New Jersey, August 20th 2013 | Patience G. Tawengwa
It’s not every day that one gets the rare gem of an opportunity to learn directly from a renowned, Tony award winning director, playwright and artistic director like Emily Man. The fact that I am here at the McCarter being exposed to the best of the best is a true testament to the power of arts and culture and the ability it has to transcend all barriers and bring people together. I think the famous words “the mind, once stretched by new ideas, never regains its original dimensions” accurately sum up my experience thus far during my first two weeks at the McCarter theatre. There is no way I will ever return to Zimbabwe the same after the experience of sitting in on rehearsals of the play Proof and experiencing firsthand the excellence of the whole organization. I feel like I have discovered my own personal philosophers stone in this exchange – you arrive at the McCarter as lead and after passing through there and experiencing their magic you emerge on the other side as solid gold.
In a lot of ways leaving Zimbabwe for this brief period of time in order to come on this cultural exchange (which will enhance my professional skills as a Zimbabwean director/producer and also develop my management capacity as the person in charge of running the day to day affairs of our non-profit organization Almasi in Zimbabwe) has been a lot like coming up for some much needed and overdue air. Establishing and running a non-profit theatre, in fact daring to embark on a full-time career in the arts industry in Zimbabwe is nothing short of an exercise in daily persistence and perseverance against what can seem like insurmountable odds. We have our work cut out for us but that challenge is also what keeps one going, there is no promise of striking it “big” or earning lots of money, only an opportunity to make a real difference and to blaze trails, leaving things better than you found them. I had always lamented the fact that due to the lack and unavailability of arts education and professional development platforms in Zimbabwe it is very easy to hit a ceiling, to feel trapped and boxed-in and have nowhere left to go and nowhere to grow. In essence one finds themselves stuck and stagnant professionally but equally having a substantial number of up-coming, young artists who look up to you for mentoring. Undoubtedly after what is being imparted to me during my stay at the McCarter I will have plenty to pass on to other Zimbabwean artists, to give forward from what I have received here.
I had heard great things about McCarter theatre, I had read about it and even before I had left Zimbabwe just from my communication with several staff members via e-mail I had already began to experience a shift in my perception of how an organization should be run. When I arrived in the USA I was greatly impressed from the limo pick-up at JFK airport to the warm welcome I received from one of the McCarter staff members at their guest apartment in Princeton’s Palmer Square, the welcome hamper in the apartment, there was just an excellence about everything I was experiencing. Finally setting foot in the actual building called the McCarter itself was another experience, I could not have anticipated such a welcome on my first morning – meeting Adam Immerwahr the associate artistic director who introduced me to every staff member and gave me a tour of their theatre. One thing struck me instantly about it all – they have a strong teamwork ethic which makes their organization run so efficiently. When I finally met the artistic director – Emily Mann I was in total awe of her and still am I sat in her office and looked around at the posters the many productions she’s directed while still running the whole organization, it gives me a lot of inspiration. Coming from Zimbabwe which is a very patriarchal society and where our industry is male dominated there is something very profound about being able to spend time here and be involved with this successful organization which is lead by a woman. It certainly gives me much to draw on when I get back home, the impetus to keep going, to chase after such a standard; the experience of being able to ask questions, speak to and observe someone who is running such a powerhouse is invaluable.
I am learning something new each and every day – in the rehearsal room and outside the rehearsal room when I attend meetings with several McCarter staff members to learn the business side of things. I am learning the importance of paying attention to detail during rehearsals, allowing the actors to explore different layers during blocking, the importance of asking questions to help actors go deeper – there is so much. I have never seen stage management done at this level as I have recently witnessed it being done in the rehearsal room for Proof; I hope to implement such excellence back in Zimbabwe.
My journey at the McCarter is still in progress, I have another two weeks to go after which I will share the whole experience of being here. I had always heard about the ethic of excellence but
now I have seen it and had the privilege of being part of it. At the heart of all this lies the importance and power of cross cultural exchanges, when we write the story of Almasi and whatever impact it will go on to have in Zimbabwe, we can never write that story without mentioning the fact that the McCarter theatre in Princeton, New Jersey played a role in it all. This was our first cultural exchange – and as a Zimbabwean being able to come to America through Almasi I hope with further support there will be many more exchanges to come. To the pioneers – Emily Mann, Adam Immerwahr, the McCarter and my co-founder Danai Gurira will always go the credit of having been the first to take the risks and first to encounter the difficulties of this new Zimbabwe- America partnership in order to contribute to the Zimbabwean dramatic arts sector.
Individual giving and private philanthropy in support of the arts is of great importance, thanks to those who have supported this vision, and we gratefully acknowledge the generous support we were given by Zimbabwean Philanthropist Trevor Ncube towards making this cultural exchange possible, he helped us cross the finish line. His provision made our vision possible. The invaluable experience I am gaining here is the yeast which shall make the bread rise through our theatrical output once I am back home in Zimbabwe.