Q&A: “It has lifted the spirits of many theatre makers who were feeling isolated and frustrated”: #LockdownShakespeare and Words on the Times

Lockdown Shakespeare collage

Michael Richard, Rachelle Weiss, Buhle Ngaba, Mpilo Khumalo, Sanelisiwe Yekani, Kwenzo Ngcobo, Reneilwe Mashitisho, Larissa Crafford-Lazarus, and Anele Situlweni for #LockdownShakespeare

In April, with theatre stages empty following the COVID-19 pandemic, Shakespeare ZA a project of the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa (SSOSA), set up to promote the work of South African theatre-makers, film-makers, translators, researchers and writers engaging with Shakespeare — put out a call for their new project, #LockdownShakespeare.

This initiative, which aims to help keep the arts economy going by promoting performers and aiming to help with modest financial support available, asked for South African theatre makers to record themselves performing a monologue from any Shakespeare play or sonnet (between 90 seconds and 3 minutes in length). Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, and these videos show us the endurance and motivation of actors under lockdown to keep the spirit of performance alive and kicking, even when socially distanced. 

So far 60 videos have been submitted, 48 of which are on the #LockdownShakespeare YouTube channel and Shakespeare ZA Facebook page. The funds raised have helped 37 theatre makers so far, and it is still ongoing.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Reneilwe Mashitisho and Kwenzo Ngcobo, two of the actors who took part in #LockdownShakespeare, and with Chris Thurman — who, with colleague Buhle Ngaba at SSOSA, developed the #LockdownShakespeare campaign — for their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A set aiming to connect artists and thinkers affected by our experiences of now.

Reneilwe, Kwenzo and Chris’ responses provide an insight into some of the ways the pandemic has affected the performing arts world in South Africa, as well as provide some avenues for further connection and support.

Reneilwe and Kwenzo have shared their #LockdownShakespeare videos with us, as well as their Words on the Times, below. Theirs, and  the many more Shakespeare monologues joining the “all the world’s a virtual stage” that is the #LockdownShakespeare platform, are available on Shakespeare ZA’s Resources page, where they also provide articles, reviews, interviews, slideshows, images, videos, links and lots more Shakespeare’s plays-related resources for theatre makers, teachers, learners and anyone else to enjoy – for free!  


Reneilwe Mashitisho – #lockdownshakespeare 38: “There is a willow grows aslant a brook…”

There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come…
Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7 (162-164)

Africa in Words: Can you tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered your plans?
Reneilwe Mashitisho: The pandemic has certainly turned my life upside down. I am not only a performer but a director as well, I work with various schools with The Speech and Drama Institute to produce theatre productions and rehearsals have been put on a halt and i believe it will be that way for a very long time, I do not foresee myself going back to the schools to work with the learners again because of the pandemic, which simply means that I will have to find new ways to create an income. The virtual space is definitely not for me, I am seeing a lot of people moving to the internet. I do not think that is practical for me. I am mostly a theatre actress as well, I suppose now is the time to start looking into other industries for work because theatres will take some time to open. COVID-19 has truly changed my life and I am trying to pick up the pieces everyday.

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
RM: At the moment I am just chilling and doing home auditions and hoping for the best, while I apply for other jobs as well in other industries as debts are piling up. To be honest, I really do not have a plan.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
RM: Certain organizations are really trying their best to assist but there is only so much they can do, and a certain number of people they can assist.

AiW: How can our communities support you?
RM: By supporting the work of artists and putting pressure on the government to take us seriously and realize the impact that COVID-19 has had on all of us.

Reneilwe studied theatre and performance at the Market Theatre Laboratory in Newtown and later completed her advanced diploma in Arts at Wits University, as well as her Honours in Drama Therapy. Since graduating, Reneilwe has worked as a stage performer. She is a published author, radio broadcaster, a creative trainer and development consultant. You can support and find more about Reneilwe’s work by visiting The Speech and Drama Institute’s Facebook.


Kwenzo Ngcobo – #lockdownshakespeare 1: “Put out the light…”

Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Othello, Act 5, Scene 2, (7-9)

Africa in Words: Can you tell us a bit about your own work and the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered your plans?
Kwenzo Ngcobo: Well COVID-19 had affected the world in so many negative ways. But staying home somehow opened my mind to start working on other projects I’ve been developing such as a TV series (The Trade), a short film (Knocked Out), and a theatre project (Our Mother’s Grave). I’ve started working on Our Mother’s Grave from varsity in 2015, and since then I’ve been developing the project hoping to stage it later this year or early next year. hen I started going into film from theatre I had storylines in my head to produce for the film industry – that’s when I started working on The Trade and Knocked Out. We were hoping to shoot Knocked Out this year in May but then Coronavirus hit us hard. The Trade is a project where I’m still working on developing the idea, and soon will start writing. Nothing much has been done so far more than acting, but I’m using this time to finish up my work and hope to produce soon.  

AiW: In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
KN: Well now I’m working out even more physically, indoors of course. That helps me boost my stamina that I have prepared for my work. Working during the day and getting some rest in the evening. It helps my mindset.

AiW: What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
KN: By watching the National Theatre productions on YouTube. That has been heart lifting. Seeing those performances is inspiring to witness during this time. 

AiW: How can our communities support you?
KN: To produce more Shakespeare productions. Because I find Shakespeare’s work amazing and I can relate culturally and traditionally with it – I think our society needs that. 

KwenzoKwenzo completed his National Diploma in Drama Studies in 2017 at the Durban University of Technology. Since graduating, he has gone on to perform in the productions Much Ado About Nothing (Courtyard Theatre), 10 Days in a Shibeen (Umsindo Theatre), and Ntombazi, a retelling of the uShaka story. Earlier in 2020, he played his first lead in a Shakespeare with the role of Othello in the ThinkTheatre production. You can follow Kwenzo on Instagram and Twitter.

We were also able to catch up on the project with Chris Thurman, Associate Professor and Head of the English Department at the University of the Witswatersrand, who developed the #LockdownShakespeare campaign with colleague Buhle Ngaba at SSOSA. His response to the Words on the Times below outlines the urgency of action and support for community building while schools and theatres are affected by the pandemic.

Chris Thurman: When we set up Shakespeare ZA as a project of the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa (SSOSA) in 2017, it was envisaged as a “virtual meeting-place” that would connect theatre makers, teachers, learners, academics and members of the public interested in Shakespeare in a South African context. We developed resources and produced some great content (reviews, interviews, provocations, etc) over the years, and slowly built e-networks through social media and an informal email database, but Shakespeare ZA as a website and a wider digital project has remained an online representation of the kind of work that SSOSA has done through conferences, workshops, talks and events, or of the work of others that the Society has supported/promoted (theatre productions, festivals, etc). 

With the introduction of lockdown and social distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Shakespeare ZA has taken on a kind of primacy and urgency – we realised that we had built a platform that could do some important work in helping people who had lost a sense of community, or had at least least lost daily personal contact (theatre makers without theatres, teachers and learners without schools) to feel part of something collective. We also, through SSOSA, had modest financial resources that we could make available to help performing artists who had lost income. And so #lockdownshakespeare was born! It has bolstered Shakespeare ZA, because we now have a wide variety of video material that we can make available as a kind of micro-performance archive; this was previously lacking in our coverage of South African Shakespeares. But, more importantly, it has lifted the spirits of many theatre makers who were feeling isolated and frustrated – from all over the country, they have joined a shared creative and income-generating effort which has an intended “audience” but which is also about celebrating one another as artists.

AiW: Thank you. And how can our communities support you?
Donate! We have run out of money and need to generate more funds to keep supporting theatre makers while the theatres remain “dark”.

You can contribute via BUSQR  or email lockdownshakespeare@gmail.com. And, of course, watch and share the videos. And let us know if you’d like to write something for Shakespeare ZA!

Chris Thurman portrait

Chris Thurman is Associate Professor and Head of the English Department at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is also a columnist for Business Day. Thurman has edited the journal Shakespeare in Southern Africa since 2009 and is president of the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa. You can follow him on Twitter here.


#LockdownShakespeare is one project among Shakespeare ZA’s many which aims to create a new space for Shakespeare in South Africa, working to detach Shakespeare’s links to colonialism, elitism and “Englishness”, and instead actively promoting the work of South African theatre-makers engaging with and reinvigorating Shakespeare.

If you would like to share your #LockdownShakespeare videos, you can email the team at lockdownshakespeare@gmail.com. They will set up a file-sharing option, ask you to tell them a bit more about your performance choices and ensure that the videos are added to Shakespeare ZA’s resources pages. You can also donate via BUSQR to the project. If you’re able to contribute to the campaign, please do!

Shakespeare ZA


Carnia Layla Adams – #lockdownshakespeare 33: “Tell me what blessings I have…”

To women of all fashion; lastly, hurried
Here to this place, i’ the open air, before
I have got strength of limit. Now, my liege,
Tell me what blessings I have here alive,
That I should fear to die?
The Winter’s Tale, Act 3 Scene 2 (109-113)

We featured #LockdownShakespeare in our April wrap-up (which you can read here).

And for more Words on the Times – with writers, curators, editors, publishers, artists, reviewers, thinkers, and other AiW Guests –
see the blog category here.


Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A, Words on the Times

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