Innovation occurs happen when people dream the impossible or dare to challenge the norm.
At the heat of the pandemic last year, Arts Writer and Cultural Producer, Faye Kabali-Kagwa stumbled upon a 2017 WhatsApp production Uk’Shona Kwelanga by a South African company Sanlam. Uk’Shona Kwelanga, using texts, emoji’s, GIFs, pictures and videos had its ‘muted’ audience follow in real-time, a family’s preparation of the funeral of a loved one over the next seven days, successfully intimating South Africans how complicated and drama-filled funerals are.
Motivated by a 2019 Pew Research findings which showed WhatsApp as the most used platform for communication amongst South Africans, Kabali-Kabwa was convinced that the platform is the easiest platform to making mobiplays accessible to a larger population of the country.
Determined to prove the platform will work for theatre, Kabali-Kagwa initiated and produced Shopping Dead, an apocalyptic zombie invasion of a fictional Megamart Shopping Center.
Her first production, Kabali-Kagwa admitted that the choice of a horror-comedy didn’t factor as much as the thought to prove that WhatsApp Theatre was possible. Although the choice of a comedy was deliberate as light hearted comedy she said is one of the easily receptive content by an audience as opposed to heavy drama.
And so, she set to work hiring a director, Lesego Chauke; playwright, Ncumisa Ndimeni and production coordinator, Tshegofatso Mabutla.
Despite assumptions that Shopping Dead is unscripted, Kabali-Kagwa said the one-hour production was proper scripted; with a clearly defined beginning, climax and ending. Pre-production plans placed audience thinking and experience center stage, knowing the limitations of the medium.
Limitations that included no clear boundary or established protocols, constant renegotiating of between audience, split attention, and the varied physical environment of the audience as opposed to all audience seated in one space in a physical theatre.
So, they set about introducing boundaries by limiting number of audiences on the WhatsApp group to 256 participants; ensure that only admins can send messages; limited videos to 30 seconds, while using other WhatsApp features as texts, voice notes, GIFs, emojis, pictures among others. To achieve a balanced rhythmic production, Director Chauke dictated the tempo to achieve ensure a balanced, rhythmic production. in addition to ensuring the intended climax is achieved. Information on the characters in the play, the setting Megamart Mall was forwarded an hour ahead of livestreaming to ensure audience easily follow the plot.
It fell to the four-man cast of actors to interpret the script. ‘‘The actors had to interpret their roles to decide what works best in which area, GIFs or emojis. They had to translate texts to action, and also take on some technical edits to best highlight actions and emotions since they lack the advantage of acting with their entire bodies.
The results were gushing audience members, three sold out shows, and WhatsApp workshops and lecture series requested by institutions of higher learning. It has further inspired other WhatsApp initiatives.
Pleased with the success of the production, Kagali-Kagwa has embarked on her next project, which centers on addressing issues of privacy and security emerging with the increased use of WhatsApp.
Her initial research revealed western countries make less use of WhatsApp, and have no intention to expand medium’s use.
‘‘My research is important for Africans because Africans are being left out of the digital discussion, or we are just asked to adapt. I want to encourage that digital discussion and see that WhatsApp users’ privacy are understood and protected.
‘’I am also looking at how to expand plays to other platforms to keep people engaged; create WhatsApp series, and work on various modes of storytelling on the platform; and how to do a choreographic piece on WhatsApp without videos,’’ concluded the young producer.