Savanna Trust: Rewriting the script for theatre training in Southern Africa
The performing arts as a tool and catalyst for social transformation has a long and significant history in Southern Africa. The arts have the capacity to give voice to the voiceless, and create a space for artists and audiences to share experiences and stories that transcend political and geographical borders.
Savanna Trust is a non-profit organisation located in Harare, Zimbabwe. Founded in 2006, Savanna Trust engages citizens through theatre and other art forms to advocate for their rights and transform communities. Over the past ten years, the organisation has trained more than 200 artists from Zimbabwe and the SADC region in various aspects of theatre and arts management. They have also produced award-winning plays that have been performed locally and across the SADC region. Savanna Trust were first supported with SDC finance in 2013, and went on to become one of the 10 Regional Mobility Partners selected for a three-year organisational support grant between 2018 and 2020. The key activities during this phase focused on contributing to a more connected and sustainable theatre arts sector in the region, which could in turn impact social, economic and cultural goals meaningfully and positively.
In 2013, Savanna Trust’s “Theatre Factory” aimed to enhance the capacity of Zimbabwean theatre practitioners in producing high-quality productions through training, mentoring, exchange and collaborations with leading South African practitioners and institutions. This project proved to be a turning point for the organisation, marking the first time Savanna Trust took productions outside Zimbabwean boarders. Significant partnerships with festivals in the region were also established, which future projects and activities by the organisation built upon.
“Almost ninety percent of the young people that have gone through the training programme have gone on to make an impact in their countries, either individually or with their organisations.”
After a four-year hiatus, SDC support of Savanna Trust resumed in 2017 with the initiation of the Southern Africa Theatre Camp (SATC). This project sought to enhance theatre making and performance skills and collaboration among young and mid-career theatre professionals from the southern African region. This would become an important project for Savanna Trust, held annually, and over the next four years significantly impacted the lives and careers of 45 young theatre practitioners.
Reflecting on the impact of the SATC, Savanna Trust Director Daniel Maposa says, “The project has enabled the organisation to be known throughout the Southern African region for its capacity to develop young talent and expose them to professional ways of engaging in the business of theatre. The skills that these young people have attained over the past years and the networks developed will forever be cherished and we are proud that we managed to link young people from different countries to work together and achieve their dreams. The doors that have been opened by this project for the many participants and others makes us proud that we have contributed to improved livelihoods for young creatives in the region. We are proud to see our alumni progressing in their work. Almost ninety percent of the young people that have gone through the training programme have gone on to make an impact in their countries, either individually or with their organisations.”
The framework for the SATC involved an intensive 10-day practical camp for the SADC participants, often coinciding with a festival. Savanna Trust selected facilitators who took the participants through a process of instruction in scriptwriting, theatre directing, acting and arts management, and then guided them to produce a performance using what they’d learnt.
The initial SACT included nine participants hailing from Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa and took place alongside the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA). This allowed the participants to network and watch shows, which were then used as case studies during the workshop. The participants were housed together, spent their free time together, and quickly developed enduring friendships. As one of the participants, Privilege Gwaba, said, “It is always a great experience to learn from youths from different countries, because theatre might not be the same in Zimbabwe as it is in another country. This was useful in learning different cultures.” Half of the participants had never undergone formal training in theatre making and management, and this immersive experience proved hugely impactful, as Sibusiso Khwinana said, “My writing and directing skills were enhanced in such a way that I now know how to construct a story in a proper way and I also learned about different stages of directing that I didn’t know about.”
The project spurred theatre organisations in three countries to work together. Savanna Trust partnered with Artists Legends and Legacy Projects of South Africa in designing and implementing the project, and Mahamba Theatre of Mozambique became the point organisation for the recruitment of participants from Mozambique.
The 2018 SATC brought together 10 emerging theatre makers this time from five countries: Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The group established networks with other performers from around the world at HIFA, which again ran concurrently with the theatre camp.
By this stage the SATC was well entrenched, and each year saw more participants joining from an expanded list of countries. The 2019 cohort of twelve participants came from six southern African countries, including Malawi for the first time. The workshop was facilitated by accomplished veterans in the field including Savanna Trust Director and Arts Management specialist, Daniel Maposa, Theatre Script writer, Leonard Matsa, and multi-award winning South African Theatre Director, Bongani Masango.
One of the participants, Kelvin Mulenga, was inspired to form a professional theatre organisation when he returned to Zambia, and subsequently produced a play that was performed at the Mitambo Theatre Festival in Harare.
Another participant, Sengwato Rampha, was so impressed by the level of training that he recommended the Savanna Trust to the board of the Botswana Association of Theatre Activists, who invited the organisation to train theatre makers in Botswana on Arts Management and Scriptwriting.
“I took so much from the camp,” Sengwato said, “I hardly know where to start. In Botswana, the Arts Management discipline is only practised by organisations that own auditoriums. It appeared out of reach to individuals and associations thus limiting them to becoming lobbyists and advocates. Cross pollination in and outside the camp has also forged lasting relationships, even at a personal level.’’
“The relationships that we have developed have become reliable networks in the region for collaborations and access to markets.”
Another significant activity for Savanna Trust in 2019 was the presentation of the feature-length play Ukama at the National Arts Festival (NAF) in Makhanda, South Africa. The play was written and produced by Bongani Masango during a directors’ residency at Savanna Trust the preceding year. This built upon and deepened existing relationships established through the SACT and Savanna Trust’s debut presence at the NAF in 2018 with the production Liberation, written by Leonard Matsa and directed by Bongani Masango.
Savanna Trust went on to win two awards for Ukama at the 18th National Arts Merit Awards – Outstanding Theatrical Production and Outstanding Male Actor for Teddy Mangawa. In addition to these accolades, the experience of presenting the play at NAF created opportunities for the organisation to network and publicise its work, and for the cast and crew to learn from watching other plays and meeting practitioners from the region and beyond.
Maposa recalls the impact of the tour: “The participation at the National Arts Festival exposed the organisation to trends and new ways of theatre that it infused in its work. The improvements in quality of the Savanna Trust productions, and the numerous theatre awards that it won during the period of support, are proof of the impact on the participants’ knowledge and skills.”
“The project has enabled the organisation to be known throughout the Southern African region for its capacity to develop young talent and expose them to professional ways of engaging in the business of theatre.”
Though the work of the organisation was understandably impacted by the pandemic in 2020, Savanna Trust was still able to implement its planned activities. The theatre camp went online, and 15 students were trained via remote sessions on scriptwriting, directing and arts management. For the first time female participants outnumbered men, and the number of countries increased again, to seven, including participants from Eswatini. Alongside this, Savanna Trust launched a new training programme, the “Write Zimbabwe Initiative” which combined a writer’s residence with a mentorship. This saw South African writer Katlego Chale develop a full-length script over three months as well as mentor seven young Zimbabwean writers to develop their own short scripts, which were then performed virtually through readings. Savanna Trust harnessed other virtual festival opportunities to reach online markets and presented three plays.
In 2021 the organisation initiated a project specifically focused on the use of digital technologies for theatrical presentations and distribution among theatre makers from West and Southern Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Alongside another edition of the SATC, this year also saw the launch of a playwrights masterclass specifically for women.
Tracing the activities and accomplishments of the SATC alumni provides a good insight into the impact of the training: Lorraine Moropa (2016) and Sthandile Nkosi (2019) from South Africa managed to scoop roles in several TV adverts and soapies, as did Augustine Lungu Jr (2018) from Zambia, who also produced an award-winning single-take short film. South African Katlego Chale, who sharpened his writing skills at the camp, wrote a full-length script while mentoring seven young writers. Maria Coutilda of Mozambique has directed two plays, Kelvin Mulenga of Zambia has directed a play that has been nominated at the Ngoma Awards (the prime national theatre awards in Zambia) while Sengwato Rampha of Botswana’s group won the national theatre competitions and Vanessa Chisakula of Zambia has won a Pan-African Poetry Award.
As the SATC project has matured over the years, Daniel Maposa says, “The relationships that we have developed have become reliable networks in the region for collaborations and access to markets. Savanna Trust now has a sustainable network of theatre makers from the region who are working together on various projects. The overwhelming majority of the young people that have gone through the programme have gone on to make an impact in their countries, using the skills they learnt during the camp in their careers to create new works, win awards and cement their names in the arts industry in southern Africa.”