A story is never static. It gets subtly or dramatically reformed with each telling and shaped by different interpretations and translations. The same is true with adaptations from one medium to another. Even when the goal is a sense of fidelity to the original, adaptation is a creative, generative process and when this takes place collaboratively and openly, it can prove an exceptionally productive artistic journey.
The Novel-Script Project by Twist Theatre Development Projects, an organisation focusing on the development of community theatre groups in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, harnessed the creative links between literature and performance. The project brought together a selection of theatre writers from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and the Netherlands under the mentorship of performing arts experts from the region for an intensive writers’ residency to develop a series of dialogues inspired by a specific novel.
Initiated in 2009 as a partnership between the National Arts Festival and Twist Projects, the Novel-Script Project aimed to build the skills of mid-career theatre writers and provide a platform for the writers to publicly show their work and build their profile. From 2013 to 2016, the participation of writers and partners from the region was supported by ANT Mobility grants. During this period Savannah Trust from Zimbabwe, and Mahambe Theatre from Mozambique were important partners that participated in this annual exchange during the National Arts Festival.
In 2013 six writers, three directors, and seven actors travelled to Makhanda (then Grahamstown) for a workshop facilitated by the acclaimed South African writer, poet and dramaturge, Kobus Moolman. The starting point for the project was the novel The Miracle of Crocodile Flats by South African author Jenny Hobbs. Writers were sent the novel a month before the project started, and were asked to create a short, ten-minute script inspired by or based on the novel.
“Adaptation is a specialised skill. There are a lot of great stories in Zimbabwe in the form of novels and short stories and these could bring in new audiences to the theatre if adapted well.”
The potential of the project was apparent from the first workshop. One of the participants, Zimbabwean playwright Raisedon Baya, said: “My eyes were opened wide. Adaptation is a specialised skill. There are a lot of great stories in Zimbabwe in the form of novels and short stories and these could bring in new audiences to the theatre if adapted well.”
The workshop process included directors working with the actors, who read the scripts aloud to the writers. These readings were then discussed by the group, and the process of discussion led to final scripts being developed, which then formed the basis of public performances.
From the start the workshop process proved extremely effective in encouraging active engagement of the writers from all three countries, and in building relationships between the Zimbabwean writers and director, and South African actors.
“We have developed a consciousness around collaborating in the region.”
Emma Durden, Twist’s Director, describes the lasting impact of the relationships that were formed through the project, and the evolving attitude towards collaboration in the region: “We have developed a consciousness around collaborating in the region. This has allowed us to share ideas and resources, and to leverage other funding opportunities. These relationships are ongoing and really do make us proud.”
The 2014 version of the Novel-Script Project resulted in the development of a new script of the novel Sleepwalking Land, by Mozambican writer Mia Couto, which was, according to Durden, “one of our proudest achievements.” The adaptation by Kobus Moolman was selected for the main programme of the South African National Arts Festival (NAF) in 2016.
In 2015 the production of “The Zulu Crush Dialogues” was based on the novel Zulu Crush by Roel Twijnstra. The production was accepted for the Think Fest programme at the NAF, and five writers, three directors and four actors travelled to Makhanda to take part.
The starting point for the 2016 project was the novel We Need New Names by acclaimed Zimbabwean author Noviolet Bulawayo. The group of writers included young new voices from South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their scenes were brought to life on stage and played by a team of directors and actors from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Performances again took place in the Think Fest programme at the NAF, prior to which a week-long workshop was held.
“We have been able to connect writers and directors from different countries, and this has resulted in a number of collaborations that have been sparked by the work with Novel-Script Project.”
Over the course of the NAF each year, meetings between the South African, Netherland and Zimbabwean participants and representatives from South African and international arts and culture organisations were facilitated. A cursory review of some of the relationships, projects and collaborative activities that arose from the 2015 production is indicative of the productivity of the connections that were made in each year of the project:
- The Zimbabwean writer engaged with Savanna Trust (a Zimbabwean organisation also supported by the SDC) to develop a full-length play from the scene developed as part of the workshop, and with a South African writer about a collaborative new work for the future.
- One of the South African writers planned to develop a new full-length play based on the scene she created for the workshop, and another was approached by an audience member and asked to assist with the development of a new work.
- The Musho! Festival in South Africa expressed interest in programming works by the Zimbabwean and Dutch writers, and both Twist Projects and Savanna Trust were approached by Afrovibes in the Netherlands to assist in scouting for work from Africa.
Durden commented on the productive nature of the relationships formed, saying, “We would not have started on the journey of producing this work without the initial support from the SDC that allowed us to build strong relationships with our partners in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. We have been able to connect writers and directors from different countries, and this has resulted in a number of collaborations that have been sparked by the work with Novel-Script Project, and have continued beyond this. It’s always surprising when we find that artists are still collaborating on new creative projects years later, independently of the organisation’s involvement!”