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NINI’S DESIRES

niniThe sunlight that cracked through a blanket of dry grey clouds, made the garden restaurant feel warmer than it really was. Dry fallen leaves scattered freely around the chic green garden and I spotted a table just a second before seeing Nini Wacera. She spoke with alacrity to a group of patrons on the next table. My first assumption was that they were long lost buddies but I soon realized they were mafans. She spotted me and immediately shouted a greeting as she walked over…I might be the one who shouted the greeting, can’t remember since I also have this habit.

I noticed she was reading, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. I absorbed the synopsis hastily and made a mental note to get it as I am a hunter-gatherer reader who depends on recommendations. The page she was at was marked by a large, dry deltoid leaf. Why had I never thought of doing that? I observed keenly as she explained how she finds the leaves. Actually it was very simple- She finds a dry leaf from wherever she visits and replaces it with the previous one. It was the combined intensity and simplicity of how she explained her view point that I found fascinating. Her soft skin and beauteous face did little to cover her tough but gentle demeanor. Still, I wondered, why? Why had I never thought of using a dry leaf as a bookmark? I was soon to find out that there are many things that this former capital FM radio presenter thought of and did differently from the rest of us.

We looked through the menu hoping to find delicious vegetarian dishes. By now half an hour had passed with us completing each other’s thoughts and philosophies and basking in her epiphanies. This is when I knew the interview was never going to end. Every sentence we had started gave birth to baby sentences each with its brothers and sisters. So quickly we settled on Indian vegetable curry, sending the waiter with a strong message that the food better come out as good as he had described it. As she gave back the menu we quickly took it from where we were which was actually nowhere and everywhere, (please tell me you know what I mean).

“Those extra-ordinary people like, Jesus and Buddha, chose to view their world from within them and in the process defy the realities of the societies at that time. The society saw them as different or even troublesome, but they simply chose not to join the robotic thinking of the society and therefore in turn changed the whole society’s perception,” She emphasized as she continued to explain how she viewed life. Her cunning and optimistic nature saturated our space and I easily understood why she had a constant bout of Midas touch in her acting career. She had co-starred in Dangerous Affair, a local film that was arguably the most popular in recent history until, Nairobi Half Life, – which she also featured in. Her name was probably propelled to the Kenyan masses through her antagonist charismatic role in, Wingu La Moto as Susan. She  featured in many more popular shows including Changes, Kona, Desperate Housewives Africa and Sense 8 but I do not intend to list down her CV for you. Check her Wikipedia…hehehe.

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 Back to the “Interview”. I became curious to know the epoch of her artistic journey.

“Why acting ?” I asked her.

She remained thoughtful for a moment as the sparkling hazel eyes behind her glasses riveted on mine.

“It’s the feeling. I love the feeling it gives me. It is like discovering a really good dish. Will you not order it again next time because it was too good the last time?” She explained as I warmed up to her story.

Nini Wacera had taken interest in theatre performances in school where she would represent, Kahuhia Girls, at the National Drama Festivals with solo verses or stage performances in which she landed on male roles. After school she joined the USIU. This was during the Safari Cats and Five Alive phenomenon. She wanted to join Safari Cats but her father would not let her. This is when she and her friend Lorna decided to form a  dance group, and called it Karisma. They had their share of fun as they were hired to dance in major events and for several famous artists including  FIVE ALIVE!

In the midst of it she found herself juggling dance and theatre at the Phoenix Players…and of course college…yes of course, college. One day she came to the Phoenix and found a long queue of beautiful female models. She found out that they were auditioning for a major role in an upcoming film. Nini, got excited as her secret desire had always been to act for screen. She was however nervous because she was not dressed for the role and felt intimidated by the beautiful elegant models on the queue. She had to go in last as she had not been invited. She entered the room to find a tired and frustrated looking panel of producers including Njeri Karago. They explained the part to her and she soon got into the character and enjoyed the audition. That is how she landed on the role of  Kui in Dangerous Affairs.

Her acting career was definitely been a fulfilling one and continued to be. She pointed out that part of the reason why her generation produced strong actors was because theatre directors of the time were committed to training actors as opposed to simply putting up a play. She acknowledged James Falkland’s influence in her career. This was a super opportunity to talk about what I actually really wanted from her. Earlier we had talked about the need to train our actors. I had done three workshops and thought of her in the fourth one. To my pleasant surprise, this had been Nini’s burden and desire as well.

In the recent five years, she has embraced a career as a casting director for tv, films, and TV commercials, Nini Wacera has found herself stuck in an all too familiar territory: Dealing with untrained actors. She explained her frustration of how she has had to audition the same actors year after year and every year only one or two of them come back improved. Most of them remained flat if not worse. It was clear to both Nini and I that our country had very talented actors. But talent was not necessarily translated to skill and therefore the delivery was wanting. If we did not train our pool of actors, then we had no case to put across whenever international films shot a Kenyan story and cast American or British actors to play Kenyan parts.

nini-arojiThe meeting ended with a decision to hold monthly workshops to train actors. For the first workshop with her, we agreed to  give an introduction class, foundation course and a Master Class.

Two weeks later the workshops happened and the results were astonishing. I discovered that Nini Wacera was an adept at the Meisner technique and very passionate about being truthful to the moment. Meisner technique is a style developed by American theatre practitioner, Sanford Meisner that mainly promotes the actor’s impulsive response to what is happening around him or to an imaginary object.

Watching the actors ‘become’, day by day was a tearful experience. Nini balanced technique with teacher’s intuition to a point where the students were compelled to dive deeper into their personal lives and tackle obstacles that prevented their impulses and imagination.

The intensity and physical demand of the sessions got hold of me on the last day. I turned to see if Nini felt the same. If she did, it was hard to tell. Her spirit was bubbly as ever. She embraced tightly with the actors who had now become family. She received more testimonials as she added more life lessons. Nduta Sialo, the incoming Secretary of the Kenya Actors Guild gave a vote of thanks that made me feel rejuvenated.

“This is exactly what we need!” She told Nini then turned to the rest of the class.nini6

“I am impressed with the high level of the training and the final outcome of the course which has ensured our total development, not only as actors, but as confident and beneficial members of the society. We hope to promote your courses as KAG across the country so that our members in other parts of Kenya can also acquire the important skills of acting on screen…”

As Nduta spoke to the actors, I looked at Nini and asked her of only one factor that would make her want to do this (training) again.

“There is no actor playing truthfully…acting is not pretending.” She said.

******************

Here is the information about the next workshops:

FOUNDATION IN ACTING COURSE

3 day workshop running for 3 consecutive weeks @ ksh 9,500.

Course schedule:

Tuesday 1st, 8th & 15th Nov 2016

Thursday:  3rd, 10th  & 17th Nov 2016

MASTER CLASS IN IMPROVISATION TECHNIQUES

1 day workshop @ ksh 4,500

18th Nov 2016

Above workshops will be held in Nairobi. Venue to be provided after booking.

Book through:

Mobile : 0797 730 083

Email: anactordevelopsstudio@gmail.com

LOVE THY SELF AS YOU LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR

LOVE THY SELF AS YOU LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR

Simiyu BarasaSimiyu Barasa is not only a celebrated contemporary director and trail blazing indie, he is also a culture/identity activist. An analysis of his work reveal an advocate of creative approach on the discourse of  the Kenyan identity and self-appreciation.

One can therefore only imagine how long this perpetual issue of Nollywood-idolization boiled in his heart before he spat it out and the whole acting fraternity made a lurch. He did not mince his words on his Facebook post. Discussion was still on going by the time I left to think deeply about it.

Below is a copy of his admonition.

F Simiyu Barasa: Something is terribly wrong. A Nigerian actor has journalists chasing after them from the minute they land at JKIA while ours remain ignored. It is not right when our home stars have to beg for coverage while some not so impressive foreigner is over hyped. So bad is this that local actors themselves fawn over them. Taking selfies to social- media-prove to us that they too are big. You can’t be big if your self-worth is measured by another’s presence. Have some self-confidence and dignity. Taking selfies with a star doesn’t mean you are one, we know the suffering you go through here. Grow some dignity get your local game sorted and aim international so that when Naija actors land in Nairobi they are the ones ASKING to take selfies with you. Right, our media neglects you. But learn from Vera Sidika about branding and visibility. She is a masters level study on hard work to market her brand, whether you like her work or not. And yes, she is probably the only Kenyan who lands in Murtallah Mohammed airport and Lagos media runs to cover her. The few actors who get to media are few and far between, in fact last I saw was Nyasuguta on citizen nipashe. Apana! This country too has actors that can be covered every week. Personally the rare selfies I post are 95% Kenyan actors kenyan artistes coz tuji support more. like Kalamashaka said in ‘punchlines Kibao’ doggy za mtaa ingine hazieji kuja kojoa hapa…’ lazima pia sisi tuwafunge mabao tumeji-armie na ma punchlines kibao…(*Hounds from a different neighbourhood are not invited to take a pis in our hood . We too must score goals…we are armed with punchlines.) ..this is the country that gave us Maumau. Where did this independent, self-love, dignified spirit dwindle?

It is a common assumption that Kenyan media rarely considers its own talents worthy of celebrity status. Artists complain that one rarely gets coverage until he has either made news or won an award abroad. So much so that serious artists even include touring abroad as strategy to make news back home. This plan may work but most of the time it doesn’t.

I remember a while back when we were invited as a theatre group to represent Africa in a huge festival in India.  We asked TV stations to cover this story. Only one station replied. There was a catch though. For them to cover our story we had to pay air tickets for their journalists and pay for their food and accommodation in India. Keep in mind that this was going to be the first time boarding a plane for most of the cast members. In India we were instant celebrities. Our stage play was on prime time news, in all newspapers and by the time we were leaving, our faces were familiar in the Indian streets. Back in Kenya and we were nobodies, shoving through over- loaded matatus.

This experience gave me a tough lesson early in my career: For an actor, curtains will always fall, no matter how long your time on stage is.

Yet the question still remains. Who is responsible for our recognition and appreciation? The media as a business only sells what they believe will be bought. I however believe that Kenyan media has to play a larger role as this is an egg and chiken situation: We can’t be famous if people don’t watch enough of us on teli and people don’t want to watch us because we are not famous… yet again Nollywood was introduced to our people less than five years ago by the same media and quality was not an issue. We deserve the same opportunity.

Having said that, I believe actors must begin by appreciating themselves first. We must remember the now retired actors that once ruled the screens long before current stars like Jalang’o and Lydia Gitachu.

I will never forget one rainy morning, I saw an old man sitting at the back of a pick-up truck, his grey kangol hat shielding his soft head from the drizzle. A few people on the street cheered him. The tired man immediately wore a smile and waved back. I soon realized it was ‘Mzee Ojwang’. Many questions about this incident ran through my- mind including whether the driver was kind enough to give him a lift or mean to let our dad…one of the greatest Kenyan comedians ever – sit at the back of a pick – up truck in rainy weather.

The nucleus of the problem as Simiyu has pointed out is not the media or the people but we. During An Actor Develops Studio –forum that we facilitated a few weeks ago, I promoted the discussion on being called a celebrity. Most actors, I realized, still felt that being a celebrity is equal to being a famous spoilt brat. This is not necessarily true. As an actor you are an artist, entertainer as well as a leader. Many People will love and celebrate your work hence make you a celebrity and a role model. Quit the false humility and give a thank you back to your fans with humble dignity.

I say this because the problem of admiring other people more than ourselves begin by us not appreciating ourselves enough. We do not fight for each other enough and –to be honest- we only have each other’s back during funerals or medical needs. This is fine but we can do so much more. You can talk about your friend’s show until everyone in your timeline considers him/her a star. He or she ought to reciprocate. How about attending Kenyan cinema and theatre? Do not let quality be an excuse, I’d rather you go watch and afterwards complain to the producers, directors and cast. If they are wise they will accept your feedback and improve.

History has proven that victory is rarely given. You must demand what you believe in and what is rightfully yours. It seems clear to me that Kenyan actors have approached the gate of honor, recognition, financial freedom and appreciation. But alas it is locked! So you either bang hard until its open, knock it down if they refuse to answer or walk back and let the next generation start all over  again.

RIVERWOOD AWARDS & LESSONS FROM #OscarsSoWhite

RIVERWOOD AWARDS & LESSONS FROM #OscarsSoWhite

 

On the night of 12th March 2016

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Actor Gerald Langiri deals with press -two at a time – on the red carpet.

I let the lingering Chris Rock’s monologue twirl through my mind as I headed to the National Museum to catch a performance. I walked towards the Louis Leakey auditorium praying that I wasn’t so late as to miss the beginning of the show. How I hate that! Introverted voices from within had to hush as I used more focus on finding parking; but not before reciting Chris Rock’s most profound statement at the 2016 0scar awards: “…Well here’s the real question. The real question everybody wants to know in the world is: Is Hollywood racist? You know. You gotta go at that at the right way. Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it “Fetch me some lemonade” racist? No! It’s a different type of racist…” I wondered how it would be received by our Kenyan acting fraternity and other stakeholders if an actor stood on an awards podium and instead of kupaka mafuta (oiling egos) get close and candid on matters that make actors not sit easy?

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Appie Matere, a prolific mainstream producer was present.

 

Familiar faces of actors greeted me outside the white tent. I’m always excited to see friends so I hardly noticed the red carpet and the screen projector set on the left hand side of the building. Soon my paranoia kicked in and I began to wonder why poetry show set-up would be decorated in this manner, with the voices of charming MC’s coming from the loud speakers? I also wondered if this is the kind of crowd that comes to a poetry reading? Not really – and especially not when everyone is dressed in pristine black and grey dinner suits only worn by actors when they are attending…damn! How could I have mixed up the dates?

After I realized what was happening, I began to take in the glamour and glitter attributed to a ceremony of this caliber. A table at the beginning of the alley way was occupied by black occasion dresses, speaking pleasantly to the guests and ushering them inside. The long red carpet diligently led to a photo section where momentarily important film practitioners were greeted by two chatty and welcoming MC’s, whose voices I had noticed earlier on, and a crowd of camera men quite eager to take their pictures. These things make actors feel good and appreciated. So, I loaded my camera and put it in front of my eyes. Through its lens I saw buoyantly posing actors whose hearts were enthralled and grateful that someone had prepared a prestigious event in their honor.

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From left: Actor/producer Kamau Wandungu , Actor/producer Naomi Kamau and producer Gathoni Kimuyu.

As I took a back seat and watched the event proceed, I wondered what was different this year at the Riverwood Academy Awards? First it goes without saying that the choice of venue helped to create an air of prestige. The Louis Leakey auditorium at the National Museum had enough space outside to set up additional facilities like the catering sector, extra tents, and a projector meant to assist with the over flow of attendees. Inside, the auditorium was classy and glamorously decorated with lots of ambience and a spacious stage.

Apart from the venue, there was a genuine interest in the actors by the organizers. The ushers must be given a ‘thumbs up’ as they appeared organized and simply happy to be there. I wasn’t even invited and yet the organizers treated me with appreciation and respect as an actor. I couldn’t help but imagine how much the nominees were being pampered.

A significant aspect of the awards was the presence of professional actors amongst them celebrities. The Riverwood Awards organizers seemed to realize that the industry could expedite its growth process by embracing the mainstream sector and therefore transform its image from this downtown tribal-homemade video business to a business where many more Kenyans appreciate and consume homegrown film products.

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Power-pose: Actors Joe Kinyua and Muthoni Thiong’o

I entertained the idea that just like an influential group of black American actors had protested to Hollywood, our own actors might have aired their views to Riverwood for these positive changes to be made. Perhaps the organizers inherently saw the need for this improvement after self-assessment and only harkened to sporadic feedback from actors.

All in all It makes me confident to disclose my reservation as I am hopeful that the Riverwood Ensemble might have taken notice too, so here we go: I was a bit disappointed –partly with myself- that I had not watched any of the films that had been nominated. Not one. I received messages from a few actors who were nominated asking me to vote for them. I could not do it simply because I had not watched any. I know it is not upon the ensemble in to ensure film distribution in its entirety but it is only fair that the nominated films are shown to the public or at least the fraternity. I propose that next time they have a showcasing week end right after announcing the nominations.

By that virtue I don’t feel qualified to announce the winner. You can find the list of awardees at http://www.actors.co.ke/en/mer/articledetail/763.

The Riverwood Academy Awards may have a long way to go but this ceremony proved that there is an audience and a market that appreciate Kenyan products and encourage actors to keep up their struggle for success.

On the other hand, the #Oscarssowhite ‘campaign’ which culminated in a racism-themed monologue by Chris Rock, also gave us important lessons in bravery, artists’ advocacy and oneness of voice. Black actors in America have made huge strides ever since they were allowed into the mainstream stage. Their success does not inhibit them to continue demanding for a fair playing ground in the American film and TV industry.

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Kibanda Pictures cast and crew had a reason to smile – Best Director, short film, actress, supporting actress.Martin Githinji,David Kariuki,Brian Elvis Muchara, May Wairimu.

What of us who only demand dignified treatment during awards… who only want at least sixty percent local content from international and local broadcasters…who want a structured welfare package? What of us who are determined to see the success of Kenyan theatre and film as a self-sustainable cultural element of our beloved nation?

And my own choice award goes to …

And my own choice award goes to …

The beeping sound of unread WhatsApp group messages annoys me, but I guess the people sending those messages felt like they were warranted to share their annoyance. Not because of me of course but because of an event that should bring a sense of pride to such practitioners. You guessed right…THE KALASHA AWARDS!

Disgruntled comments made by actors due to mistreatment from KALASHA Awards organizers made up the last thread of texts. They complained that they were not invited in a cordial V.I.P manner fit for an event that claims to celebrate Kenyan talent or they received nominations but did not get a ticket for themselves or for their plus one. Meanwhile corporates received more tickets than they asked for…(we all know why).

I decided to interrupt the pity-party. See, year after year KALASHA has treated actors with contempt and year after year actors have complained in whispers. So I threw the spanner in the wax. I called upon all actors to boycott; I urged those who were nominated to demand that their names be dropped. Then by ‘pure coincidence’ all the actors I was chatting with were needed back on set or stage!

Finally a comment came in the negative, then another and another … This is what I had expected. At least now they were refuting a suggestion of a way forward instead of empty talks and complaints that have never changed anything. I well understood that it was on the eve of the awards and boycotting would be too abrupt and crippling to the event organizers…but isn’t that why people do it. And why didn’t they do it earlier? When Alex Konstantaras wrote an article explaining why he would boycott the award, they were quiet. When SAFE and other producers made a silence boycott that was known to most they still remained placid, maybe even hopeful that things would be different this time.

Of course explanations (read excuses) were made. Some needed to get an award like their counterparts before they joined the protest, some were quite diplomatic and presented their complains to the KFC board. The board allegedly refused to listen to them but offered them an incentive at the last minute; to present the awards… hence they could not refuse. Some also felt that those who gave the suggestion or those who would follow through were savage and crass. Never mind that successful welfares like SAG were established through demonstrations and protests that demanded for actor’s dignity. Even nearer our neighbors in Nollywood are known for immediate protest any time the artist is disrespected or taken advantage of. Small wonder if most of our own actors ogle at them and see them as superiors. But we are different and diplomatic and maybe one day the stakeholders will decide to give us the respect we deserve…maybe they will see the light. Anyway, the event went on and of course complaints kept being mumbled.

I’m not here to tackle why actors are afraid of activism but I will talk about the underlying reason behind the complaints. Just like anywhere else, acting in Kenya is an artistic skill that solicits public celebration. However, that is just an extrinsic praise. What the actor truly longs for, the real praise is that from equals, mentors and experts in the same acting circles that they are in. Think of it this way, an average football fun will praise Ronaldo for the number of goals he has made but his fellow professional footballers will probably admire his excellent skills in ball control, speed, dexterity, titles, endorsements and so on. In other words, the average actor feels that the KALASHA awards do not really celebrate exemplified performances. Neither are they able to identify epic moments on screen that can make the acting fraternity to be at awe and desire to replicate or out do such a performance. Of course a few shows and exemplary performances have been recognized in this award (Well done to ‘Veve’ !) but that looks like a peripheral objective.

Therefore, hard-working and extremely talented actors have had to contend with substandard performances being awarded. This in the long term denies KALASHA Awards the prestige and honor it hopes to elicit. When top American actors speak of the Oscars with so much regard, top actors in Kenya mostly say getting an award or nomination in KALASHA did not enhance their careers. It was a bit alarming when I watched an actor who won an award declare that he will now focus on his music career.

That is why I have decided to stop complaining. So my own choice award goes to…

SIX, written by Njoki Muhoho and directed by Gilbert Lukalia. The story felt tight and well matured.

Nice Githinji and Kamau WaNdun'gu in action.They play queer robbers in , 'Six'.

Nice Githinji and Kamau WaNdun’gu in action.They play queer robbers in , ‘Six’.

The director also did justice to it by capturing the mood of the story and being ahead of the audience. The fact that this was a situational drama only happening in two rooms and maintaining its dramatic relevance was a huge plus. Also it was a high quality local production with good sound and lighting and very few continuity mistakes. But the ensemble cast is what stole this show. The Afro-fusion artist and actor, Iddi Achieng had subtle expressions that were coming from a very believable source. You immediately empathize with the workaholic mother who has to come back in the evening to a dysfunctional family. Nobert Ouma  also delivered a memorable performance as the artistic son who is intense and crafty .The drama paces up with the entry of queer robbers, played by Kamau Wa Ndung’u , Nice Githinji and Mwaura Musa.Other cast members included Arabron , Nyokabi Gethaiga ,Jacque Njeri and Martha Juma.   Simple, subtle yet creating an intense performance. Well done.

The best actor award I would give to someone who has been in the game long enough but never seems to get the recognition that I believe he deserves: Joe Kinyua. I’d nominate him for his exemplary performance in

Joe Kinyua is a prolific stage and film actor

Joe Kinyua is a prolific stage and film actor

‘See Them Blind’ …where he plays an investigative journalist struggling with alcohol and single parenthood. However, I would also celebrate his work due to the various roles he has played on screen and stage. He seems to be a hard working actor who goes at length to research. Kinyua’s interpretation of the character is also quite clear as he taps into his character’s psychic and background. He will sit, talk, walk like the characters he portrays. I do hope to get a chance to interview him so as to learn about his technique and so on.

In conclusion …The KALASHA Awards and all awards are meant to celebrate the people in the Industry. They’re supposed to create an aura of pride to the one’s nominated; they should be a highlight of an actor’s career. A moment of recognition for their hard work. And if this is not met…then it beats the purpose.