By Joel Benjamin Ntwatwa
I got the chance to interview Angella Emurwon, playwright of award winning plays such as The Cow Needs a Wife, and Sunflowers behind A Dirty Fence, plays that have put her at the helm of the theatre world not just in Uganda but world over. Her latest work Strings was staged at Kampala International Theatre Festival, 2017 and I talked to her about it and other things from craft, to audiences, to discipline. Enjoy the interview.
1.How do you believe Ugandans perceive theatre and the stage?
I’m sure I can’t give a definitive answer to this. Who really can?
I think most Ugandans have a relationship with theatre and the stage from inter-house/inter-school competitions in primary and secondary school. For some, this continued into tertiary institutions. As such, Ugandans will have a general idea of what to expect when you say theatre or stage. In my experience, some sort of message or moral is often expected, and I think preferred, as the central theme. I am often asked what ‘message’ I’m trying to pass on.
2.How long since you last wrote for the public?
Wow! Many years if we are talking about work that’s come from my preoccupations. I’ve been writing Strings for 4 years. That said, I’ve written two short 3-5 minute plays, in 2015 & 2017 respectively, for Climate Change Theatre Action (NY) that have been performed in Lithuania, New York and Santa Cruz, California. I’m hoping my next play will not take as long.
3.How did “Strings” come together, in terms of conceptualisation, refinement and production for KITF 2017.
Strings began with a friend’s request to borrow my father. Which got me thinking about what fatherhood meant, who got to be called father, and how fathers are made. I also wanted to write a drama. I felt like up to that point I was using humor in my work to hide my characters’ uncomfortable feelings or thoughts. I am now accepting of the fact that my work will always contain humor.
Anyway, I wrote a first draft that was mostly an expanded scene by scene outline of the play and applied for the 2013 Sundance Theatre Initiative East Africa where I was able to do further character and plot development, and write a second draft. I was then invited to workshop the play with actors and a director as well as present a dramatic reading of Strings at the inaugural Kampala International Theatre Festival in 2014. This program was key in fleshing out the play even more and giving me a sense of what it would be like on its feet.
Soon after, Strings was again invited for a reading at the 2015 PEN World Voices Playwriting Festival (NY) where a fantastic director, Awoye Timpo, and an incredible group of actors worked to bring it to life. Their discussions and questions about the text were important in what would be my thinking for the next year and a half and the work to finish what is now the final script. During the 10 day rehearsal for the 2017 KITF opening, I made a few minor changes for clarity and consider the script done.
4. You talked about humour and yes “Strings” gives quite a laugh. Do you consider yourself a funny person or is it the things you read and watch?
My work always contains humour. It’s my favourite way to tell a story. Everyone is having a good time, we all have our guards down, and you can sneak the truth in from time to time.
I’ve been told I’m a funny storyteller which is a great blessing because I’m an introvert and pretty intense.
5.What did you want to tell in this story? (Yes you said most people ask -:)) How do you rate it compared to your other works especially the award winning ones?
Wow! What did I want to tell with this story! I’m fascinated by Love, Loss, and Regret. I’m fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves in order to accept the choices we’ve made or not made, the life we’ve chosen or not chosen. I’m interested in people, especially people who may elicit quick judgments from the outside about their internal lives without any attempt at investigation – coffin makers, petrol attendants, women who are seen/expected to hold fort while men are away, young people who seem to be drifting unable to latch on to what are considered good jobs… is it really that simple?
What do they think about? Want? Dream about?
I’m not saying Strings is an answer to any of these questions but perhaps it is my attempt to get to know… to suggest that there’s more to everyone than meets the eye, there’s a philosophy, however strange, to the choices every single person makes – whoever they are.
I think Strings represents growth for me as a writer – in all of it – the heart, the patience, the work, the craft, the discipline of writing. The Cow Needs a Wife feels more like an outpouring: heartfelt, simple, a discovery that writing is what I wanted to do. Sunflowers behind A Dirty Fence while also from the heart, was also about the next step in my development as a writer in terms of craft. I had a One Fine Day screenwriting workshop and a Maisha Film Screenwriting Lab under my belt before writing Sunflowers. These two workshops were instrumental in my development as a writer especially in character development and structure.
Finally, Strings was about patience and discipline. I had always wondered how someone could write a project for several years, now I know – the amazing benefits and the struggle to stay with it.
6.Why a world premiere in Uganda? And did you love its reception?
I write for Ugandans. Of course I hope that whatever work I do will radiate outward and have regional and global significance. BUT I decided early on in my career that I write for Ugandans. It was therefore clear to me that Strings needed to begin its life with a Ugandan audience and the reception was fantastic. It does not escape me that when I have a predominantly Ugandan audience watching my plays do incredibly well. That’s why I love theatre, the audience you get on any given day makes a difference because essentially you are telling the story together. So of course a Ugandan story will be told fantastically with a Ugandan audience. At least that’s what I think!
7.What keeps you going as a playwright seeing (you may disagree on this) that much of Uganda’s population either consumes very localised theatre or the urban population that would consume drama is taken up by other forms of art?
I’m a storyteller. I love writing. I love actors. I love the magical alchemy of playwright, director, actors, the varied theatre making departments, and most importantly the audience, that can elevate a production into a life changing event. The auditorium vibrates and everyone emerges with the sense that they’ve experienced a moment of something real.
I love the opportunity to tell stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things. The idea that philosophy or characters with complex emotions or whatever were born in us with formal AKA western education is frustrating to me. You only need to spend time with the old people telling stories or meditate on a traditional idiom or proverb or saying and a whole philosophy will reveal itself.
That said, I think there is room for all types of art, all types of theatre. I’m happy for people to consume whatever theatre or art they prefer but I also think it is important for there to be opportunities that widen the boundaries and definitions of what is known to be theatre or art.
8.What are your motivations and thoughts about the festival?
KITF was a wonderful opportunity for me to share Strings. The festival gives participating theatre makers opportunity, space and audience that would otherwise be costly for each artist to create for themselves. I was honored to be invited to premiere Strings at the festival. It also felt like Strings came full circle seeing as it began its developmental journey at Sundance Theatre Initiative East Africa, one of the founders of KITF.
I think KITF is important for the public, theatre makers, and performance students in Uganda and the region. The festival works hard to curate different types of performances to expose the public to different forms of theatre and expression. To enable us expand the boundaries in our work and be inspired by other theatre makers from around the world.
9.Any advice to young writers/playwrights?
Read as many plays as you can. See as many plays as you can – live and recorded. Meet and learn from as many theatre makers as you can. Be interested in people, deeply and passionately. Cultivate curiosity. WRITE.
10.What is your vision for theatre in Uganda?
I want to see a theatre landscape that is as varied in expression and execution as there are Ugandan theatre makers and audiences who come to see plays.
Photo : James Wasswa