DEVELOPMENTAL: Khanyiswa Mazwi, Aphiwe Livi and Luleka Ngcenge in The Playroom.

In just two years the Zabalaza Theatre Festival has exploded from a newly revamped festival of 12 community projects presented on a professional stage into a year-long process that has helped to develop more than 30 productions to be performed over three weeks next month.

This past year more than 250 community groups were visited and auditioned by the Zabalaza field workers to source work for the six popular mini-festivals in Robertson, Kraaifontein, Khayelitsha, Delft and Nyanga (they hosted two) last month.

The best of these works were selected by theatre personalities and award-winning actors Faniswa Yisa, Mbulelo Grootboom and Thando Doni for this festival.

Over the past two weeks participants have been taking part in workshops presented by experts in the fields of arts administration and budgeting, marketing and media, acting, physical theatre, directing, scriptwriting, funding and stage management, all in the name of furthering the craft.

Hence this year’s festival will see 15 productions on the main programme run over the first two weeks at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio and the Masambe Theatre, while the fringe programme of 13 productions runs on weekends for groups that contain high school pupils.

With this, the Masambe Theatre makes good on the Baxter Theatre’s promise two years ago to establish a space for Xhosa theatre works to be performed.

Zabalaza co-ordinator Zoleka Helesi has spent the past two years building relationships with schools to encourage pupils to attend the festival, but it is at the instigation of workshop participants that the festival has brought more school theatre groups into the mix.

“Some of them have theatre groups, but they also help out at schools. We give them notes and they go and try it out at the schools,” explained Mandisi Sindo, who presents the Zabalaza workshop on acting in addition to scouting the community groups on the acting level.

The way community theatre groups also incorporate hip hop dance and music into their work explains why the festival’s third week now concentrates on poetry, hip hop and music theatre.

The Words and Beats hip hop performances, presented by The Creative Database, will feature a host of artists from around Cape Town, while the Naked Slam Poetry line-up by Poetry Movement Lingua Franca features local poets.

Cape Town Opera has teamed up with Nyanga-based theatre group Siyaya to create new short music theatre works based on South African stories and they will be premiering two new 30-minute pieces. The Legend of Nomkhubulwane and Nkosazana will be performed at the Golden Arrow Theatre from March 20 to 22.

Zabalaza artistic director Thami Mbongo said the greater represen-tation of English on this year’s programme when compared to previous festivals was not asked for, it just happened organically.

Themes have broadened from inward looking questions of self-expression, and the effect of violence on the individual, to more universal issues of disability, coming of age, relationships and that great leveller of society, comedy.

In addition to interest from community theatre groups across the country, Mbongo has started networking with other theatre festivals.

He will travel to KKNK this year to help them establish a better link with Oudtshoorn community theatre groups to bring the amateur productions into that particular fold.

Speaking at the festival launch last week, Baxter chief executive and artistic director Lara Foot said the first two years were about growing the trust between the Baxter and community artists, but the next three years would be about scholarship and refinement.

She pointed out that funding and staffing was limited because neither the project nor the Baxter received government funding, which curtailed how many groups could be accommodated.

However, she’s already noticed that the directing workshops she was involved with last year have moved on from discussing the basic elements of the craft to complex debates around symbolism, framing and referencing local and global themes and motifs.

The festival culminates in an awards ceremony on March 22 to recognise outstanding contributions made by participants.

• The Zabalaza Theatre Festival will run from Monday to March 23. Tickets are R25 throughout. Book through Computicket.

• 10am, noon and 1.30pm slots are dedicated to schools and double shows costs R35 a person, including transport. For details about school block bookings call Zoleka Helesi at 021 680 3980.