Reflecting on Drama
Alemayehu Tadesse is one of Ethiopia’s most accomplished actors and playwright. Having worked in television, film and theatre, as well as being a producer and writer, Alemayehu has seen the ups and downs of Ethiopia’s arts scene for two decades. Through his involvement in plays like Babylon beSalon, and radio stories like Efoyta, Alemayehu has become one of the most popular actors and producers in the country. In addition, as one of the members of the committee that reviews new plays submitted to the National Theatre, he is well positioned to reflect on the development of the dramatic arts in Ethiopia. EBR’s Menna Asrat spoke with him about the roadblocks dramatic arts is facing and what the future holds for Ethiopia’s acting industry.
Babylon BeSalon (Babylon in Salon) is among the most popular and the longest running stage plays in Ethiopian theatre. In fact, it has practically become part of the fabric of society, at least for theatre lovers. At the centre of the theatre is Alemayehu Tadesse, the star of the play.
Unlike many other actors, the Harar-born Alemayehu who is also a playwright came to acting later than most. “I didn’t have an interest in acting for much of my time at school,” he says. “When I was in 11th grade, my teacher organised a model drama about a United Nations Meeting. My part was to play the South African President, and he gave us all speeches to recite. I ended up memorising mine to the point that it seemed like I wasn’t speaking from a script. People started telling me that maybe I should start looking into acting.”
As well as he acted during school plays and events, including as Emperor Tewodros II during a 40th anniversary celebration at his high school: Medhanealem High School, he wasn’t bitten by the acting bug until he went into higher education.
In 1989, when he was a first year student at Addis Ababa University, Alemayehu started to become more serious about acting although his initial intent was to study Geography or Economics. “Actually, when I was a first year student, I saw a flyer for a showcase put on by third year theatre students at the university. Seeing that made me think about stage play more seriously. And then when I went back to Harar for a school break, I met one of my teachers, who told me that I should think about becoming an actor, since I had already shown some aptitude when I was in school. So for me, it was a gradual thing. I didn’t have an obsession with drama when I was a child or anything, but I found my way to it.”
Almost two decades along the line, Alemayehu has become one of the most recognisable faces of the Ethiopian arts scene. “It’s difficult to say which of my projects my favourite is,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of things. I think in theatre, my favourite project was Antigone. Out of the films I’ve done, one of the ones I’ve most enjoyed is actually an upcoming one, called Atifred (Don’t Judge). Ertale was my favourite documentary I’ve done.”
A relaxed and friendly man, Alemayehu, a married father of three, has had an interesting turn in theatre. Among his many jobs has been acting, producing, and writing, giving him the perfect positioning to witness the development of theatre in Ethiopia.
Since the introduction of modern theatre in Ethiopia in the 20th century stage plays have gone through many developments in terms of dramatic genre and form shifts. Stage plays reached their peak in the 1960s and 70s with the help of icons like playwright Laureate Tsegaye GebreMedhin and talented actors like Wogayehu Negatu. Between 1965 and 1974 writers like Tsegaye and Mengistu Lemma managed to produce plays with strong social and political criticisms. However, stage plays started to diminish both in quantity and quality after the 1980s due to many factors. However, plays like Wubetin Felega by Getnet Eneyew, and Fikir Yeterabe by Wudneh Kiflie, which explored many social and psychological issues were produced starting from the beginning of 21th century.
Alemayehu is one of professionals that have seen the developments, shifts and problems facing the dramatic arts first-hand. “Historically, as governments and administrations come and go, stage play has not been given the attention and freedom it needs to develop. Governments use theatre as a way of communicating their own messages, instead of encouraging it to spread and develop. There were taxes levied on theatrical and film arts, called a leisure tax, intended to temper the supposed negative effects they could have on Ethiopian culture.”
The government’s alternate neglect and exploitation of dramatic arts have hampered the growth of the area, according to Alemayehu. “The area needs funding to thrive, and support. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the government has to become involved in the actual content of the drama. It just means that instead of ignoring dramatic arts, things should be done, like forming boards and committees to run individual theatres, and encouraging the private sector to get involved, as sponsors for plays, and films.”
In the past, there were many theatre clubs nationwide that produced actors and singers who are still working today. These clubs have been closed, but courses at private schools and universities seem to have taken their place. However, in spite of the proliferation of universities and colleges that offer courses in acting and drama, the chances for new actors to get enough exposure to actually make a career are few and far between. “There are students graduating from these programs every year, and yet, we still don’t see them working in plays and films,” says Alemayehu. “When you look at the talent competitions on television, you see the same people going from competition to competition. Dramatic arts have not become a self-sustaining area yet, mostly because of the neglect on the part of not only the government, but society at large.”
Film is another part of the Ethiopian arts sector that has largely been neglected, according to Alemayehu. In fact, Ethiopian films have, by and large, not enjoyed a good reputation among the cinema going public. Alemayehu says, this is largely thanks to the lack of an institution that can regulate and assist film makers. “At the National Theatre, when a new play is submitted, it is reviewed by a panel of experts, who go through every aspect of the play, and then either accept or reject it. The panel then gives a list of suggestions to the writer. At that point, the play is workshopped, and goes through the production process. At the end, the panel reviews it again, to make sure that what was on the page, and what has been produced, correspond to each other,” he explained.
However, in film, there isn’t such a rigorous process to follow. “Filmmakers often work with their friends and acquaintances to produce their movies. In fact, when someone writes a film, they often don’t show it to another person to get their their feedback. I’ve asked people why they are averse to getting criticism from other people, and they say that it is because they don’t want their ideas to be stolen. This leads to films that aren’t up to standard, or are poorly written. To be honest, it gives the entire country’s film industry a bad name.”
The solution to this, in his opinion, is a body that can provide training and support to filmmakers. “If there was such a body, it could help new filmmakers understand what they have to do to actually make a good film. Of course, this isn’t to say that everyone who makes films has to have studied it extensively. Someone who reads widely, and watches films and tries to understand the components of a good film can become a filmmaker. But there has to be somewhere that they can get support and criticism for their scripts. When a substandard script is made into a film and is shown in theatres, it turns audiences off to Ethiopian films.”
Of course, the prospects for Ethiopia’s dramatic arts aren’t all grim. “There are many talented people out there,” says Alemayehu. “If the area was given the freedom and support to develop in its own direction, Ethiopian dramatic arts can reach new heights.”
As for Alemayehu’s future prospects, he is getting ready to come back to the theatre. During his run in Babylon beSalon, he fell ill and lost his voice, forcing him to take a sabbatical. “Some people were saying that I had stopped acting,” he explained. “But now that I have recovered, I am ready to come back. I have a new film coming out soon, and I am working on some other projects, including writing.”
8th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2019 • No. 70