Playwright and performance artist Slindile Mthembu explores theatre in the ‘third space’

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Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were vital conversations about how theatre could evolve. These were backed up by investigations into site-specific work, for example Clara Vaughn’s experimental theatre piece DIVING. Set at a school swimming pool, it explores people’s experiences regarding decisions, danger and transformation. There was also the cultivation of secondary ideas driven by the exploration of multi-disciplinary art started by William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea

Playwright and performance artist Slindile Mthembu continues these investigations and conversations with work that is concerned with the survival and evolution of theatre in a post-pandemic environment. 

Mthembu’s Old Soul Waiting is an experimental, multi-disciplinary production that sees the artistic collision of film, theatre and visual art. It explores how an ancestral calling can be misdiagnosed as mental illness. With its non-linear storytelling, infused with music and an interpretive physical language, the piece attempts to show what a spiritual awakening might look like from Western and spiritual perspectives. The audience is introduced to this through the memory of the protagonist.

Old Soul Waiting won the 2021 Silver Standard Bank Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival (NAF). It was the most watched show on NAF’s fringe programme last year. The production recently returned for a curated screening at independent cinema The Bioscope at 44 Stanley, in Johannesburg, and at the city’s Red Hill Festival. 

Mthembu’s plan is to deconstruct the work, extracting its elements as stylised performances in non-theatre spaces. These sites — which range from cinemas and galleries to restaurants — are what she terms the “third space”.

“What we hope to do is to hybridise the performances. And I want the audiences to feel like they’re walking through a maze of the main character’s mind,” she says. 

“The artworks in the show help to articulate what can’t be verbalised — but they can stand alone. We plan to showcase these at a gallery, complemented by performance art to bring essences of the story through. 

“I’m also going to be taking the work into a restaurant where I’ll be reading to an audience or doing a performance reading of Old Soul Waiting. The spaces we’re in talks with include the Stevenson art gallery, Mangrove Cafe and 99 Juta, which is a design-focused space hosting various events and exhibitions in Braamfontein,” Mthembu says.   

She will also bring her first production as a writer-director Milked Voice to the cinema, carrying on a trend that was amplified by the pandemic. The virtual NAF, which took place online, showed how film carried theatre on its back in 2020. Although the increase in filming of theatre productions might be a byproduct of the pandemic, the practice is not new. Mthembu has always been attuned to filming her work. 

“This has a lot to do with having started my artistic studies at AFDA, before getting into musical theatre and subsequently doing my master’s degree at Wits. It gave me the affinity and foundation to collaborate with other artists, ranging from film-makers and musicians to visual artists. This has remained a thread in all my work and it is why I call myself a multi-hyphenated artist.” 

She believes filming her work and adapting theatre for the screen is a way of preserving and archiving it for posterity.

“Filming my work has been a game-changer for me. Through that I have forged collaborations with NAF and Standard Bank Arts that help sustain me as an independent artist. 

“Filming my work has allowed me to connect with my audience on the ground and grow with the masses. It has allowed me to extend my voice beyond the stage. And, most importantly, it allows me to document my processes and archive my work as reference, especially as an unpublished black woman playwright. Our work is not documented and archived enough,” Mthembu says.

Her creative process starts from the body, which informs the physicality of her work and its conceptual, sometimes abstract, nature. Thematically, she draws from the experiences of black women, including her own.

With Milked Voice, which won a Standard Bank Ovation Award at NAF in 2016, she highlights the exploitation of artists with the voices and struggles of women amplified in the narrative. The allure of the piece is in its imagery and how jazz music is a thread which pieces the story together. The show had successful runs at local theatres, including a school tour. 

In 2018 Mthembu wrote her second play, Igama? as her master’s production. Her research paper, which laid the foundation for the play, focused on black women playwrights and how their work uses a non-linear approach to reflect their lived experiences. 

“With Igama?, I use the theory of intersectionality [race, class and gender] as a framework to explain the ways that systems of power, such as white supremacist beliefs, post-colonial implication and the politics of language erode the experiences of women through a perpetual and systematic oppression.

“Thus, the themes that are explored within the play experiment with fragmented memories of black women, which move backwards and forwards,” Mthembu says.

Igama? was later deconstructed and distilled into a three-minute performance piece included in The Centre for the Less Good Idea’s A Considered 3 Minutes series. This staging is called Re-membering and, in it, Mthembu is seen dramatising a memory of oppression in a poignant performance. A video of Re-membering is available on The Centre for the Less Good Idea’s website. 

Mthembu’s passion to explore and bring her work to “the third space” is driven by a hunger for the survival of her art. 

“I can’t stop myself from telling stories. I speak through storytelling and I know how valuable theatre is. But now that we’re back to 100% capacity with audiences going back to theatre spaces, the struggle to get our work into theatres is still there. To get closer to the audience, I must explore and work with other mediums to fight for my voice, so that my work can live.” 

Keep tabs on Mthembu’s social media platforms for news on upcoming iterations and hybridised performances of Old Soul Waiting and other works in Johannesburg

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