Friday, October 12, 2007

Lights! Action!… power bills.

Harnessing something as elusive as the human imagination to create a set that will complement and enhance a dramatic production is every stage designer’s goal. Needless to say, well used stage effects will give every production that extra polish that greatly reflects on the artistes’ abilities.

Unfortunately, many theatre groups commonly find themselves saddled with obsolete equipment for their stagecraft. To start with, of course, they don’t own any theatre house and I bet very few are thinking along those lines. Most theatres in existent are of course monuments of our history for which not many would quite countenance to bring them down for the sake of modernizing.

But this is not to say that sections of them cannot be “touched”. The accessories and consumables for this old equipment are now hard to come by. I would not be entirely surprised if one our recently graduated electrician were to raise his arms in surrender were he to be asked to do a re-wiring job at, say, the “Little Theatre Club – Mombasa” (established in the 1930’s). Inevitably, costs for maintaining and/or hiring equipment for the good old theatre will continue to soar.

Producers need to get more pro-active in partnership with theatre managers in sourcing for modern day stage technology. Without a doubt, these accessories are now manufactured in a wide range of sophistication and at much lower prices - products covering all types of stage lighting, dimmers, moving lights, smoke machines, architectural lighting lamps, colour changing lanterns, video projectors, screens, star clothes, flame clothes… all with user-friendly modern control panels. Search and you’ll well be surprised to find that the friendly good old “dukawalla” that has been your supplier for a generation or so, has actually been ripping you.

Enriching the theatre experience for your patrons should not beyond you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Applauding mediocrity

Promoting mediocrity is not easy. True, the perception of what is and what is not good quality may be highly subjective. But the subjective eyes that determined yesteryear’s work to be of high quality are the self same eyes that are condemning most of today’s work as poor quality. Should we lower standards to accommodate everyone that puts pen to paper? Greatness will not be thrust upon budding playwrights. They must earn it. The problem with some of them is that they expect it at the first or second attempt. Do they have the capacity to persist, learn and achieve? Some of our contemporaries have a strange urge to be prolific even when they are churning out works that are consistent only in their dullness. Cobbling up colorless and uninspiring lines that are forgotten with the turning of a page or drawing of the curtain.

Contrast this with how effortlessly we are able to quote Okonkwo (Things fall apart). Or Mulili (Betrayal in the city).

The writers ought not to blame the reader or the publisher for their predicament. The reader is perhaps even more demanding than the publisher. And our writers’ weakness is their inability to gauge what the reader appreciates. It is not for the writers to “proclaim their tigritude”. And the publisher is certainly not in business to smooth over their foibles. They must simply measure up to expectations. Or be damned into carrying manuscripts in their coat pockets.

Ngugi, Mazrui, Imbuga are not messiahs. But there’s no denying that they and many of their contemporaries were inspirational writers. Their works have stood the test of time and provide a sensible starting point in an attempt to find out “when the rain started beating us”. We, today, are soaking wet, shielding ourselves with porous umbrellas. Ngugi, Mazrui and Imbuga are home and dry. Once in a while I look back with nostalgia and wonder why we haven’t taken after them. There must be something terribly amiss if I have to google for the “great” writers of my time. Good works are self evident and I will not attempt to trash their effort.

My plea to my brothers is to keep at it. I look forward to the day I’ll be singing their praises, not out of patriotic favor but in salute of greatness. It is not unachievable. Let us not go down as the generation that “got beaten”.

My grouse with the budding writers of the day is that they seem to be stuck in second gear. Perhaps too much praise from the assorted festivals and competition they attend has gotten to their heads. My challenge to them is to stop deluding themselves that they have “reached” and stretch their limits. They are the chicken that not so long ago had their legs tied with string to keep them captive at the market. They’re home now and need a little prodding from you and me to remind them that they’re now free. Free to read and write and do all that appertains…

Friday, October 5, 2007

Play reviews, artistes and quacks

There was a time when a play review would give a reader fair, all round peeks in the production. Probably the newspaper editors no longer find theatre arts worthy of their talented scribes, hence their contentment with shallow pieces from an array of quacks masquerading as critics/reviewers.

There is no denying that theatre artistes need the services of the print media. True, too, that placing a decent advertiser’s announcement is beyond most production budgets, leaving any chances of coverage to an editor’s whims. To many a desperate artiste, therefore, any coverage would be better than none. But then, but what value can possibly be added to a production by a three-paragraph “review” written in bland style by a wannabe scribe. None, I think. Unless an artiste thinks that a month’s mental and physical exertion by way of rehearsals can be sold off like a second-hand pair of shorts at the local market.

There is need for producers to interact closely with media editors to put their case for enlightened coverage. This means that producers themselves must of necessity be skillful and coherent enough to navigate their way in the corporate environment. Leaving things to fate will invariably invite shoddy treatment from a business that is forever cutting corners to beat deadlines. Some ‘reviews’ do really look like hurried copy-paste jobs to fill up blank space. A mention in the press may well excite a publicity-starved producer but its potential to disappoint an audience may well render it a valueless service. The theatre group will likely spend the ensuing days absorbing vilification from irate patrons while the scribe, the real con-artiste, will probably be ordering for another keg of malt, barley and hops. The not-so-creative fellow is not to blame for he does only that which is within his competence. Or lack of it.

It is infuriating to see some third-rate stringer fumbling with words to cobble a review of work they have neither read nor seen, profiling actors they have only heard of and generally committing acts of plagiarism.