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Theatre renaissance

Directors, producers, writers and actors’ voices unanimously approbate the importance of theatre. In that concurrence, they find common concerns that call attention to barriers of theatre growth in Kenya, writes Cynthia Mukanzi

To say that it is the bedrock that keeps giving to the local film industry doesn’t even begin to illustrate the power of theatre in Kenya. A springboard for many stage and onscreen careers, theatre should no longer be backhanded and seen as other. Steadfast lovers of this realm of performance arts are doing all they can to hold it together, even if it means dipping deep into their pockets to give life to stories they have created. But that shouldn’t be the case.

They are demonstrating that the unfortunate demise of Phoenix Players theatre is not indicative of the entirety of local theatre. While it lasted, Phoenix was a gateway for countless thespians, such as the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o who have gone on to grace spectacular platforms.

Prominent theatre guru, actor, singer and director Ian Mbugua has been in the trenches long enough to nurture talent in theatre, film and music. The former managing director at Phoenix Players has witnessed the transition of theatre from white-dominated audiences to Kenyan audiences, from mostly plays to homegrown scripts.

“Sadly, I’ve also seen Phoenix Players, the only repertory theatre in the region close. Other theatre companies such as Nairobi City Players also folded,” he tells Spice.

He, however, emphasises that no theatre can stand on its own while only dependent on Box Office sales. Government grants, philanthropists and art supporting firms are the hinge to theatre’s growth without which they cave. He says the government has done little to support the arts.

“A lot has been promised, but very little delivered. People think the government supports theatre because Kenya National Theatre was refurbished. But it is a building for hire and anyone can put up a play there. The corporate world as well has neglected the arts (save for companies such as Safaricom). If basics were put in place, our talented youth would be making a living out of their craft,” he says.

Insufficient Support

The corporate world, he says, will jump in to work with filmmakers with the notion that a movie rakes in millions in terms of audiences while a play will be watched by a lesser number, perhaps thousands. With that, they are blind to the fact that film dips into a pool of actors who hone their talents by treading the boards and therefore, theatre must be supported if film is to flourish. This desertion is resulting in the crumbling of theatres such as Phoenix Players.

“Phoenix used to get support from sponsorship, membership and ticket sales. It got zero from the government. It is true it started off as a theatre for mainly expatriate community. It came, after all, from the ashes of the Donovan Maule Theatre — which was set up by actors who had been entertaining British troops in Egypt. Phoenix was bound to finally close down due to little support,” he says.

He believes Kenyans can do better in building a theatre culture by buying tickets and showing up for shows. “… but they would rather ‘go clubbing or hit the local joint where they will spend more money than it costs to watch a play’. Without support from the corporate world and patrons, theatre cannot survive,” says Ian.

Producer Victoria Gichora, whose acting career took off in 2007 at Phoenix Players, feels the “loss to see it bow out of the scenes. She says a lot of great screen actors started off in theatre and you would think that more would be done to embellish its glory. That still remains a distant dream, especially in the eyes of the State, which she says classifies theatre as casual work. Nevertheless, if she was to choose between being on TV and stage, Victoria would not give up theatre.

“There’s an on-stage thrill, the adrenaline of a one-time play and the satisfaction of having harnessed the tools and skills to deliver it. It’s how you use your mind, heart and technique to be part of a bigger story. I can’t give that up even if there’s no money in it. I don’t do it for cash, because to be honest, there isn’t any significant financial gain in theatre,” she says.

Now, failure of the State to step in as required isn’t new and thespians have always found ways to keep theatre alive without expecting much from the former. But another letdown has been corporate organisations’ reluctance to invest in and support theatre as they do with the silver screen.

“Corporates want to jump aboard trending productions, sometimes, regardless of the message that the content is putting out. But that is not a sustainable way to support any form of art,” says the producer, who together with her colleagues are tirelessly toiling to preserve theatre standards, seeing the essence of theatre is under threat.

She says: “We are trying to keep the core foundation of what theatre is by creating great projects that speak to that. A lot of people are still getting into plays and producing, meaning there’s a demand for the kind of stories we tell and we want to find ways to keep that alive by additionally putting out theatre productions on screen and online. And one of the hardest tasks we have to undertake to make this successful is refining marketing aspect of it.”

Shoddy marketing

Marketing theatre productions can either make or break a play. Too Early For Birds show co-creator Abubakar Majid aka Abu Sense, partly accredits the success of this series of theatrical storytelling to an impeccable marketing strategy. A month prior to this acclaimed show, his team had staged a play called Upright Revolution that was attended by 38 people. This was disheartening and was a result of poor marketing. Their expectations of Too Early For Birds attendance was therefore very low.

“With Too Early for Birds conception, it seemed as if we had jumped into a vast ocean and at first, we didn’t know what to do. But we knew that we were storytellers and we wanted to build on that. When we had taken care of that, we invested in a proper PR and marketing team for this show that we had written in a span of three weeks. That move led to a sold-out show that enjoyed a rerun due to the public’s demand,” he says, having realised that what audiences wanted was a good story.

“Besides learning that communication is key to the type of attendance you attract, we understood that people want substance in content. Don’t tell them to support something because it’s Kenyan; that is not enough. Tell them what you are giving them. There has to be more in order for you to gain their support and that lies in the power of your story and its delivery,” he says.

Meanwhile, theatre is still lagging behind despite the rise of skilled and rich productions. But according to Abu, it isn’t the creatives’ fault. A lot of hindrances such as unfavourable spaces for actors and pricey theatre venues have stunted its growth.

Management hiccups

Having been in entertainment since 1999, director and producer Tash Mitambo nods to Abu Sense’s sentiments that audiences are not the problem. And if theatre audiences are increasing, why then couldn’t Phoenix Players gain from this? That, he says, entirely falls on how the entity was operated and the kind of audience it catered for.

“People who frequent theatre halls have grown over time and have been faithful in their attendance. All they want is a compelling play that is worth their money and time. Phoenix Players was still running on a subscription model that was initiated a lot of years ago under the leadership of the late James Falkland. Those who took over after him upheld the management style that impeded its evolution as time changed,” says Tash, the Renegade Ventures operations director.

However, he says there are producers such as Heartstrings and Too Early for Birds who are working hard to capture stories, connect and relate with specific audiences.

“It’s not a secret that there’s no money in theatre and a lot of shows are financed by independent producers who have to dig into their pockets. One thing we must employ if we want to sell tickets is meticulous publicity and marketing. People will actually come to watch plays if you do it well, especially now that social media is widely accessible,” he says.

Audience fragmentation

Mugambi Nthiga’s introduction to professional stage acting was in 2003 on the original performance of Sarafina. “The show’s premiere was attended by the film’s writer Mbongeni Ngema and Leleti Khumalo who originally played Sarafina (the character). We didn’t have much of a screen culture then and theatre was a buzzing hub at the time,” he recalls.

There’s definitely a renaissance in theatre and the illustrious actor and director appreciates that entertainment has democratised and is not just one way. When TV started thriving, audiences fragmented. Of course, the sprouting of several TV channels came in the way of the growth of theatre as people got more entertainment choices. This new reality was not readily adapted by the likes of Phoenix Players.

He says: “The model the repertory theatre was running on wasn’t easy to maintain. It was a pricey subscription-based scheme. There was a time when that worked but when the patronage dwindled, they could no longer keep up with it.”

He agrees that costs at the theatre were prohibitive to people who could not access it regardless of wanting to. But he refutes that the establishment was elitist as expressed by some people. That there’s no one standardised structure of running a theatre facility. He adds theatre is taking a course of its own, with a lot people ensuring it stays alive, but it still gets a bad rap from the State.

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