Over the years, “community” has become a dirty word in theatre.

Many people are under the impression that community theatre offers subpar drama, comedy and other performance art. But the annual Zabalaza Theatre Festival seeks to dispel that myth and show that great theatre is thriving in communities and surrounding areas in Cape Town .

Scheduled to take place at the Baxter Theatre for the second time in a row since it launched last year, the festival has decided to go big.

In addition to 14 original productions making their mainstream debut at the festival, for the first time since its inception, the event will include a fringe programme. All in all, 22 productions – performed in Xhosa, English and Afrikaans – will be showcased.

“Our worry was: were we going to get any new groups (to participate?),” shared Bongile Mantsai, who takes care of Zabalaza’s PR and finance department.

He continued: “But the number of applicants this year was times two! It was multiplied, meaning more people were interested in the festival.”

In the past, the festival consisted mainly of plays delivered in Xhosa and small bits of English.

However, “we had visited Khayelitsha and Delft… but there was also interest to participate from outside areas such as Knysna, Helderberg and George,” said Mantsai.

So, in preparation for the festival, the organisers held mini-festivals in and around the Western Cape, scouting for new talent to bring to the main festival.

The result is the inclusion of the plays Die Grot Van My Voorvaders (presented by Rising Sun Theatre), Ghost House (Abahlobo Productions), Inja ka Vuyo (Isibane/Unima uses life-size puppets here), Tik Tot Jy Hik (S.H.Y Entertainers), 60km to Death (Ilitha Productions) and more. While most of the work is created, directed and performed by semi-professional to professional theatre practitioners, there are some plays that came from schools. Swartland High School’s Mal Genoeg, for instance, takes a humorous look at patients taking over their psychiatric hospital.

The plays that are presented by schools will fill up the fringe programme and will be performed in the Baxter’s newly renovated intimate theatre, the Masambe Theatre.

As Zabalaza’s artistic director, Thami Mbongo, put it: “Some of the participants are school pupils and there are also a lot of pro- fessional actors who aren’t working, so we saw the need to have a fringe programme. We’re really happy, though, because most of the Zabalaza participants of the past are now studying through the Magnet Theatre, or UCT. We want to open more doors. We don’t want it to just end here,” said Mbongo.

That’s why the Zabalaza organisers are thrilled that Khayalethu Anthony, who took part in last year’s festival, landed a starring role in Solomon and Marion alongside Dame Janet Suzman and has been nominated for a Fleur du Cap award. In addition to that, Uhlazo, the play that scooped the Best of the Festival honours last year, was able to secure funding and embark on a community tour.

Once the festival is over, the Best of the Festival always has a short run at the Baxter Theatre and this year will be no different.

The organisers have one request, though. Festival co-ordinator Zoleka Helesi, said: “We want the audience who regularly watches plays at the Baxter Theatre to come and watch what’s in the Zabalaza Festival because it’s not like it’s just ‘community’ work, it’s semi-professional work.”

Mbongo picked up: “We don’t want people to think of it as a black festival, or a festival for those who are disadvantaged. You’re not coming to see a play that isn’t well made. You’ll be surprised at the standard. Some of these young directors have skills that need to be noticed. People mustn’t sit at home and say: ‘Oh, it’s just kids playing.’”

The festival won’t only feature new plays, though.

Tsepo wa Mamatu’s Thabo Mbeki and Other Nightmares will be the special guest production, while the Sibikwa Indigenous African Orchestra will entertain in the foyer and Yvonne Chaka Chaka will open the festival.

Seems that the whole community should come out for this.

• Zabalaza Theatre Festival, Golden Arrow Studio, inside the Baxter Theatre, Saturday to March 31. Tickets: R25 at Computicket or 021 680 3980.