Theatre at crossroads
By Manuel Ntoyai
Theatre is considered the main factory for the acting industry. But worryingly, the machines are almost grinding to a halt.
A few decades ago, theatre was a lively place where one could randomly pop in for some rib-cracking, mind-stirring and spirit-lifting stage plays.
It was lovely (I assume still is) to sit for two hours and watch pure talent and creativity take you to whole new entertainment levels. But a lot has changed.
For many years, the Little Theatre Club (LTC) in Mombasa had been one of the best sources of top acting talents in the country.
It once housed British Royal Navy fleets and after its gazettement as a heritage site by the then Culture Minister Najib Balala in 2001, it has since then experienced mixed fortunes.
LTC closed doors in 2016 for renovations and for the last couple of years, thespians who had always called the Ganjoni-based arts centre home, were left with no option, but to seek space elsewhere.
A section of creatives are accusing the theatre’s leadership for mismanagement. They currently feel that the bumpy journey has seen many young talents drop off the highway, citing frustrations from different quarters.
“When it was functional, Little Theater Club used to buzz with activities. We had different creatives who would come here to showcase and polish their talents and it has given birth to well known actors in our screens todays,” Alex Perlexy, a creative based in Mombasa tells Spice.
He adds: “At the moment it’s all about everyone for themselves and God for us all. There is little or no effort in helping promote these talents, except for the independent but unscrupulous group of individuals that — in the name of helping — misuse the talents and dump them afterwards without any meaningful benefits.”
Davis Luvaha, also known by his stage name Rojo Mo, is one among a top crop of actors who has stepped up into the national scenes, thanks to his talent, skills and a ‘never say die’ attitude.
Having started in the streets with a group of acrobats, his abilities were quickly noticed and a friend invited him at LTC in 2010, where his career took off.
“When I arrived there in 2011, I learnt a lot from the already established actors and also from the networks I made there.
People would get to audition for acting roles, especially on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation drama programmes where I actually landed a role on shows such as Udhalimu, Saida, Nira and Moyo,” says Luvaha, who plays Shocks in TV series Selina on Maisha Magic.
According to Luvaha, the sorry state of Kenyan theatres is affecting hundreds of budding acting talents, who are missing the trainings that people like himself underwent.
He says the process moulded the calibre of actors currently gracing our television screens and it’s going to be a painstaking endevour for anybody who’s trying a foot in stage acting.
“Before my first screen experience in 2016, most of us were limited in terms of personal growth and in career.
The theatre was our place of refuge. It saved us from social evils such as drugs and substance abuse, crime and hooliganism.
I would walk from Tononoka to Ganjoni daily just to be part of it all,” he says.
And as the established actors continue to thrive, Luvaha feels there is a need for the government to put in place better structures to ensure aspiring talents are tapped, so they don’t get wasted to the unforgiving world.
“There is a generational gap after our lot. For example, those who had completed secondary schools and were in drama clubs got mentorship in theatres, but sadly, all that is now fading away. There is need for fresh talents to grow and showcase their talent,” he says.
According to Little Theatre Club chairman, Peter Odote, a strategic business plan for refurbishment or improvement of the theatre’s infrastructure and other arts-related performances was crafted in 2016 to cover the 2016-2020 period.
“Before its closure for renovations, the Little Theatre Club was a hive of activity and was in dire need of refurbishment and partnerships to help it drive its agenda, currently geared towards theatre and artistic programmes targeting youth empowerment and development.
A copy of this plan has been updated and is available for submission to willing collaborator, partner or donor for further action,” he tells Spice.
As the renovations take place at the LTC, thespians have sought exile at the Swahilipot Hub, but will never call it home.
However, while their outcry seems right, those who graduated through the theatre system think otherwise.
Felix Odiwour aka Jalang’o is one of the leading comical actors who have established themselves not just in the entertainment industry, but also in business. He is also among the most prominent theatre products in Kenya.
“It’s true there is a problem in the management of public theatres across the country and this requires a thorough address from the government. Such institutions should be independent or given enough capacity to run on their own.
However, at the same time, the new breed of actors should also know that there is a way of how things work and that they do take time,” he says.
Jalang’o started his career at the very bottom, playing second cast on set books and vernacular plays at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) in Nairobi. He went through hundreds of auditions before landing a role on a TV show.
He adds: “The transition is also not easy, but with time, you get to learn how to handle it all. However, the pupilage at the theatre prepares one for the future. It takes time and hard work.”
Alfred Munyua is a seasoned theatre and TV actor and director. He says that lack of discipline by both actors and directors at the theatres, may have brought about the theatre’s dwindling fortunes.
“Breaking through into the industry is not an easy matter. It requires utmost dedication and discipline.
Personally, I toiled at the KNT for more than six years starting 2004 and out of that, I created a network and learnt the ropes of the trade.
It is a fact that lack of proper structures in the industry is partly to blame, but there are other factors that have been sieving the crop of actors coming through the system,” he says.
Munyua, who plays Chief Masaku in popular Kenyan short film Wakamba Forever, also says the massive transition from theatre to TV by top theatre actors is partly to blame in the lack of life in theatres.
“A while back, people would crowd theatres for entertainment. The most popular actors went with the traffic to the local TV programmes and the crowd also went with them.
It is about greener pastures for the actors, but it’s frustrations for the directors who have to get new talents to fill in the boots of those who have left.
As a director, the quality of budding actors is a bit mediocre because a good section of them think that success comes overnight. It doesn’t; the struggle is real even in Broadway Theaters too,” says Munyua.
For those who have been in the industry for long, the challenges that come with the territory includes rogue producers and directors preying on innocent and naive young actors.
“One of the biggest challenge we have is lack of mentorship. We lack the bridge that connects talented young artists to the right platforms and opportunities.
There are other factors including corruption and nepotism. For some, it has become personal business at the expense of the industry,” says actress Carolyne Mutua.
Mutua, whose glittering career in the acting industry has seen her star in Kiswahili telenovelas such as Maza and Pete, says young actors should seize opportunities in other platforms and not just wait for the theatres to open doors for them.
“We started our craft in the 90s in social halls, at church events and now we are here. There are new platforms helping actors such as Jukwaa Arts and other production houses who have stepped in and this has been of great help,” she adds.
A few producers and directors are doing the right thing, but lack of proper mentorship has caused unprofessionalism in the game, and many talents have lost opportunities because of it.
“I started BornStar 1 initiative in 2015 because of the challenge my daughter went through. The project gives these young artists opportunities and the right space to grow their talents.
Through this, we get to visit schools and other institutions and help raise awareness that they can become what they aspire to be,” says Mutua.
In 2013, George Orido founded the Sanaa Theatre Awards to recognise and award excellence in the field of theatre.
He says the awards’ primary aim is to motivate the youth to realise their full potential and talent, especially in theatre and other forms of art.
Many creatives are frustrated by lack of enough and convenient spaces to showcase their talents.