Tembisa-born actor turned-theatre-maker Mxolisi Masilela aims to develop his township by using community theatre as a platform to address social issues.
By: Musa ‘Gift’ Mqwashu
Mxolisi Masilela is a South African actor, producer, artistic director and founder of TX Theatre. His work includes Naledi award-nominated piece, Queen (The Chosen Ones) which tells a story of the unsung heroes of the liberation struggle.
Speaking to Blacklight, he shares that as a township–based theatre-maker, it’s his responsibility to be a community activist and produce work that serves as a mirror for society.
“In 2014, I wrote and directed a play titled Thula Thula, when teenage pregnancy was growing uncontrollably in our community, and I decided I had to do something about it.”
“My interest as a storyteller is to tell the stories of my people, mainly not what is in the public eye, but what is happening behind closed doors. I want to put the secrets and the demons we are dealing with in the open, so we can begin to solve them,” he explains.
Mxolisi adds that he is also keen on the psychology and mental struggles of black people; “We often don’t even identify our mental problems; and as a storyteller, I am interested in tackling such topics.”
The theatre’s all-rounder fell in love with acting in 1999, at the tender age of nine. He got exposed to the craft during a community festival hosted at the Moses Molelekwa Arts Centre, in Tembisa.
“I was just playing soccer at the time, and all of a sudden, I was exposed to different arts and performing programs,” he recalls.
“When I walked in, I found people doing plays. They were mimicking life, and it seemed so real. I said to myself: this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I quit playing soccer and joined the community group.”
Mxolisi reveals that he had to teach himself about the theatre industry from scratch, and battled with basic communicating, writing or reading in English.
“I taught myself how to speak proper English. I would buy books at the Market Theatre. When I finally understood how to read and write, I began to acquire knowledge about the industry. I would read reviews about plays and the different theatre-makers and producers across the globe.”
He later founded the TX Theatre in 2008, which focuses on developing young artists through running skills development workshops. The company provides opportunities for young people in Tembisa who cannot afford to go to university to develop their performance skills.
“It is hard to study theatre; that is one thing that prevents a lot of people from breaking into the industry,” he notes.
He believes the drama industry should do away with red tapes that inhibit access for ordinary citizens, “We have built this idea that theatre is for certain people. If we can make it accessible to everyone, then it can be a tool to remedy a lot of ailments in our community.”
“That is why we run our theatre in the township, in the center of the community, so that we could also kill the idea that you need to catch a taxi and go to town to experience theatre,” he says.
The multidimensional performer says that a lot needs to change within the theatre space to ensure sustainability.
“Most of us are just passionate: we get up and get to work, and ten years later, we realise that there is nothing profitable that we can point out. We never teach ourselves how to monetise and turn our passion into a business.”
The creative entrepreneur strongly believes in the power of broadening and diversifying connections [networking] as a young professional.
“Imagine as a theatre-maker if you had somebody who is doing marketing, videography, or finance within your circle? If we collaborated with the right people, then you would get into a space where our ideas are more profitable.”
“It is sad how we as artists are only seen as beggars. The evidence says that most of us are poor, even if we have this long experience, we are still not profitable. But we are a generation of entrepreneurs and business-minded people; it is up to us to change the narrative.
Like other creative entrepreneurs, Mxolisi cites funding as one of the main hurdles in the creative arena. When establishing his Production, he battled with resources to get the project off the ground. “We had to be clever and see other business opportunities available to make money.
“To solve that, we opened up a bar that sells drinks and food to patrons who come to watch plays. We rent out our equipment: if someone has an event, we lend the equipment to make a profit.”
According to the man, when creating TX Theatre: it was the response to the hunger that community creatives had and a need for a space to develop their craft. However, the goal was short-lived.
“To keep the theatre doors open, we support organisations and any individuals with great ideas. We do community shows, beauty pageants, and seminars,” he says.
Working in the fickle and unpredictable industry, like the arts; stress is imminent. For Mxolisi, he deals with the rough terrains in the industry by adopting a strong work ethic. “I relieve my stress through creativity. If work stresses me, it eventually gives birth to other projects that force me to interrogate and get answers to my problems.”
He also cites psychotherapy as vital and helpful when one is battling stress and depression.
“Most artists do not take therapy and mental health seriously, but it works wonders. As storytellers, we tell traumatic stories, and often do not deal with the emotions after creating the work that we do.”
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the world sought refuge in the arts for entertainment and escape. But the industry was hit hard by the pandemic, compelling artists to re-conceptualise their means of operating.
“To survive during the pandemic, we made the Tembisa Theatre Week a hybrid event. We only allowed 50 people inside the theatre, and the rest of the people would buy recorded shows and watch them in the comfort of their home.”
“The COVID-19 has somehow been a blessing in disguise. It made us reimagine our future and how to sustain the theatre.”
TX Theatre Productions has come a long way “from having festivals using domestic light bulbs and closing the hall with black plastic bags, to having an automated controlling board.”
He adds: “We have trust in our theatre now; when somebody walks in they can feel that it is in the same high-quality standard as most established theatres.”
“We started with no funding, just five shows from Tembisa written, directed, and played by women.” He shares: “It went national, and we received a budget to travel across the provinces to search for plays that are written and directed by women.”
Moving forward, Mxolisi wishes to open a TX Arts Academy in Tembisa, offering qualifications within the art field of study.