Artistes struggle to reclaim National Theatre

01:40 by tsup ug
Established in 1959 by an Act of Parliament, Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) best known as National Theatre is struggling to keep its flag high.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was the epitome of Uganda’s creativity in arts. So, one would wonder, what happened?
Last week, two shows that included a circus and the dance week festival were booked for the same auditorium, both slated to start at 7pm.
The result was two audiences stranded as the show organizers sorted the mess. The circus started at 7-9pm and the later in the night, the festival would take the stage.
Many abandoned the latter show since it was getting late already.
What followed were artistes going to their modern-day “shrink” aka social media, to complain about the poor condition of the place and the way management is handling business.
With the hashtag #SaveUNCC, artistes want a management that will care about art, help the theatre reclaim its former glory as well as enable the government to earn from the arts.
Renowned playwright, actor and founder of Theater Factory Phillip Luswata says the theatre has lost it since the people managing the place barely understand art or what is good for it.
However, Francis Ojede, the Executive Director at UNCC says Luswata is only making up these things because his Theatre Factory office has been closed over rent arrears.
“We’ve been so lenient with them but we decided that enough was enough and closed them down,” Ojede says.
However, Luswata says he had left the said office a long time ago and had discussed with the management to turn the former Theatre Factory offices into a training centre for new artistes that come to the UNCC.
Pamela Kerakyo, an actress that has performed at the UNCC since 1993 and also a constant cast of the different Obsessions shows, notes that things started going really downhill around 2009. “We came to stage a show and it stressed us, we couldn’t get the space for our rehearsals and at the end of it all, the show was bad.”
Like many other artistes, she believes the reason theatre is failing is because management prioritizes money over art.
“These people rented out the Green Room to Uganda Tourism Board; what is a theatre without a green room?” she says. The green room is the lounge where actors rest between stage appearances. Before the green room at National Theatre was rented out, it was already serving wedding planners more than artistes, as a meeting venue.
Filmmaker George Stanley Nsamba faults the theatre management of knowing little about art that they even don’t believe in its potential.
He says during an arts forum last year, one of the UNCC board members informed them that they had come up with a plan to start a SACCO for artistes to invest in farming since art does not pay.
“As an artiste, I found that insulting,” he said, noting that of late, the management has opted to turn UNCC into a ‘National Wedding Meeting Centre’.
In response, Ojede said hosting wedding meetings is one way of promoting culture.
“Aren’t weddings part of culture? I have no regret in that because as UNCC, we have a role to uphold arts and culture.”
About the theatre
The theater hosts many shows throughout the year, but because they lack consistency, it is hard knowing the active days besides Thursday when Fun Factory hosts the comedy shows.
According to artistes such as Julius Lugaya of Theater Factory and also organizer of the Dance Week Festival, in the glory days of the centre, there was always a lot to look out for from the theatre; for instance, he notes that the Monday Jam Sessions would attract acts including Jamal, Chameleone, Bebe Cool and Bobi Wine. Today, not many artistes want to be associated with the session.
The theater has now gained a reputation as the place where people come to hook up with White partners.
But the problems are bigger; for instance, even when the stage was constructed to be lit up by at least 40 200-Watts lights, less than ten of these are working. Others have since blown and some are missing.
The plywood that makes up part of the stage has been encroached on by ants that can distract a scene especially if they come out during a production.
“There was a time I was attacked by ants in a scene where I was supposed to act dead,” reminisces one actor.
Double Booking
Lugaaya says the theatre’s challenges with the artistes start with double booking, when two or more shows are slated to happen at the same time or day.
Writivism Festival, Kampala Amateur Dramatics Society (KADS) , World Music Day and of late the annual Dance Week Festival have been double booked with other shows.
According to Ojede, the situation during Dance Week was not a case of double booking but rather shows following each other in the same space.
Kerakyo says this kind of attitude is the reason why artistes want the management out.
“When an artiste has booked the auditorium, he/she is not booking a time slot, but the whole day. That way, they can come rehearse, get a feel of the stage and totally get to own it.”
Double booking has had its toll on the theatre; it has been alleged that Kampala International Theater Festival will be moving to Ndere Centre. KADS, who have always had more than six shows at the theatre every year have resorted to having productions in restaurants and alternative spaces.
Muchomo Festival and Amakula International Film Festival have since moved to the Uganda Museum.
Way forward
Ojede says they are pressing government to increase the UNCC budget to ensure that renovations are made; he says they want the theatre to get into production again to start supplying TVs with content.
A petition has since been signed and handed to the Gender Permanent Secretary seeking for a new board and management that will listen and involve artistes.
However, others like Waheedah Mwegale, a filmmaker say dialogue with the current management should not be ruled out.


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