Johannesburg, April 10th 2013 | Danai J Gurira
My stay in Zim can be described as nothing short of fast and furious. I arrived rearing to get some important ALMASI logistics ironed out, while also directing The Convert, where it would be read for the first time ever on Zimbabwean soil. We had a very thorough audition process, with Patience and our Associate Artist Julie Wharton sieving through actors, picking whom they felt were the best two candidates for each role for me to make the final decision upon my arrival. It was very important to me that these roles were filled by the best candidates, even if it was just a staged reading. The Convert was to represent quite a feat, we were attempting to instill the staged reading concept into the Zimbabwean Dramatic arts culture, if this three hour monster was well received, if people stayed in the room the entire time, were engaged and gave valuable feedback, then we were in business, our mission would be accomplished, Staged readings would be officially a part of Zim’s dramatic arts identity. We had already had two successful readings, one the day after I arrived, Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cellphone directed by Julie. I was floored by how well it went, how connected the audience was to this very American exploration of identity and need. The audience mentioned several parallels they found in Zimbabwean life and did not feel a word of it needed changing for the forthcoming production at Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) next month.
This was deeply encouraging. The next day, the day of the Convert Callbacks was a long one; I was doing something Zimbabwean artists are still not that accustomned to, directing them during the audition. I challenged them to dig deeper, to make stronger choices. Audition workshops are high on our agenda for this year. There is a sense that reading the words outloud is an audition, that coming in with a character, with clear choices, and clear understanding of the dramatic movement of a scene is not the focus. I pushed the actors to have a clear understanding and make choices accordingly. Some responded well, especially those who have worked with me in the past. Some, did not and as Patience later informed me, left looking shellshocked. Creating a culture where a prepared audition process is the norm is one of our immediate goals. I worked with a University of Zimbabwe Dramatic Arts student as my reader, and as the day went on, I was more and more impressed with her smarts, her quickness in connecting with the script and the scene at hand, her adaptability and finally, her thoughts on the actors. She informed me she was deeply keen to learn, to be involved in a practical way, I loved it, she was offering herself as an intern, and I could see she would be deeply valuable. Amanda is now our Associate Producer Intern and assistant produced The Convert reading. I offered her a role in the reading and she said she would rather work in logistics. She wanted to know how to do everything. How to get everything done. A Gale Anne Hurd in the making I hope and pray.
With Actors picked, we launched into a five day rehearsal period, it went incredibly well, but for a few hiccups, tardiness being a bit of an epidemic in my country of origin, though it did get better as the days went by for the most part. The script was amazingly embraced by the actors, and astounding conversations ensued, it was actually quite easy because the script was designed for their linguistic palate, so there was no teaching the language or what different expressions conoted, they lived in it quickly and with a complete naturalism. I was close to tears a couple of times. Directing specific moments and pacing was far less challenging than I expected and staging the reading proved not too challenging also. There were of course acting technique challenges that I will tackle as Almasi moves forward with training. There were issues when actors faced the task of broaching intense emotional moments, how to empathize with a charcter enough for their particular struggle to resonate in performance; the emotional stakes at hand, embracing the epic nature of that. It is an area that will require a determined acting training initiative across the board, and is something I come up against every time I am home. I embrace the challenge, and look forward to giving it direct attention.
The day of the reading upon us, we were now in a new setting, at the Zimbabwe German Society, where there was a full house and a deeply attentive audience. Alot of press buzzed about, taking pictures that we had to regulate due to their blinding flashes. We had advertised the reading thoroughly, with me doing radio, TV and print, promoting not only the reading but also ALMASI, bringing an awareness to our mission and the importance of Dramatic Literacy. It seemed to have paid off, though the fascination with my being in Walking Dead and strangely my brief guest appearances in Law and Order (it is heavily syndicated there!) may have been the core reason for the press, though it allowed us the opportunity to further introduce the organization to the Zimbabwean public. The feat was a success, with the full audience remaining the entire time and staying for an intriguing talkback. One audience member spoke of how the play must be shared across the country, and of how it deals with our identity in ways we have yet to discuss. There was a passionate demand for the full production which of course is our goal, we now embark on seeing that come to pass, fundraising being our key focus. We now have learnt that, after the success of these readings other theater organizations are doing staged readings, and using our exact wording in their advertising. Well, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. And, most importantly, the mission of having staged readings take off in Zim is accomplished. I left Zim a day later, challenged by all we need to further establish, and excited for the life the Convert had and will continue to have in her country of inception.