Nyanga:Runaway Grandmother closed in October after a 4 day, 6 show run at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi. The opera had 70 performers and 60 crew members. Among the crew was myself as the Assistant Director and saying this was an unforgettable experience would be an understatement.
Composed by F.W. Chandler, Nyanga:Runaway Grandmother was produced by Baraka Opera Trust which staged its first Kenyan opera, Ondieki – The Fisherman at the Braeburn theatre in Nairobi in 2012. It was from the overwhelmingly positive reception of this first public attempt that the concept of Kenyan Opera grew.
Under the leadership of Rhoda Ondeng’ Wilhelmsen, who is also the founder of the Trust, Nyanga: Runaway Grandmother was the second offering by the non-profit organization that seeks to expand the form and quality of the performing arts in Kenya.
Thirty five years in the making, Nyanga is based on Rhoda Ondeng Wilhelmensen’s grandmother, Nyanga who ran away from her village in search of the land of eternal life as preached by the missionaries. Her mother died when she was quite young and she longed to see her again. Nyanga, a young shepherdess in a remote village on the Kano plains (Kisumu) runs away after the missionaries hoping that they would lead her to “Eternal Life” where she would be reunited with her late mother. While she took it literally that she would meet her mother again, she instead found a new faith and returned to her village as a Christian, changing the course of their lives forever.
It might seem like a simple story but it involved collecting stories from the village from people who knew Nyanga, piecing them together, composing the music, auditioning singers and raising the money to put up a world class show.
I came into the picture in May 2020. Dr Julisa Rowe, the director of the show was going to be directing Nyanga. She called me and was looking to fill up positions in the tech team. Together we were able to achieve this feat and it was then that my wheels started turning. Why not ask to be Julisa’s assistant? I had managed to do this task, I am sure I could prove to be very handy, especially with a project of this magnitude.
Unbeknownst to me, she had already thought to offer me the position! I was elated, but as soon as I said yes the doubt began to creep in.
The Assistant Director Gig and the Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. I thought it was the newest phrase that people used to gain sympathy from their social media followers but Nyanga, Runaway Grandmother gave me pause.
What did I really know about directing? What exactly does an assistant director do on a theatre production? It was too late to back out especially after a contract was sent. I told myself I was not going to self-sabotage, especially not with this opportunity. By the time someone I realized I was groping in the dark I would have learned a thing or two.
At first I was meant to coordinate meetings among the heads of departments, follow up on set designs, costume sketches and, assist in recruiting crew.
Initially the show was to be staged in October 2020 in the county of Kisumu. All the departments had done what they could via Zoom but with the threat of the Covid -19 pandemic and finances being tight, the production went on a hiatus in December until further notice.
Fast forward to June 2021 and a lot has changed in my life. I have a 2 month old baby and being a first time mum there is still a lot I am trying to adjust to. That was when I got the call. The project had found a financier and the Producers wanted to put up the show in October 2021, at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi.
The producers decided that they were going to have in person rehearsals while adhering to Covid protocols. Our rehearsal space had a lawn big enough to accommodate up to 50 people and a small auditorium which was acoustically sound for the singers. With a schedule drawn, preparation began in earnest. It was not very easy to bounce back considering that I had to leave my baby behind but it had to be done. Everyone was so gracious and really took on a lot of the work until I could be physically present for rehearsals.
I need to stress the fact that we were working with classical singers, who had to learn about acting and dancing in a short amount of time. It was also quite the balancing act having to work around their schedules. We had a group in Nairobi, another in Kisumu, and the children’s chorus that was only available on Saturdays and finally, two singers from Norway and Uganda.
The director, Dr. Julisa Rowe, taught me a crucial lesson – planning ahead. Every week on Sunday evening she would post a schedule on the Whatsapp group. It allowed for work to get done efficiently, and no one was ever sitting around doing nothing. On the backend she was still managing to keep tabs on rehearsals outside Nairobi via Zoom.
By the time I was able to go on a regular basis everyone had a rhythm. Almost everyone was using the vocal score as the main text. (A vocal score or piano–vocal score is a music score of an opera, or a vocal or choral composition written for orchestral accompaniment, In a piano–vocal score, the vocal parts are written out in full, but the accompaniment is reduced and adapted for keyboard.) I struggled with it and found it hard to follow the story. Thankfully I had access to the libretto which is “little book” in Italian – the text of an opera, the equivalent of a script for a play.
Getting Down to Business
While Julisa’s role as a director was clear cut and well defined- harmonizing the elements of song, dance and theatre to tell the story, working with the department heads to achieve a show that was not only aesthetically beautiful but technically sound, I was trying to define my role outside of shadowing her. My role on the production expanded to communicating with cast, keeping track of attendance, making notes on blocking, costume and props, running rehearsals, working with groups and individuals to polish scenes but my desire was to grow my confidence in being able to direct.
Eventually my time came to work with the singers. Reading through the libretto afresh helped me gain understanding of the story. Honestly despite my experience in writing, this was the first time that I really used the skill of script analysis to its full capacity. I was assigned a small group and I was shaking in my boots. On the outside I looked cool, calm and collected but inside I was panicking. “The jig was up!” I thought. Everyone would know I was a fraud- the pressure was a bit more because Rhoda decided to sit in for the session.
I began by looking at the libretto, skimming through it to get a general idea of what was meant to happen in the scene. Afterwards I asked the singers to run the scene and when they were done I would ask them, “How did that feel?” Most times, I realized when you are running something for the first time, it’s sketchy and somewhat all over the place, a bit like a warm-up. The second time around it was better because they knew what they were meant to be doing. After two runs, I would ask more questions about their character, their relationship to their scene partners, what was happening in the scene, what the motivation was behind the movements and also spoke about subtext. By the time they were running the scene a third time, it had a bit more depth and the singers were more comfortable on stage.
After working with the adult singers and getting comfortable with them, I decided to turn my attention to the Children’s Chorus. The youngest was 7 and the eldest possibly 12 years old. With previous experience as a Children’s Drama Teacher, I found it fun working with them. The challenge was helping them understand the context of what was happening in the group scenes to keep them engaged, as they were rather long and the lyrics were in Old English. Eventually it was worked out that they would be attached to adults in the group scenes who could keep them alert while on stage.
While the singers thought I was teaching them, I was learning a whole lot from them as well-not just musically. I loved that a lot of them were students of music, taught it and regularly participated in concerts to sharpen their skill. It was so interesting to watch how they could tell who was off pitch, which group needed to be softer, faster, and slower. They shared techniques and knowledge amongst each other. I learned that experience is vital as a teaching tool but it really does help to have theory to back it up.
Perhaps if you are accustomed to traditional theatre you may find it hard to appreciate what a feat this group of performers achieved. An opera is not a musical- for starters it is primarily sung from start to finish whereas in a musical the songs are interspersed with sections of dialogue. The singing is split between arias (the equivalent of a monologue), recitatives (a type of singing that is closer to speech than song) and bigger chorus numbers. Once they got the music right and finally connected with their characters, letting go of their inhibitions, they soared on stage. I was so proud of them.
Julisa had made it a point from the very beginning to work through scenes and then the acts severally. At first the cast didn’t understand why, but I knew this was something they would appreciate only after the fact. The repetition isn’t just for the performers but also for the crew as well, to learn the cues to a tee, to get the timing right, to get into a rhythm where the whole team runs like clockwork.
I will confess that I struggled a bit before we got into tech week because we would rehearse out of sequence (which is normal) but more so because we would rehearse say half or quarter a scene, and then do the whole scene on the weekend when we had more time. With three alternate cast groups to incorporate into rehearsal, it was challenging to keep track of how much work had actually been covered. And with only two weekends in 2021 (one in August, the other in September ) where we had everyone in the same place, the challenge was not any smaller.
The amount of concentration I had to employ to be alert was no mean feat but for me especially watching the transitions seared the sequence of the show in my mind. By the time of dress rehearsals everything had become second nature to them. This was advantageous because when one of the members of the chorus fell ill before a performance, an understudy who would sing in the wings, seamlessly stepped in and learned the dance and blocking in a couple of hours. In the last scene where we needed real fire to shoot up from the fireplace, the fire failed to combust. However, everyone kept a poker face and reacted as rehearsed. It was funny watching from the wings but I was glad no one broke character. The old theatre saying ‘The show must go on’ was in full effect. And what a beautiful show it was!
While the creative industry has the most sensitive people, it is also the most brutal in the treatment of its workforce. I defined for myself what the position of Assistant Director was on this project. It had very little to do with prestige and more with service. My goal, whatever project I land on, is to make sure every person leaves with their dignity and self-esteem intact. I hope that they develop friendships and networks that will enrich them and that their work ethic especially as creatives will improve. All while producing the work that has to be done.
Many special thanks to Baraka Opera Trust for modeling a different reality of a work environment that was collaborative, supportive and respectful to all who were a part of telling grandmother Nyanga’s story. Now that was quite an experience.