Art

Recognising excellence in Kenyan theatre scene

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Cast of Liquid Arts production of Taabu at Kenya Cultural Centre, December 10, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • The jurists are all theatre lovers, some of whom teach theatre criticism, like Ngobia who is also chairman of the Department of Performing Arts, Film and Media Studies at KCA University.
  • One thing the jurists want to encourage theatre groups to do in 2022, says Kimani, is to document their plays by taking videos of their shows.

From this Sunday through to the end of the month, the public will have a chance to cast their votes for who they feel did the best job performing in plays, comedies, musicals, and dance productions that took place during 2021.

“We counted 38 shows in all,” says Kevin Kimani, organiser of the Kenya Theatre Awards (KTA), the body that is inviting public participation in the selection of the best shows, actors, directors, producers, and even best light and sound technicians.

“The public is going to play a major role in this year’s selection of the best in theatre last year,” says Ben Ngobia, chairman of KTA’s jury. They are the ones who worked closely with Kimani throughout last year, watching and assessing as many of the 38 shows as they possibly could.

The jurists are all theatre lovers, some of whom teach theatre criticism, like Ngobia who is also chairman of the Department of Performing Arts, Film and Media Studies at KCA University.

Others are theatre practitioners like Ken Waudo, who is currently chairman of the Theatre Arts Practitioners Society of Kenya and production manager for the Laugh Industry where he handles logistics for Churchill Show.

Others are actual theatre critics like Peter Ndoria, who previously wrote for one of the dailies and now has a blog where he shares his views on shows he sees. And one of the jurists works for the Department of Culture but says she watches plays in her private capacity but is grateful the department is more concerned with cultural affairs, especially theatre, than ever before.

“The point is we have seen as many plays as we could and decided on three or four of the best in 28 categories, but we didn’t want to make the final decisions alone,” says Kimani. “So we decided the public’s views will constitute 40 percent of the final decision as to who wins an award.”

“We didn’t find it easy to select the best,” says Ngobia who abstained from the selection process whenever one of his students, staff, or university’s shows was under consideration. That kept him from speaking about Simba Bazenga, the sheng musical production adapted from the award-winning blockbuster, The Lion King.

It also kept him out of any discussion as to which university had been most actively involved in excellent theatre in 2021. Was it Kenyatta University, KCA University or Egerton University, which had brought a team of dancers to perform at the opening day of the Sixth Kenya International Theatre Festival?

“I’m sure many students will be keen to vote for their favourite school,” says Ngobia. “They have strong opinions about theatre,” says the KTA jury chairman who is just as enthusiastic about theatre as he is about making films, which he also does.

One thing the jurists want to encourage theatre groups to do in 2022, says Kimani, is to document their plays by taking videos of their shows. He notes the videos need not be absolutely professional, and that even using one’s cell phone can get a good perspective on your play. It will at least enable filmmakers to keep a record of their theatre work and history.

The jurists couldn’t be pinned down as to what the awards would actually be. Would they be trophies, cash prizes, certificates or all three? Kimani says he is still working on it, so the mystery won’t be revealed until the KTA night on Thursday, February 17, during Valentine’s week at Kenya National Theatre.

In any case, the names proposed for the people’s choice vote are likely to be nominees, whether they win or lose an award. There will be room for write-in candidates as well. But if one’s candidate doesn’t win this year, Ngobia ways the KTA plan to be around for quite some time.

“We want to establish the awards as an annual tradition that will always come on the second Thursday of February. This is just the first edition of a tradition that we hope will grow into an event that can become Kenya’s own version of something like the American Academy Awards or the Tony’s.”

There is no doubt that the talent is there. It’s been visible annually during the Schools and Colleges Drama and Music Festivals. What is also true is that many more universities are taking both theatre and film production more seriously.

That’s why Kimani says that now is the time to recognize theatre in Kenya has taken a qualitative leap, and KTA wants to recognize that growth with their awards.