FROM THEATRE DIRECTOR TO TV DIRECTING, SPOTLIGHT ON CAROL ODONGO
I joined commercial theatre after three years of working as an amateur at the beginning of 2006. My main frustration was with the directing. I just didn’t understand this ‘blocking’ business and why a director wanted me to “tilt my neck” a little, or to “walk three steps and drop the line” or “to fill/feel the stage”…That plus many other specifics that totally eliminated my intuitive contribution as the actor. I lamented to my friend Lydia Gitachu about it. She had already tested the waters for a few years (and later went on to bag many awards and do several international projects). Lydia talked about a director who didn’t bother you with all that crap. She talked about how this director had the ability to help the cast interpret the script, hence the blockings and the line delivery came freely to the actor so that all she did as Director was to polish and choreograph the specifics. I was partly excited for and partly jealous of Lydia for having the opportunity to work with Carol Odongo-Boy.
Despite my desire to work under this top talent in Kenyan theatre, I never really got to work with Carol until sometime in 2013 when she herself went through baptism by fire by directing 120 episodes in a series as her introduction to TV directing. But I am jumping ahead so let me start from somewhere.
Meeting with Carol at Wasanii (we miss that bar!) was always a pleasurable moment. Her satin, bold and cheerful face made you think she was one of the new actresses looking for an audition at the Kenya National Theatre. As a matter of fact Carol Odongo is one of the most experienced and successful thespians in East Africa. She started acting in 1990 while in university. During this period, theatre was still regarded highly as an intellectual form whose reflections had great impact on the society. Perhaps because the Kamirithu movement tale (where villagers, mostly illiterate women, who had never seen a theatre before built an amphitheatre-like performance space where they performed indigenous plays) was still rife and Ngugi wa Thion’go’s revolutionary theatrical campaigns that saw audiences fill the theatre as early as 5 a.m. just to watch a play were also a near memory.Either way theatre was then still highly regarded and revered in Kenya. This was the scenario that Carol had to contend with and this meant that getting roles was not automatic; she had to prove herself.
She started off as a chorus girl in a musical then graduated to small roles in straight plays after which she bagged major roles in plays up to and including a two-hander and a one-woman show. She did many years of stage management in between acting and then moved into directing one-act plays and eventually full-length plays including musicals. Her entry to directing was not immediate nor was it eventful. The decision was made quietly; in silent and private moments. No one could understand this personal dilemma. In truth, she had no doubt that directing gave her a lot of satisfaction including the ecstasy of creating and the responsibility of moulding people into great actors. On the other hand, she was at her prime in acting and madly in love with the vocation.
Her first challenge was a Theatre For Development model- based project that required a cast of more than twenty performers. It was in 1996 while working at the Phoenix Players where the legendary James Falkland noticed her attention to detail and interpretive skills and took it upon himself to mentor Carol into one of the most sort after directors to date. Of course all Falklandarians have a favorite lesson- hers was how to deal with actors because of their varied temperaments and personalities. Falkland always compared actors to 'race horses'- you must know how to deal with them; know when to use the carrot and when to use the stick! Carol left an admirable record at Phoenix having worked on fifty repertories. Demand for her work however grew and every producer who cared about high quality and dignified production contacted her. This saw her direct numerous plays at the Kenya National Theatre, Alliance Française and theatre companies in Mombasa between 2002 -2004. Around this period many great and successful actors passed through her capable hands, including Kenneth Mason, Annabel Maule, Sam Madoka and Ian Mbugua.
Many actors see Carol as a mentor who took it upon herself to take time to train the actor having been fully aware that there are no successful acting schools in Kenya (And please don’t tell me about the archaic and classical-theory filled theatre and film degree course in the universities). As a matter of fact it is difficult to find a successful Nairobian actor who has been in this game for a while and did not go through Carol!
Why did Carol turn to film directing? Film was never far from Carol’s grasp as her husband Cajetan Boy, one of the most prolific script writers in East Africa, had already made the switch from stage to film.
Carol, as an accomplished script writer herself, helped Cajetan Boy and other TV script writers in conceptualizing and writing scripts. She was however resistant to the idea of leaving theatre as this was her first love and she knew that this was the only suitable space to train actors. However the phenomenal producer, Dorothy Ghettuba was determined to re-make Block–D, which had ended in struggles two years after its first season with KBC. She managed to convince Carol that this was the debut project for her. Having been a cast in the series myself, I can tell you that no one could tell that Carol was doing her fist real TV job. She assembled an outstanding cast and was always dignified when handling any challenges on set. True to her abilities, she successfully head–wrote and directed the one hundred and twenty episode show which was an immediate hit on Africa Magic, with a steady and loyal viewership. This marked the beginning of a now illustrious career. Depending on what you consider to mean latest, she worked on Mama Digital, a TV sitcom with Ebru TV last November just after producing two successful pilot series that were about to go on air. She also directed one hundred and twenty episodes of the drama series Sumu la Penzi with Spielworks Media which currently airs on Maisha Magic Swahili.