Zinzi Mhlongo: Theater of the mind
Tell us a little bit about how you got into theatre and what attracted you to this art form?
I was always interested in the stage while growing up. I loved making a fool of myself and making people laugh. So in high school I would participate in the drama club and later decided to join the Witbank Youth Theatre where it all began.
You have recently won the Standard Bank young artists of the year award, tell us about what this means for you as an artist?
The award is a great achievement. It was something I was not working towards but was such a great honour to receive. It is great to be recognised at a young age while you are trying to find yourself in your career. It gives you confidence to continue in the journey ahead. The award has opened up many doors which I’m very grateful for.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process, how do you go from a concept or an idea in your mind to a complete production?
Well i guess I’m still discovering my creative process. I work differently if the script is written by someone else. With my own work I look at exploring different methods with my creative team. If there is one thing that is important to me it is to select my creative team in the early stages. For example I worked with my set and costume designer in the early stages while still creating Trapped. It was creatively motivating in creating the world and characters on paper and also visually bring it to life with my designer. In the future we want to collaborate in creating the set first before the script is written and then telling a story from that design or costume whatever it may be but basically looking at different ways of creating work.
Theatre in South Africa is very rooted in protest context and South Africa has a very strong tradition in that regard, I want to ask you then as a playwright who works in post-1994 South Africa what message do you think local theatre needs to articulate and what relevance does it have to the here and now?
I don’t think a specific message has to be articulated, I think the time has come for the youth to create their own work, to tell their stories whatever it maybe. Protest theatre plays a strong part in the history of theater in S.A but that’s not what we are about now. We are faced with different struggles, different triumphs which need to be told by our youth. I think as soon as we try to be specific it blocks the potential of the creativity. We need to explore the freedom of creating new work so our industry can grow.
Who would you say are some of the creatives that have had the strongest influence on you and how?
When I started at Tshwane University of Technology I really just wanted to act. But when I met my movement lecture Janine Lewis she introduced me to another side of theatre which I believe is lacking in a huge way in our country. Absurd Theatre, symbolism, physical theatre, abstract theatre methods of theatre which were so foreign to me. This opened a new world for me and it influences my creations in a huge way. To meet people like James Ngcobo and to see his work is always inspiring as he has been in this industry for a while and is always willing to help.
One of the problems that has always been raised by other playwrights is that local theatre does not really have an audience, what do you think needs to be done to develop an audience locally?
We have to feed our audiences with different work to find out what they want to watch. Right now we decided what the audience will like which doesn’t make sense if they are the ones buying the tickets. We have to find different ways of marketing our shows whether it’s a quick 5 minute presentation at a cooperate company or collaborating with other media forms. Why is it with some shows there are full houses every night clearly the audience is there.
As a director you have directed many work by other playwrights, what attracts you to this vast and different projects?
It was great to direct classics by Zakes Mda and Fatima Dike and be able to discuss with them my ideas. I mean most of the work was written before I was born and I could relate to a certain extent. To have history in your hands and revive it is always interesting. I would always go for humor because its usually easier for me to tap into my humor side then my serious.
You are a very young director working in medium that is mainly occupied by older people who do you then go about claiming your place in this medium and do you find that your age becomes a challenge in relation to how seriously people take you?
I guess when you are young there is always the question of experience and not knowing much which is always difficult. But when you are young you are hungry for more and always willing to learn. I think when you have been in the industry for a long time you reach a point when you feel you have done it all. Others might not be sure if there is anything new to learn. I learn from the veterans who have done it all and also learn from those who are beginning to do it. My age is not a challenge at all, it’s a privilege because there are actually more opportunities when you are younger then older and we all know you can’t be young forever. So this is the time for me to take advantage of the opportunities.
One of the biggest problems that I have about local theatre is that there is this gap between community theatre and the major local production houses and in between a lot of talent is not allowed to develop into professionals, what effect do you think this has on our theatre?
The first big problem is that there are no strong theatre establishments in our communities. Community centers need assistance in developing their communities with theatre programs. There are theaters which are not being used in other provinces. Whats happening is that community groups from other provinces have to travel as far as Gauteng to get development. Focus has to shift to each province where their theatres and community centers are developed so work can be created in their own communities. Once you set the foundation people can continue on their own.
There is of course this idea that it is very hard to make a living as a fulltime artists in South Africa, do you think this notion is founded and what do you think it takes to be a professional artist in South Africa?
Artists can make a lot of money in the arts I guess the problem is the stability side of it because you not sure when a big break will come. I think it pays off to be clever with your money, invest where you can and own as much as you can. Our country doesn’t recognise our work as a career which in a problem and hopefully things will change as artists learn how to better sell their skills.
As a person who has worked with lots of people and toured extensively what are some of the strange and memorable experiences you have had?
It’s always interesting to see work from abroad one of my favourite shows I saw in Germany was “You can speak you’re an Animal” by Massimo Furlan from switzerland. He is an insane director and creator it was really amazing to watch. It was also strange watching a Japanese show where they had weird movement I was lost throughout the entire show. Thats the beauty of theatre it can be so diverse.
Tell us a little bit more about Trapped and what initially made you want to create this project?
Trapped is an absurd world dealing with universal issues that everyone can relate to. It is not set in a specific time but deals with issues that are very current and historical. In this world we meet various characters trapped in different situations in their lives presented in an abandoned museum. They all want freedom in one way or another whether its the need for social freedom, individuality. I wanted to start telling my own stories owning my work. That’s the main reason why I wanted to create.
I read somewhere that it has taken almost two years to put together, why so long?
Austria basically approached me in 2010. They were already preparing for their 2011 festival in 2010. I was amazed at the preparation and time they put into their work. Its helped me a lot putting more time into my work.
Tell us a bit about the casting, how did you go about finding the people to play the roles in this story?
Casting is very important in my approach and is different depending on what I need. What is important is whether I will be able to work with the person or not. I can usually tell when I have auditions. Sometimes I personally approach people because of a gut feeling.
The play will also be going to Austria, how did that come about?
In 2010 I went to Germany for a festival I was invited to. Salzburg was looking for young directors to invite to their young directors project. Since i was already abroad we met up and their invited me to their festival in 2012.
What can audiences expect from you this year in Grahamstown?
Its another side of me which audiences might not expect since most of the work I’ve done has been comedies. I’m creating my own work which is very exciting.
What are some of your future plans and initiatives that you are working on?
There are some interesting projects which i will be involved in the future. I’m trying to also take work back to my community and finding ways to develop the talent there. I’ll be touring the UK after Austria with my production And The Girls In Their Sunday Dresses.