Nairobi — Playwright Andrew Mwaura says Kenyan theatre is on its deathbed and is in serious need of revival.
In September 2012, Mwaura staged a play about Kenya's 2010 constitution and citizen participation. Despite working on it for five months, hiring professional actors and a director, and advertising on local radio stations, the play failed to attract an audience.
"I was shocked that on [opening] day, only 12 people were sitting in the auditorium to watch the play. We had no option but perform for them, but I was expecting over 1,000 people," he said. "I blame myself, because a close friend had warned me about the turnout, but I ignored him and overestimated the number who would attend."
Mwaura spent more than 200,000 shillings ($2,300) on the play, but only earned 10,000 shillings ($115) from ticket proceeds. "It was my first time to write and stage a play and I can tell you I was so discouraged," he said. He now works in film and documentary production for television and DVDs.
Okiya Okoiti Omtatah, a Nairobi-based playwright, author and human rights activist, said years of government neglect and producers' lack of innovation to appeal to younger generations has caused dwindling attendance.
Poor audience turnout has debilitated the local theatre industry, which needs quick intervention because letting theatre arts die is like "chopping off ones hands". He said the government should spearhead marketing initiatives that raise public awareness to promote theatre and provide funding to help theatre companies pay for production costs.
In 2005, the Kenya Film Commission was established under the Ministry of Information and Communication to market and facilitate Kenya's film industry, yet there are no similar agencies that focus on promoting theatre.
"Theatre art is the only arm that has fed the nation for generations with cultural and traditional knowledge. Without it, we will not have a means to pass down cultural values and traditional norms to our children," he told Sabahi.
Omtatah said a population that does not comprehend its historical background loses its national identity.
Theatre as a moral guide
James Osogo, 87, who served as minister of broadcasting in the 1970s, said many of today's social issues arise because youths grow up without knowing what society demands of them.
"When I was growing up in the 1940s, apart from receiving our parents' [guidance], we enthusiastically attended theatre performances. They were venues to teach us about our history and acted as institutions to promote morals. That is the reason we grew up to be responsible people," Osogo said. "I am shocked that nowadays people from my generation are the only ones still keen on watching stage plays."
He said some parents are too busy with work and others shy away from talking to their children about good citizenship. Theatre is an effective way to creatively pass down good morals to youths who might resist the lecturing of parents and elders, Osogo said.
"I see a danger here. An institution of wisdom and a guide to civil life is being deserted," he said.
Stage actor Catherine Liz Enane, 26, said theatre is more than just entertainment; it is also a way to cultivate a sense of belonging and appreciation for cultures, create trust and enhance socialisation among people.
"It is the best tool to promote national cohesion and integration, but it is disturbing that those who are supposed to champion unity -- the youths -- no longer want to come to theatre halls," said Enane, who performs for The Theatre Company.
She blamed home entertainment and the increasing influence of Western movies as main reasons for the loss of interest in Kenyan theatre.
Plays often tackle societal problems, raise discourse and provide information in an intimate and personal manner in ways movies cannot, she said. "We also present new ideas to shape society and increase or develop reasoning, imagination and intuition," she said.
Enane said producers should diversify their productions to attract young audiences and pull crowds back to theatre halls.
"Most stage plays target older audiences, but since we began to mix dance, song and narration into our productions, we have seen youths come out to watch our plays, because they are no longer monotonous and boring to them," she said, adding that the government should do more to support and promote the industry.
Beatrice Digolo, dean of the school of visual and performing arts at Kenyatta University, said theatre arts should be proactively encouraged among youth through incorporation in curricula at formal learning institutions.
"When children learn through theatre, they learn to express themselves and become open-minded and ready to accept diverse opinions," she told Sabahi. "When they grow up, they will appreciate the role of theatre and embrace it."