Community theatre on revival road

THIS past week I attended an event that was both sad and quite inspiring.

THIS past week I attended an event that was both sad and quite inspiring.

This was the launch of a community theatre initiative, Alternative Spaces, by gatvol playwrights. These playwrights have over the years seen themselves fighting for spaces at mainstream theatre venues, more often with failures than successes.

Alternative Spaces is an initiative that has almost become a personal mission for arts activist Mpho Molepo.

The initiative involves reviving theatre in townships by staging shows at community halls, arts centres and any other venue that can accommodate a play.

The reason for this initiative, Molepo explains, is that playwrights, particularly from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, battle to gain a foothold in mainstream theatre venues as they still remain elusive to them, 16 years after democracy. This is the sad part.

But the inspiring part is the fact that instead of complaining forever, Molepo and others are doing something about the situation - showing maturity about how to handle a teething problem in the arts - that has tended to divide the arts community.

"Before we demand that the government build proper structures for theatre in our communities, complete with lighting, stage and other accessories, we should be holding shows there in the first place," he says.

"It is sad that 16 years into our democracy, inequalities between what is called community theatre and mainstream theatre still exist, to the extent that a few of the black playwrights that worm their way into so-called mainstream theatre venues want to parade themselves as the best thing that has ever happened.

"They think they are better than others still struggling in bad community theatre structures," Molepo says.

The Alternative Spaces initiative will take the form of a community theatre festival organised by the Southern African Theatre Initiative (SATI).

Launched this month, the SATI Alternative Spaces Township Theatre and Dance Festival will bring Gauteng townships to life with vibrant community theatre works during the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

The festival will fan out across Johannesburg, Motsweding, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Sedibeng and the West Rand in a quest to bring community theatre out of the shadows and into the limelight once again.

The project has been made possible thanks to the Gauteng government, which has identified the precincts that would most benefit from a flourishing grassroots theatre industry.

The project seeks to help community theatre groups and companies understand the business of theatre, to make a sustainable living from the performing arts and to develop the audiences of the future.

In addition to teaching practitioners how to package, market and sell their theatre or dance "product", Alternative Spaces will create a platform for them to share and expose their stage productions to the public and to producers.

Following last year's pilot phase of the project, the initiative will now be stepped up. During this June and July, SATI will be visiting various townships across Gauteng where community theatre groups will be given a platform to perform.

Audiences will have the opportunity to witness this dynamic, grassroots form of live performance, tackling issues relevant to their lives.

Every Saturday at 2pm, from now until July 3, audiences can see a selection of plays for free at the following venues: Masibambane College in Orange Farm (Joburg), Mpatlalantsane Theatre in Sebokeng (Sedibeng), KT Motubatsi Theatre In Soshanguve (Tshwane), Katlehong Arts Centre in Katlehong (Ekurhuleni), Mohlakeng Recreation Centre in Mohlakeng (West Rand), and TKO Enkangala Theatre in Enkangala (Metsweding).

One hopes this initiative works and proves once more that it is possible for community theatre to thrive alongside so called mainstream theatre, which is better staffed, better resourced and has better facilities for staging commercially viable productions.

The reality is, this is the legacy of a race-based discrimination that permeated every facet of life and every sector of society, including the arts, under apartheid.