Shows How Long-Running Plays Benefit Local Theatre
Babylon BeSalon recently celebrated its tenure as the longest-running play in the National Theatre’s history. The milestone highlights the potential of theatre to bring together audiences – and as an important cultural experience and revenue-generating enterprise. EBR adjunct writer Meseret Mamo spoke with theatregoers and the playwright, among others, to learn more about Babylon’s influence and how it may help expand Ethiopia’s theatre industry.
Recently, the Ethiopian theatre community witnessed a milestone. A play entitled Babylon BeSalon secured the record of being the longest-running theatrical work that’s been performed in the National Theatre’s 60-year history.
Over the course of its 11-year run, the play, which is categorised as a comedy, has gained a devoted following. It also enjoys a high number of spectators during its performances. Despite the fact that it is staged weekly – Friday at 5:30 PM – the number of spectators is competitive with the amount that watch plays on Sunday afternoon, a popular viewing day for theatregoers.
Its allure is even a mystery for the author of the play, Wudneh Kifle, who has written 13 other works. He also has another play currently in production entitled Kitiltil Kokeboch.
Although Wudneh considers another play he wrote, Yetafene Chuhet, which was staged in 2004/05 a masterpiece, it is Babylon BeSalon that is garnering the most attention. The reasons for its popularity elude the playwright. “I can’t figure it out myself; eight other theatres that I wrote after Babylon are no longer being performed on stage and there are many other comedies but this one seems to be a favourite among audiences,” he told EBR.
The 44-year-old playwright has an illustrious career in the arts, having written more than 60 radio dramas; 16 television dramas, including Mogachochu’s third and fourth seasons, which are currently on air; and two novels.
Babylon BeSalon revolves around two main characters: a quarrelsome husband and wife who live in a house partitioned by a wall. Both main characters try to make one another jealous by creating and informing one another of falsely concocted stories. The play also features four supporting characters, including the maids of the husband and the wife, who also reflect the protagonists’ spiteful behaviour.
When it was first written, the author was inspired by the true story of a couple in his neighbourhood. “This couple fought a lot and when everybody thought they were not going to be together anymore, we would see them together and it was interesting as well as funny,” says Wudneh. “It was first written in 1997 and staged three years later, in May 2000. After three years of being performed on stage, the theatre was withdrawn until 2006.”
Despite its years-long run, audience members of all ages still find the work entertaining. “I like the play very much and I will see it again in the future,” says Ayenachew Asfaw, a 28-year-old spectator who came with his girlfriend to watch the play. Senu Ayele, a young mother, watched it five times and finds it riveting. “This is because it is very entertaining and addresses an important massage without making me bored,” she told EBR.
Experts say that the play’s longevity is a result of its relatability. “The theatre has stayed on stage for a long time because people like it, and it is liked because the issue it raises is universal. Marriage and controversies within marriage are universal themes,” argues Hailemariam Seyfu, Theatrical Art Director at the National Theatre. “Love is not always like Romeo & Juliet or Hadis Alemayehu’s Fikir Eskemekabir – it also exists within fights and arguments and this reality and tension touches everybody’s heart.”
Hailemariam collected data from the spectators about the theatre and discovered that almost 55Pct of the audiences are in the age range of 15 and 30; and 74Pct of the respondents like the play very much. “It has even brought back spectators that have withdrawn from watching plays,” he said. “The National Theatre hall is also getting a continuous income because of it.”
These benefits aren’t unique to the National Theatre – foreign countries have long harnessed the economic and cultural benefits of the theatrical arts. According to Forbes magazine, Broadway, the United States’ famed theatre district, grossed over USD1.3 billion in the 2014/15 season. Long-running plays are especially beneficial, as they often provide quality productions that draw audiences to theatres, thereby exposing them to other plays and events taking place within the industry.
In fact, America’s longest-running musical, The Phantom of the Opera, has been performed for more than 140 million people throughout the world, generating more than USD6 billion in revenue, according to it’s official website. Forbes also notes that popular plays and musicals on Broadway gross average weekly revenues in excess of USD2 million.
Additionally, a robust theatre community can also be a beneficial tool in cultural and tourism promotion. Data from The Creative Industries – a UK-based organisation that gathers data on cultural activities – shows that “10 million inbound visits to the UK involved engagement with the arts and culture, representing 32Pct of all visits to the UK and 42Pct of all in-bound tourism-related expenditure” in 2011. Theatre was an especially profitable sector in the arts – London theatres attracted roughly 15 million viewers and generated nearly USD1 billion in 2014.
Aside from its potential economic benefits, a robust, well-developed theatre industry can promote cross-cultural dialogue in large, diverse countries like Ethiopia. A study by the European Union found that “by becoming spaces for deepening the understanding of different cultures and providing room for participative and creative encounters, [art and cultural] institutions…play a pivotal role in connecting people and in building a more cohesive and open society.”
This is particularly true of long-running plays because their performances can span decades, linking generations and uniting people through a particular cultural experience or theatrical work over time. This, the report argues, demonstrates the power of theatre to be a “vehicle of social cohesion”, by “embrac[ing] the wealth of talent brought by new individuals and communities” through creating and engaging with art.
In order for these benefits to come to fruition, theatrical works must be pleasurable and entertaining for audiences. According to Nebyu Baye, Assistant Professor of Theatrical Arts and Dean of the College of Performing and Visual Arts at Addis Ababa University, a play can be successful as well as popular if the key elements of good storytelling are present. “The elements should consider psychological, moral and social factors,” that attract audiences, including narrative arc, tension, and well-developed characters, he argues. “Theme and genre also matter.”
He says, as a comedy, the fact that Babylon has stayed on stage for a long time is a great success. “This means the ideas it raises and the message it relays are universal, which translate though different times, places and cultures,” he says. “For instance, marriage is universal. However, many art works raise marriage as an issue in a different way” and not as a comedy.
Others agree that the fact that the play is a comedy has a great impact regarding its popularity. Treating a serious topic such as marital strife in a light-hearted, satirical manner may help bring levity to an otherwise difficult subject matter, thereby making it less intimidating for audiences.
Nevertheless, making people laugh is not the prime objective of the playwright; rather, he says the overall massage is important: “I want to show how costly it is to pretend to be something you’re not; not being your authentic self – and the interplay of time, emotion and money,” explains Wudneh.
Ayenachew also gathered important lessons from the play: “I have learnt that to speak with your spouse frankly and discuss matters will solve problems.” He first decided to watch it because Alemayehu Tadesse, one of the most respected actors in the industry, is one of the main characters.
Of course, the actors’ performance abilities also contribute to the theatre’s success. Both Wudneh and Hailemariam agree that actors use their full capacity in their performances. “As actors internalise dialogues and know every scene even after the first director, Tesfaye Gebrehana, left the production, the performances still go well,” stresses Wudneh.
A number of theatregoers EBR approached testify to this fact. They say that they are attracted by the amazing performances of the actors.
The actors also know the on-stage dynamic of the performers is a big draw for audiences. Alemayehu plays the role of the male protagonist who pretends that he doesn’t love his wife and attempts to make her jealous. He has been performing in the play since its first performance. A full-time member of the state-owned National Theatre’s acting troupe, he’s only failed to play the performance for one month due to health reasons, during which time the play wasn’t performed because audiences look forward to his presence.
For Alemayehu, the message in Babylon BeSalon, which is his second most celebrated performance behind Antigun, contributes to its success. “The issues the play raises, which are close to everyone, and the way the message is conveyed strongly contribute to the popularity of the theatre.”
Furthermore, the dialogue is constantly updated, which invites audiences to watch the play more than once and gain something different from each performance. Alemayehu recalls an incident where he read in a local magazine a story of a theatre enthusiast who watched Babylon BeSalon 46 times. For Alemayehu, such behaviour among audiences, most whom are young couples, is attributable to the constant updates of the script by the actors and their performance abilities.
Sinafikish Tesfaye, who performs the role of a bar lady who is used by the male protagonist to make his wife jealous, has been performing in Babylon since its first performance. She shares Alemayehu’s view that dynamism contributes to the play’s longevity. “I used to be a little shy to act like a bar lady since it was my first role, but now I have improved. I even do some improvisation, which spectators find interesting,” she told EBR. “We are not performing the characters; rather, we are living them.”
The administration told EBR the play will be on stage as long as there are spectators. In fact, the popularity of the play has even reached outside the bounds of the capital, as regional states are interested in doing local productions and it has also been translated into Oromiffa. EBR
4th Year • October 16 2016 – November 15 2016 • No. 44