A Tale of Two Cities: Investigating the process of set design in community theatre in South Africa and Zimbabwe using Intuba Arts Development (Durban) and Bambelela Arts Ensemble (Bulawayo) as case studies
The process to devising community theatre production has for a long time concentrated on literary and pedagogical effectiveness. Scholarly attention to community theatre practice highlights that decisions to do with space and technology (visual aesthetics) and communicative ability are either inferred or 'just happen'. Through the use of two practice-as-research case studies in two cities and in the two neighboring countries of Zimbabwe and South Africa, this paper examines and analyses the processes of design in set and lighting, foregrounding the spatial configuration of performance spaces and technological decisions undertaken by Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Ensemble in their productions of Tears of Death and Just Because respectively. Through engaging these two case study groups in performance and comparatively interrogating their processes of design in different performance spaces with distinct architectural designs, this paper also underscores the challenges that Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Development faced in realising the designs in the live performance events of Tears of Death and Just Because in 2013.
This paper seeks to comparatively interrogate the processes and approaches adopted by the Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Ensemble in developing their set designs. In this article I examine the contribution of technology in the form of set, costume, sound and lighting designs in framing bodies (actors and spect-actors) within spaces or performance spaces, within the case study productions Tears of Death (2013) and Just Because (1999, 2013). I do so in order to make the case that design can be used as part of the mobilising and information dissemination process by community theatre groups. In exploring and interrogating the process of design within these case study community theatre groups, I seek to respond to these questions: What processes did Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Ensemble follow in their design endeavours, in Tears of Death and Just Because respectively, to achieve the visual spectacle and communicate their message? How did these community theatre groups make use of technology in the process of developing their design ideas into design concepts and consequently, visually realise them?
In their work Scene Design and Stage Lighting, Harvey Smith and Wilfred Parker define a design idea as 'the individual expression of the artistic imagination and technical ingenuity of the designer through the visual control of line, colour and form' (2002: 70). The design idea provides the foundation for the generation of the design style and concept as it governs the exploitation of the compositional attributes of any design process (Parker and Smith, 2002). This inherently means that for one to achieve 'individual expression' there is a need for a deeper understanding of the aspects of design, composition and technical ingenuity to transform ideas into a practical visual spectacle. However, in this paper I argue that this creates a challenge for community theatre practitioners, many of whom are not technically trained.
In this paper I will make the case that these theories are of little significance to many community theatre practitioners because many of the practitioners have not had the opportunity of attaining tertiary education, where these theories and their practical application are learnt and mastered in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Therefore, while these theories give a basis for the analysis of the final creative design output, in considering Tears of Death was performed at the National Arts Festival (2013) at Grahamstown, I will make the point that these theories are understood in a different language and codification within the community theatre performance sector due to the differences in culture and politics. I will therefore seek first to understand and interrogate the approaches and processes undertaken by the case study groups and then go on to explore the localised understanding of the ideas and theories of design by Smith and Parker (2002), Gillette (1997) and Arnott (1997).
Background information on Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts
Intuba Arts Development is a community theatre group that was formed in October 2012 by a group of young theatre practitioners who sought to create a framework that would challenge the exploitation of up and coming artists while producing relevant work in the township community of Durban. Intuba Arts Development is composed of young community theatre practitioners who come from different backgrounds and from various community theatre groups, in Umlazi and KwaMashu led by Xolani Dlongolo, Gugulethu Makhosazane Nkosi, Noxolo Mathunjwa, and Fezeka Shange. The group has so far produced two productions: Tears of Death (2013) and The Legend Will Never Die (2013).
Bambelela Arts Ensemble is a community theatre based organisation made up of youths representing a broad range of groups and interests, who have worked together in a broad alliance concerning their common interest in Community Development and other related matters. Founded by Aldof Phiri (late), Naison Dube, Allen Sithole (now in the United Kingdom) and Liwena Mathe (late), the ensemble seeks to provide social commentary and demand comprehensive development and service delivery in Zimbabwe through performance. The ensemble has produced a large number of productions, including: Social Hanger (1999), The Roadside (2003), Naked Truth (2004), Garikai (2005), which was banned by the government and the cast detained for three hours in Hwange, How Long? (2006), Tomorrow's People (2006), Wish List (2009) and The Civil Servant (2014).
The Productions: Tears of Death (2013) and Just Because (1999, 2013)
The Intuba Arts Development play Tears of Death is a harrowing story of a small village in Africa that is overtaken by crime and war. Women and children become the victims of these wars, some being brutally murdered or raped while others are maimed. People are unfairly sentenced and brutally executed by a kangaroo court led by former liberation fighters Zembe and Sosha. A young graduate, Mholi Ngcobo, son to Mr and Mrs Ngcobo, who are murdered on their way back from receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, challenges the constitutionality and relevance of the kangaroo court in the society. Ultimately the dead rise up to confront the leaders of the war and kangaroo court, to prove their innocence.
Bambelela's Just Because is a community initiative that seeks to challenge the community leaders, non-governmental organisations and the government to act on the continued rise of spousal abuse in the city of Bulawayo. The cultural practices and beliefs that exploit and expose women to abuse, such as the belief that beating a wife is a way of showing affection and love, are explored and challenged. Based on factual evidence gathered from newspaper articles, police report statistics and civil society organisation's reports, the play explores the theme and definition of what constitutes a 'home'? Is it the buildings or the inhabitants of the building? Is it the community and neighbours?
Intuba's Tears of Death was performed at the K-Cap Theatre in KwaMashu Township in 2012. In 2013, it was performed at the Stable Theatre, Kingswood Theatre at the National Arts Festival at Grahamstown, the Catalina Theatre, and KwaXimba Community Hall, 50 kilometres north of Durban. The K-Cap run was for a competition run by Isigcawu Community Theatre Festival, while the one at the Stable Theatre was a technical rehearsal and fundraising drive for the National Arts Festival. The National Arts Festival performance was the main creative project performance of Tears of Death that this paper uses as a case study. Reference will be made to other performance runs to build up the arguments that this paper makes.
The Process of Set Design: Cases studies in context
Josef Svoboda defines scenography as the 'interplay of space, movement and light on stage' (in Howard 2002: xiv). This interplay enables the 'manipulation and orchestration of the performance environment' to suit the specific performance needs of different productions (McKinney and Butterworth 2009: 4). Joslin McKinney and Philip Butterworth (2009) maintain that the analysis of this scenographic interplay on the stage space is key in determining the design idea, design concept and production style. This speaks of the conscious creative decisions that are taken to configure and manipulate the stage space for inhabitation by the bodies (actors and spectators), determining the kind of technological apparatus to be used to produce different shades of light, costume, properties and sound. The choice of design materials and timeframes for the technical processes are contributory factors in determining the scenographic interplay. The analysis perspective of the scenographic process will be informed by the case studies' political, socio-economic and cultural influences on the process of design and design in performance.
Svoboda's definition of scenography highlights an interesting point that this paper challenges within the mainstream professional theatre in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The reading of his definition implies that scenography can be a conscious or unconscious process. Linked to Pamela Howard's performance idea that 'theatre takes place wherever there is a meeting point between actors and a potential audience' (2002: 1) and Peter Brook's (1968, 1996) notions of the empty space, the practice of scenography in performance can be redefined. Brook notes that:
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged (1996: 1).
A number of ideas can be read from Brook's statement. Firstly, his reference to an empty space can be used to mean any space from a street corner, classroom, theatre, and/or community hall. Brook's notion will be used as a redefinitive mechanism of a performance space. Secondly, the quotation proposes a redefinition of the characteristics of an act of theatre. Brook intimates that once an empty space is inhabited by a body with a spectator watching, an act of theatre takes place. In the act of theatre, scenography is inherent as a performer-spectator spatial relationship, creating the space and re-configuring it through its inhabitation by the 'body' of the performer in relation to spect-actor.
Based on Brook's assertion, most community theatre productions have their performance spaces configured by the performer-audience relationship during performance. Cultural performative conventions and the socio-economic landscape play a major role in the process of space configurations. This spatial configuration process enables performance spaces to acquire characteristics of designed spaces of width, length and depth (McKinney and Butterworth 2009). The body (both actor and spect-actor) in space during a performance is part of scenography (Grotowski 1968, 1981). This provides a scenographic re-definitive approach as any inhabitation of a space by a performer before an audience configures the space in the context of that particular performance practice. This re-definition finds relevance in the case study community theatre performance of Bambelela Arts Ensemble as most of their performances are done in open spaces or undesignated theatre spaces.
Howard's (2002) emphasis that scenography must be a seamless synthesis of space, colour and composition, performers and spectators, provides a foundational standpoint for analysing the design processes and designs of Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Ensemble. Her emphasis highlights the importance of the process rather than the object of design. To achieve synthesis, there has to be a process that enables the harnessing of the arrangement of bodies within space through the use technology. The object of design becomes a component of the process as the design continues to develop even during the live performance event.
Intuba Arts Development employed an 'outside-in' approach in their design approach. The 'outside-in' approach is synonymous with the processes of workshopping and improvisation. This approach enabled all the group members to contribute to the creative process through suggestions of different set items that could be used and where they could be sourced from during the rehearsals. In this light, the rehearsal became a collaborative process of achieving a unified effect through the visual and performance aspects of the production. However, it can also be argued that through this process of collaboration, the design process became a collection activity of the most possibly available set items, properties and technological fixtures, rather than a process of planning, designing and executing the design plans.
While this 'outside-in' design process approach proved to be financially feasible and adaptable to community theatre performance practice, the implementation of the process by Intuba Arts Development left many questions unanswered. The choice of set items and properties was based on the availability of the found sets, costumes and properties rather than fulfilling specific pre-planned design objectives, or complementing and commenting on the action, or enriching the audience experience (McKinney and Butterworth, 2009). In as much as the found set items managed to achieve the 'manipulation and orchestration of the performance environment' to suit the production needs of Tears of Death, this production did not have designed floor and lighting plans (McKinney and Butterworth 2009: 4). This created a challenge with the National Arts Festival who demanded these design plans in advance so they could prepare adequately for the production's run at Grahamstown. Furthermore, this facilitated a continuous change of the design in terms of the use of technological apparatus such as lights as this play was performed in different performance spaces and for different audiences.
At close analysis, the theoretical underpinning of Intuba Arts Development's set design process pointed towards the minimalist point of view of Brook's empty space and Grotowski's poor theatre. The use of minimal set items such as the wooden poles that were neatly tied together to create a symbolic barricade, resembled traditional Zulu homesteads. The barricades were used fluidly to symbolically create and represent the community court fencing, watering area, Ngcobo homestead and Sosha's homestead. The transformations into these different settings were executed by the characters inhabiting the space, and through set/property items that were brought in by the actors. The courtyard was identified by the benches, Zembe's chair, the beer casings and the hangman's noose, while the watering area was identifiable by the washing line. The fluid use and transformations of the placement of the wooden barricades enabled Intuba Arts Development to successfully apply the minimalist approach, as well as Brook's empty space approach, in the Tears of Death performances at the Stable Theatre and National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
The set outlook at Kingswood Theatre, National Arts Festival, Grahamstown (Photo: Kwanda)
Despite the fact these wooden barricades were successfully used as a locale identifier, it is also important to note that these wooden barricades belonged to the Stable Theatre and had been previously used by Intuba Arts Development in their other production The Legend will Never Die (2013) as well as in other productions by other professional and community theatre groups. The decision to use these barricades was made by Xolani Dlongolo, the Artistic Director of Tears of Death, while we were preparing for a technical run at the Stable Theatre. This highlights the challenge that Intuba Arts Ensemble faced as until the technical rehearsal, no member of the group had any idea of what the set was going to look like.
This individual decision by the Artistic Director of Intuba Arts Development highlights two points about the design process of community theatre groups. Firstly, because community theatre groups do not have a dedicated design team, most technical decisions and their subsequent implementation is done by directors who are usually arguably better knowledgeable in terms of design demands for their specific types of productions. Secondly, the high levels of disinterest among community group members in participating in the major creative technical design decision making process forces directors to multitask and single handily make all the decisions.
The run of Tears of Death at the K-Cap Theatre in KwaMashu, at the Isigcawu Community Theatre Festival competition, as well as the run at KwaXimba, did not use the wooden barricades as a territorial pre-setter but instead used the stage space in its emptiness, to use Brook's terminology. The reason behind the lack of planned stage design at the K-Cap Theatre was the festival's consideration of acting, script and direction of the play as their foundational and important aspects over and above design technical elements. While the competing groups did not know the adjudication criteria, the prevailing attitude was the foregrounding of bodies in space in terms of acting style, projection and characterisation. On the contrary (and somewhat confusing to us), the production that won the competition had a comprehensive stage design that complemented the story.
Edmund Mhlongo, the Founder and Artistic Director of the Isigcawu Festival competition, intimated that stage and lighting design are complicated and a step farther away from the standard of these community theatre groups. This statement was made in his response to a query I had raised in relation to the adjudication criteria that did not recognise scenography. I thus argue that the lack of interest in design among community theatre festival organisers, as highlighted by Mr Mhlongo, are a contributory factor to the lack of conscious practicing in scenography by community theatre groups.
Smith and Parker (2002) argue that the process of design begins with a design idea that is developed into a design concept, which should work in tandem with overall production style. Fletcher and Wainscott (2004) define a design concept as the artistic decision that is taken to visually and aurally communicate a specific interpretation through scenery, costume, lighting and movement as well as composition. In agreement, Smith and Parker add that the design concept is often evident as a 'visual theme with variations that weave through a complicated setting or series of settings, bringing unity of thought to the whole' (2002, 71). The process of developing a design idea, design concept and production style is a technological collaborative process between set, costume and lighting designers, directors, producers and choreographers.
The design process employed by Intuba Arts Development reveals a lack of a comprehensive design idea, design concept or a unified production style. During the creative process for Tears of Death, it became very difficult to develop and pin down a design concept, because the narrative was always changing as actors improvised as they developed the story and the script. The other challenge was a lack of understanding of the scenographic terminology by the group members. Making reference to a design idea and concept confused the group members. In this sense one had understand and appreciate the concept, after analysing the final design to reach a specific position in terms of the concept and style.
In general, this proved a challenge among community theatre groups, as most do not know or understand technical language. This was further observed when the National Arts Festival sent Intuba Arts Development a technical questionnaire for Tears of Death. The group failed to complete it until they asked me to assist in explaining what was expected and needed by the festival organisers. In the process, I became the contact technical person for Intuba Arts Development. In this regard, I would argue that Intuba Arts Development's design challenges are a microcosm of the macrocosm. The group has performers that have been in the industry since 1993, and yet they still have difficulty in understanding technical language. This highlights the general trend among community theatre groups of an over reliance on the narrative rather than balancing it with an aesthetic that employs technology.
Nonetheless, on close analysis, the design process revealed that the general design idea was a setting of a rural community at breaking point, with a glimmer of hope in good overcoming evil. This design idea necessitated the adoption of the minimalist approach alongside Brook's theory of the empty space and aspects of Grotowski's poor theatre. The adjustments and readjustments of the design to fit different performance spaces such as the end on open stage of KwaXimba community hall, on the thrust stage of the Stable Theatre, on the proscenium arch of Kingswood Theatre in Grahamstown or in K-Cap Theatre in KwaMashu, were necessitated by the application of these theories.
In contrast to Intuba Arts Development, the process of design for Bambelela Arts Ensemble's 2013 version of Just Because was to creatively modify the design that the group had been using since 1999. Just Because has been repeatedly performed in different places and spaces since 1999 using the same design ideas and material: a yellow backdrop inscribed with messages of gender based violence, vigilantism and substance abuse. As such, the creative process was a negotiation between this old open design and a new design approach that sought to create a feeling of bodies contained in space. Consequently, during the initial process of creative brainstorming of the new design with Witness Tavarwisa, the Director of Bambelela Arts Ensemble there were two general ideas that were agreed on as alternatives: a cage barricade made of aluminium pipes or a cage made of plastic pipes. However, it became difficult to develop this design idea since it sought to symbolize the feeling of containment of the performance space and the real lived spaces in Matshobana Township.
The contributory factors towards the modification of the design idea into the 1999 original of Just Because were time constraints and availability of funds. Time constraints came in a two-fold manner. Firstly, Bambelela Arts Ensemble has performed the production Just Because so many times that the cast becamecomplacent, such that the agreed two week rehearsal schedule was cut down to just four days. As such, introducing an aluminium case cage of two cubic metres (2m x 2m x 2m) over four days would have proved problematic to the technically untrained cast. During the first rehearsal, I asked the Director, Khumbulani Mathe, to apply the performance space dimensions which proved challenging to the cast. They either forgot and ended up outside the space parameter or always complained that the space was inadequate for their movement. Thus, the decision not to use an aluminium or plastic pipe cage was partly due to these challenges. Secondly, the welder who had been commissioned to make the cage needed a minimum of two weeks, a privilege we did not have as a production team. Finally, Witness Tavarwisa suggested that instead five steel poles could be used with multi-colored ropes to create a space with the same sense and atmosphere of containment.
The new design had its own advantages over the initial agreed ideas. The setting-up process and striking of the set was easily achieved, especially since the performances were done in open spaces such as Cowdray Park Terminus and Nkulumane Sokusile Shopping Centre in Bulawayo. The use of ropes enabled re-adjustments to the performance space to suite the spatial demands of the actors. Transporting the set was also easy and cheap, as the steel rods, ropes and other set items could be accommodated in a kombi within its routine route operations.
While Intuba Arts Development collaboratively discussed and made decisions with the exception of lighting design and the wooden barricades, the responsibility of developing designs was left in the hands of Witness Tavarwisa. It is important to highlight that Tavarwisa is the Director of Bambelela Arts Ensemble and not the Director of the 2013 Just Because production. This is significant because it highlights the difference in the decision making process at Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Ensemble. Xolani Dlongolo, the Director of Tears of Death, was the co-ordinator and overseer of the rehearsal and design process, while Witness Tavarwisa, the Organisational Director of Bambelela Arts Ensemble, did not attend any rehearsal of Just Because, but made decisions on the designs of the production. Thus, the challenges that the cast faced in terms of the configuration of the performance space with the cage emanated from his lack of knowledge about the transformation and changes in the setting, spatial demands and technical adaptability of the actors. In this regard, while Xolani Dlongolo made his technical decisions with the cast based on practical information gathered during the rehearsal, Witness Tavarwisa made his decisions based on the knowledge of the play as they had performed it over the years.
The pre-2013 performances of Just Because were open space performances. The group would choose a corner in a street, shopping centre or outside a community centre where they would set up. The front side of the yellow background cloth would form the 'stage' and the back side, the 'backstage' area for the actors. The depth, width and length of the performance space were negotiated with the audience as they gathered around. The 2013 production maintained the yellow backdrop to serve as a dividing mechanism for the 'stage' and backstage. The performance area was, however, not negotiated with the audience, but determined by the use of the multi-coloured strings tied from one pole to the other. Therefore, the spatial characteristics of the stage were determined by the members of Bambelela Arts Ensemble who could enlarge or reduce the space without inconveniencing the audience.
The new design for Just Because (2013) at Cowdray Park terminus (Photo: Nkululeko Sibanda)
The new design for Just Because enabled the audience to be as close as possible to the created performance space in contrast to the 1999 version. The process of negotiating for space between the performers and the audience in the 1999 performances meant that the performance space dimensions were determined by the type of the audience: at some places the audience was very close, such that the performance space was very small, while at other places the audience would stand at a distance, creating problems for the performers as they tried to engage and communicate with them. By contrast, the 2013 design of the space allowed Bambelela Arts Ensemble to determine this audience-performer relationship by re-configuring the performance space through the use of technology in the form of the multi-coloured strings.
The audience standing close to the acting area in Just Because (2013) at Cowdray Park terminus. (Photo: Nkululeko Sibanda)
Bambelela Arts Ensemble's design processes sought to transform found open spaces into performance spaces that would create an audience-performer relationship similar to conventional theatres, while Intuba Arts Development performed within purpose built theatre spaces, with exception of the KwaXimba performance. The net effect of the use of these different spaces on the design process of these respective groups can be captured as follows: while Intuba Arts Ensemble sought to create an environment that would provide locale and support the action through their set, Bambelela Arts Ensemble's approach was based on manipulating the actor-spectator spatial relationship through the use of flexible staging technique. However, the common denominator between these two community groups is their dependency on available technological resources from their personal libraries.
The process as set down in theoretical teaching and published works on design demands a chronological order of events: read the play, do research, develop a concept, do sketches, and devise the floor plan' (Isacks 2008: 41). However, the design processes of Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Ensemble highlight that this approach cannot be consistently applicable in community theatre circles, chiefly because it demands a written script. As highlighted above, both groups followed a workshopping model that generated both the script and the designs as a continuous process. The scripts are mainly available after the live event. Secondly, the process as articulated by Richard Isackes demands a committed, fully trained design team with supporting workshop staff to technologically transform and execute design concepts and plans into design objects, which community theatre groups do not have the capacity and resources to support. This approach is also not applicable because it demands planning first before resources and decisions on material to be used are made. However, the process of design in community theatre groups, as in the case of Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Ensemble, is highly dependent on available resources. The available resources determine what design concept, style and technological equipment can be used at any specific time and production.
The design processes as set down by theorists and mainstream designers such as Gillette (1997) and Arnott (1997) denote that design should 'evoke an atmosphere, give some kind of expression and illustrate a location' (McKinney and Butterworth 2009: 5). It has also been argued that community theatre groups as practised by Intuba Arts Development and Bambelela Arts Ensemble seek to explore the 'potential of scenography as an expressive and effective agent of performance' (McKinney and Butterworth 2009: 5). Conventional mainstream design in South Africa and Zimbabwe, therefore, leaves the creative work of design solely in the hands of a specially trained designer, while the community driven scenography responsibilities. sit uneasily within the existing functions of writer, director, choreographer, designer and performer because each or any combination of these roles is capable of producing scenography in ways that will not accept restriction implicitly imposed by such singular identities (McKinney and Butterworth 2009: 5-6).
The practice of scenography by community theatre groups, therefore, is a means to resist restrictions and the imposition of ideas on the production by trained specialist designers. It is a collaborative process that usually involves everyone in the production. Ideas on set, costumes, make-up and the use of technology emerge during improvisation and rehearsal sessions. Responsibilities are shared among production members. The final design is therefore a collective, negotiated factor of the live performance event.
Conclusively, this paper positioned design within the South African and Zimbabwean community theatre context, as a collaborative process that resists the confinement of the body(ies) (actor and spectators) within spatial configurations. It further argued that the availability of technology became culture and context specific as the two case study groups adopted a minimalist design approach to communicate aesthetically. At the base of this aesthetic communication was a heavy reliance on the creative configurations of performance spaces by bodies (actor and spectator) ably aided by available technology.
Arnott, Peter (1997) Theatre in its Times: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Brook, Peter (1968, 1996) The Empty Space. New York: Touchstone.
Fletcher, Kathy and Wainscott, Ronald (2004) Collaboration in Art and Practice. Madrid: Pearson A & B.
Grotowski,Jerzey (1968) Towards a Poor Theatre. London: Methuen.
Howard, Pamela (2002) What is Scenography? London: Routledge.
Isackes, Richard (2008) 'On the Pedagogy of Theatre Stage Design: A critique of Practice', Theatre Topics, 18 (1): 41-53.
Mackey Sally and Cooper, Simon (2000) Drama and Theatre Studies. London: Stanley Thorne.
Smith, Harvey and Parker,Wilfred (2000) Scene Design and Stage Lighting. Dallas: Ruch Out and Winston Inc.
Nkululeko Sibanda holds a Master of Arts (Drama and Performance Studies) from the University of KwaZulu Natal (Howard College) and is reading for his Ph.D. at the same University. He is a practising scenographer in South Africa and Zimbabwe, having worked with esteemed companies such as Flatfoot Dance Company (KZN), Theory X Media (Harare), Harare International Festival of Arts (HIFA) and Intwasa Arts Festival KoBulawayo. The need to develop a formidable, relevant and effective scenographic theory and practice model within Zimbabwean theatre practice (from an African paradigm) sits at the base of his research endeavors.