Kenyan theatre goes global at Kitfest


Cast of The Island which was staged by David Mulwa Productions at KITFest at Kenya National Theatre from November 6th and 10th. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

When the Kenya International Theatre Festival (Kitfest) opened early this week at Kenya National Theatre, there was one person who was conspicuous for his absence from the stage.

The new Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Ababu Namwamba was on hand as was the CEO of Kenya Cultural Centre (KCC), Michael Pundo, and representatives from all the countries whose actors are coming specially to perform at Kitfest.

Those countries include Spain, Switzerland, and South Africa as well as Egypt, China, Czech Republic, Uganda, and the US.

Not all the actors had arrived by the time the festival opened on November 1. “Only the South Africans are here,” Kevin Kimani, founding father of Kitfest told the BDLife on opening day.

“The rest will be coming in shifts from early next week since we couldn’t accommodate them for all 14 days of the festival,” confessed the man who prefers keeping a low profile while letting others shine in the limelight.

“It’s true, I prefer working in the background,” said Mr Kimani who was recently vetted and selected to become KCC’S Principle Creative Production Officer.

“I find things work more smoothly that way,” added the man who has had a passion for theatre practically all his life.

“Since I was a child, maybe 4 or 5, I was making people laugh. I was this funny character who’d stand in class and imitate politicians and make people laugh,” he said. “I’ve always loved drama.”

That passion for drama propelled him to perform in primary, secondary, and even during his ‘gap’ years, when he travelled all around the country performing in set texts like The Merchant of Venice and River Between with Jicho Productions. He also got to see how thespians could earn a living when their theatre company was properly managed.

“The moment I completed secondary [at Seekomothai Boys where he’d been chairman of the Drama Club], I came straight to the Kenya National Theatre where I specifically sought a theatre company I could join and work with before heading to university,” said Mr Kimani who at the time just wanted to know more about theatre.

But then, once he reached Kenyatta University (KU) and joined the Film and Theatre Department, his passion to do great things with and for Kenyan theatre was not quenched.

“No one was taking KU productions to the [Schools and Colleges] Drama Festival,” recalls Mr Kimani who proceeded to form a Drama Club open to any student, not just the ones in his department. It was with the club that they could create plays that made it to festival finals. But even then, he wanted more than just making it to the finals, and after that, going home.

“I felt we needed our theatre to grow and deepen, which is how I came up with the idea of a Kenya International Theatre Festival,” says Mr Kimani who didn’t get much support when he mooted the idea to friends and fellow thespians. But that didn’t stop him. He had a vision and whether others could see it as he did, he was determined to make it a reality.

He'd been frustrated by the festival, despite KU winning “everything” in 2012. He could already see that theatre needed a broader, wider, deeper platform on which to build a sustainable theatre culture and cultivate all the rich talent that is here.

Mr Kimani had no financial backing when he first formed the Kitfest in 2013. And even now, the festival has no patron or central sponsor. But with the small savings he had earned from his work with Jicho and with loans from family and friends, he was finally able to launch Kitfest in 2016.

“We were ‘international’ in that we at least had one non-Kenyan performing company participate in the festival which only ran for two days,” he recalls.

The following years have seen a slow but steady growth in both international and local participation in Kitfest. This year the festival not only runs for 13 days, has eight non-Kenyan theatre troupes performing, and a whole series of workshops, master classes, lectures, and outstanding productions by Kenyans.

It also will stage one play and screen one film that were specially commissioned by Michael Pundo to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Kenya National Theatre.

The other event meant to celebrate 70 years is a competition among spoken-word poets who take part in one of KCC’s most popular weekly programmes. It’s called PAL or Performance after Lunch which runs every Thursday from 12pm to 2pm and has a huge following.

But however popular the Kenya Cultural Centre, including Ukumbi Mdogo, Cheche Gallery and the main auditorium have clearly become, Mr Kimani still believes there is much more potential for growth in theatre’s role in the country’s creative economy.

“Just look at a theatre company like Heartstrings. They have ticket sales per month that earn between Sh800,000 and Sh1.2 million,” said Mr Kimani who has been digging into data collection these days.

“They have on average 34 people working in every show, and around 1,000 that come to their productions every month. Now just imagine if all the theatre companies in Kenya could operate that way, what kind of contribution theatre could make to our creative economy,” he added.

“You’re already talking about multi-millions. And that’s not even calculating all the employment that theatre brings to the restaurants operating nearby. When there’s a show at the theatre, venders come out regularly to sell their things. Altogether, it amounts to roughly Sh100 million annually,” said Mr Kimani who is currently a Ph.D candidate at KU.

“I’m researching in the area of theatre management, since I believe that none of the arts, including theatre, can be successful without effective management,” said the man who is still on track to realise his vision of a Kenyan theatre meeting its full potential at every level.

“I was able to attend a theatre festival in Sweden several years ago. It is such a theatre-loving culture that out of a population of 10 million, eight million go to the theatre regularly, even babies,” observed Mr Kimani.

“I believe we have the capacity to expand our audiences, and create the equivalent of Broadway or even SwedStage right here in Kenya.”

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