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 I talk to Sarah Nansubuga.
Sarah Nansubuga is an actress, a poet, scriptwriter, photographer and a musical theatre enthusiast.
On the Tropical Fish production, she is working with Mshai Mwangola as the director and herself as the co-director. “Mshai is such a knowledgeable person and a visionary. I feel so blessed to be working with her in this capacity.”
This is her first project to work on as a director ever since she returned to Uganda.
“I love the opportunity to work with emerging artistes. It brings out the need to work as collaborators in this field. On stage it looks like a one man show (which this play is). But there is a whole team behind it to bring the best out of the actors and the best of the script.
How do you find your role?
A challenge. One person shows are always a challenge. Often times, you underestimate it because it is one character. It’s just one story. One protagonist. And as a result you end up with everything on surface value. But this is why I am so appreciative of Mshai. She took us through close reading of the play where she asked questions like: Why did she do that? Why do you think she puts the bag here and not there? Everything is loaded with meaning, you have to find it.
I have been trained as an actor that the script is the bible so whatever project you are working on, the script is enough. My job is not to rewrite the script but to bring out the best out of it. If something does not make sense, we find a way to make it make sense. We are lucky that on this project we are in touch with the script writer. We are continuously asking whenever we need clarification. And for me the only time you can change the script is when you get permission from the script writer. It is important to respect what they have written.
On the team
We have a really good technical team. They are all sold to the story. They all know what they are doing. They all have vision towards where they want to go. I am excited to see the whole story coming together.
Thoughts on theatre
I have just returned to Uganda. The first show I have seen is Aganza Kisaka’s Killing Time. I had read the script before and seeing it come to life was a gift. And I thought that if this is the place where our theatre is going; a place of truthfulness, vulnerability and brutal honesty without fear of a backlash then it’s the training I want.
I think we need to encourage more vulnerability on stage. Pride and hubris give you the sense that you know everything. So my role is to bring actors to a place where they are not afraid of themselves. A place where they trust the audience without the worry of asking why did you do that.
Draw the attention of the actors away from the person of the actor and turn it to the person of the character. And if that is where their focus is the vulnerability becomes easy.
Is theatre a good medium of telling stories?
As someone who knows about theatre, I know too well how our profession is considered in this country. The kind of art we currently have has a lot of merits. It has good stories. It has the skill of people that have been working on this over and over the years. But I think there is opportunity for growth. An opportunity for something more than entertainment. I am on this team because I believe in the story.
Take the example of Christine in this play. It foregrounds a character or a person who is not given a platform, a young average Ugandan woman, no qualification, no money, no nothing. Just her. It is very rear to allow someone like that to be allowed to speak her mind without being talked down. “We don’t say that here.” To be shamed for her actions. The opportunity for that person to explore and express their voice without being told to be quiet is the beauty that theatre freely gives us.
Advice to people who would love to join theatre
Start. Every time someone tells me they want to join the theatrical space, I ask them why? Answering that question is going to be crucial to your survival in the space. If you are entering it because it is glamorous or because you want to be famous, I think you’ll have a short stint.
I love theatre because I love stories. I love the dramatization of stories. The different interpretations. The thrill of the people working on the project. So if you want to join the space, start. Use the tools at your disposal. Get a phone and record yourself. Share with a friend. Get their feedback. Get a group together and read a play. Find someone or a group and write a play. Gather people and do a stage reading on zoom.
When I was studying theatre I got so many questions: why are you studying theatre when you can just do it? I did a BA in Dramatic Arts at the University of Witwatersrand in Joburg and an MFA in acting from LSU. And people were throwing around the names of the different actors who have made it without having to first go to school. But you don’t know what they have gone through or what they are doing away in the background. They are taking steps. Their steps may not be formal education but they are there. But you have to keep on making better in the area where you are.
All you see are the pictures, what you don’t know are the many classes, retreats and workshops those people are taking. Whatever you are passionate about, start.
For you to make it here, you must have patience and perseverance. Be patient especially with yourself. Sometimes the plans are different from what you find in the room.
As a director, my role is to support the cast to make sure that they know that their process is valid and important especially if they get frustrated.
The future of theatre
I see a lot of regional stories coming out and the support growing. People tend to support you once they can see what you can do. At least that has been my experience. Tropical Fish is going to be a first step for many people. There are so many plays and stories that have been sitting unattended to especially those on social and political commentary. It is going to prove it can be done and as a result more people are going come out.