By Leroy Dzenga
Harare – It has been a long year for comedians and theatre practitioners in Zimbabwe, since March 2020 they have not been able to perform publicly.
For every single theatre or comedy show on digital platforms, there have been at least ten music shows or more.
Observers fear that the return of these two genres could be complicated when the world eventually reopens.
However, those who are active in the industries are upbeat about the future, saying times are difficult but if they survive the current dry spell, they can weather anything.
Victor Mpofu (Doc Vikela) co-founder of Simuka Comedy, a content creation company working with young comedians, explained the dynamics involved in making money with humour in Zimbabwe.
“COVID-19 brought a culture shock, we used to perform before crowds and by extension we would get bookings at corporate functions and at weddings.
Per month you would get four or five shows, the shows themselves were not too rewarding financially, but they connected us with prospective clients who paid well,” said Doc Vikela.
The new age of comedians blew up outside traditional media, they used social networks to gain notoriety, but somehow, using the new media platforms in times of need proved to be difficult.
“We had been trying to push an online onslaught with vines and skits, when COVID-19 happened, most comics switched over to pushing content online exclusively. It worked for some, but others struggled.
There were some who wanted to create content but did not have equipment to film or data to upload the work online,” explained Doc Vikela.
For those who managed to gain traction online, there were questions of viability.
According to Doc Vikela, though some did very well in growing their audiences, the conversion of those numbers into revenue could not compare to the yesteryear pickings, before the pandemic.
“With the resumption of the lockdown, it got to a point where people were confused about how to survive. With the digital skits, there were two things involved, brands would reach out for online activation or comedians would upload their videos on YouTube, it became an element of survival. Some got their money from Youtube revenue, but this worked for those who had ready audiences while those who did not have the numbers struggled a bit,” he said.
It appeared going digital worked for well established brands, like Naiza Boom comedy group and Bustop TV, who both received plaques from Youtube for reaching 100 000 subscribers on the platform.
However, upcoming names did not have the same fortunes.
Fears are, some will not return to comedy as there are chances they could have found other ways to survive, however Doc Vikela –who has been ensuring that they share whatever they earn with other comics under his stable- believes that lockdown could have provided a chance for comedians to come up with new material.
“I believe a number of comedians will return to the fore once performances resume because it is not like they had anywhere to go during the lockdown,” he said.
Theatre has not been spared, out of all theatre companies in Zimbabwe only one production house Patsime Trust, led by veteran actor and playwright Jasen Mphepo have been producing shows online.
Others appeared to be waiting for the dust to settle, before they could consider dancing again.
Speaking to The Southern Times Arts, Mphepo – whose Jasen Mphepo Little Theatre has been in existence longer under lockdown than in normal times – said theatre being an experience based art, COVID-19 muddied the waters for him and his colleagues.
“We rely on face to face engagements and pull big numbers of people. This has been our biggest setback as a sector seeing as the necessary lockdown was meant to reduce contact thus forcing us to stop all operations as were deemed non-essential workers,” said Mphepo.
Up to now, although churches are now allowed to operate, theatre and performances arts remain banned.
This has brought a threat of extinction for theatre groups, those who have remained visible have been allowed to transfer the art to other platforms.
“Patsime has had its own share of showcasing on online platforms during the COVID era. We have used YouTube, Facebook including WhatsApp, television and radio to engage with audiences,” said Mphepo.
He reckons that as the world opens up, there is a need for financial support for the arts sector as some have taken hard knocks.
The long-standing debate has always been, is there an arts industry in Zimbabwe? Answers to those questions have remained elusive, but indications from both sectors there will be a need for rescue funding if things are to go back to normal.