The Virtual Creative: global collaboration during Covid-19

“Theatre is a tool, to not only entertain but can be used as a healing medium. Creativity in all its forms and shapes can be cathartic not only for the actors, singers and writers but also those who watch our work. So I may not have the cure to Corona but I believe I have the formula to hope. We all need hope. We all need creativity in a time of Corona.”

The show must go on is a popular adage in live performance. In South Africa, theatre makers have soldiered on in the wake of water shortages and more recently a roll –out of scheduled electricity outages as the country does not have enough power. No worries- we light candles- generator on and the curtain goes up. With the onslaught of Covid-19, theatres have gone dark. The show cannot go on. For creatives, the outcome is financially devastating. Most are freelance and have scant back up contingency funds or plans in place. Creatives like Cassandra Tendai Mapanda are ensuring that the show does go on –albeit virtually. Mapanda (24) who is Cape Town based and her colleague Mphumzi Nontshinga (also 24) who is Joburg based have established The Virtual Creative. Read on to see what they are offering.

Just over a year ago [February 2019], Mapanda was giving a knock-out performance in Richard III as Queen Elizabeth. That gig garnered her a Fleur du Cap nomination as best supporting actress. Things were looking good for Mapanda who has drama degree from UCT [University of Cape Town]. The Zimbabwean born creative had already distinguished herself while studying – when she picked up her first FDC nomination for best student.

Mapanda’s Virtual Creative partner, Mphumzi Nontshinga also received a FDC nomination, while studying at UCT. They were primed to dive into their careers as theatre professionals. The year 2020 started on a sour note for the arts. Maynardville Open Air Festival in Cape Town was cancelled- due to lack of funding. Several other arts events were cancelled. Then Covid-19 crept up on us. Last Sunday night [March 22], the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards ceremony was cancelled. All that disappointment pales in relation to the pandemic – that people are getting sick and dying. But here we have the arts community, which has been effectively shut down by the pandemic and the lockdown – which we know is totally necessary – and the show is going on.

TheCapeRobyn: A year ago – there you were at Maynardville and here a year later – lockdown – no awards ceremony –no work?

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda: I have definitely felt the hit. When I look back to last year at this time, things were looking a lot brighter. I had just graduated and Richard III was my very first professional show. It was a thrilling and exciting experience. I learnt so much from so many people- myy mentor Geoffrey Hyland and my co-actors Lee Ann Van Rooi and Alan Committie. Fast forward to 2020, I feel like it has been a complete contradiction. As you say Maynardville got cancelled, and I LIIIIIIVE for Shakespeare, so a chance at that would have been great. But even had I not got a role merely watching it would have been, as always, a dream. Secondly, season this year has been slow. I am a voice- over artist and am always busy with that but theatre is my passion and castings and auditions have been scarce. So, in all honesty 2020 started off bleak for me. And then lo and behold this Corona crisis swoops in and it’s heart-breaking.

I am from Zimbabwe a 3rd world country and seeing how its hit South Africa terrifies me. I cannot begin to fathom how desperate and afraid people are back home [in Zimbabwe]. In a way that makes me feel helpless: How it’s affecting artists everywhere, my friends.  It is just awful. Lockdown means no auditions, no castings, no shoots, no voice-overs -nothing. Many may be feeling it means no hope.

TheCapeRobyn: You have partnered with Mphumzi Nontshinga to get this start up going. I see that Mphumzi was in Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s brilliant play, Sainthood.

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda: Mphumzi thanks you for that compliment. Sainthood is very dear to him and it’s a work he took part in devising so I reckon he deserves to be extremely proud of it. Mphumzi and I met at UCT. We were in the same class. We were good friends and were lucky to be co-leads in our graduation production Yerma [2018, directed by Geoffrey Hyland] which solidified our respect for one another as artists.

We haven’t seen each other in the flesh since very early last year. I am in Cape Town and he is in Joburg.

TheCapeRobyn: Are you working on The Virtual Creative via skype, zoom etc?

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda: We communicate via what’s app voice notes and Instagram video calls. Currently our main platform is on Instagram. We have page there where we engage with fellow creatives or interested followers. We also post contributions in the form of videos on our IGTV (Instagram Television). We also have a WhatsApp group where actors and writers share resources and assist each other.

However I have not met most of the other people involved in The Virtual Creative,. Some collaborators are in Germany, lol.  Many of the posts on our page are contributions from creatives we have never met and are new connections.

TheCapeRobyn: You say that you realised that there are “gaps between actors and writers that could be filled with endless possibilities and work needed to be done.” What do you envisage for The Virtual Creative?

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda:  Personally I have always believed that the connection or rather the way art or theatre has been made over the years has been one way: Writer writes. Producer picks writers work. Producer picks director. Director + producer pick actors = art is made 

This method works, I will give it that. But I have always felt a lack of agency as an actor, as if my destiny was in the hands of others and I had to just leave it to fate. I had to wait to be “chosen” or deemed worthy to be picked. Moreover there are times I have felt I had an idea but if only I could pitch it to the right writer or producer, if only I could get that chance. But my practical side would remind me that that is not how the system works. “Wait for your agent to call you Cass” aka “wait to be picked”. But I think as actors as all creatives we deserve to try pave our own destiny. We deserve to try make our own opportunities and believe in one another. And to create safe spaces for work to be created and put “out there”.  It’s a big dream I know, and I am still trying to make sense of it myself but I think a lot of people share that vision and it is evident by the follows and participants thus far. We have 451 followers in three days; 18 actors and 2 writers on the WhatsApp group so far. It’s been an overwhelming, positive response. The examples are evident on our page and as of now actors are currently rehearsing in their homes and discovering and rediscovering ways of working. I’m currently directing, well trying to direct lol, a few actors via video call and helping them along. It’s a lot of learning but that’s what I enjoy and why I love acting. You are constantly learning new ways of being and doing. Be it stylistically in your performance or by trying to work with a director on a video call. Or by self-directing. The possibilities are endless. With the way technology is going, I think our initiative can not only extend into real life after the lockdown but will also expand onto other virtual platforms and after lockdown into physical spaces. Art must be archived. Be it theatre, dance, music or art.

TheCapeRobyn: For now, it is about generating the work and less about monetising but it would be great to monetize. Any thoughts on that?

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda: EEK I am really not trying to think about that right now. For some reason I just want to focus on reach and impact. One day if money comes with it then so be it. That’s why I have not put out any ads for monetary contributions. Instagram is free and currently all I have is FREE time, lol and everyone is currently going through money problems so I don’t want that getting in the way. For now we remain non-profit. All we ask for is contributions in the form of wholesome content and for those who are at the top of the food chain in the industry to take a glance at us, that’s all we ask. Just a glance. We are trying to create our own chances and take agency. 

TheCapeRobyn: You are from Zim and came to Cape Town in order to study at UCT?  Please tell us a bit about yourself?

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda: Yes I came to study and I have stayed to work. Zimbabwe’s theatre scene is dull, I hope one day I can return and somehow rebuild it. But back home people honestly cannot afford to watch plays. They can barely afford to live. The economy there is very bad.

Bless them, my family has always been super supportive. They entertained all my theatrics and loved my singing and reading aloud and watched all my plays. But they are not theatre inclined. Mom and Dad are at home in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe as we speak. My parents are doctors, general practitioners. My sister is a lawyer and my brother is an equity trader.

Things are very bad in Zim. First person to get it, died. It’s terrible, nurses are striking because there are no health supplies. Lockdown has been installed but it’s a myth because literally no one is in lockdown. My cousins have been texting me about it and honestly its looking bad – worse than South Africa. God help us.

TheCapeRobyn: Going forward, any thoughts on monetizing live performance? I think of the NT Theatre Live – it films its productions and these are then screened around the world. That creates a revenue stream but it is not cheap to activate

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda: Yes you are very right it is not cheap. I think I would honestly want to try do something like that at some stage. I doubt all artists will want to keep contributing or working with me if there’s no money in it. Rent needs to be paid. God knows mine does lol, so yes. If I get the right people to work with and do more research into it. Yes live streaming theatre would be wonderful. Not everyone has access to the theatre. You speak of Richard III, my parents couldn’t even come watch that. They couldn’t afford to at that time. And as actors our families could be everywhere and anywhere. Viva Live streaming!!

TheCapeRobyn: It is a great pity that our theatre is not going global. Broadcast versions of plays would get plays like Sainthood out into the global arts. Thoughts on that?

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda: It truly is a pity. Because plays like Sainthood NEED to be seen by the youth of today, but sadly most of them are online or not keen on conventional theatres. So yes live streaming of such relevant work like that is NOT reaching the people it needs to. Maybe combining live theatre and virtual-live theatre is the future. Perhaps this could work.

We are hoping that maybe if we grow our platform we may get noticed and excerpts of the play could be showcased. We do want the work to be archived and live streamed but alas – funding is the issue. Getting funding and even setting up a simple meeting is so difficult. 

TheCapeRobyn: The Virtual Creative will hopefully trigger interest, donors from abroad?

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda: I would be overjoyed because then our initiative could reeeally thrive and we can really make a change and try shake up the system. People deserve a chance .There are talented passionate people out there who work soooo hard but are not getting noticed…I see it as social injustice to be honest. So I am doing my little part currently to stop it.

I am not a doctor. I am not a nurse. But yes I do think I am a healer. Theatre is a tool, to not only entertain but can be used as a healing medium. Creativity in all its forms and shapes can be cathartic not only for the actors, singers and writers but also those who watch our work. So I may not have the cure to Corona but I believe I have the formula to hope. We all need hope. We all need creativity in a time of Corona.

Image credit: Photo of Cassandra Tendai Mapanda- supplied

Arts advisory: The Virtual Creative


Instagram: @the_virtualcreative   

Cassandra Tendai Mapanda IG @cassiepammzy 

Mphumzi Nontshinga IG  @mphumzi_nontshinga

Donate to The Virtual Creative- at this stage for Instagram advertising 

Bank: FNB

Account name: Cassandra Mapanda

Account number: 62748479434

Branch code: 250655

Reference name when making deposit: “The virtual creative funds”