Asiimwe Deborah Kawe on Theatre in time of Corona

Tebere Arts Foundation will, through the month of October, be showing the Tropical Fish play. Tropical Fish is an adaptation from award winning writer Doreen Baingana’s 2002 title story Tropical Fish. I am going to be running a series talking to different people taking part. In this episode Assimwe Deborah Kawe gives the account of how it came about.

I recently learnt a new phrase (or is it an idiom?)  dying to self.  I heard it from fashion icon Santa Anzo as she talked about her journey of building the Arapapa brand for the last 20 years.

Many times when you get a new idea, it hits you like a bang. At that point it is the solution the word has been waiting for. The next big thing since sliced bread. If you are not careful, you get carried away by the thought. It is not uncommon to find people especially in the arts and tech fearing to share their ideas because they fear they will be stolen. TMS Ruge argues that having an idea alone is not enough. You’ve got to execute it. He argues further that executing alone is not enough, you’ve got to execute better. Everyone gets ideas. Many execute them. Only a few execute better. And I agree with him.

To get to the point of executing better, like Santa, you have to die to self, you have to go out of the ordinary. It comes at a heavy cost. That is what Asiimwe Deborah Kawe and the entire team at Tebere Arts Foundation have been doing since the first 2020. Their idea was to stage the play virtually. They have been working on this since May 2020. Today, they are ready to stage a play post lockdown.

When the first lockdown happened, they, like the rest of the world, had plans. They thought they would run their annual programmes physically. They thought they would host the young and emerging artistes residence, the playwrights residence and the Kampala International Theatre Festival (KITF) Then the world closed down.

After the first lockdown the situation was not any different. One of the most affected industries is the arts. In Uganda, arts spaces remain closed. Seats in auditoriums remain covered with dust raining on them, lights remain turned off and the big giant doors that always ushered in theatre lovers under lock and key. Do you still remember the box office? The command of lights, sound & action has since gone unsaid on many a director’s lips.

What is theatre without an active audience? The audience is supposed to respond in real time to the action on stage. Without the response, the effectiveness of the action on stage is likely to be lost. But the new normal is here, the cast has to learn to act with an imagined audience. If you have watched Killing Time by Aganza Kisaka you know what I am talking about. The current conditions are forcing the artistes to think outside the auditorium. Outside the theatre.

Tebebre Arts Foundation never stopped with their programme because of the lockdown. They migrated, just like the rest of the world to the virtual space to have their classes and trainings there. The beauty with this is that for a play like Tropical Fish which was a result of the residence held virtually in May 2020, they were able to get Samuel Lutaaya Tebandeke who was based in Nairobi to direct the reading which was happening in Kampala.

During the in-person rehearsals in Kampala, Mshai Mwangola has been directing the play virtually from Nairobi. She was working Sarah Nansubuga as a co-director based on location.

It is what comes with the new normal. When the world closed, Deborah and the entire team at the Tebere Arts Foundation did not.  They took it upon themselves to try out new ways of continuing their work.

In this month of October 2021, the foundation is staging Doreen Baingana’s play, Tropical Fish which is an adaptation of Baigana’s title story in her 2005 short story collection, Tropical Fish. The play was developed in the lockdown and takes to the stage as a fully adapted play for the first time. Before, it had been staged at KITF and other stages but only as a story, a work-in-progress. The solo performance is a story of a 22 year old woman who narrates her relationship with a white man.

In this new experience Deborah tells me “have an open mind to the new people. Believe in the goodness of people to deliver. If you don’t, you risk missing out on new talent” this also fits into their programme of working with emerging artistes.

For this show though, the foundation sought permission to have a small audience of only 20 people to bring out the picture of theatre. What is theatre without an audience?

This will be a first of many kinds. For the artistes who are still locked up, maybe this is a leaf to borrow and see how they can re-introduce their art to the audience.

The Tropical Fish play is going to be running every Saturday and Sunday on the Tebere Arts Foundation online platforms. You’re invited to watch.

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