New Jersey, January 11th 2014 | Almasi Blog
What was your most memorable moment in Zim?
I’ll never forget the first performance of THE CONVERT in Zimbabwe. I had seen American audiences respond to this play in Princeton, Chicago, LA, and Philadelphia. I have probably seen somewhere around 40 performances of the play, and my one night with a Zimbabwean audience was revelatory. Listening to what the Harare audience listened to, responded to, and discovered was thrilling. Scenes that in America function as exposition (where a US audience is learning about Zimbabwean history and the politics of turn of the century Zimbabwe) were transformed into character development in Zimbabwe (where the audience, knowing the history, learned something about the characters from the perspectives that they shared). It was an incredible experience to feel the play take on whole new meaning and resonance, and to watch with such pride as this extraordinary company of Zimbabwean artists brought Danai Gurira’s story to life.
Elizabeth, your directing mentee spoke of you’re learning Shona and cultural isms. How did you do that in such a short span of time and why did you feel the need to?
Though nearly our entire company were fluent Shona speakers, it became clear to me from early in rehearsal that many of the artists working on THE CONVERT were translating their thoughts into English so that they could communicate with me. I was touched by how hard everyone on the team was working to make sure that I felt included and aware of what was being discussed—and I wanted to share that same respect back with them. Learning as much of the Shona language as I could absorb was a part of trying to make this a true exchange, and to share that I was learning as much from the company as they were learning from me. I loved learning “rehearsal room Shona”—the kinds of words that every director needs while rehearsing a play. From kana nave kuda kutanga (whenever you’re ready…), to maka penga (you guys are awesome!), it was great fun to engage with the Zimbabwean company as best as i could in Shona. Even when I had to use my Shona to say things like “wanonoka! Kurumidza” (you’re late! hurry up). Learning some rudimentary Shona grammar also gave me a new view into the play, which is mostly in English with sections in Shona, and it helped me understand a few details that I might never have caught otherwise.
What did you feel was something that surprised you about Zim/Zimbabweans? Something you feel would surprise Americans to learn?
There were surprises everywhere I went in Zimbabwe. I was touched by how friendly, supportive, and kind everyone that I met was. The Zimbabwean company quickly welcomed me in a way that was unexpected and deeply moving. I was surprised to learn about the ties that most of company still had to their family’s rural areas (villages outside of the city), and the deep role that family structures play in Zimbabwean culture and community. I was also surprised by the disconnect in Harare of the various Zimbabwean cultures. Shona can be overheard everywhere, but over and over, folks would be shocked that a white American was attempting to speak in the language.
What are the advantages the Zimbabwean artist has in that particular environment?
There are many challenges to creating art in Zimbabwe—electrical outages, transportation challenges, lack of arts infrastructure—but the Zimbabwean artists are experts at navigating and accommodating to find ways to create moving, powerful, and important art that touches peoples’ lives and has an economic and societal impact on their communities.
What things are the challenges and how do you feel they move forward?
Zimbabwe must continue to grow an audience for the dramatic arts, one who understands the transformative power of theater for individuals, for the economy, and for the society. Theater is a tool of dialogue, a place of community-building, a center of tourism, and jobs-creator. Many of the stories that are being told in Zimbabwean theater right now are not stories of Zimbabwe. They are also not created at the highest professional and artistic standards, giving audiences a real value for their entertainment dollar and an experience that they couldn’t get without going to the live theater. With programs such as Almasi creating excellent dramatic arts and telling Zimbabwean stories on the stage, audiences will continue to grow and support the dramatic arts of Zimbabwe. Although there are a number of talented actors and directors in Zimbabwe, there is still room to grow in the critical jobs to support to the work of these onstage artists—there needs to be better training and a larger pool of producers, stage managers, designers, company managers, technical directors, electricians, sound engineers, scenic artists, publicists, fundraisers, and all of the other vital positions in a thriving theatrical ecology. I hope that programs like Almasi, which create these positions and mentor the people in them, will help to build that necessary arts infrastructure to support the work on the stage.
Do you have any hopes or plans to return to Zim in the future? What would you have loves to have done or worked on that you didn’t get to this time around?
I would love to return to Zimbabwe. I found it a wonderful, magical place, full of delightful surprises at every turn. I wish I’d had a few more days to be a tourist—I was so hard at work that I never saw some of Zimbabwe’s great cultural and ecological wonders, such as Great Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls, and Lake Kariba. I also would love to continue to work with Zimbabwean actors, designers, and production staff as they continue to learn, grow, and build their work.
You have now experienced Almasi’s goal of cultural immersion/exchange and interaction. Can you briefly assess it as a model? What are its benefits?
Almasi’s approach to professionalizing the dramatic arts relies heavily on the idea that the trainee becomes the trainer. A Zimbabwean artist comes to America and is immersed in the highest caliber of professional theater, and then back in Zimbabwe they help to train other Zimbabweans. At the same time, American theater practitioners are arriving in Zimbabwe, and reaching dozens of Zimbabwean artists, each of whom will take those lessons and spread them into the community. To me, it was absolutely clear which of the artists working on THE CONVERT were alumni of previous Almasi training exchanges—and they worked with me throughout the production to help instill the professionalization they had learned into the new members of the production. With each exchange, that circle grows, building a peer pressure, a shared knowledge base, and a set of increasingly rising standards that can build the dramatic arts from within. At the same time, there is a growing audience and funder base who is coming to understand, with each exchange, the power that theater can have on the community. It is hard to imagine a better way to have an economic, cultural, and social impact on a community than empowering it to create its own professional theater—and Almasi should become a model for this kind of transformation throughout the world.