6 THINGS THAT ARE WRONG AND NEED TO CHANGE IN OUR THEATRE INDUSTRY
In the past year, Lupita has shone as the golden girl of Hollywood thanks to her riveting performance in 12 Years a Slave with her success culminating in her Best Supporting Actress win at the 86th Academy Awards on March 2nd. But as we continue to support and commend her for her accomplishments, and wish her luck in all her future endeavours, let us also take this rare spotlight that has been shone on the arts in Kenya and use it to reflect on our own entertainment industry. Why is it that Kenya’s theatre scene does not have a robust arts scene comparable to the Hollywoods, Broadways, West Ends, Bollywoods and even Nollywoods of the world? Lupita surely proves that it’s not because we lack talented individuals’ right? Well, as an actor who has experienced the acting discipline and industry both in Kenya and the US I’d love to offer some observations. They can be summed up into one word: PROFESSIONALISM.
When I first joined the Kenyan acting industry I had just finished university in the US where I had spent my last year training and performing as an actor. I returned to Kenya filled with enthusiasm to join and help promote the industry in my home country. After only a few months here I was lucky to be accepted into arguably the most established theatre company in East Africa and when I was called for my first role I was over the moon. But upon starting rehearsals, the huge gap in discipline and professionalism between what I was observing and what I had experienced in the US was stark.
1.There is no audition process involved in the casting of plays: a practice I have learnt is the norm in most-if not all-theatre companies here. Now I personally see one major problem with this practice. By not letting all theatre company actors know what plays are being put on not only do you deny each actor a fair chance to perform but as a director you also deny yourself the chance to meet actors who are much better suited for a role than the person you had originally envisioned. Almost all actors both in Broadway and Hollywood began from such auditions. If casting directors only cast people they already new then stars such as Lupita would never have had a chance to shine. Now I’m not suggesting you have open call auditions for every play. That would take too much time and man power. But if you have a theatre company, simply sms or email all the actors letting them know what plays are coming up and giving a short description of each character and ask those actors who are interested in certain roles to reply with their preferences. That way you are left to choose from a pool of actors who have already shown interest and commitment and if you need to call in 2 or 3 of those actors to audition for a role in person, that can be easily done.
2. Lack of commitment and discipline. People would be cast in a play and then drop out half way through rehearsals with seemingly no consequences. This sets a bad example for actors in general. If you were a consultant in the corporate world, for example, and a week to the deadline of your consultancy you decide to drop out, you would be crazy to think that any company would hire you again. By not having consequences for drop-outs and furthermore, continuing to beg those same actors to be in your productions ,you give them too much power and self-importance. The truth is, it is a privilege to work in our industry. It is a privilege to get to do what you love on that stage every night. And if you can’t respect the art then maybe you don’t need to be on that stage at all. Especially considering there will always be 20 people behind you to take your spot.
3. Lax and non-existent rehearsal schedules. We would agree on rehearsals one day in advance and even then people would stroll in 30 minutes late or decide they need to leave an hour early without any form of prior notice. Now when I was in the US, if you knew you would be even 5 minutes late you had to call the stage manager and explain why the delay – God save you if you were later than that. And if you were late more than 3 times, your part would be given to someone else. Rehearsal at 6 meant rehearsal at 6 and not 6:01. My suggestion would be to employ a system that we used in my university. When you were auditioning (another great reason to audition) you would fill out a form with all your contact information (for the stage manager) and more importantly the sheet stated the dates of rehearsal and performance and then gave a space for you to put in ANY conflicts you had with the listed dates. After you got the role you would again fill out a DETAILED list of any commitments you had during rehearsal time (other jobs, events, weddings, funerals, I mean everything). The stage manager would then take all the schedules and come up with a master rehearsal schedule that worked with everyone’s schedule. And once that schedule had been produced, no actor was allowed to come in with ANY reason as to why they could not attend the listed rehearsals. Furthermore, everyone had to clearly commit that anything else that came up would have to work AROUND his or her rehearsal schedule. In other words, the rehearsal schedule was your main priority. Now there might be some who might think they are well established stars and do not have to deal with such stringent rules. But just to enlighten you, even those A-list stars you see on Broadway or the West End have to live by the same rules. In theatre there is no A-list treatment.
4. Low bar set for actors. Everything seemed to be done to make the life of the actors easier and honestly if you keep spoiling a child you’ll end up with only one thing: a spoilt child. I was part of a play set outside Africa but never was I asked to learn the accent of the country we were purporting to be citizens of. Now I’m used to the expectation that if you are going to do a British play, you sure as hell were going to have to learn how to speak in a British accent. Likewise, if you were doing a play based in Alabama USA you would just have to learn how to speak like they do there. Not expecting these basics from our artists is denying them the opportunity to grow and be able to compete on a world stage. Because the truth is, had Lupita not learnt how to speak the American dialect at Yale, she might never have gotten that life-changing role. It is also somewhat of a spit-in-the-face to the audience. If they are coming to see a British play and you present a ‘British play’ where everyone has Kenyan accents, you are insulting their intelligence. And this brings out another issue. A British play will NEVER be successful if you just change all the locations and names to Kenyan ones. British plays have a unique humour and structure and feel (as do American plays etc) and you can never truly do it justice unless you stay true to it. If you want to do plays based in Kenya then DO KENYAN PLAYS. If you feel that there is not enough Kenyan plays then take it upon yourself to support Kenyan playwrights or write a play yourself. It is also disrespectful to the playwrights who spent months if not years writing these plays and choosing the names and locations that they did. Please respect their craft and their efforts.
5. Casting actors who are not talented in roles because they fit a type. To cast someone who is not talented is to hurt the integrity of the entire production. It ends up coming off as juvenile and amateur. And that is no way to get outsiders to take our art seriously. However this is not to say that if you do not have raw talent, you should not be allowed to pursue your dreams if indeed you dream is to be an actor. But it does mean that you might need to work a little bit harder to it. In this respect I would LOVE to see the development on an acting conservatory here in Kenya. To provide year round training for actors not only in acting, but in movement, voice, clown and all other aspects of the art that our western counterparts are privy to.
6. Learning and Respect. I would love to see us take seriously the other roles in theatre outside of acting. We need to expect more from our directors, stage managers, set designer, publicists, production crews etc. And again provide courses or opportunities for them to learn how to do their jobs to the best of their ability. After all they are as essential to success as any actor.
Now, I hope this hasn’t come across as one big rant. I have tried to offer solutions for all the problems I have identified and this truly is from a place of love for our industry. Because the truth is, I don’t want our next Lupita to feel the needs to go half way around the world to feel satisfied as an artist. And I promise on everything I hold dear, that if we lift the bar of expectation, the industry will roar to meet and surpass it. There is nothing stopping us from being as great and renowned as the ‘woods of the world. And if we can’t be like them, we can sure as hell try and be better.