The state of theatre in Uganda is absurd, especially because playwrights are no longer penning new plays and old groups are dying out as veterans channel their efforts elsewhere, seasoned theatre actor, John Ssegawa, says.
Ssegawa says the big names of theatre are focusing their energies on other commercial ventures. True. If you have been to theatre lately, it is the old plays that are staged. Otherwise much of what you will get is comic relief as opposed to solid plays that characterised Ugandan theatre until the 1990s and early 2000s.
However, stage comedian Kenneth Kimuli aka Pablo, says the players in the industry at the moment have to set the right precedent if stage theatre is to thrive and compete favourably with other forms of entertainment. He notes that there is a generational gap between the established theatre practitioners and those joining the industry. His argument borders on the fact that young people look at exploring theatre from a more vibrant angle using complex forms of art that the old guards find unbearable.
“There is conflict between stories based on political and economic turmoil that the senior artistes would prefer to address compared to the social life style that the new breed of artistes would prefer to address,” Kimuli explains.
Ashraf Ssimwogerere, a veteran actor, agrees with him, emphasising that theatre needs a fundamental change in line with the dot com age.
“Most of us are already old and what we write does not rhyme with the spending age. That is why comedy is more popular. It appeals to them,” he argues, agreeing with Ssegawa that playwrights do not have enough time to do concrete research to put out plays that mirror society just the way theatre is traditionally supposed to do.
“Today we see plays that have not been rehearsed and researched.” Ssimwogerere adds.
Old plays dying?
Robert Musiitwa, the public relations officer of Uganda National Cultural Centre, commonly known as National Theatre, says traditionally known stage plays are kind of fading away due to the fact that the entertainment industry is now sophisticated.
“In the 1980s and 90s, stage performances boomed. There were less televisions, radios, nightclubs and bars which theatre had to compete with like today. That is why currently, even the artistes are trying to marry performances meant for screens with those meant for stage,” Musiitwa observes.
And whereas theatre has a lot of art forms to compete with, Meddie Nsereko Ssebuliba, another veteran actor, says theatre practitioners are not doing enough to earn their pay slip and thereon attract the numbers back.
“There is a lot of entertainment today. Back in the day, theatre was just about the only form of entertainment on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Families would have their lunch and head to theatre for entertainment but today, there is television, comedy and other forms of entertainment that stage theatre have to compete with,” Nsereko says.
He is quick to add that theatre would still have its place on people’s social calendar if actors and actresses did more.
“We treated acting with respect. We would take time to rehearse. We would rehearse up to three months for a play before we acted it out on stage. We would get experts to review out scripts and help us make additions and subtractions. Plus, we had a censorship body. Our plays were not merely comic but with an education component. Today, theatre plays are different,” Nsereko further explains.
But to Phillip Luswata, an actor, theatre in Uganda is under exploited and under invested in. The potential is big but currently, the commitment is wanting.
“We all want to gain but are putting in little. Theatre would thrive on spectacle, but no one is investing in spectacle and we continue complaining. When we learn to tell provocative stories, we will grow the industry. Alex Mukulu provoked us with his stories and he had theatre shows running for months,” Luswata argues.
Kimuli thinks that beyond strengthening stage theatre content, theatre has to adopt to technology if it is to compete with the other alternative forms of entertainment.
“I do not see much hype of it on social media, which is proving to be the fastest way of channelling instant information to a client.”
Perhaps this explains the dwindling numbers of theatre goers. It is easy to go to theatre on any given weekend and find a small crowd of just about 150 people. On this, Ssegawa says there is need to go back to the drawing board to get the first love that drove them, as actors, to acting as a profession and start believing in it.
“We cannot appreciate who we are before we appreciate what made us who we are. We need everyone back, the Alex Mukulus, Omugave Nduggwa, Fagil Manndy, Mariam Ndagire, Christopher Mukiibi and all the other gurus of Ugandan theatre. We can find a solution and we will be heard.”
But the average actor or actress is preoccupied chasing after a more lucrative venture. They would rather emcee at an event than attend a rehearsal where they will receive a meagre attendance allowance.
Nsereko says it is wrong for actors and actresses to leave their profession. “We need these personalities back, like I am against Kato Lubwama contesting for MP. His stature and name is within theatre. He will never be appreciated in politics for he will always be referred to as a clown. When he writes a commanding drama, everybody will sit and listen. We have to believe in our profession,” Nsereko argues.
But beyond the present stars, Kimuli points at another challenge, of lack of mentorship of younger actors to take on the mantle now that our stage actors are busy chasing pay cheques and out to satisfy their egos.
Role of the National Theatre
Actor and dancer Julius Lugaaya says the National Theatre should not just be attracting any play but be a place where every actor or actress dreams to be. To achieve this, Lugaaya suggests that the theatre should do more than just host artistes.
But Musiitwa says the National Theatre cannot currently finance such ventures but adds that modern times call for modern approaches and theatre practitioners need to address challenges they face today by particular focusing their energies on strengthening their content.
Luswata is for people investing in theatre spaces. This is particularly because the National Theatre sits only 370 people, a very small audience. Luswata thinks Ugandan actors have not proved their self worth.
“As soon as we begin creating products worth the money, the money will come. Ask anyone if they have an investment worth a theatre product today. Hardly any. All we have are good stories but hardly business stories,” he concludes.
Their take > What can be done to save the future of stage theatre?
Abbey Boris Mugerwa, Journalist
“What we probably lack is more standardised theatre facilitation. I humbly ask the government to consider investing and supporting the theatre industry, like setting up more standard theatres. The people involved in the industry should continue to promote and invest in it for its betterment.”
Cissy Winans Kiyaga, House wife
“Gone are the days when acting was based on script with proper grammar. What the audience likes is what will sell as opposed to what a playwright would wish to communicate. Government should come in to help the arts like the way it has tried with sports.”
Jaq Deweyi Namataka, Radio presenter
“When I was growing up, theatre was the place to be especially over the weekend. Today it would really have to be so different to have people in my age bracket go to theatre. However, blending different aspects of entertainment like stand-up comedy and music performances could be the solution to theatre life.”