The government recently appointed Nebiyou Baye as the new director of the National Theatre of Ethiopia. Although he worked in films as an actor and writer on top of lecturing at Addis Ababa University, Nebiyou has spent almost his entire life in the theatre, building up a wealth of knowledge and expertise to bring theatre to a higher level. EBR’s Menna Asrat sat down with him to find out what to expect fat the National Theatre in the coming years.
In the past Nebiyou Baye has served as teacher, actor and writer until he was appointed as the new director of the Ethiopian National Theatre. Having served as a lecturer at Addis Ababa University, Nebiyou is a theatre connoisseur, publishing research papers and staying active in the Addis arts scene. He took the helm at the theatre earlier a few months ago, and has already begun to implement changes at the institution.
“Just like children play house, people have an inherent need to express themselves,” Nebiyou told EBR. “For instance, being a king is a far thing for most people, but children easily can pretend to be kings. Theatre is the expression of a basic human desire.”
A storyteller at heart, his love for theatre started early, in the comfort of his own home. When he tells the story, Nebiyou is characteristically captivating and animated, starting further back than his own birth, or even the founding of Addis Ababa. “When Emperor Menelik II searches a new capital city, he settled on Addis Alem, located 50 kilometres outside Addis, on the way to Ambo town,” Nebiyou narrates. “But the officials and diplomats in the Emperor’s court disagreed with the selection, and when they came across the site that is now Addis Ababa, it was decided that Addis Alem would became the site of the Emperor’s summer palace, and the palace that was under construction became a church.”
Nebiyou continues: “the Emperor However still spent summers in the town. As time went on, the royal family’s beds, tableware, and other artefacts, many of them made from, or incorporating, gold and precious stones, passed down to a museum that was set up in Addis Alem to commemorate the town’s imperial beginnings.”
The museum was the pride of Addis Alem, until disaster struck one day, when Nebiyou was around 11 years old. Robbers broke into the museum and stole priceless artefacts of the royal family. The town was thrown into turmoil, but the heightened security was a problem for the robbers. Out of options, they wrapped the stolen artefacts in a jacket and threw them in a patch of buckthorn; a plant used for making Ethiopian traditional ale, where a child who was playing outside found the bundle and returned it and town celebrated what they saw as a miracle.
A year later, during the anniversary of the recovery of the artefacts, the Addis Alem administration decided to put together a festival to celebrate. Plans were made, and a literature lover from the town put together a play depicting the history of the town, from the Emperor’s days, to the robbery. The playwright, Nebiyou’s father, cast his then-12 year old son as the child who recovered the artefacts. That was the start of what would become Nebiyou’s lifelong love affair with theatre.
“For someone who has been doing theatre since the age of 12, this is a dream job,” says Nebiyou, of his new post. “It’s like being a football player and getting to be on the national team.”
The enthusiasm that permeates through his conversation is the same enthusiasm with which he is approaching the task of taking the National Theatre in a new direction. The venerated institution, now around 63 years old, has changed direction a few times since its inception. Having first started life as the Cinema Marconi during the Italian occupation, the theatre was completed during Emperor Haile Selassie I Silver Jubilee celebration in 1955, with a capacity to house 1,260 people, and an objective of presenting Ethiopian songs and music.
During its golden age, the place formerly known as Haile Selassie I Theatre entertained many plays written by most prolific Ethiopian literary figures such as Tsegaye Gebrenedhin who were able to present plays with strong social and political criticism. The Theatre also organized many holyday music festivities and contributed immensely to the modernization of Ethiopian art. Despite this, the place is not as vibrant as it once was currently.
As a result, the Theatre is at the centre of enquiry nowadays regarding whether it is truly presenting the best of what Ethiopia has to offer. That is an issue that Nebiyou is very aware of, and plans to tackle in the coming years,
“The question is, is our national theatre at that level where people can be proud and aspire to work there? There are a lot of challenges ahead. Firstly, even though it’s called the national theatre, I don’t think it’s a voice for the nation. The diverse attitudes, opinions, and creativity of the country are not represented here. The biggest thing that is needed for art is freedom,” he says. “Art is the pinnacle of freedom of expression. A person in theatre has to be able to imagine something, as Plato says, twice removed from reality, and express it, for it to be art.”
The current atmosphere of change in Ethiopia is also present at the Theatre, and through Nebiyou’s initiative to invite back artists who have had to leave the country for various reasons, including political differences with government. “I have contacted some of the artists who are currently in the United States, and the plan is to have them come back to the Theatre before Ethiopian New Year for a big show,” he explains. “I want Ethiopian people and artists all over the world to see the National Theatre as their home.”
And that is the essence of the National Theatre, to Nebiyou: to be a space where creativity can be unleashed with total freedom. However, another pressing issue that is facing Ethiopian theatre and drama is a lack of incubation for young artists. As a product of Sunday school plays and amateur theatre clubs, Nebiyou is an advocate for the addition of drama education to the curriculums in Ethiopia.
“A young person should have a platform where they can express their talents and gifts. In the Ethiopian curriculum there are no drama classes at all. In other African countries, they have drama classes at the lower levels of education,” he explains.
Nebiyou believes that with the number of amateur theatre clubs dwindling to near zero, the culture bureaus at lower administration levels and schools should be at the forefront of the search for new talent, by making a point of looking for those people who are interested in drama, even if they don’t come to the bureaus themselves. With measures like that in place, the lack of amateur clubs won’t matter. “I grew up at a time amateur theatre flourished. The current renowned artists in Ethiopia all came through those clubs, like Tewodros Kashaune (Teddy Afro_, Gossaye Tesfaye and Tewodros Legesse. It was a good time for theatre.”
Hand in hand with this, the quality of theatre must be respected, according to Nebiyou. To this end, three years ago, he launched a master’s program in performance studies at Addis Ababa University. “If we give enough consideration to freedom and quality, many doors will be opened to create and nurture plenty of talent in this country.”
In addition to all the other plans he has, Nebiyou is planning to turn the outdoor café next to the Theatre into a tourist destination, in collaboration with the Ethiopian Tourist Organisation, where people can come and enjoy displays of Ethiopian culture. “Right now, if you want to see Ethiopian culture and dancing and singing, you have to wait until night, and go to traditional restaurants,” Nebiyou says. “There are no refined, national-level culture displays in Ethiopia. Mostly, the attempts are private initiatives, and you can’t be sure of what you’ll see. It’s such a sad thing that Ethiopian culture is associated with night life.”
But as busy as his career has been, and will be, Nebiyou still looks back fondly on the projects he has been a part of. In fact, asking him to pick a favourite project leads not to one or two mentions, but an extensive list, going back over a career that has brought him into contact with Ethiopia’s most illustrious artists.
“It’s hard to pick a favourite. I’ve worked on a lot of productions, written a lot of plays. If I had to pick a single project, it would be Teza, a film directed by Haile Gerima (Prof), because it is an epic portrayal of Ethiopia’s history from the feudal days, until now.”
Clearly, Nebiyou is ready to face the realities of his dream job with his eyes wide open. But at the end of the day, he says, drama and theatre have to be done with love of the art, a lesson he passes on to his students at department of theatre arts at Addis Ababa University where he is currently an assistant professor.
“Theatre gives a service to the world,” he says. “Abstract concepts like love, hatred and cruelty, which are things that are hard to explain, can be expressed and vented on the stage. The audience finds satisfaction in that expression. And the artists achieve some kind of catharsis, while satisfying a psychological need for the larger society.”
6th Year • July 16 – Aug. 15 2018 • No. 64