Sammy Mwangi fashions Heartstrings into a thriving theatre companyWednesday March 29 2023
As he walks through the security check at Alliance Francaise - Nairobi, Sammy Mwangi looks like a man who knows exactly where he is headed and how to get there.
Despite a humble start in the East of Nairobi in Makongeni, Mr Mwangi now jokes that he has since moved to the 'West'.
Along his path to the helm, he has acquired a Head of State Commendation for his services to his country on the theatrical stage and scene. Along the way, Mr Mwangi says he's directed upwards of 500 plays.
“You must start” somewhere.
Mr Mwangi got his start on stage, acting in French plays for his high school’s drama club before plying his trade on stages as far from Makongeni as the Alliance Francaise’s 209-seater auditorium in downtown Nairobi.
The stage and theatre have meant everything to him, even giving him an understanding of Shakespeare’s diction – where most struggle - from a staging of Romeo and Juliet he starred in when he was barely out of his teens.
As life would have it, Mr Mwangi may have headed in a completely different direction.
“I was thrown into the touring business as an intern,” he says of the first gig he ever got that did not involve him reciting previously rehearsed lines.
As fate would have it, Flamingo Tours specialised in the French market, giving young Mwangi a stage, albeit atop a tour van, in the vast wilderness of the Maasai Mara to guide tourists through their holidays.
When not on tour, he was still on stage, honing his beloved craft.
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The Likoni clashes of the late 1990s however cut short his career as a tour guide only three months in.
He had planned to take up driving and be a driver guide, with all the perks to himself, but as the millennium drew closer, that became a pipe dream.
No longer a hobby
For the previous decade, Mr Mwangi had only been making money from theatre and when the tour business went belly up, he had a thought.
“Why don’t I put all my effort into the only thing that has been making me any money?” He remembers calling himself to a small meeting.
With Erastus Owuor, Victor Ber, and Ken Waudo who he had met on almost all the theatre productions he had been in, Mr Mwangi formed Heartstrings Kenya which was also known as Falaki Arts Ensemble.
Where shows were previously staged at the British Council for free, Heartstrings would start charging entry – a leap of faith. And they “packed” the place as Mr Mwangi recalls.
“We approached theatre like an industry. In terms of marketing, there is no difference between a packet of unga(flour) and a theatre play,” Mr Mwangi says.
The theatre circuit
With their authentically Kenyan content and the hard miles put into selling their shows, Heartstrings plays could no longer fit the crowds in at their first home.
Previously, they got grants to stage shows but when they started charging and made 10 times what the grants were previously pegged at, the model changed forever.
The troupe moved from The British Council Auditorium to the Goethe Institute where queues wrapped around buildings to get a glimpse of the red-hot ensemble.
“Theatre became a premium treat,” Mr Mwangi reminisces. The Alliance Francaise and the Kenya National Theatre were the next places they colonised, to high acclaim.
Tugging at the Heart Strings
From 2005 to 2015 when the other members left to pursue different paths, (Erastus Owuor died in 2000) the thespians operated under Heartstrings Kenya.
“To mark this transition, I registered Heartstrings Entertainment,” Mr Mwangi says. It didn’t bear lightly the goodwill that the term ‘Heartstrings’ carried for many a theatregoer. It was also to protect himself moving forward, he says.
Today, Mr Mwangi wears two hats at Heartstrings Entertainment, that of team leader – he hates the term CEO – as well as the artistic director.
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He has an Operations manager who deals with the everyday running of their office, the non-artistic aspect which has contracts and PDF files attached while Mr Mwangi focuses on the creative end of things – recruiting talent, directing them and putting on the show and bringing the house down.
He terms himself a “liberal director” who gives the actor “room to swing the cat” as he so aptly puts it.
Mr Mwangi also says, from where he sits, the theatre scene is as vibrant as it was when he and his friends staged all those crowd-pulling shows years before.
Their content stays primarily Kenyan and resonates and relates to a Kenyan audience.
Does theatre pay?
“Yes,” Mr Mwangi answers simply. His shows still pack auditoriums to this day. He looks at corporate support only as “supplementary and complementary.”
It comes second to filling the seats in the theatre halls where he has spent most of his life.
“I can only manage to pack a room to a certain number, that’s all I can get, then I go to the corporate sector,” Mr Mwangi says in terms of further support.
Nuggets of wisdom
To a novice who wishes to join the back-breaking world that is theatre, Mr Mwangi says, “Start now! You can never see the entire picture of where you’re headed.”
It’s at the start that the next process reveals itself. Given a chance, Mr Mwangi says he would not want to change a single step in his journey. It has led him to where he is today.
He has also learned along the way that you chart the path for where you want to go yourself. “When you know everything depends on you, there’s a lot of peace,” Mr Mwangi says.
To him, he is his own creator. “I have an extremely presumptuous approach in life,” he adds, “I am not limited by anything!”
Mr Mwangi reckons he’s only scratched the surface in terms of his craft. He believes you can never finish what you’re good at.
Proving his obsession, asked what he does outside the theatre, he takes a moment and replies, “I do more theatre!”