Curtain falls on 'last expartriate'

Monday February 26 2007

By BANTU MWAURA

The passing away of James Falkland marks a defining moment for theatre in Kenya. The indefatigable Falkland, an illustrious actor, director and set and lighting designer, was the last of the active expatriate practitioners who shaped repertory theatre in Kenya. His signal achievement was to found Phoenix Players.

Based at the Professional Centre on Parliament Road, Phoenix Players, registered as a not-for-profit organisation limited by guarantee, made its debut on the Nairobi theatre scene just as the Donovan Maule Theatre was folding up in the early 1980s.

James Falkland was born James Henry Brown in Scotland in 1936. Trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and worked with various repertory theatre companies in the UK as an actor and with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as on television. He worked as an actor, play director, drama teacher and technical consultant with various companies before coming to Kenya. At the time of his death two weeks ago, he was a drama teacher at the Visa Oshwal High School in Nairobi.

Falkland’s debut as an actor in Nairobi was in 1970, in the Donovan Maule Theatre production Sleuth. He continued to work for the Donovan Maule Theatre and proceeded to take over its running in 1979 as an administrator. His first production at the helm of the Donovan Maule Theatre was the play How the Other Half Loves by Alan Ayckbourn, and many more followed.

In recognition of his administrative skills, Falkland was appointed director of the Kenya Cultural Centre and the administrator of the Kenya National Theatre in 1976. It was, however, an untimely move, coming just as Kenyan artistes and intellectuals were working for a national theatre movement that captured the aspirations of Kenyans at large instead of confining itself to the narrow aesthetic preoccupations of the elite. The pressure for an African director at the Kenya Cultural Centre became overwhelming and by October 1977, Falkland had left the office. But the experience appears to have shaped his whole later approach.

THE DONOVAN MAULE THEATRE, long after its anticlimactic curtain call in the mid-1980s, still remains the most successful repertory theatre in Kenya’s history. Fashioned in the image of the London West End repertory theatre, it worked tirelessly to make British officials and settlers feel at home in the African wilderness. Its productions came straight from London — indeed, it prided itself on being able to put up productions that were either currently showing or had just recently concluded their opening run in the West End. Even the actors were expatriates from the UK, complete with contracts from the British Actors Equity Association for Overseas Engagements.

By the time Falkland took over the running of the Donovan Maule, it had become clear it was in dire need of a change of character. The support that the theatre enjoyed in colonial times was drastically diminished in the post-colonial period. What were needed were new and creative methods of keeping the theatre afloat financially.

Falkland first plumped for higher membership fees to create a captive audience and secure sponsorship; he then increased the number of productions to 11 a year; and stopped hiring professional actors from the UK, turning instead to local talent, not just white but also Asian and African.

Sadly, the board of directors of the Theatre was uncomfortable with these “radical” departures; eventually, in 1983 Falkland resigned from the Donovan Maule Theatre and officially launched the Phoenix Players. They put up their first production in the basement of the Professional Centre in June 1984.

Falkland now began actively engaging local actors in his semi-professional outfit. Among the first African actors he took on were such such present-day luminaries as Sam Madoka a well-known actor and advertising executive, and Steve Mwenesi a prominent actor as well as lawyer.

Still, like the Donovan Maule Theatre, the Phoenix Theatre was ultimately fashioned on the British repertory tradition and relied heavily on box office earnings and membership fees to keep afloat. Similarly, it appealed most to the African upper middle class that was most at home with British middle class more, and the focus on British/European plays and scripts continued to be a defining characteristic of the Phoenix Theatre.

The crucial difference between the Donovan Maule and Phoenix thus was that James Falkland started engaging more Kenyan actors, and putting up at least one Kenyan production annually in the form of an end-of-year musical, a trend that saw several African plays find there way onto the Phoenix stage. Musicians such as George Mungai and Eric Wainaina honed their performance skills under James Falkland.

Wainaina, now a celebrated musician and a winner of the Africa-wide Kora music award, affirms that he learned his performing as well as directing skills from James Falkland. Wainaina’s successful musical Luanda Magere, which played to full houses at the Godown Art Centre recently, owes much to the training he received directly from working with James Falkland at the Phoenix Theatre.

Others who credit the training they received under the directorship of James Falkland for their success are such celebrated actors as John Sibi-Okumu, Sam Otieno, Jimmy Gathu, Cajetan Boy, Ian Mbugua, Carol Odongo, Nick Njache, Jacob Otieno? the list is endless.

It was under the directorship of James Falkland that the Phoenix Theatre produced some of the most memorable musicals in independent Kenya, including Changing Generations and Aspirations. Produced between 1992 and 1993 with funding from USAid, Changing Generations was a community play that focused on HIV/AIDS and played to audiences all over the country.

However, while Phoenix targeted the upper middle class, Falkland remained aware that a popular theatre movement was the only way to sustain a repertory theatre.

To fill the gap left by the absence of a rational policy on theatre in Kenya, Phoenix founded a theatre space that would target the Kenyan middle class; the Miujiza Theatre.

Inaugurated in 1992 with Sam Otieno as its director, Miujiza opened with the maiden production of Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again by Ola Rotimi in September that year. It, however, did not get the kind of support it needed to stay afloat. Four years down the line, Miujiza finally ground to a halt.

The blame for the stunting of the theatre industry in Kenya lies squarely on the shoulders of the Ministry of Culture, Gender and Sports, which seems to care little about anything beyond long-distance runners and football.

The Kenya National Theatre has been neglected at best. The director at any one time is normally an officer from the Department of Culture with little knowledge of theatre administration.

So, even though his attachment to elitist British theatre may have been calculated to alienated the mwananchi, James Falkland will be remembered as a formidable theatre director, trainer and administrator who kept the flame of theatre burning in Kenya, as not only the founder of the only surviving repertory company in the country but also as a man who helped launch the careers of a host of prominent actors, musicians and set designers.