Is Kenya’s Acting Talent Fully Utilised?

(This article appeared in The EastAfrican  May 30 – June 5, 2011 under the title Taking Drama to the next stage: Act One)

Andrew Muthure in Lucky People
Photo: Phoenix Players

Hamlet, in his advice to the actors in Act III, scene 2, describes the purpose of acting as, “both at first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” The role of the actor in society has changed considerably, since the first Hamlet uttered these words. In those days, women were not allowed on stage and in fact, the acting profession was so looked-down upon, that the French dramatist Jean-Baptiste Molière was not even allowed a burial in the churchyard.

Yet, all the elements of theatre- set, costume, lights- only come to life when an actor walks on to the stage. From the 19th century onward, the actor began to command more esteem in society and by the 20th century, this esteem had reached (near) worship status. Behind all the glamour and gloss that defines the acting profession nowadays, is the sobering reality of what acting demands. It is a profession that requires a lot of energy and stamina, both physically and mentally.

In the short while that I have been reviewing theatre in Kenya, I find it quite remarkable to see so much talent in the absence of a formal acting school in the country. Television drama is on the rise and many actors now oscillate between theatre and television.

But what continues to give stage acting so much appeal even in the face of the film popularity, is that in the former, the audience finds itself in the actual, physical presence of the actor.

Moreover, stage acting is far more demanding than acting for film, and requires a great deal of skill, which is what makes theatre the best training ground for acting. For example, the stage actor has to know all his lines at once while the film actor only needs to learn what is going to be filmed and may even be prompted. Film is not necessarily shot in sequence and so the film actor does not need to prepare for his role like a stage actor, who needs to follow a progression of character throughout the performance in a believable manner, without lapse in concentration. More crucially, the stage actor determines his performance, while in film, it is the director who determines what is to be seen.

In the absence of a formal theatre school, do our theatre companies give actors a chance to develop by giving them roles that stretch their abilities?

Take an actress like Chao Mwatela, for instance, who I last saw on the Phoenix stage in April 2009 playing the housekeeper Edna Chapman in Edward Taylor’s No Dinner For Sinners. For an actress who has demonstrated such great versatility, shall her active years slip away before we see her interpret a character like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House?

Lydia Nyambura who most recently played the psychiatrist in John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God and multiple roles in John Sibi-Okumu’s Role Play, had to step in for an actress on the night I watched the February production of Romeo and Juliet at Phoenix Theatre. Reading from the script throughout the performance, she still managed to bring forth the aloof Lady Capulet, without slipping out of character. Could Sophocle’s fiery Antigone push her acting ability to its limit?

The actor’s talent lies in interpreting the role and making the character believable to the audience. With actors like Lorna Irungu, who stood out in her role as Anna in George Mungai’s Propose Me! in November last year,  it is rather  unfortunate the we have not been enthralled by a callous and conniving Kenyan Lady Macbeth.

George Mungai, the creative director of Phoenix Players says, “I strongly believe, though, that it is important to touch base with the classics- at the very least, once a year. I always find they are a good platform for the introduction of ‘character acting’ techniques to fresh actors; they provide depth in certain historical directions which are very good for the actor’s mind- other than the fact that classics ‘jog’ a director’s mind.”

Well, I say that I strongly believe that it is important to touch base with the classics at least more than once a year! And I would like to believe that Mungai is wrong when he says that the performance of classics in Kenya is “dependent on these classics being part of the Secondary School curriculum.”

Fridah Muhindi as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Phoenix Players

Fridah Muhindi who recently played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Likairion Wainaina who played Tybalt in the same production both gave their respective roles an appeal that went beyond the demands of the school curriculum.

Andrew Muthure, has had far more opportunity to harness his talent on stage than in his role as Mustafa(?) in the Citizen Television series Mother-in-Law. With roles as diverse as  Onita in Bode Sowande’s The Night Before, which he played at the Alliance Francaise in 2009 to the orphanage director Mr Kariuki in James Falkand’s Changing Generations early this year, Muthure has consistently shown great charisma as an actor.

Even when the rest of the cast inadequately fitted into their characters in the production of John Godber’s Lucky Sods in January this year, Muthure seemed to have made a greater effort to understand his role as Morris, which he played with psychological depth. What greater pleasure then, than to see him play a complex character like Hamlet.

Strathmore Drama Society, perhaps being less constrained by demands of profits, has been more daring in staging serious drama, giving young actors good opportunities to debut their careers with serious roles.

The director, Nick Muthama explains that “Dramsoc is a non-profit drama society. Its key objective is attached to identifying and nurturing upcoming acting talents. The bigger the cast in a script, the better.”

Sheila Mukami in An Ideal Husband
Photos: Strathmore Dramsoc

Thus, Sheila Mukami has had the opportunity to play Madam Getrude in the adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, showing great promise. Benjamin Kamicha, who I first watched in The Government Inspector in April 2009 is another young actor who has profited from the classical repertoire of Strathmore Dramsoc. Although his later title role in Chekhov’s Ivanov in April 2010 required greater maturity to accomplish, given the psychological nature of Chekhov’s plays, his great stage presence as Ivan in The Government Inspector put him paces ahead of his peers.

What is also rather lamentable in the Nairobi theatre scenes, is that fact despite having very talented actors, they are rarely seen in the same cast. It is not clear if this is due to the varying commitments and engagements of actors but certainly, the casting process should always bear in mind the ensemble of the cast and the chemistry between cast members.

Benjamin Kamicha in The Importance of Being Earnest
Photo: Strathmore Dramsoc

It is pleasing to imagine Evans Wanyama, who has only played minor roles in Strathmore productions in spite of his natural acting ability and Sam Psenjen, who co-starred with Likairion Wainaina in Plautus’s Menaechmus Brothers playing Vladmir and Estragon respectively in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Both actors have remarkable voice control and projection and the sort natural posture and gestures required to present Vladmir and Estragon, roles that are usually played by actors at the pinnacle of their careers.

This is not mean to imply that good acting must necessarily be deep and psychological. Acting can draw on external qualities like gestures, accents, costume, singing and choreography, which the Heartstrings Company use, though not extensively. In fact, exploring symbolism could give them an edge in theatre, as their work currently seems better suited to television.

Likairion Wainaina as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet
Photo: Phoenix Players

Considering other actors like Harry Ebale, who portrayed a doting and endearing father in Chekhov’s The Proposal in August last year and Angela Mwandia who was a pious but street-wise Mother Superior in Pielmeier’s Agnes of God in April this year, I am obliged to state that the acting talent in Kenya is not limited to the actors mentioned in this article.

© Anne Manyara 2011

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