New theatre awards aim to grow industry


Nyatiti player Ati Sanaa performing during the Sanaa Theatre Awards gala at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi on December 19, 2020. FILE PHOTO | NMG



  • Kenya has a new set of theatre awards being announced officially online today.
  • The awards will cover theatre productions, both online and in person, dating from January to December this year.

Kenya has a new set of theatre awards being announced officially online today.

The awards will cover theatre productions, both online and in person, dating from January to December this year.

“That means the 2021 awards won’t be given until the end of January, early February,” says Kevin Kimani, who devised this new set of theatre awards. Besides these, there are the Sanaa Awards, and decades back, the Mbalemwezi Awards.

Kimani, a doctoral student in theatre at Kenyatta University, is also founding father of the Kenya International Theatre Festival, which was launched back in 2016. The Festival has drawn theatre companies and individual thespians from all over the world to perform in Kenya. They’ve come from Sweden, Egypt, South Africa, the US and Uganda among others.

“The awards are meant to grow the theatre industry in Kenya,” says Sitawa Namwalie, who was recently elected spokesperson for the jurists drawn from various theatre-related sectors, including academia, media, and performing arts.

Sitawa herself is an award-winning poet, playwright and performer whose role in advancing Kenyan theatre has been recognised both nationally and internationally.

Benson Ngobia is chairman of the newly-established performing arts, film and media department at the Kenya College of Accounting.

Ngobia is also a filmmaker who previously worked with schools affiliated with the Schools Drama Festival teaching students basic techniques of filmmaking.

Peter Ndoria is a former entertainment reporter and editor at The Standard, as well as an avid theatre fan.

Ken Waudo is a member of Heartstrings Kenya as well as chairman of The Arts Practitioners Society. He has also conducted countless standup-comedy workshops for youth around the country.

And Dr Margaretta Gacheru writes about theatre and the performing and visual arts for Nation Media Group, specifically the Business Daily. She has been writing about theatre for years, ever since she performed with the Nairobi University’s Free Travelling Theatre.

The jurists signed on to work with Kimani and his technical team after being shown the ambitious Concept Paper for the Awards. Their aim is not to diminish the role of other awards, but to take on a more systemic and ‘inclusive’ approach to the broader theatre industry.

“The Kenya Theatre Awards seek to fill in two gaps [in the industry] by tracing and watching all the theatre performances in the country and providing data and statistics on the number of theatre venues, performances staged, and people watching performances in the country,” the Paper’s Problem Statement says.

The awards do not plan to include either children’s theatre or schools and colleges drama festival performances. Instead they have got a rigourous criteria for appraising theatre performances.

They also aim to help advance the industry, rewarding ‘excellence and innovation in live [and online] Kenyan theatre.’

This past year when the pandemic hit Kenya and the world hard, thespians everywhere had a difficult time, like so many working people. With theatres closed, many companies fell silent and were not seen performing in 2020. At the same time, a number of performing artists began creating works that could be staged online, either on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or on Zoom.

Theatre practitioners have recognised that there are shortcoming to either performing live for social media or recording their work and then placing it on platforms like Facebook. “There are often problems with lighting and sound,’ says Ngobia whose background in filmmaking makes him especially sensitive to such issues.

But at the same time, most thespians who choose to perform for online audiences recognise those shortcomings. Nonetheless, they weigh in on whether they prefer not to perform at all or adjust their acting to accommodate the constraints.

In the same spirit, the judges recognised the need to adjust their awards to respond to the new conditions.

“We can’t afford to behave like dinosaurs,” says Sitawa who, as a practitioner in the field, is developing new works with fellow artists both in person and online.

Yet one point underscored in Kimani’s Concept Paper had to do with ‘conflict of interest’. If a jurist has a relationship with any production nominated for an award, it’s upon him or her to declare it and disqualify themselves from taking part in voting and even in discussing the nominee with fellow jurists.

It may sound severe, but Sitawa notes that the jurists aim to be transparent, honest and accountable. “This group of people look ethical,” she said, referring ironically to her fellow jurists. “But we want to set precedents and establish standards that are uncontestable,” she adds.