During the performance we mute ourselves and hide the video. Lesego’s profile is the only one with audio. She cues the actors. We also listen to the voice notes and videos through her so the cast knows how long to wait before they move onto the next beat”. Faye Kabali-Kagwa talking about the The Shopping Dead – exciting and innovative WhatsApp theatre which is premiering at the vNAF – Virtual National Arts Festival 2020.

Cape Town based Faye Kabali-Kagwa has produced The Shopping Dead – an exciting and innovative WhatsApp play. I loved this WhatsApp play. It is quirky, zany and punches across issues around the pandemic and lockdown. Terrific fun to watch. Review is on TheCapeRobyn. Creative team and cast details in the review. Link: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/review-the-shopping-dead-whatsapp-theatre/ In this interview, the Ugandan born Kabali-Kagwa talks about the journey of taking theatre onto a digital platform.

TheCapeRobyn: The Shopping Dead was not submitted to the NAF – i.e. to stage it at what was supposed to be the physical festival. Can you talk about that process of creating the play?

Faye Kabali-Kagwa: The process was pretty quick and painless. NAF had put out a call for people to send them ideas for the digital version of NAF that they could submit through an online form. The due date was May 15 and they would review and be in contact with artists after submissions were made. The form itself didn’t ask for much detail beyond a 300 word description, accompanying photos, and a motivation. I’d been toying around with the idea for about a month and eventually Jefferson Tshabalala convinced me to apply.

TheCapeRobyn: How did you put the cast together? Have you worked together in the past?

Faye Kabali-Kagwa: I work primarily as an arts coordinator and administrator. Occasionally I write about the arts and culture context, but I haven’t really put work together in this way before.  The casting happened very fast. We haven’t had much time to breathe with this project. Ncumisa sent Lesego and I the script. It was important to Ncumisa that the cast was interracial. Ncumisa is based in Johannesburg. I had never worked with her before, but was intrigued by her writing sensibilities after watching her project for the Incubator 7 series developed by P.O.P Art. I had asked Ncumisa if there was anyone that she knew that she would like to work with for this project. She immediately said she’d love Chris Djuma to be on board. They’ve known each other for a long time and have a great working rapport.

With the rest of the cast Lesego and I were on the same page when it came to the casting of Tankiso Mamabolo, Kathleen Stephens, and Kiroshan Naidoo. They all have great comedic sensibilities, but are also able to find nuance and depth with the characters they portray. With Tankiso we were also drawn to the way that she uses Facebook to tell stories about her life through hilarious status updates. Kathleen has a knack for jokes that are a little bit of a slow burn. We wanted to play with that in the production. Not only is Kiroshan a versatile actor, but he enjoys playing around with other bits of content creation whether that be film or sound which made him an excellent addition.

I haven’t worked with any of the cast before. I think that Lesego may have, but I’m not sure. Chris and Kiroshan had met once at a casting. Chris is the only person in the cast who is based outside of Cape Town. Kiroshan, Tankiso, and Kathleen all studied together at UCT and have worked together on multiple projects.

TheCapeRobyn: I take it that you created this collectively – using WhatsApp? You could not gather in the same room?

Faye Kabali-Kagwa: I had always wanted a script to be the end result of our creation process. I think that having the show scripted takes away the novelty factor that improvised show sometimes have. I want the show to be able to be replicated and repeated.

I had spoken to Ncumisa about how she wanted the writing process to work – whether she wanted to co-create the piece with the cast or work on her own. She chose to work alone. This made the process a lot less ambiguous. We discussed the script over Zoom and then did the only thing we could do… put it on WhatsApp.

Zoom has been our primary mode of communication for meetings, rehearsals, and the like. Although WhatsApp is our primary medium, I think that if we only communicated via WhatsApp we’d be feeling very disconnected. Zoom has been great in order to foster a sense of community and camaraderie. For example before the show we jump on a Zoom call and have a chat. During the performance we mute ourselves and hide the video. Lesego’s profile is the only one with audio. She cues the actors. We also listen to the voice notes and videos through her so the cast knows how long to wait before they move onto the next beat.

TheCapeRobyn: You conceptualised this theatrical project. It takes place where many people are most active – on their phones?

Faye Kabali-Kagwa: I was very aware when COVID-19 hit that for many artists shooting, recording, and streaming work would be very difficult for a number of reasons. Data is expensive and internet connectivity that is not easy to control or predict. Recording quality work requires good quality video-recording equipment, often extra lighting, and potentially editing equipment. That’s investment into assets that many artists couldn’t afford after having their incomes dry up right before their eyes. I believe that this could be a model that had fewer accessibility issues for artists while still being dynamic enough to create innovative and engaging work.   

TheCapeRobyn: This is your first project as a producer, but you worked as a project coordinator on international and local theatre festivals, such as NAF and Cradle of Creativity and with ASSITEJ South Africa. It is a very different kind of “show” to put together. Never mind the pandemic, do you envisage that going forward, this could be a vital platform for performance?

Faye Kabali-Kagwa: My vision for this project is that it can be replicated and reworked to have all kinds of conversations. I think it could be used to create content that is targeted at teenagers. I had a teenage family friend watch the preview and he was very invested in the story. He described it back to me in vivid detail which was great. I also think that this kind of model may allow for us to discuss sensitive issues such as mental health, abuse, and addiction. It is such an intimate form of storytelling that may allow audiences to feel more deeply without the pressure of fellow audience members.

“Watch this space. I don’t think this is the last time you’ll hear about WhatsApp theatre.”

The Shopping Dead – a WhatsApp play which is premiering at the vNAF – Virtual National Arts Festival 2020. I loved The Shopping Dead. My review is on TheCapeRobyn. Link: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/review-the-shopping-dead-whatsapp-theatre/

The Shopping Dead is on at the Virtual National Arts Festival 2020. Review link: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/review-the-shopping-dead-whatsapp-theatre/

Image credit. Photo supplied.