Art for development sake

Swazi theatre groups are increasingly finding themselves cast in a new role - promoting advocacy rather than art.

Theatrical troupes are regularly commissioned to write and perform dramas pushing developmental messages - from AIDS prevention, to the rights of women and children - rather than the independent work of local play writers.

The requests often come from United Nations agencies, such as UNAIDS and the UN Children's Fund, or NGOs like the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, as well as government ministries.

"Theatre in this country is kept afloat by donor agencies that know people respond best to messages that are performed with actors in an entertaining manner," said Andreas Mavuso, artistic director for Peoples Educational Theatre.

However, at a symposium last week at the Mbabane Theatre Club, the country's only permanent venue for theatrical productions presented to paying audiences, some panellists complained that commissioned theatre narrowed the subject matter presented in dramas. "It's all HIV/AIDS," commented a woman playwright.

Modison Magagula, artistic director of the 12-member theatrical troupe, Siphila Nje (SiSwati for "How We Survive"), told IRIN: "With theatre by commission, instead of theatre where people buy tickets to see your show, there is a difference in the final play. When you are commissioned, you are given a brief - the messages and the sentiments of the one who is commissioning the play; but in the art of performing - that is where our liberty [lies]."

Without commissioned theatre drawing new audiences, theatre-going would be restricted to a handful of people in the capital city, the director said.

"There isn't much theatre in Swaziland: people have to go to the Theatre Club in Mbabane. What we do is community theatre, performed in the open. We make do with what we find - no lighting; sound as you normally find in theatre work, we do without. There is only so much that we can carry from place to place, so the sets and props are very basic. We put together a prop grave with stone and sand; we cut a tree to represent a forest, but the audience understands," said Magagula.

People's Education Theatre prefers conference halls and school auditoriums as venues, because they approximate a theatrical setting. Audiences are seated in chairs, sound systems amplify actors' voices, and rudimentary lighting is available.

Commissioned theatre, performed by production companies like Siphila Nje, are usually mounted as national tours at mostly rural venues. Chiefs are contacted to call together their subjects - typically on weekends - and actors improvise stages in dirt clearings, often resorting to "theatre in the round" and pantomiming props that do not physically exist.

Theatrical lighting is unknown, restricting plays to daylight hours; inclement weather cancels shows.

"However, most people wait out the rain. They come from far away to see their first play. We don't want to disappoint them, so we have staged shows in bad weather, in winds so fierce they have ripped costumes off actors' bodies," said Mavuso.

Actors learn new techniques, adapting to open-air venues. Gestures are broad, and voices are projected at shouting level.

"My lungs have grown twice their size since I started acting. I've got a big chest now," said Vusi Dlamini, an actor with the Siphila Nje troupe.

Performing under trees and on hills, with the audience seated on boulders, can offer performers a sense of freedom from the confines of traditional theatre.

"To some degree, we try to mingle with the audience. We interact, because it is an open-design theatre - it's not trying to duplicate the performance you have at a theatre house, but taking advantage of the situation we find ourselves in," Magagula said.

The audiences learn while being entertained. A discussion is usually held after the performance, with a moderator raising topics contained in the play, while an actor is sometimes also a representative from the sponsoring NGO and is knowledgeable about the script's agenda.

One audience member, Ivan Simelane, a 45-year-old farmer from Ngculwini in the central Manzini region, said, "I don't listen to women's talk at home, but the play held my attention - there were many times I laughed at the antics."

When asked what he had learned from the play, Simelane said, "I am thinking differently about taking a blood test [to detect HIV]. The play said it is necessary for a man to know if there is HIV in his body; to protect his family he can take steps to stay healthy."

Like other audience members, radio had been Simelane's first contact with performed drama. Swaziland's government radio reaches 95 percent of the population, according to a recent study by the Panos Institute, but radio dramas are oriented toward entertainment, not developmental messages.

Supporters of commissioned theatre argue that by performing in the nation's 55 electoral districts, called Tinkhundla, an acting troupe like Siphila Nje can build a national following, and its members can actually earn a living in the arts, which is a difficult task in Swaziland.

Detractors say audiences get used to the idea of free performances, and the culture of paying for artistic work never gets rooted in society.

"Plays have themes, good drama has messages. Plays are not lectures, they are performances, but they teach us about human nature," said Dlamini. "You can still do a play about AIDS without it coming from UNAIDS, and people will come if it is good entertainment."