Lack of money, public understanding hampers theatre sector in Namibia

Andreas Thomas & Anastasia Paulus

Windhoek – Theatre plays an important role in every society as it brings people together, and provides a platform for expression, as well as a place to celebrate diversity and unity. In Namibia, like other societies, theatre and drama remain the favourite pastime to many, though on minimal standard due to host of challenges that have plagued the sector over the years.   

The lack of financial backing and the advancement in the entertainment industry are some of the factors limiting the growth of theatre in the country. Entertainment in the digital age is delivered cheaply and efficiently on modern mobile gadgets such as laptops, tabs, and smartphones.

Nonetheless, there are those that firmly believe that theatre is still important in Namibia and need to be preserved. The National Theatre of Namibia (NTN) together with several playwrights, directors and actors are working to keep theatre and live performing alive in Namibia.

“Theatre plays a leading role in bringing our people together, by creating a platform for expression, for constructing and reinforcing Namibianess and reconciliation. It is a place where people can celebrate diversity yet unity,” said Desiree Mentor, the NTN’s public relations officer.

“The theatre is a space of social and cultural transformation. It allows for artists to define the nature of people through songs, dance, paintings, poetry and other art forms. It is only through the work of artists and institutions such as the theatre those great deeds of civilisations before our time is remembered and celebrated”.

The Namibian theatre sector has been kept afloat by the perseverance of well-known theatre practitioners including Kubbe Rispel, Tanya Terblanche, Jason Kooper, Vickson Hangula, Armas Shivute, Dawie Engelbrecht and Mike Nghipunya.

Shivute, one of Namibia’s finest stage actors told The southern Times that the theatre sector in the country has sadly been on decline over the years.

“Theatre has gone way backwards. In the past you would hear of theatre projects happening around here and there. Just ask me the last time a theatre play from Namibia participated in an international festival somewhere. I am not taking away from the few guys that are still pushing to keep it alive. They are doing a great job but more is needed,” Shivute said.

The biggest problem holding back theatre sector in Namibia, according to Shivute, is funding and lack of public knowledge.

“If one cannot even afford to stage a theatre play under a tree, how will you afford to stage it at the National Theatre of Namibia? The problem is, our society has little knowledge about theatre including decision makers. They disregard arts in this country that is why they wanted to shut down the Katutura arts centre but they will be the first to look for a group to perform when there are state functions. Companies will laugh at you if you approach them for funding because to them theatre is a joke,” he said.

Shivute recently took a leading role in a play – Joseph’s Dilema – that was staged at the NTN on 13-14 September. The play written and directed by veteran playwright Vickson Hangula portrayed issues of infidelity and betrayals that in most cases overlooked by the society.

Mike Nghipunya who produced Joseph’s Dilemma observed that the theatre industry in Namibia is still alive, but funding the main challenge holding it back.

“Surely the lack of resources over the years has affected the theatre sector very much. He said the industry was active between 2008 and 2010 especially due to the Bank Windhoek Art Festival. But things took a nosedive ever since, apart from effort by the NTN.

“The main impact is being felt by the actors and playwrights because this is their bread and butter. Which means any slowdown in the industry’s activities means no pay for them. But despite the challenges the theatre industry is still alive,” Nghipunya said.

Nghipunya agreed with Shivute that one of the main stumbling blocks in the theatre industry is the lack of understanding especially among our policy makers on the importance of theatre as a mode of education.

“So many budgets goes to education but nothing goes to theatre and other art forms because it is not seen as a mode or form of education and that is the biggest challenge. Once we reach a point were art is looked at as a form of education and a proper strategy is devised to promote and re-position the role of arts in our education system then theatre and other art forms will thrive,” he said.

“The industry is struggling to get the necessary support both from Government and private sectors because of the lack of understanding of the sector and how it can contribute to our development agenda in the country. In the national budget there is no specific allocation for arts projects but rather for the administration of arts institution such as NTN and NAG (National Arts Gallery). But these institutions should have their operational budgets specifically and then a specific budget for theatre projects every year”.

NTN is a public institution with an important mandate to developing, presenting and promoting Namibia’s rich and diverse forms of culture expression, national and internationally.  Over the years, the national theatre has been running programmes to promote the sector.

One of its flagship initiatives, the The Theatre Zone Project provides development opportunities to new and upcoming directors, writers, actors and producers.  In addition, and through its Premier Project, NTN stage productions with international themes and standard.

“These are either commissioned or self-produced works. These productions bring together the best of Namibia’s actors, directors, producers, designers and technicians to present some of the world’s challenging text to live on stage,” Mentor explained.

As part of the theatre zone project, NTN is staging ‘The Encounter’ a play written and directed by Jason Kooper, under the mentorship of renowned Theatre Director, Tanya Terblanche. It held a preview for the play on September 21.

The play that will be staged at NTN on the 6th and 7th October is a mystery and suspense drama about that deals with a lot of social contemporary issues; among others orphaned children, classism, rape, betrayal and the consequences to parents placing too much pressure on their kids, according Mentor.

On September 23, the national theatre conducted an open audition for an upcoming premier production of an Afrikaans play ‘Deur die tralies van die hok’ written and directed by theatre veteran, Kubbe Rispel. The play meaning “Through the bars of a cage” brings out to the stage the problem of revenge killing, or passion killing as known in Namibia.

“The institution constantly strives to identify relevant partners to better position it to serve its diverse and increasing audience. Mentor said the NTN strive to “transform into a quality national and an international arts and culture performance space and as we reinvent ourselves we hope to grow and as we grow that all  our stakeholders will grow with us and that there will eventually be mutual benefits for all partners”.

She added that “We are currently busy with our Theatre Zone and Premier Projects. The Theatre Zone Project provides development opportunities to new and upcoming Directors, Writers, Actors and Producers. The project appoints a Mentor who will assist and guide the Director/Writer with script development and directing and staging of his/her play”.

Due to lack of appreciation from the policy makers, theatre has also been losing its space in Namibian schools, which Shivute said should not be the case.

“Theatre in schools is important because it can also be used as a teaching tool. Remember a theatre actor is required to learn his/her lines and know them by heart. This approach can help develop thinking capacities of learners, which enable then capture subjects. Theatre also teaches discipline,” he said.

Due to lack of support, the Community Outreach Theatre, which Shivute and his peers started few years back to provide quality theatre entertainments, generate income and provide theatre training to young Namibians has also suffered.

“I am the only one left because my colleagues went on to seek for greener pastures. Maybe I am too arrogant. I stuck around in the hope that one day things will work,” he said. “Theatre is supposed to be an employment or a source of income but the moment it does not provide that much needed income then of course the interest will disappear”.

Meanwhile, Nghipunya, a corporate executive who has been involved in theatre since 2006, believe that Namibian youth are starting to appreciate theatre but at a slow pace.

“This is because there is no enough attention and resources being committed to theatre and getting the youth to take ownership of the theatre industry. We need to train and educate them about the importance of role play and it’s benefit to society.

“We also need to develop an art education policy and strategy so that art education is at the forefront of our development agenda. The more the policymakers understand the beauty and importance of arts and theatre in particular, the better it is for the youth to understand and appreciate theatre. So education and more education,” Nghipunya conclude.

September 2017
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