Just a little over two months in the director?s office at Maitisong, Botswana?s stripped down low budget answer to Broadway, Gao Lemmenyane has to beat
heightened expectations to bring to the city a rejuvenated Maitisong Festival (arguably the country?s most premier arts gathering). After all, only something different is what theatre lovers expect. With veteran arts activist and presidential honoree, David Slater, parting with the theatre late last year after taking it from its infancy in 1987, the institution is sorely in need of a new steward to steer it through a plethora of new challenges. The young drama instructor is, however, not fazed by the call.
?My new role involves redefining the performing arts in the country,? he says, ?I have to re-focus on what Maitisong is about.?
The bill, he reveals, is as exciting as it is challenging. He has to shuttle between playing Sabela in the Maruapula School?s production of the popular South African apartheid era musical, Sarafina, and preparing for the festival. And there is also some teaching to be done, as he has students that he started teaching last year and who need to be guided to their examinations.
?I have to put up with working long hours. I am learning a lot as I am initiating a lot of things in preparation for this big event in the Maitisong calendar even though I have just come into the job,? he says.
He wants to develop audiences for his theatre. He wants the youth to come to the theatre. He wants stagecraft to be seen as more than just alternative entertainment- a place that everyone can come to identify with and stick with for all its worth. And what with the fact that theatre continues to be a relevant force in so far as social change is concerned.
?It is still a vehicle of social change. Some of the strongest messages have been relayed through theatre, though to a lesser extent in Botswana,? he says. He wants Maitisong to be a facility that will benefit the oft under-resourced artist. If he gets his way, every foreign artist who comes to show at the theatre will get to hold a workshop for our locals. Things have already started moving in that direction; recently a Pascal Montrouge from France, a contemporary dancer and Choreographer, conducted workshops for aspiring local dancers at Maruapula School. He had come to perform thoughtful pieces with his Os Contemporary Dance Company at the pleasure of the Alliance Francaise.
?The plan is that after these kinds of workshops, we get the participants to put something together for the upcoming festival. Artists can expect support from me.
They can knock on my door anytime they want. Support doesn?t mean money. It can be in the form of rehearsal space, that is if we are not booked,? he says. To achieve these grand plans, Lemmenyane has concocted a programme of events that he is adamant will serve to win a few souls to the theatre, and keep them hooked.
For him, locals have had no theatre-going culture because the scene here has not carried what they want to see. Of late they have been carrying out a survey at the theatre to see the kind of works people would love to see at Maitisong. The results have informed the complexion of the planned programme. Locals want lots of comedy, the survey revealed.
?We are starting a comedy club here. I am sure that there are many aspiring Dignashs (popular local stand up comedian) out there who would want to be given a forum to express themselves. I think there is a lot of interest in comedy amongst Batswana. A lot of shows that have been presented in the past have been well attended. It goes to show that comedy is really popular here. We are also working on a dance and storytelling festival. We are bringing the most wanted Freshlyground here this May,? he announced. Now, with Gaborone experiencing a small theatre boom, with some of them showing, of late, some of Broadway?s critically acclaimed musicals such as Annie and Moses and the Amazing Technicolor Jacket, a bit of competition has come the old theatre?s way. What does the proliferation of theatres mean to him?
?Maitisong is a brand. It is most central and secure. If you take your show elsewhere you would be risking a flop,? he asserts.
Unlike his predecessor, Lemmenyane comes in at a time when there is evidence of political commitment to the recognition and development of the arts. Like other industry players, he is excited about the prospects ahead, courtesy of the newly established Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sports. He is looking at the developments at the ministry with keen interest. For a scene that has been largely amateurish and driven by the love for art for its own sake, there is cause for celebration. He interprets the development as too important to potentially attract the corporate world to put money into the industry. Have they, as artists, been involved in the formation of the new ministry?
?Things are still new. I guess they will call us in a short while. I hear there is an upcoming meeting soon at the ministry. I think that we will get to talk,? he says. With combined government and corporate help, he argues, the arts will soon put bread on the table for the artist population.
?People wake up here in nearby South Africa just to work in the entertainment industry. Government should look at ways of helping to grow the industry. If government can put money and infrastructure into the arts, we would definitely see change. We need a school of the arts. We need a state theatre. The business community must come on board as well. In South Africa, they have the Business and Arts South Africa Trust that helps raise money for the arts. The organisation?s patron is president Thabo Mbeki. At the end of the year companies that have given much to the arts are rewarded. Something like that can be done here. Government must be a patron of the arts.
Government should subsidise arts facilities until they can sustain themselves,? he said. Talking of political will in the arts and its impact on the growth of the sector, how does he intend to take the relationship Slater forged with politicians, especially Health Minister, professor Sheila Tlou?
Slater managed to bring the lady to the theatre not as a spectator but in speaking roles in the classical operas, Pirates of the Penzance and The Mikado, a move that not only ensured box office success but that brought attention and interest to stagecraft. Tlou went on to promise to influence legislature to sway favour to theatre development any best way she can. Artists nodded in agreement that her hands-on involvement meant that she got to experience the realities that artists have to go through in their daily work.
Lemmenyane?s approach, however, seems to be different. Not to mean that he is not interested in bringing the politician into the theatre, he would rather have the artist perform for the politician. ?We will definitely have the President?s Festival in October, which pays respect to him and recognise that politicians and other community leaders are important in promoting the arts. We are also going to host a three day film festival in the Maitisong Festival programme that will, on its first day, feature documentaries of Botswana politicians such as Sir Ketumile Masire and Kenneth Koma. We will have historians discuss relevant issues,? he says. Working with Phakama and The Company theatre ensembles, Lemmenyane couldn?t have got better preparation for the job. At the Company he worked with are completing drama students at Maruapula waiting on furthering their arts studies. Phakama, on the other hand, is a vehicle for youth leadership that helps youngsters to be able to assert themselves.
?The first thing I did was to contact artists because I know they are very central to the art sector,? he says. Will he deliver on his promises? His first test is soon to come, the Maitisong Festival, scheduled for the end of March.