Daniel Maphosa Correspondent
coronavirus and the resultant lockdown negatively affected the Zimbabwean theatre sector just like in many other economic and social sectors.
When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, the theatre sector was caught flat-footed.
Five months down the line, the sector, which traditionally depends on people gathering, is struggling to find a way out of the deep pit of inactivity.
While other creative sectors like music and visual arts have found a way round the lockdowns, though on a small-scale, theatre continues to be grounded.
Many Zimbabwean theatre spaces are still struggling to come up with strategies of presenting plays.
And even if they do, it will take time for people to trust gatherings and come to the theatre.
In light of this, some people have suggested that plays be virtually presented if the sector is to survive.
On July 28, Savanna Trust hosted a Zoom discussion that explored opportunities and challenges of presenting theatre through digital media platforms.
The meeting had Elizabeth Muchemwa, Plot Mhako, Lloyd Nyikadzino and Rucera Seethal, the artistic director of the National Arts Festival Makhanda, South Africa, as panellists.
The discussion explored whether there are any opportunities derived from presenting theatre through virtual spaces or its just elitism.
There was a general agreement that it is possible for theatre, especially during this period of Covid-19 to be transmitted through virtual social media platforms.
A number of theatres in the world have taken to virtual platforms in an effort to make sure that performers get employment, audiences are engaged and theatre does not die.
However, the key question that the whole theatre fraternity is struggling with and debating is whether a theatre performance that is virtually presented will have the same effect as a live performance with a live audience.
Can virtual theatre substitute traditional ways of doing theatre? Many thespians believe that the authenticity of theatre disappears the moment it is recorded.
The interactive and inter-personal nature of theatre suddenly disappears the moment theatre is filmed.
A live performance has a different effect on the audience as compared to a recorded or filmed theatre performance.
Similarly, a live audience has a significant impact to the performers. The atmosphere in an auditorium full of a live audience is electric for both actors and audiences compared to a filmed performance.
While the majority of the panellists argued that there is need to move with times and embrace technology, there was a feeling that there is need to invest in technological infrastructure if ever Zimbabwean theatre is to be successfully presented through virtual platforms.
There is need to invest in proper cameras, sound equipment and uninterrupted data service.
Connectivity is also another key issue when it comes to presenting online. Sometimes Zimbabwean internet service providers cannot be depended on, especially if ever there are thoughts of livestreaming a performance.
The unreliability of internet makes it difficult to stream performances from certain areas, especially outside the city centre.
Imagine a theatre group in Mukumbura presenting a play through virtual platforms when internet is so erratic in the area.
On the same note, data is so expensive in Zimbabwe that there is need for financial investment by theatre groups if they ever think of using virtual platforms to present theatre.
The majority of theatre consumers also have difficulties affording data. By presenting theatre in Zimbabwe it means that there will be very few people who will be able to access it.
As a result, theatre becomes an elitist product which might not be enjoyed by the generality of the populace.
A participant in the Zoom discussion proposed that there was need for theatre makers to get into partnership with internet service providers so that they can support with subsidised data or create a package for the audience in return for advertising space.
The major advantage of presenting theatre virtually is that it is possible for the performance to reach a wider audience within and outside the country.
Plot Mhako argued that there is an audience in the diaspora that is ready to support local content.
It is of paramount importance that theatre performers reach out to this group of people that has reliable internet access and affordable data.
This group is also prepared to pay for good artistic work from home.
There are also opportunities for monetising virtual platforms.
YouTube for example, though not easy, can be an avenue for revenue generation if one is able to grow viewership.
Theatre makers therefore need to think carefully on how they can monetise or create multiple revenue streams on virtual platforms to compliment traditional forms of revenue generation.
In this case quality is also demanded of the plays.
There is also need for training in packaging theatre for video.
There is need to reorient the actors and directors on performing and directing for the camera.
The question is how do you maintain the authenticity of theatre and at the same time capturing it for video?
It is imperative that while restrictions on physical gatherings are still curtailing theatre, there is need for the sector to dig deep into their pockets and minds to explore ways of bridging the physical and the virtual if theatre has to survive the crisis.