Adventure in Full Swing

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Philip Himberg

Philip Himberg is Producing Artistic Director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program. He is currently at the Theatre Lab on Manda, a two-week exchange and development program providing East African artists with guidance in their creative development toward final production.

Theatre Program Producing Artistic Director Philip Himberg.
Photo by Philippa Ndisi-Hermann.

I think it was when I saw the man racing his donkey down the beach at lunch today-when he almost lurched head over heels over the furry head of the beast-that it hit me: I am back on Manda Island. This is real. The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in East Africa adventure is once again in full swing.

After a wonderful week in Nairobi—connecting with old friends and meeting new ones—the Sundance team (myself, Christopher Hibma, Roberta Levitow) headed off to Manda Island in Lamu, Kenya, for our second annual Theatre Lab in this magical corner of the world. Deborah Asiimwe and Ignacia Delgado were to join us the next day – along with our 23 participants.

A place that had once seemed as exotic as one could imagine, has become a kind of ‘home away from home’ for us. The plane touched down on the tiny Manda Island airstrip, and we noticed a new gleaming white stucco airport had been constructed where last year there had only been a shack. “What’s happening to our island?,” I said to Lynn Nottage, who was walking beside me. But any thoughts that things had changed too much were banished as we were greeted by our host, the warm and generous owner of Diamond Beach Village, Rachael, and whisked off on the tiny boat to our refuge, 20 minutes across the waves.

The salt spray and the sight of the old white stone town of Lamu passed by, and we landed at the highest of tides on Manda Beach. Because the full moon had just occurred, we had to literally wade through knee high seawater to get to land-but what warm, salty, gorgeous seawater it is. We spread out among the few homes we were to inhabit, and I entered a very special world indeed. New friends we had only met the year before, the Bechtler Family, offered to allow four of us to stay at their amazing home on Manda Beach, just adjacent to Diamond Beach Village, where the majority of our participants would live and where we would take our meals.

The Bechtler residence is an extraordinary home, built in the Swahili style with a huge thatched roof, and four separate bedrooms, side by side on the first floor accessed by a wide beautiful veranda. The “living room” is outdoors, with giant stuffed sofas and chairs, under the equatorial vegetation. What bliss! There is also a huge sort-of look out tower on the property, where Cristina, our host, toasted to the success of our Lab with wine, and from where we observed the setting of the sun over the water to the west.

At Diamond Beach, Rachael’s amazing crew prepared and served us delicious home-cooked food-stuffed calamari, and all the fixins’ fresh from the waters around us. To see Rachael’s staff and the other folks who had become our dear friends last year was like visiting family. And this time, I spoke a smattering of Kiswahili (thanks to my Mwalimu-teacher-Veronica back in New York), and that made them very happy indeed. Me, too.

On Sunday, the lab—20 folks from five countries—arrived, jumping into the Indian Ocean as their boats landed, and hugging and exclaiming in English and Kiswahili the joy of finally arriving. Some of our participants are returnees; some are new to Sundance and to this place. My favorite moment? Seeing Stew disembark from the boats, along with his lovely daughter, Bibi, and feeling that elation of “I finally got Stew to Africa!” After a meal of Chicken and Prawns we all retired to rest up for the start of workweek.

Then, we officially began. After a delicious breakfast at Diamond, we gathered at Akili, Wayne McGregor’s stunning dance studio down the beach. Hope Azeda, from Kigali, Rwanda, lead us all in a joyous warm-up song and movement that united this new company of friends and co-workers. And then, we spent a few hours ‘framing the experience’ to come. Keri Putnam, Sundance Institute’s Executive Director, who had come for the first few days, talked about the Institute. Roberta, Christopher, Deborah, and I spoke about the Theatre Program and the East Africa Initiative.

Each playwright read aloud from his or her work and spoke about their hopes and dreams for the two-week workshop. Three of our writers are African women (Ethiopian, Ugandan, and Tanzanian) and their plays deal in one way or another with gender and with the changing role of women in African society. This elicited an extremely spirited conversation, which made me acutely aware of how-by accident or not-Sundance had hit upon the ‘pulse’ of what’s happening in this part of the world.

Women are angry, women are compelled to speak out, and women artists are ready and willing to risk by talking about subjects that have been, and in some circles still are, taboo. It turns out that the sum of this Lab will be much greater than our work on our four chosen projects.

The afternoon was filled with more conversations with each writer, getting ready for the process to come. And then, a swim in the Indian Ocean as the sun lowered itself into evening. And another incredible meal at Diamond Beach—the sweetest crab meat you can imagine, with chapattis, rice, and salad.

Tomorrow is only day two, and I have the honor of directing a brand new Ethiopian play called Desperate to Fight, about a thrice divorced woman living in Addis. Does life get any more blissful?

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