Let’s think of theatre outside the traditional ‘in the box’ offerings

Deborah Asiimwe at opening

Deborah Asiimwe speaks at the opening of the festival

When we speak of theatre in Uganda, we are most likely talking about the likes of Alex Mukulu and Charles Mulekwa staging plays at the National Theatre for the elite or the Ebonies, Diamonds Ensemble and others performing to common man crowds in places like La Bonita or Bat Valley Theatre. Either way, we still largely think of it within the box of a “formal scripted theatre performed on a proscenium arch stage,” as Rose Mbowa once scoffed in describing a tendency to see Ugandan theatrical art through a western/colonial lense.

The Kampala International Theatre Festival which opened yesterday, Wednesday 26th November, would like to give Ugandan theatre artists and goers, multiple alternative lenses through which to present and consume theatrical performances. “If there’s one goal, one theme to this festival, it is to showcase alternative formats, presentations and spaces for theatre,” says Deborah Asiimwe, one of two co-directors of the festival. She explains that away from the proscenium arch stage of the main auditorium, artists will be staging performance in unusual spaces such as the huts at the national theatre and even open space. Whereas we often think of a theatre production as one involving a large ensemble of actors and full production, we’ll get to see alternative formats solo performances, poetic plays, readings, etc. Even the content of the plays decidedly moves away from the comic themes that have made the current crop of theatre stars like Kato Lubwama. “We are tackling social political themes such as abuse of power, sexual harassment, gender issues,” she explains.

opening-cocktail

Aida Mbowa, Philip Luswata and other artists who are showcasing at the festival

This showcasing of alternative theatre comes when traditional theatre stands at a fork in the road type of coma. While groups like the Ebonies still pull crowds to theatres, a lot of criticism is often leveled at the quality of their productions. “At the same time, you these young talented artists who say we want to do theatre but it is so expensive,” Ms Asiimwe points to the other part of the problem.  Indeed it is not just the young struggling artists who are being bogged down by this. Alex Mukulu himself is on the record saying that the “cost of production is the major challenge facing the industry.” It for instance costs shs1,000,000 an hour to rent the National Theatre auditorium if one were to stage a show there. That’s saying nothing about the cost of training actors, costumes, stage prepping, marketing etc. Asiimwe and her co-director, Faisal Kiwewa, hope that by staging production off ‘the proscenium arch stage’ or at different levels of readiness (such as readings), they open artists mind to new ways in which they can put their work out there anyway. Asiimwe for instance wonders why artists don’t stage their productions in the hotel halls that are often rented out to wedding and conferencing parties.

At the same time, they hope to open up Uganda’s appetite for theatre outside of the traditional box. They are betting that perhaps when one sees a superb 20 minute production (rather than the long traditional play that even calls for an interlude), one might consider including a theatrical perfromance in their next private party entertainment. That way, we’ll reboot the theatrical arts scene by consuming it in new ways.

Come to the festival and decide for yourself how far on or off their bets are. Desperate to fight, an Ethiopian drama about one woman’s journey through three divorces is showing today, Thursday between 6:30pm and 7:30pm. Come see one versatile actor convincingly play all three characters that are her ex-husbands. We said alternative presentation, remember?

  • Post by: Lydia Namubiru
  • Photos by: Josh Agaba

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