Phoenix Players underwent big changes in 2009

(In light of recent changes unfolding at Phoenix Players, i thought this story which I wrote in June-July 2010 was relevant to anyone wanting to understand a bit of PP’s history) PHOENIX RISING! By Margaretta wa Gacheru Posted in Saturday Nation July 2010 The phoenix is a mythical bird renowned for its remarkable ability to rise from ashes. The fate of Nairobi’s Phoenix Theatre has also been in ashes, more than once, in the last few years, but like the legendary bird, the theatre has managed to resurrect in its darkest hours. The saga and struggle at Phoenix Players haven’t gotten much media coverage in recent times. But if it hadn’t been for thedetermination, diplomatic, and legalskills of a relative newcomer to the local theatre scene, one of the city’s oldest centers of performing arts would today be a relic of contemporary history — a stage remembered more for its productions of Shakespeare and Neil Simon than those of John Sibi-Okumu, Cajeton Boy and Wole Soyinka, despite the fact that since the Nineties, Phoenix Players were mixing Western and African theatre productions on a regular basis. Phoenix nearly shut down in 2003 after its long-standing producer-director James Falkland claimed the theatre was on its last legs. But after helping to instill the love of theatre in the hearts and minds ofcountless local thespians for many years, Mr. Falkland was fought by his one-time protégées, steven Mwenesi, Paul Kariuki and Sam Madoka, all members of the Phoenix board of directors. But once Falkland walked out on the showcase he had struggled so hard to build, Phoenix experienced a plethora of problems which caused Professional Centre management to shut the theatre down. Amazingly, it was a young lawyer who only landed on the Phoenix stage in 2001—acting in Cajeton Boy’s ‘Family Ties’ — that literally saved the day. Millicent Ogutu is like a number of acclaimed Kenyan actors who earned law degrees even as they nurtured their love of the stage. (Think of Mwenesi, Kariuki and the late Sidede Onyulo.) The difference between them and Millicent is that not once but twice, she walked through ashes to help Phoenix get back on its feet. The first time was in February 2009 when the theatre was closed unceremoniously after having fallen into rent arrears by a substantial sum.By happenstance, Millicent got word the theatre was shut down. Not informed by either the then managing director Ian Mbugua or the board chairman Steven Mwenesi, Millicent had to do her own investigations. How she got the needed check signed, sealed and delivered to the landlord in time for the scheduled opening night of the theatre’s next production to proceed, is a wonder! Unfortunately, it also ruffled feathers of fellows who had been satisfied with the status quo, such as the board which hadn’t met in the last few years and Mbugua who apparently felt sidelined by the activist advocate-performing artist. And so, he quit! That was the first time Millicent helped the Phoenix lift off out of ash. The second time came after the second shut down of the theatre. It was again a rent payment problem, but now the complications ran so deep that the woman had to resort to the one weapon she knew well how to wield, namely the rule of law. “One of the big problems for Phoenix was that the board hadn’t met in years,” said Millicent, who found the Companies Act would enable her to enlist Phoenix members to call for an AGM. “It was the members who then chose to vote out the old board and bring in new blood,” she added. So out went Mwenesi and company and in came Peter Nduati, Lorna Irungu, Ronald Kinyangi and Millicent who was also installed as chief theatre administrator. Many local thespians, like Caroline Odongo and Mumbi Kaigwa credit Millicent with literally saving the theatre from turning into dust. Dark for nearly two and a half months, the Phoenix rose in April 2010, soon after that long-overdue AGM. “One of the first things I did as chief administrator was ask the board to re-hire George Mungai as the Theatre’s Creative Director,” said Millicent who had been sad to see George resign in 2007 after differing with the then Managing Director Mbugua. It’s Mungai who inspired Millicent to want to direct plays in the first place, and Mungai who’s undoubtedly the most versatileperforming artist working in Kenya today! Having first performedat Phoenix as a percussionist, Mungai was just a 17 year old student at Starehe Boys at the time. “I was hooked on the stage from the start,” he told Saturday Nation. Mungai is still so passionate about theatre that he’s happy to do either front or backstage work. He does everything from directing to designing sets to stage managing and script writing. “I’m as happy working with a hammer and paint brush on set design as I am directing young aspiring actors on stage,” he added. Having been mentored by James Falkland since 1987 when he first played percussion in the Phoenix band for the show, Sweet Charity, Mungai admits he learned the art and stagecraft and passion for theatre from James. And in turn, he also has no problem mentoring others, especially up and coming Kenyans who have an eye on careers in the performing arts. But while both Mungai and Millicent understand how the myth of the Phoenix has relevance in the Theatre, both are keen to debunk the stereotypic myth about Phoenix Players that they “only do wazungu shows.” “I ask people who confront me with that claim, ‘When was the last time you came to the theatre?’ Most of them say they have never been here,” Mungai said. Pointing to scriptwriters like John Sibi-Okumu whose show ‘Minister Karibu!’ opens July 22 as just one of several Kenyan playwrights whose works will be in production at Phoenix over the next months, both Millicent and Mungai cite everyone from Cajeton Boy to Mumbi Kaigwa as writers whose works are among an international array of artists whose scripts should delight local theatre goers in the coming months. So while Phoenix Theater has seen several darkened days over the past few years, especially with the demise of several beloved old timers, including James Falkland, Kenneth Mason and Gichora Mwangi, there’s a definite feeling of dynamic possibility and playful delight in the air at Phoenix, now that the ashes and the dust have been swept aside. Currently at Phoenix, Andrew Muthure, Rosemary Nyambura and Njoki Kagwanja star in George Mungai’s adaptation of the Noel Coward comedy, Fallen Angels. And at Alliance Francaise, Festival of Creative Arts opened last night in the freshly devised collaborative work aptly entitled Disturbia. Carole Odongo directs the premier performance that combines an eclectic mix of music, dance poetry and drama .

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