Why water| Mamela Nyamza

The question “why theatre”, is almost like asking “why water”. We all know that all there is on this earth, whether human, animal, or ecosystem, can never survive without water. In the same vein, at all levels of our cultural society, including nature, we simply cannot live without our ‘theatre’.

Notwithstanding, the different interpretations or definitions of what ‘theatre’ is, will inevitably either attract rebuke or rejoice in my opening statement above. For, in my own context as an African from South Africa, I truly resonate with Allen Kaprow who insists that: “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid and perhaps indistinct as possible.”

Theatre is an inevitable infinite space of self-reflection between itself, the art exhibited, artists as performers at all levels, and patrons/audience/ society. As such, theatre is not a building or an institution, but an embodiment of art of all genres.

Theatre is an enabler of cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary art focus, forever introducing new ways of thinking, talking, and embodying the destruction of the norm. Art, after all, is meant to make us to cherish intuition, uncertainty and to always search for new ideas.

And, by virtue of this, artists will aim to break rules, and will always strive to find unorthodox ways of approaching classical and contemporary art, and challenging accepted anomalies. And that is why theatre should have the power to shift the world from its normative look.

But, the question is: has theatre lived up to its expectation as the space for innovation and pusher of boundaries? In South Africa, we might find contradictory responses to this question, dependent on exposure, access, creativity and support of artists. In this instance, the question exposes a lot of hesitation and hastiness from theatre in its response to the needs of artists, and their creativity.

Some of South African theatre’s response to artists’ innovation or fresh work, has been heartbreakingly institutionalised and inhibiting to artists, instead of being inviting and inclusive. Certain theatres demarcate their platforms from unfamiliar terrains of creation, with the notion of ‘preserving the culture and keeping their patrons happy of their theatre’. This notion is sadly superficially progressive and pleasing to the society as the ‘heART-beat of the nation’.

Instead of acting against a structured one-sided theatre work, some theatres often opt to side with an institutionalised response of power and patronage against the avant-garde artists who yearns to bring the ‘other work’ to the theatre stage.

Instead of a consolidated and united voice of theatres for art innovation, we usually find scattered individualistic voices with different messaging on how to encourage and promote the ‘unknown unsophisticated performance art work’.

So, as we approach the stage of a post-Covid-19, it is demanded of us, art practitioners and the creatives, to shout against a theatre of patriarchy, patronage, nepotism and corruption, and seek for a theatre that benefits all artists, especially, the young, up-and-coming and women artists, for their creativity growth, and related sustainable economic growth spin-off.

Our youth in South Africa is facing the worst economic outlook for a generation with more than 24% of 18 – 35-year-olds out of work, making the youth unemployment in South Africa reaching a catastrophic 40% for the year 2020.

Our young people are not just our next generation of audiences but also our future creative industry leaders as well. Therefore, the theatre must place the youth artists at the heart of every programme and project it does.

So, for the sustainability and future of theatre, theatre itself must begin to take care of these human resources/human capital – youth and women artists – by giving them the opportunity to exercise and exhibit their respective fresh creative talent.

Therefore, for theatre to survive in South Africa, it must then enable to mentor, inclusively, its constituents – the artists, the patrons, and the larger audience – to be in the forefront of inspiration, innovation, discipline and endurance.

Why theatre then? Theatre is to bring diverse voices into the theatre, and not be shy to push the boundaries. Theatre must allow its constituency (artists, patrons and audience) to be moved, to be touched, and to be transported to a new place never visited before, just as had the virus Covid-19 done with our known lifestyles and world-views, which have been altered for good.

Let the theatre be then the centre that encourages a vast range of truly differing perceptions, ideas, and knowledge, so as to progressively drive creative arts to higher quality levels. That is what theatre is, and that is why theatre must aspire to: to always aspire to this definition.

Mamela Nyamza is a performance artist, activist, dancer and choreographer, born and raised in Gugulethu, Cape Town, South Africa. Nyamza’s choreography is firmly rooted in autobiographical, political and social works which have garnered her a national and international acclaim with the audience.