A woman plays theater.

From, For & About the People – Community Theatre Today

For a long period of time, much focus and resources have been placed on mainstream theatre while community theatre responsible for the social development of the community continues to be marginalized.

The interview was conducted by Nathalie Saccà. 

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): What is the general idea behind Community Theatre?

Relebohile Mabunda: Hm! I cannot really put a finger to its origin because it is an expression that is globally practised, and the common thread is that it brings the marginalised together to listen to and share stories about themselves and for themselves. It doesn’t matter what kind, but what is appreciated about community theatre is the connection made to the everyday realities of the community and finding the strength to collectively transform themselves.

In South Africa, if you mention community theatre, people will tell you that you speak about people’s theatre.

It is because, back in the days, the apartheid government did not approve of it because it empowered the oppressed communities to resist against the government’s oppression. Local people were liberated by community theatre.

Even before colonization, communities had stories they shared about themselves. These were told through songs, traditional dances, rituals, and storytelling and they happened around the fires at night, under the trees, in the kraals, churches, schools, open spaces. It did not matter, even today community theatre still fulfils its purpose … but to what degree? Because the living state of community theatre artists and the community art spaces reflect dire predictions. It is a serious cry for intervention.

Where and when did your involvement in Community Theatre start?

Mabunda: Growing up, community theatre was part of our everyday living, our culture. I remember at some point, I joined a community theatre group because I was fascinated by the idea of appearing on television one day. At the time, that was the only dream, especially when growing up in communities without any people to look up to. The only reference was the screen, especially acting. When I joined a community theatre group, I was taken by the confidence of the group to confront societal issues.

I was mesmerized because these were issues that in our families and communities were never talked about openly. Interestingly, all these societal issues such as domestic and substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and poverty all happened right under our noses. It became a norm to wrap all those under a carpet or gossip about it.

However, when I saw the community theatre group on stage addressing all that we have been ignorant about, I realized I wanted to be part of the change. As a young person at the time, it was not easy to engage the elders about the wrongs or the bad.  When something bad happened, it was not a ‘child’s’ place to raise questions. So, at the time, joining a community theatre gave me a musk, a ‘safety net ‘ in the form of a role to finally ask questions about what was happening around us .

What made you want to focus on community theatre for your research?

Mabunda: I have been a community theatre practitioner for over a decade and through this long experience, I have seen community theatre artists perish to other industries. Nowadays, you find community theatre artists working in retail companies because the art they do fails to provide for their livelihoods.

As a cultural producer at the grassroots level, I have been frustrated by the injustices faced by the community theatre, especially the funding and its overall recognition in the sector. There is a diminishing approach to community theatre. For me, it is important to shift that perspective and secure the fate of my practice (community theatre) in South African grassroots communities.

Let´s have a look at your research: What is the concrete focus of your research?

Mabunda: The focus of my research was to understand how community theatre survives in local communities while being expected to meet the governments value expectations. I needed to understand the strategies employed by community theatre artists to get the government’s attention. As a result, performances were designed to unpack the social ills of the communities and challenges faced by community theatre artists.

[...] community theatre can be used as a tool to respond to the painful histories of oppression.  

The performances also gave the audience the opportunity to discuss and explore possible solutions to the addressed social ills and challenges faced by German and South African community theatre artists. 

How did you approach your research?

Mabunda: Firstly, I needed to understand the socio-political and historical context of community theatre in Baden-Wurttemberg. I read books, conducted interviews, and attended community theatre programs. I also performed myself, which gave me the opportunity to be part of the creation process and understand the choices made, which influenced what stories and themes the German local communities wanted to see represented on the stage.

At some point, I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of information I had gathered by attending almost every community art initiative in Stuttgart. However, the consultations with the team at ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehugnen) were helpful to distil all that information. I am choosing to say ‘the team’ because almost everyone was involved throughout the process. I would literally ask every now and then, whether I bump into anyone of them in the kitchen or corridor, ‘Please remind me again, what is my research about?’. In all essence, the process was a collective teamwork and participatory which helped me get deeper insights of community theatre.

Where do you see the potential of community theatre in Germany in comparison to South Africa?

Mabunda: Currently, the public associated with the community art spaces is aware of the existing community theatre initiatives, but the larger public is still confused about seeing people in costumes performing in public. People are interested in wanting to be part of the experience, but they do not know what it is that we are doing, besides being drawn to our beautiful costumes, dancing and singing. The community art spaces themselves are also not saying anything, they are just beautiful and silent buildings. People are already interested, the questions is, how do we let them in and reach out to them?


Secondly, Germany has diverse residents, including immigrants and international communities. However, it is rare to find such diversity in the German community theatre scene. This problem is sadly not only in community theatre, but the mainstream theatre is also failing to reflect the current society. I think, community theatre with its flexibility of not being confined to its four walls, can reach out to international and immigrant communities, especially people of colour and not only as participants, but as performers, directors, and stage crews.

Lastly, I have come to realize that some issues still make the Germans uncomfortable. One cannot easily raise conversations about racism or the holocaust without being made to feel like they have done something wrong. I think, community theatre is a platform that German communities can start to explore to open conversations, not just about music, food or dance but critical conversations about the status quo.

Can you already draw a conclusion from your research?

Mabunda: I believe the research has vividly emphasized the value of community theatre in German local communities and what it can potentially contribute if all stakeholders and consumers of culture pay more attention to it. Also, there is a possibility of collaboration between South Africa and Germany. Further expanding on the point, I made earlier, community theatre can be used as a tool to respond to the painful histories of oppression. This might seem depressing, but these conversations are a necessity.

Some themes are still sensitive for the white Germans, and this is true for the Black South Africans as well. How can one easily engage a white German in a conversation about race and the holocaust without making them feel guilty? How can one, have a conversation with a black South African about the apartheid without them feeling guilty? These are questions probably hanging in the air and for me, it starts with creating a participatory and safe space where those conversations can take place and allow for an opportunity to heal or shift perspectives.

We have people in communities that still have not healed from the injustices of apartheid and holocaust and are expected to move on because the oppressors have asked for forgiveness.

Augusto Boal’s theory notes that some injustices from the past have not really been effectively addresses and that there is an expectation to co-exist with the oppressors as if nothing had happened. Some families even today are still wandering about where their loved ones have gone, and it is this gap that an exchange programme between South Africa and Germany can explore through community theatre. I believe that collaboration can, amongst other things strengthen the impact of community theatre internationally and globally.

About Relebohile Mabunda
Relebohile Mabunda, photo: private
Relebohile Mabunda
Performer and community arts activist

Relebohile Mabunda is a performer and community arts activist. She studied Applied Theatre and Drama and has a Master’s degree in Cultural Policy and Management from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. She focuses on the interaction with people from marginalised communities, including children and youth living with disabilities. As a stepping stone to accessing and working with marginalised communities, Mabunda co-founded Lule Productions. Her work has been showcased in festivals such as Rehearse Reveal, Zwakala, Ishashalazi and the Zabalaza Community Theatre Festival. Relebohile Mabunda is currently leading an art research project at ifa (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) as a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung German Chancellor Leadership.