The Revelations Begin: Day Three of the Theatre Stage Directors Workshop in Addis Ababa

View from Ethiopian National Theatre

Philip Himberg, Producing Artistic Director, Sundance Theatre Program

“Ubuntu.” An African concept meaning: Humanness. “I am because we are and because we are, therefore I am.”

The Ethiopian National Theatre, Addis Ababa — We gather together, Sundance Institute East Africa, in the Actors Studio at the National Theatre, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – a building constructed by Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s heroic emperor. The lobby resembles a set from a Cecil B. Demille epic. Giant marble stairs, obelisks, flags. It’s a rainy Monday morning and streets are slick and filled with color.  Sounds of music – African pop mostly – drifts in through the windows and the scent of incense mixes with petrol. This scene is not utterly unfamiliar to me. Other African landscapes shift through my mind from visits past:  Sundance meetings in Kampala, in Rwanda, in Dar Es Salaam, on the Island of Manda – all settings rich with memories I can still smell and taste.

This convening is different from the many we’ve hosted before. Here, eight theatre makers  – three from Ethiopia and one each from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and our first Fellow from Burundi — come together to learn and to share the art of stage direction. Collectively these artists represent the region of East Africa – six countries and cultures and as many languages. One is an artist we’ve known and worked with before: Wesley Ruzibiza, achoreographer, performer and writer from Butare, Rwanda, who has joined us previously on the Island of Manda in 2010 and 2011 to make new work. The others: Tesfaye Eshetu Habtu, Surafel Wondimu, and Azeb Worku Sibane are local Ethiopian artists. Freddy Sabimbona is our first Burundi participant, Rogers Otieno from Nairobi, Kenya, Habiba Issa of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Aida Mbowa who is Ugandan. Daniel Sileshi Alelegn is our Amharic translator.

We are here because our East African alumni have asked us to specifically to focus on the role of the stage director in the creation of new work. Liesl Tommy (South African-born and one of the most vital American directors working today) leads this week-long investigation into what it means to be a director for the stage. Liesl is Sundance family who has lead projects at our Utah “home” Lab and participated twice as a creative advisor at our Manda, Kenya residencies.

And so, we gather and we are met. Yesterday, the Sundance staff gave an intro about the history and philosophy of our program. We talked about values we hold dear: freedom of expression, the independent voice, artistic risk – and we spoke also of our belief in the ability (indeed the responsibility) of  artists to lead their communities – to tell the truth.

Then the revelations begin. As each participant spoke of their passion for the theatre, their experiences, and their dreams, big dynamic conversations take flight. Conversations about language, colonization (both frank and insidious), about globalization and its effect on making art, about fear, about “space”, about audiences. About translation. About design. About stakes.  Those who felt comfortable used English but much of the interaction also included Kiswahili (the language of Tanzania), French (Rwanda and Burundi are francophone) and of course Amharic, the singularly poetic tongue of our Ethiopian hosts. Though I have been fortunate enough before to participate in and witness the astonishing coming together of multiple cultures, this dialogue lifts into the heavens – I have not yet witnessed such high level and complex concepts bantered back and forth in these passionate languages. We are embarking on a complicated exploration and these artists are ready for it! I am breathless to keep up, and filled with a kind of awe, an excitement for the discoveries we will make.

Of course, this has not happened over night. This is year ten of Sundance Institute East Africa program. My tiny staff and I have traversed Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda. We’ve held workshops and seen work. We’ve accumulated a database of over 1600 artists in the region. We’ve had countless meetings, watched performances, and over two years, created actual residency labs on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. So, this particular incarnation of Sundance Institute East Africa is our ‘next step’ in our curious journey.

Over a spectacular lunch of ‘injera’ (fermented bread), and various stews, a more informal mingling begins – getting to know one another: lots of laughter. And the more formal conversations conclude in the afternoon. Most of our group goes off to an Italian restaurant while my colleague, Associate Director Christopher Hibma, and I set up a little projector for this evening’s public meeting.

We’ve put out a giant invitation to the entire city to meet us. And so, 100 local artists gather at the café of the National Theatre to meet us, hear about the work and to ask questions. There are dozens of actors, filmmakers, playwrights, musicians, and we come face to face for the first time, to acknowledge our shared passion for the theatre. We explain our visit. And they tell us who they are. They ask questions. We do as well. I know, I just know that some of these new faces may well become friends and artist collaborators in the time ahead.

I admit I am tired, and it’s only Day One. Traveling here is never what I’d call “relaxing;” but at the same time, the world of “New York Theatre” seems very far away. Here is the opportunity to share with people unaware of what’s opening in New York, or what next year’s season will be or what an Obie or Tony is. These are souls connected in seemingly more vital ways – their cares and concerns are very much about ‘now’ – and their hearts (and hopefully ours) are open to what happens in real time.


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