How do we define a world theatre day with an auditorium devoid of patrons? What do we call a world theatre day where we couldn’t catch up with friends at the shrine? At the National Theatre? What term do we give a world theatre day where we couldn’t see the International Theatre Institute (ITI) Uganda Chapter Chairperson, Dr Jessica Kaahwa, walk up the stage, with her sure poise and majestic gait, to deliver her keynote address? We could only manage hearing her speak over Zoom. We can only term that world theatre day “a COVID-19 World Theatre Day”.
On the day, the main entrance to the theatre was closed. Accessing the auditorium was through the rear. The place was desolate and quiet. You could hardly imagine that the day was the 27th of March, when typically the place should have been blaring with life with artists showcasing their artistry. In Uganda, with theatres remaining closed, the World Theatre Day commemoration, organised by the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) and ITI, was held virtually, from a closed-door event at the National Theatre.
However, all did not go south that day, for every cloud has a silver lining. When panellists began giving their deliberations, the stage where they were seated got lit even when the auditorium was all empty, except a handful of us that were physically present. The theme of the day, ‘Theatre Is a Shrine of Witty Men and Women: Who Will Moderate the Overpowering Creative Spectacle During and Post these COVID-19 Times?, may have raised more questions than answers. “What is Theatre if it doesn’t inform the hardest of times?” quipped one of the panelists, Ms Viola Karungi, a lecturer of drama at Makerere University. In her opinion, it is not a question of who will moderate the times now as it was stated in the day’s theme, but a question of how. “It is our job as artists to continue to be witty even in COVID-19 times,” Karungi added.
Another member of the panel, Ms Amelia Mboto, a national adjudicator for drama and poetry, compared audience members to pilgrims. Just like pilgrims leave the comfort of their homes to visit a shrine, so do audience members leave their homes to come and watch live theatre. In trying to reaffirm why theatre is indeed a shrine, Ms Mboto quoted New York based-Chicago artist; Esteban Andres Cruz: “The theatre is the only space where people will let you lock the door, sit in the dark together with strangers and listen to stories that illuminate who we are as a people. It’s where we work out our ever changing definition of humanity, where we seek out empathy, hope and love.” Isn’t the shrine dark inside? Don’t people get in there and be closed in? Just like theatre, don’t people go to the shrine to seek out empathy, hope and love? Theatre is a shrine, right?
Talking about theatre being a shrine, actress and filmmaker, Ms Rehema Nanfuka, pointed out the divine connection that takes place between the audience and the performer on stage. How the performer can go through emotions and the audience go there with the performer; how the performer can cry and the audience cry too; and how the performer cracks a joke and the whole house peals with laughter; Ms Nanfuka finds that divine. She added that in theatre, one can feel the presence of God, “God is here because He loves diversity. In theatre, we are diverse, we can be anything we want to be. God is here,” she reiterated.
These insights from the panellists brought nostalgia to me. I realised how much I missed theatre, how I missed the shrine. How I missed my weekly pilgrimages to the theatre to catch a jam session on Monday or Fun Factory’s Comedicine on Thursday and a theatre production on the weekend. Then suddenly a realisation of how it came to this; COVID-19 happened!
Theatre is social, COVID-19 is anti-social. That is a fact Dr Richard Kagolobya pointed out in his remarks. Dr Kagolobya, a lecturer of drama at Makerere University, was also part of the panel. He pointed out all the life-threatening calamities that have hit the world. Talk of Spanish Flu, the world wars, Ebola, HIV-AIDS, among others. All these happened, threatened life but did not lead to the extinction of human creativity. Instead, man documented them through creative art. His call was that artists should continue to be creative in these times because that is what they do best.
Sitting not far from Dr Kagolobya, applied theatre specialist Mr George Musisi Munagomba, brought with him another interesting and feasible solution to the question of theatre in COVID-19 times. He suggested The Theory of Change. According to UNDAF, the Theory of Change (ToC) is a method that explains how a given intervention, or set of interventions, is expected to lead to specific development change, drawing on a causal analysis based on available evidence. ToC defines long-term goals and then maps backward to identify necessary preconditions. Mr Munagomba thinks theatre needs that right now. A critical reflection of what theatre is now; what it has been through and how it has been through it; a review of all the policies that govern theatre right now, how to shape these policies to talk to the times today, among others. By doing this, he thinks theatre artists can get an outstanding solution to the so many questions there are today about how to move on in the challenging COVID-19 times.
The statement, “Know Thyself,” was the crux of Dr Kaahwa’s keynote address. I found it resonating with the call of artists. Knowing who we are as artists will help us to serve our purpose. We are mirrors of society. That’s our sole purpose. By acknowledging what we are, we shall be able to beat all odds and produce theatre whatever the circumstances.
Thespis would be disgraced if the World Theatre Day ended without his descendants revering him through doing what he did best. That is why in the interludes of the discussion about the day’s theme, Linda Nabasa, the day’s moderator would always pose the discussion for comic relief. Thespians Edwin Mukalazi, Ssekasanvu Viny Kafumbe and Brian Kalungi graced the stage to do the Thespis’ craft. Edwin did an excerpt from Efua Sutherland’s The Marriage of Anansewa, Vicent brought to stage the life of a typical taxi conductor in the yet to be showcased Aganza Kisaka’s play Killing Time and Brian brought the hilarious tales of Boniface Pasikali Kalekyezi in Alex Mukulu’s 30 Years of Bananas. Rehema Nanfuka had earlier confessed that she hates standing before an empty auditorium, but when she later performed a poem about a xylophone she was so carried away that she could have forgotten she was performing to an empty house.
By Linus Mugume
Linus Mugume is an enthusiastic creative writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Drama and Film from Makerere University Department of Performing Arts and Film.