19 June 2017

Uganda: National Theatre Not Up for Demolition - Management

Last year, the biggest story in the performing arts industry was centered on the alleged redevelopment of the National Theatre.

Apparently, the management was thinking about demolishing the 60-year-old piano-shaped building and replacing it with a 36-storey tower that would house auditoriums, cinemas, performing spaces and the inevitable shopping mall.

This saw various meetings between artistes, the board, and ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development officials and a petition that was presented to the speaker of parliament that is yet to be replied.

Last week, the theatre was in the papers once again, with claims that plans to demolish it had been pushed through and were set to start early July.

Reports that were published on various websites noted that to make way for the demolition, management had given the 52 tenants at the premises a one- month eviction notice.

However, during an interview with The Observer, Robert Musiitwa, the public relations officer of Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC), which is directly in charge of the premises, said stories about a pending demolition were false.

"We've had a consultancy meeting with the tenants but it isn't to evict them," he explained.

He noted that what is going to happen is a renovation of the house, not a demolition as many have already intimated.

"We've all been fighting and waiting to have this facility renovated and finally, the government has allocated money for the project," he said.

Last year, at the height of the woes that many had deemed a two-man battle between Phillip Luswata, a renowned actor, and the UNCC executive director Francis Ojede, the artistes met with the board of directors of the institution and insisted that they were not interested in the plan to have the building 'redeveloped.'

By this time, many arts practitioners had abandoned the space for its inadequacy. For instance, the organizers of the Kampala International Theatre Festival had left UNCC for Ndere Centre while Writivism had migrated to the Uganda Museum.

Besides issues dealing with shows being double-booked with other shows, many argued that organizing shows at the theatre was becoming too expensive with less returns.

"Only less than half of the required lights at the auditorium work; in that case, to have a successful show, you have to invest in your own lighting system, and at times sound," said an artiste.

Musiitwa said these are the things that they want the renovations to fix, including an overhaul of the lighting and sound system; changing the auditorium seats; overhauling the plumbing and drainage systems and replacing the toilets, among other things.

He noted that the renovations are expected to last six months, though the first phase may be completed by September, to get at least the auditorium ready to host the East African Community Arts and Culture Festival, also known as Jamafest.

But some theatre practitioners have showed concern to the fact that six months away from the space may drive away even the little traffic that has been coming its way.

Much as the government is expected to cover the over Shs 3bn budget for the renovations, the absence of this amount allocation in the budget is highly suspicious.

"The money is coming from the government; it was an order from the president," insists UNCC boss Ojede.

Many artistes are in support of the pending renovations, but not without reservations. Julius Lugaaya, founder of the annual Dance Week festival, noted that it is good to have the renovations, but wondered why things were being done secretly.

"For instance, we are stakeholders as artistes, but we are yet to be consulted," he pointed out.

This is not the first time the theatre is being renovated. The last major renovations were conducted 10 years ago as Uganda was gearing up for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), but as many artistes noted, they were more disastrous than helpful.

Apparently, the renovations tampered with the auditorium floor which, in turn, affected its soundproof ability. Actor and producer Jack Serunkuma finds the renovation suspicious, adding that the building was originally constructed by engineers from London who were not only professionals but understood putting together a place with the right acoustic properties.

"The place could even become dangerous to lives, especially if some of the equipment is poorly handled," Serunkuma said.

In response, though, Ojede said the company selected to do the job is good at what they do and are capable of pulling it off.

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