No-Showtime Theater Strains From Inception to Date

No-Showtime Theater Strains From Inception to Date

As much as artists have been vocal about the power of performing arts in communicating messages that could change society in many ways, the endeavor has failed to reach epic heights expected from a culturally-rich nation like Ethiopia. From censorship to competition from the growing cinema business, theater’s voyage has been full of hurdles. Now, the art form is dealing with the pandemic and national security challenges. EBR’s Trualem Asmare explores.

Emiye Britu, or Mother Britu, is a theater piece about a mother who struggles to raise her children by engaging in various lines of work. The mother then loses her children to people who chose war over peace. The mother is a symbolic representation of Ethiopia. Emiye Britu was written by Bertolt Brecht, a German theatre practitioner who passed away in 1956 in East Germany. The playwright was translated into Amharic by Manyazewal Endeshaw and first hit Ethiopian stages in June 2019.

The show had to stop because of protocols put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Even when some restrictions eased and enabled the resumption of some services, the play could not make it back on stage. The performance requires a lot of people on the stage, thus making it impossible to work around pandemic restrictions.

“We are planning to go on tour and perform for soldiers on the battlefields,” says Kuri Ayele, Communications Director at the National Theater. Arguably, that would be the appropriate stage as the country is literally losing its children because its own children chose war over peace.

The struggle of Emiye Britu is not atypical in Ethiopian performing arts.

Rub Guday, translated as a quarter to, is one of the theater pieces currently showing at the National Theater. Written by Tewodros Teklearegay, showtime is every Thursday at 5:00PM. The theater is based on a story of a family aiming to show the disadvantages of alcoholism. The play, previously shown nine years ago, is now rerunning and attracting weekly audiences of around 300, far from the theater house’s full capacity of 1,200 people. Such is the case with pandemic-induced protocols.

“Some people are watching it all over again,” says Tefera Worku, Producer of the play who has been in the business for 20 years.

Tefera is well aware of the challenges of the pandemic on the already struggling theater business. Covid came at a time of increasing rental and performers’ salaries expenses. Yet, the theater industry does not get the attention it deserves and tickets are sold for ETB100, which is not enough to cover production expenses. “We work because we love the profession, not as a source of livelihood,” Tefera complains.

The pandemic has hit hard any line of business that calls for public gatherings, and consequences on the theater business are even worse, according to Abdulkerim Jemal, General Manager of Hager Fikir Theater, the oldest theater house in the country and arguably in sub-Sahara Africa according to some records. Orders of shutdowns of public areas have rolled down the curtains of all theaters in the country.

“Even when some other places like hotels were allowed to open their doors, theaters were not allowed to follow suit,” said Abdulkerim. “Performances in theaters require a lot of screaming and touching, making it nearly impossible with social distancing protocols of Covid.”

Although performers still receive regular pay-cheques, it is less than what they would have received had they been performing to actual audiences. The pandemic has not only affected the performers but also makeup artists, designers, and many other professionals who involve before, during, and after production. Small businesses and street vendors that relied on theatergoers have all felt the burn.

The story of Covid and theater is worse at Hager Fikir, however. “By the time restrictions were easing and it would have been okay to open our doors, our theater underwent renovations,” Abdulkerim shares the frustration. Theater and music groups are trying to make up for the lost time by performing for gatherings through invitations. As of recently, these groups have also been performing in the various battlefields of the ongoing war in northern Ethiopia. The theater groups have been required to encourage and entertain servicemen—the only job available at the time.

Now that the renovation is complete, Abdulkerim hopes to open the doors of Hager Fikir in two months’ time. “We are waiting for the procurement of some materials such as curtains.” Even then, Abdulkerim has reservations on how the public would respond to the theater houses’ showtime preparations. He is worried that audiences may not be interested in watching theaters under the current security climate.

“Theaters and other entertainment require a national situation in which peace and tranquility are central.” People are focused on everyday news from the battlefields—not the ideal feeling to be in when attending a show at a local theater.

Abdulkerim’s reservation is well shared by Tefera. “Viewers from far away do not come and some people leave before the show ends, not to risk staying out late in the evening,” says Tefera referring to the state of emergency imposed in response to possible security challenges in the city. The lack of public transport contributes to such public behaviors as well.

The already difficult theater landscape—heavily damaged by competition from film—was further injured by the pandemic and security climate. As much as artists have always been vocal about the power of art in changing society and their passion for their art, the theater business has never been able to get rid of its hurdles distracting its mission, ever since its inception.

Teklehawariat Teklemariam is responsible for the introduction of the European form of theater in Ethiopia. He studied in Russia and traveled to Europe around the beginning of the 20th Century. He would then write his own play and use it to teach the monarchy about government administration and criticize corrupt leaders. Once Teklehawariat broke the ice, many followed in his path in the 1930s. Yoftahe Negussie, who founded the Addis Ababa University School of Theater, and Melaku Begosew, another pioneer of theater in Ethiopia, were among the most renowned whose plays made theater a popular art among newly established schools in the capital. The newly flourishing schools would use this art form to create awareness on various issues among students and their parents.

Even though European theater played a part in introducing modern forms of art, Ethiopians also used to engage in dancing, story-telling, and role-playing in various social settings. Most of these social engagements involved some form of art, which were later used as the foundation of storytelling through writing and theater directing.

Hager Fikir Theater was launched as a platform to inspire patriotism among soldiers and the general public during the second Ethio-Italian War. Founded by Mekonen Endalkachew, the theater promoted the use of music and sketch plays to attract audiences for his motivational speeches every Sunday. The plays used to be improvised based on the day’s main issue of concern. During the occupation which lasted from 1936 to 1941, all cultural theater performances were banned, books were burnt, schools closed, and cultural production heavily censored as part of Mussolini’s effort to set up an apartheid-based colony.

The departure of the Italians marked the beginning of a new era and for several decades theatrical art productions enjoyed golden times in a more comprehensive manner. The famous National Theater, formerly Haile Selassie I Theater, was inaugurated in 1956 in the presence of Ethiopia’s last emperor. The Municipality Theater, built under the office of Addis Ababa’s mayor, would follow. These stages showed performances written and directed by Ethiopian playwrights and directors. With the coming to the spotlight of theater giants such as Yoftahe Negussie, Melaku Begosew, and Eyoel Yohannes, the 1950s and 60s saw good days. Tsegaye Gebremedhin, Mengistu Lema, Tesfaye Gessesse, Abate Mekuria, Debebe Eshetu, and Wegayehu Nigatu have all seen their fair share of superstar moments.

Tsegaye is cherished to have started a new style of theater that was no longer attached to the values of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and one that showed the exploits of the aristocracy, but with the evils of life as experienced by the poor.

Performing arts have never experienced heydays during any of the past administrations in Ethiopia even though the mid-1900s experienced relative highs during the emperor’s reign. Censorship has been typical of the monarchy and Derg regime, while self-censorship was the norm under the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government.

The productions that survived through self-censorship of the EPRDF period had to face competition from the mushrooming number of films. The jury is still out regarding the current administration’s handling of the sector though positive signs are present.

“It can be one of the most profitable lines of work if some changes are made,” Tefera recommends. The adjustment of ticket prices and introduction of booking systems would change a lot. EBR

10th Year • Jan 2022 • No. 103

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