What is eating up the national theatre

Monday April 25 2016

The Uganda National Cultural Centre. File photo

The Uganda National Cultural Centre. File photo 

By Henry Mulindwa

Many an artiste used to look out for Monday nights at the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC). The day, for several years, was dedicated to up and coming artistes. Some of today’s stars such as Bobi Wine and Jose Chameleon, among others, honed their skills at the weekly Jam Session.

Today, Phillip Luswata a renowned playwright and founder of Theatre Factory says, not even a stunted artiste would want to visit the facility because the environment is not conducive for performing arts.

“Not so long ago, the National Theatre was famed for its programmes,” he said last week. “Mondays and Thursdays were the most vibrant. There were stage productions every weekend.”
He paused for a second as if to let his point sink in.

His colleague, Jack Sserunkuma takes over the narrative.
“But today, I can guarantee you no group would want to bring their production here because this place is a mess. One would rather go to Sharing Hall, Nsambya.”

The two artistes believe the current leadership at UNCC, headed by Francis Peter Ojede, has failed to manage the facility as it is in a sorry state and thus called for a vote of no confidence.

Petition to ministry


Theatre lovers watch a production by comedy
Theatre lovers watch a production by comedy outfit Fun Factory. Photo by Alex Esagala

According to a document released by the artistes and handed to the Ministry of Gender Permanent secretary, Pius Bigirimana the management of UNCC has failed to cater for their interests, promote culture instead they concentrate on only business.

Other issues raised include the mismanagement of the auditorium, studio, greenroom, parking space as well as increase of rent.
Recently, reports have been circulating that National Theatre owes Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) Shs1b in tax arrears.
However, Ojede says the issues raised by the artistes are personal and ‘not meant to promote art and culture’.

He also refutes the tax arrears claims, saying disgruntled artistes have resorted to false propaganda and tarnishing his name over selfish interests and false allegations.

“I have heard about their petition and propaganda that we are not managing this place well and because of that we owe URA Shs1b. These are outrageous statements and false. We are a law abiding organisation and pay our taxes,” he told Daily Monitor. However, at some stage we found we had some outstanding tax obligations, particularly Pay As You Earn of close to Shs172m. We negotiated with URA and came up with a repayment plan and as per now, the remaining balance is Shs43m not Shs1b as it was alleged,” Ojede says.

The squabbles, Ojede says stem from the fact that the artiste failed to pay rent for a whole year and his was office locked.
“UNCC decided to lock the offices of Theatre Factory until they clear the entire amount, about Shs8million even after numerous letters and reminders,” he said.
The closing of the office sparked anger among artistes who used it for brainstorming.

“Those artistes should know that we have ‘tenant-land lord relationship’ with Theatre Factory not ‘tenant-artiste relationship’. These are totally different arrangements.

Actually, Theatre Factory should appreciate that we have been lenient with them because they also have an outstanding bill of about Shs9m that they didn’t pay for using the auditorium,” Ojede says.

However, Luswata says as Theatre Factory, they stopped using the said office a long time ago because it was not conducive for their work. Instead they discussed with management and decided to leave that office as a contact place for both new and existing artistes, as well as those artistes using it to write scripts and other art-related work.

“As of today, I have my office at Makerere University. For shows, we put them at Zone 7, every Thursday. Can you imagine pushing us to bars?” he asks.

According to Luswata, Theatre Factory agreed with the new management to pay the arrears totalling to Shs8.7m which he says they paid.

“Actually, rent is not the main issue. Should I keep quiet when National Theatre is being mismanaged because I am a defaulter. The executive director says I talk all this because I failed to pay rent. That is a joke,” he says. “Other tenants, not even doing arts-related projects are also crying because of hiked rent, poor toilets, darkness and parking fees. This is beyond artistes.”

High bills
However, the public relations officer of UNCC, Robert Musiitwa, says rent was increased by the government following an audit by a government valuer and not the management of UNCC.

“Before the audit, our tenants used to pay Shs33,000 per square metre but later, we were told to increase the rent. Currently, we charge Shs45,000 per square metre, which is still cheap compared to other rates in the capital city and the facilities which the tenants use,” Musiitwa says.
UNCC pays Shs6.5m for electricity, Shs4m for water and staff salary amounting to Shs78m every month.

“On a monthly basis, we get Shs100m (from shows, wedding meetings and car parking) yet we spend a lot. So how do those people expect us to manage the place,” he says.

As management, Ojede says they have plans to revamp the National Theatre but due to inadequate funds, they cannot implement all the programmes as they want them.

“We only get Shs27m from the government per year and we supplement it with what we collect from here. This place needs a lot of money to make it look as good as artistes and other people want it to be,” he says.
Currently, National Theatre is grappling with sound and lighting problems in the auditorium.
This has forced some artistes to carry their own equipment for production.

“The sound system is really bad and we need about Shs40m to restore it. The type of lights needed for the auditorium are not easy to find and are expensive. One needs to go to France to buy them and each costs about Shs250,000,” Ojede says.

“We also need to work on the sewage system and all the plans are in place. We have engaged the National Water and Sewerage Corporation on this and it will cost Shs50m to dig up the sewerage system. This is money we do not have.”

Promoting artistes, culture
In order to promote artistes’ projects, UNCC reserved the Center for Innovative and Cultural Practices (CICP) space for practice and rehearsals free of charge. Many artistes, Musiitwa says have successfully used it. Also, management gives discounts to those artistes who have projects and shows to be staged in the auditorium.

“We always tell artistes that incase one has a show or any project, please let us know and plan how we can support them. We even give them auditorium at discounted rates. We normally charge about Shs1.7m for using the auditorium, but we are giving it out to Fun Factory at Shs700,000 per show because of art,” Musiitwa says.

However, Julius Lugaaya, another artiste says CICP is like a walkway and not a good place for rehearsals.
“That place can only be used by dancers because they don’t need a lot of concentration. Real artistes create good art. Good art which we can sell internationally. And to achieve that, we need organised places,” he says.

car park

The National Theatre parking lot.  PHOTO BY
The National Theatre parking lot. PHOTO BY ALEX ESAGALA

Car parking is one of the facilities at UNCC where the institution collects revenue to sustain its operations. When the new management came in 2013, they decided to change the method of collecting car parking fees. In the previous regimes, parking fees were collected at the entrance where someone could be issued a receipt depending on the parking hours.

In order to make the process more efficient and transparent, the new management decided to introduce car parking automation system, which was installed at a cost of more than Shs100m. However, this was to be paid in instalments when the system became operational.

“We are paying this system in instalments up to now. Some people think that we generate a lot of revenue from the parking space which is not the case,” Ojede says.

However, the car parking automation system did not impress some artistes who normally stage plays and other shows at the National Theatre. To them, this was limiting on their audience since it involves paying parking fees.

“How can you levy parking fees on people who have come to watch your play or show? This system is not good for artistic engagements at all,” Luswaata says.

From noon to 6pm, normal parking fees are charged, from 6pm to 12, a flat fee of Shs2000 is applied as it is on Saturday from morning to midday. Saturday afternoon and Sunday the parking is free.

“We came up with such an arrangement to cater for different people including artistes. We also gave special cards to our tenants where every month, one is charged Shs45,000 as parking fees. For the registered artistes, one only pays Shs30,000 per month,” Mr Ojede adds.

Richard Tuwangye (comedian)
I don’t know about the so called artistes’ demonstration but that doesn’t mean everything is going on well at UNCC.
UNCC is under Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. If something is wrong at National Theatre, then something should be wrong at the ministry. Also, artistes should also be innovative. Who told them that National Theatre is the only performing place? Let them create other performing places the way you see Ndere Centre.

Susan Kerunen (musician)
As an artiste, I have been working with National Theatre on many projects.

I have heard there is a group of artistes who have issues with the management of UNCC but I don’t think they are general issues for all artistes. If they have art-related issues, we can find a way of handling them amicably instead of resorting to demonstrations. We also need to know where the real problem is such that it is handled. I remember we had a director who was an artiste but people fought him, now they have started fighting this regime as well.

Ronnie Mulindwa (artiste)
National Theatre has been there for a long time but its standards are deteriorating because it is managed by people who don’t have knowledge and skills about art. The people who are managing National Theatre have no vision artistically and cannot promote artistes and their products. Currently, there is no artiste who is proud of National Theatre. Personally, I stopped putting shows there because of many issues including broken chairs, poor sound system and poor lighting system. Other theatres have outcompeted National Theatre when it comes to audience because of poor management.