US director Wharton praises Zim artists

HARARE - For the greater part of this year veteran American drama teacher and director Julia Wharton trained eight Zimbabwean theatre directors under the ‘Mentor-Director Staged Reading Series’ organised by Almasi, a Zimbabwean-American dramatic arts organisation, co-founded by Zimbabwe-born Hollywood actress Danai Gurira and film director Patience Tawengwa.

A stage reading is a form of theatre without sets or full costumes where actors read from scripts either seated, standing in fixed positions, or while incorporating minimal stage movement.

The Zimbabwean artists mentored by Wharton included the multi-talented Kudzai Sevenzo, veteran actress Kudzai Sevenzo, Elizabeth Muchemwa, Sandra Chidawanyika, Patience Tawengwa and Gideon Jeph Wabvuta.

Wharton, who is married to US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Bruce Wharton and will return to the US next month, recently shared her thoughts with the Daily News on Sunday on the Almasi project and the wider Zimbabwean arts scene. Below are excerpts of the interview:

How was the experience of mentoring the trainee directors?

I have really enjoyed this mentoring process and I truly hope the mentees have valued the journey as much as I have.

They are a group of highly creative, intelligent, engaging and dedicated theatre artists and I have learned a great deal working with them.

One of the things I love about teaching and mentoring is the give and take relationship that is at work.

As I guided this group, my skills as a director and mentor grew.

You know, it's one thing to do some job really well. It's another thing entirely, to help others acquire skills to do that same job really well.

As I supported each of them in the directing of their own staged reading, we encountered problems that are very much a part of the directing challenge.

Helping the mentees troubleshoot these problems meant I had to clarify for myself exactly what I do as a director that works, help them consider those options and also support them in finding their own individual strengths and instincts.

I take away a deeper tool bag than I had before! It was also just a huge joy to get to know each of these mentees.

Thank goodness for the internet and social media so I can stay connected with them even after I leave Zimbabwe.

Who impressed you in the group?

Each of the mentees is a stand out.

Each is very much a unique artist, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, but each accomplished a great deal through the process.

The process began with me directing a staged reading using the director mentees as cast members.

I thought it was important that they all experience what it is like to be an actor - some had acted and a good director must know how to communicate with, guide, encourage and manage actors. Some had a good deal of acting experience but it this also seemed an efficient way for them all to be actively engaged in the process that I was trying to teach.

Rather than being observers, they were living the process. We then moved on to the staged reading series, each one directed by one of the mentees.

They each worked hard to implement the "do's" and avoid the "don'ts" that we had established but each also brought his/her unique sense of humour, their own communication style, their personal passion and vision for their chosen play. All of them impressed me and each other.

Each mentee also had his/her moments of doubt or frustration but they were brave and wise and patient in using me to help them find solutions.

They all achieved success, as demonstrated in the excellent performances their actors gave and the very positive, meaningful feedback received from the audiences.

Does the staged reading format have a future in Zimbabwean theatre arts?

Absolutely. Audiences love it as a wonderful opportunity to get to know a diverse selection of dramatic literature.

Actors love it because it is a short, intensive way to practise working deeply and extensively with dramatic text - this is an important skill for good actors to have.

It is an excellent tool for playwrights working to develop a new play as it affords them feedback from actors and audience members, important feedback that if applied with patience and reflection makes for a more fully developed final product.

Zim, like most other places in the world, doesn't enjoy a lot of financial investment in theatre (or the arts in general).

Stage readings are excellent theatre experiences for all involved that require fewer resources (money, time, space) than fully staged productions.

Will you continue to work with Almasi?

I would love to continue working with Zimbabwean theatre artists through Almasi programming. I will be leaving Zim in August but if the opportunity to participate in another project evolves, I will seize it! I have a job I am going to, teaching drama in the DC area, but it would thrill me to get to come back to this country.

I love Zimbabwe and it will be tremendously difficult to leave! But I feel so very lucky to have had the chance to work with/get to know so many talented Zimbabwean artists over the last 3 years.

Have I had the chance to interact with other Zimbabwean artists from other genres? Who stood out?

I am across the board impressed with Zimbabweans - their intellect, their creativity, their strength and determination, their kind and generous interpersonal energy.

This is my second opportunity to live in Zimbabwe and this is something that grabbed me immediately many years ago.

As a theatre artist myself, the rich creativity possessed by so many Zimbabweans was especially striking to me. Most everyone seems to have a creative side - the accountant who is also an accomplished musician, the veterinarian who is also a gifted clothing designer, etc.

I have met and worked with many Zimbabweans through theatre and dance projects and I can't possibly name stand outs in the space available here. 

I can only urge individuals and institutions (private and public) to do what they can to support the arts in Zimbabwe. Your artists do important work to lead, inspire, record and enrich society.

Imagine, just for a few minutes, life without artists. No music, no theatre or film or TV, no art or sculpture, no fiction or poetry.

Can you imagine how incredibly dark and diminished your life would be?

Artists keep humanity beautiful and hopeful and decent. I wish for Zimbabwe, as I wish for the US and most every other place in the world, that we could all shift our priorities just enough to pay artists a living wage for the vital work they contribute.

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