Celebrated South African playwright, director and producer, Mokgoro Ntshieng, is hoping to bring the magic of theatre a little closer to home by inspiring women to play a major role in performance art.
Alexandra township, in Johannesburg, Gauteng.Already established in performance art, Ntshieng has founded her own women’s theatre, Olive Tree Theatre Productions, in
Ntshieng has received a number of awards in recognition of her involvement and contribution to local theatre; these include the Standard Bank Young Artist award and the Standard Bank Best Youth Production award in 2009, for productions such as Umdlwembe, Veil of Tears and Thursday’s Child.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH THEATRE
After she completed matric Ntshieng worked, in 2001, as an assistant librarian at a local library. She read stories to the children of her community.
It was during these reading sessions that she conceived the idea to dramatise the stories the children loved. She organised young people in her community and soon began staging performances in local churches and school halls. She was just 20 years’ old.
She moved on to holding training sessions for youngsters at the Thusong Youth Centre on 12th Avenue in Alexandra. She was then offered a job in 2007 at the Sibikwa Arts Centre and had to produce an original theatre production.
She named the production Olive Tree, the inspiration for her organisation’s title.
Without any formal training, this self-taught, ambitious woman began working her way to the forefront of South African theatre. She’s been involved in productions staged at some of South Africa’s most noteworthy theatres, including the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg, and the Joburg Theatre.
CHALLENGES FACING WOMEN IN THEATRE
Ntshieng says that one of the biggest challenges she faced while trying to break into the male-dominated world of theatre production was dealing with men who battled with the changes in gender roles.
She highlighted the lack of high profile female directors and producers in the country and strongly believes that this is one of the biggest problems in the field. “There isn’t enough focus being put on female directors in South Africa. I have been all over the country watching and participating in theatre productions and I have seen so much raw, beautiful and sometimes professional work by black female directors who can’t break into the industry because they can’t access the right platforms.
“These young women who have so much to offer become demoralised by their lack of recognition and get tired and end up channelling their energy into other things.”
Ntshieng emphasises the need to provide platforms for up-and-coming talent as well as prepare them for the challenges that they’ll face as black female directors in the industry.
She says she looks to women like Warona Seane, the new artistic manager at the Soweto Theatre, and Annabell Sebethe, Market Theatre CEO, for inspiration when the yoke gets a little heavy.
ROOM TO GROW
Having recently acquired a space on the outskirts of Alexandra near the Pan African Shopping Centre, Ntshieng has already pictured what she intends to do with it.
“I want it to be something that the people of this township can talk about with pride and smile at the thought of it being something that they can call their own, for its people by its people,” she said as she walked through the bare space.
“We are barely 2 km from Sandton; we’re talking people who go to theatres every now and then. I’m hoping that this beautiful space will attract people from outside of Alexandra, whose conferences I attend and whose work I go and see, to come into Alexandra and experience the vibe and professional work that is being done here in Alexandra.”
“One of my biggest dreams is to tell the stories of black people living in the townships as seen through their eyes and build a culture of theatre going within the townships where there is so much talent and potential,” says Ntshieng.
However her joy is tempered by apprehension that turning the space into the beautiful venue she has envisioned will require major investment. She says funding for the project has been very hard to come, having being turned down by a number of prospective investors.
Ntshieng has also had problems finding funding for a theatre festival she has planned for later this year. She hopes to have the event in her new space but admits that this may not be possible due to the lack of infrastructure. It may have to be held in a hall at the National School of Arts in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
PASSION FOR EMPOWERMENT
Ntshieng’s passion for theatre is evident in how she speaks about why she works so hard for development in the field.
“I do what I do because I love it, because I’m passionate about it and because I want to tell these stories. For me theatre is more like a calling than a job because sometimes I feel that it’s not me who finds these stories to tell but it’s the stories that find me instead.”
Armed with an iron will and an unshakable determination to bring women to the forefront of the industry, Ntshieng says she will not rest until passionate women become a major part of the driving force behind South African theatre and performance art.