The number of theatre groups is growing every year, but Botswana’s theatre has over the last 10 years failed to improve, both in content and in the quality of the art itself.
Vuyisile Otukile, chairman of BAOTA Theatre Group, puts this down to lack of support from both the government and the public. Otukile, who also chairs the Youth Health Organisation (YOHO), says this is hurting the growth of Botswana’s theatre.
He says response to theatre has been unchanged since the era of folk musicians like Ratsie Setlhako, where Batswana listened to the music but were not inclined to pay for it.
Instead, he says, they take interest in things they can neither understand nor relate to. “One would rather go watch a movie titled ‘The Moon’ rather than watch an act on alcohol education,” explained Otukile.
He said it disturbs him that theatre is taken as an extracurricular activity in schools and not as a genuine learning tool that can bring massive change to the learning procedure.
Support from government is not enough, he says.
According to Otukile, theatre groups usually get a grant of about P100, 000 annually from the government, but this only covers advertising. He says it is never enough to make them profitable enough to pay actors.
He describes common theatre categories as community theatre and commercial/industrial theatre. Community theatre deals with social welfare. It educates people about matters at hand and tries to eradicate them. The actors are not paid wages, but are given an honorarium. Community theatre does not deal with professionals because it cannot pay them.
Commercial/ industrial theatre is money driven, working with a funder who injects money into the project to help it pull the message through. It is usually about selling products of the company sponsoring the show.
Otukile criticizes the obsession with this type of theatre. He says in most cases it pulls the industry back because it is more about the agenda of the funder and the voice of the sponsor than the artist.
“People have now come to a point where they are more obsessed with money than in their own art,” he says.
Otukile also criticises excessive censorship of local productions. For example, he says, Thokolosi was censored and improvised because of the sponsor’s command. Rebina Mmogo was likewise censored.
As a result, says Otukile, theatre groups are reluctant to take their work to BTV because they always have to go through the long process of censoring of their work. “It does not benefit anybody because the message does not get through to the audience,” he says.
He adds that theatre is further affected by the attitude of some sponsors, who do not fund productions based on their merit and quality. For example, he says, Morwalela, a production with eight episodes cost P10 million while Rebina Mmogo, one with 13 episodes cost P1 million.
“Logically thinking, it should be the other way round ÔÇô the more the episodes, the more the money, but in this case it is more about the willing buyer than anything else,” Otukile says.
Joel Rebaone Keitumele, former member of Reetsanang Theatre Group and now with Jam in Christ, a local musical theatre group, disagrees with these views.
Keitumele believes Botswana’s theatre is heading for better times and says government support is its main source of strength.
He says it was with government support that Jam in Christ toured Namibia where they produced “The Rehearsal Shot” last year.
According to Keitumele, the government is lending enough support and giving people the opportunity to expose their talents in competitions like The President`s Concert.
It would appear that Botswana lacks a stronger association that will have theatre`s interest at heart.
Meanwhile by press time, the Department of Arts and Culture had not yet answered a query on the issue.