents themselves because when you develop a concept, you always want to share it publicly, so you are mandated by the city by-laws to make sure you advertise your intention.
Other key stakeholders were Harare City Council, which took clear acceptance of the fact that we have had a city that has not invested in new theatres for the last 36 years when everything else is actually happening around us. From the artistic angle, we have artists themselves, many who realised that when the old Theatre in the Park stopped functioning, we were giving work to 260 people in a year and their source of income had run down.
In terms of funding, we got support from the Norwegian and Swedish embassies as well as Hivos. National Arts Council also played a critical role in terms of facilitating meaningful dialogue. To date, we have spent $170 000, when the project is fully completed, we would have spent $250 000.
KN: What are some of the major plays lined-up for Theatre in the Park this year.
DG: Some have already happened. Kicking off our programme with a play, Super Patriots and Morons, which had been banned 12 years ago was a major achievement. We will showcase plays like Macbeth and Animal Farm as well as introducing jazz on Sunday, which is specifically designed to take care of our mature audiences. This starts on May 1, between 2pm and 6pm. Every Friday we will have a programme called State of the Nation, which allows us to keep track and keep the pulse of what is really happening in the country.
We will be taking topical issues from the media, we amass them altogether and serve them to a deserving public. We will invite various people during the discussions.
KN: Which people would you invite and what criteria would you use to control members of the public who would want to take part in this programme — State of the Nation?
DG: For us, it would be on a first come, first save basis. If we end up having standing room, by all means it is okay. In October we are also introducing a theatre festival, which will be driven more by works that come from around the world in a three-day festival.
KN: Theatre as an art is said to be dwindling and people are not taking it seriously. In other countries it is viewed with respect, what is your take on that?
DG: It is true that it has been dwindling and for all the wrong reasons because this country loves double speech more than anything else. Back in the day when we used to perform in schools, one would carry their bags and get transport to rural schools because we knew and understood that we had a dedicated audience which was waiting to consume our products.
Even Rhodesians were better because I made up my mind to be an actor by a clear performance that I saw being done by the late Safirio Madzikatire and that was during the time of Rhodesia.
Now they tell us that as government they are pushing Stem [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] policy, inadvertently they are saying these are the most critical elements.
In a struggling economy such as ours, somebody who is clever enough is saying forget about these things despite the fact that your Creator designed you so that you can explore various other things. Yes, it is dwindling and our government is responsible.
KN: What laws and policies have made it difficult for you at Rooftop Promotions?
DG: Our politics try to make it very difficult for us as artists to perpetuate our work in general, that is the nature of our politics. But for Nigeria to be Africa’s biggest economy, all they did was when they did rebasing of their economy they used statistics from Nollywood and the rest of their entertainment sector which registered about 1,6% growth in contribution to their gross domestic product.
In the rest of the world, you hear about the creative industry being a major player in creating jobs and so forth and it is only in Zimbabwe where you hear the opposite. Our successes considering the small population we have is doing extremely well.
The likes of Danai Gurira and Chirisa are in Hollywood while Mokoomba being the first band out of Zimbabwe to go to Apollo, we do not even celebrate that, we do not even make it a front page story. We are not connecting the dots to say what does it mean.
KN: Are you saying this has led to the death of certain talents in the country?
DG: Yes, it has absolutely because what it has done is it makes people question themselves and demoralises them because you are passionate about acting then someone says it is mediocre so we have all these impediments that are in your path.
KN: Looking at Silvanos Mudzvova’s recent detention, what do you think is the message being sent by government?
DG: The messages that are drawn is that we simply need to dialogue. We need to discuss our issues as a people openly, only through discussions can you find solutions because we have never claimed to know it all and we do not know it all for sure.
We are saying this issue needs to be interrogated because the message that the money was stolen did not come from an ordinary person, but from the president. Hosting such kind of plays here means we are broadening the playing field in terms of bringing issues to the fore. We are not only doing political commentary, but we will be doing other issues as well.
KN: What would be your advice as a person who has been in this industry for a long-time to someone who wants to start a similar project?
DG: Dream big and follow passion, that is all there is to it. We tend to do it the other way round as we always want to think about money first before even dreaming, that is not the issue, but rather the size of your dream because money follows passion and passion follows dreams.
KN: When looking at theatre, most of it revives old traits of people. Do you think it is going to do the same locally through this building?
DG: Absolutely, in terms of programmes here you will adapt to our popular old plays because we want them to be known and celebrated. Our solid literature that has stood the test of time, the likes of Pfumo Reropa, Karikoga Gumi Remiseve and Feso, all that body of work must be made to come alive now because the trajectories are similar with the Harmlets and Macbeths. So we will be doing a lot of that as well as bringing international plays as well.
KN: Sir, thank you so much for your time.
DG: You are welcome.