Enter Nairobi, Centre- stage

(This feature appeared in the East African 21st-27th June 2010)

The Austin Room at Braeburn School

“I CAN take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

In these opening lines of his book, The Empty Space, Peter Brook, one of the most influential theatre and film directors of our time, points to the three basic components of theatre: the space, the performer and the audience.

The physical environment of the theatre space is as important to the theatre experience as the actors, the text, the costume and the set.

A good example is the ballet that the Russian Embassy hosts annually in Nairobi. I watched last year’s show at the Safari Park Hotel. Watching Swan Lake on a simple raised stage with a tie-and-dyed curtain for a backdrop is markedly different from watching the same performance at, say, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow where it premiered in 1877.

At about the same time last year, the Aga Khan Academy staged a very impressive adaptation of the Broadway musical In the Heights at the Aga Khan High School. It would have been a world-class performance if they had a stage that could accommodate a performance of this magnitude.

This got me thinking about the theatres in Nairobi. Is there room for variety? Could we have musicals like Grease coming to Nairobi when on tour? What sort of theatres do we have in Nairobi and what can we do with them?

I will start with the proscenium stages, as they are the most popular. Historically, these were introduced in Renaissance Italy when the proscenium arch was actually an arch, but these days it is a rectangle, which is why they can also be called picture-frame stages.

Phoenix Theatre, a legacy of Kenya’s first professional theatre, the Donovan Maule theatre, is a small intimate theatre and though it doesn’t have much of a backstage, it suits modern British plays, for which it was initially intended. Most other realistic plays, especially one-act plays, would be suited to this theatre.

The Dr. Anne Spoerry Auditorium at the French Cultural Centre seems to be the most popular amongst professional theatre companies. It is slightly bigger than the Phoenix and can sit 210 people. Recently, the Safaricom Foundation funded the renovation of the Louis Leakey Auditorium at the National Museum. Although it can boast a state-of-the-art sound system and newly-fitted acoustic panels, the small size of the stage- even though it has been extended- and the lack of a back stage limits it to productions with a small cast and minimal scene changes.

Then there is our monumental Kenya National Theatre, which Francis Imbuga aptly calls The Shrine of Tears. I did act there, on two occasions, a good number of years ago. In my time, one could never aspire to act to a full house at the KNT. I therefore decided to ask theatre veteran Annabel Maule, who acted there in its hey day (if it ever did have one), what the experience was like and she said, “From an actress’s point of view, it’s horrible because of that enormous space between the proscenium arch and the first row of stalls.”

In principal, though the KNT may lack this intimacy, it is better suited to big productions like musicals. But when I watched Eric Wainaina’s Luanda (recently re-dubbed, Mo Faya) there during the Kwani? Litfest in 2008 I remember what struck me was how unsuitable the stage was for this production, although it was not so much the size of the stage, as its state of disrepair, that made it unsuitable.

I would hazard to say that the ideal theatre for a musical in Nairobi is the Oshwal Centre Auditorium. Last month, I watched a dance performed there by Kamini’s School of Dancing. All the dances involved 30 to 40 dancers, but there was no crowding on stage. The stage has a lot of depth, state-of-the-art light and sound systems and a sprung dance floor. There is ample space for an orchestra at the pit and the auditorium has a total of 630 seats in the stalls and balcony. In addition to this, it has two very large dressing rooms that can accommodate up to a hundred people.

The Braeburn Theatre is not as big as the Oshwal but would still be suitable for musicals. It is has a fly loft, which is a space above the stage where scenes may be lifted out of the audience’s view, a pit for the orchestra and it can sit up to 416 people. The Austin Room, also at Braeburn School combines the amphitheatre experience with the cosiness of a small theatre like the Phoenix. It is not a proscenium stage but has the audience facing in one direction towards the stage.

Proscenium stages were developed to give the audience the impression that they were watching real life. However, film has perfected this realism, with the ability to change from one scene to another in a split second, show aerial shots taken from helicopters and all sorts of special effects. This is one of the reasons why theatre practitioners like Jerzy Grotowski (whose work influenced Peter Brook) started to experiment with ‘non-theatre’ spaces, in a quest for the true elements of theatre.

The Godown Centre is one such space. This is an all-purpose space or a ‘black box’. At the Godown, a director will adapt the space to the play unlike other theatres where the play has to be adapted to the space. The audience can sit on one side of the stage creating the ‘fourth wall’ effect or on three sides of the stage making a thrust stage, which is best suited for Shakespeare plays.

Even though the Godown administrator Catherine Mujomba was very keen to impress upon me the Godown’s commitment to bringing theatre to ‘the masses’ I still think it is Nairobi’s avant-garde theatre and possibly, the most elite- not that there is anything wrong with this. I dare say, Nairobi could do with a little elitism.

Every time you watch a play, you are taking part in the rich heritage that is the history of theatre. If you went to watch a traditional African dance at the Bomas of Kenya, not only would you be watching dances that date back at least one century, you would also be experiencing the sort of space the Greeks had when they watched their plays more that two millennia ago.

The Bomas of Kenya auditorium, which is an arena stage, or theatre in a round, is very well suited for the African dances that are performed there. Actually, this type of stage is suitable for all types of dances. It offers the most intimacy between the performers and the audience since there is no barrier separating the two. It is also economical as it is difficult to have elaborate scenery in an arena stage. The Bomas amphitheatre can sit up to 2000 people, making it possible to reach a large audience in a few days, like on the rare occasions that Nairobi gets a touring ballet.

So, any chance of Grease doing a stop in Nairobi, or should we catch up with it next time it’s in South Africa?

©Anne W. Manyara 2010

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Mulwa says:

    Ever thought about the introduction of Drama & Theatre into the KCSE or rather the Kenya Secondary School curricula?

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