Friendships and fierce rivalries at drama festivals

Wednesday March 18 2020

Zetech University students, winners in the choral verse and cultural dance, during the Kenya National Drama and Film Festival at Kibabii University on April 11, 2019. PHOTO | ANTHONY NJAGI


The 2019 Kenya National Drama and Film Festival ended yesterday after more than a week of endless drama, in a manner of speaking, in Kibabii, Bungoma County. The hosts, Kibabii University and Kibabii Diploma Teachers’ College, welcomed and accommodated thousands of young Kenyans from across the country.

All the regions of Kenya were represented by learners from early childhood education and early year learning institutions to primary, secondary, teachers training colleges, technical and vocational training colleges, special needs education, and universities. These institutions were either private or public. In total, the 60th edition of KNDFF involved more than 20,000 participants, with the face of Kenya represented in languages, cultures, religious beliefs, gender, race, and ethnic communities, among other attributes.

One felt a sense of very serious competition, across all the genres of art and film that reached the “nationals” in Kibabii. But there was also camaraderie. New bonds were made. Old ones were renewed. The high fives, selfies, hugs and group photos betrayed the amity beyond the stage competition. Rivalries were often put aside as foes applauded a good performance by their competitors. Walking around the various venues, among the teeming numbers of students and the flood of yellow buses, one sensed a ‘nation of scholar artists’ engaged in what appeared a challenging task but which they seemed to enjoy a lot.

There is no doubt that the quality of performances this year was a notch higher than last year. It appears as if the teachers/directors/producers and the learners do indeed get challenged every year and set to improve on their performance the following year. For instance, most of the performances exhibited a high degree of artistic investment in the form and content of the plays, mimes, choral verses, creative cultural dances and modern dances.

It appears as if the production of a performance doesn’t just depend on the good old ‘hard work’ in rehearsals these days. It isn’t just about slogging at cramming the lines and stage movements. One imagines that young performers are following ‘free’ lessons available on YouTube, and watching a lot of TV shows to learn the ropes. One sensed a significant improvement in voice projection, use of non-verbal cues and body language, and stage props.


Yet the props seem to be the biggest handicap for KNDFF. Too many of the performances employ too many elaborate stage props that seem not to add value to the audience’s experience. What’s the use of almost 30 pieces of furniture on stage, of different shapes, colours, all supposedly signifying something or another? Performers waste a lot of time setting up the props on stage, thus eating into a congested programme. For instance, one university took about 20 minutes just to set the stage for a performance that was at the tail end of the day’s programme.

This raises the next question, about the form and content of the performances at the nationals. When any item wins at the regional level and goes to the finals at the nationals, it is supposed to be the best creative effort at the lower level. However, some of the items on stage at the nationals leave a lot to be desired.

It appeared too often that there were performances where the form was overemphasised at the expense of the content. In other words, the artistry was sacrificed for the sake of the spectacle. The props seem to be a major part of the desire to ‘exhibit’ instead of to ‘dramatise.’ For instance, a narrative should be simply a story, told as plainly as possible to the audience, which naturally listens to such stories every day. Why would such a narrative be accompanied by tons of painted wood, meant to be symbolic, even when the symbolism is hardly referred to in the story?

Good plays seek to entertain, maybe educate, but, most important, impress the audience with their artistry. Audiences aren’t too dumb to ‘read’ a play on stage in the acting.

The one consequence of the props-at-all-cost shows is that it has become too costly to produce performances for the nationals. It appears that any director who attempts a ‘minimalist’ production of, say, a play, would end up appearing to be too poor or uncreative. Yet this isn’t the case. Schools are clearly incurring very huge costs to make the props, costumes, transport the props to the venues and back, and pay for the upkeep of the performers. Why can’t the festival organisers clamp down on this unnecessary reliance on ‘wood, cardboard and paint’ symbolism?


This is a new venture, which has also become big business for the sellers of the costumes, props and transporters. Aren’t these ‘extras’ detracting from the main objective of the KNDFF, which is to develop creativity? Indeed, creativity is also hampered by the ministry of Education’s insistence on setting the ‘theme’ of the year, which generally leads to too many moralising tales; with the plays treading well-beaten paths instead of trying to extend the boundaries of the artistic innovation. In fact, films may soon overtake the other activities in interest as they appear more willing to think beyond the given.

Considering the amazing talent on show at the nationals, why do the organisers of this event not reward the schools and the performers materially? A small token to the winning teams would be quite helpful in motivating the teams. The organisers collect a lot of money from the participating institutions. Plus, there were several sponsors, including the Kenya Film Classification Board, KICD, USAID, Population Services Kenya, and Communications Authority of Kenya. The organisers charge an entry fee to watch the performances. So, if they can’t reward the top three schools or colleges, which perform in the gala show in the last two days of the festival — which would go a long way to subsidise their costs of production and performance — then why not simply subsidise all the institutions that reach the nationals?

But the one question that the ministry and the national patron of the festival, the President, need to answer is: What are their future plans for the products of the festival? KICD does a good job of recording and archiving the festival, for educational purposes and future research reference. However, the brilliant young performers hardly have anywhere to go to develop their ken and skills, in case they aspire to become professional artists once they leave school. There was once a School of Drama at the Kenya Cultural Centre more than four decades ago. Why can’t the ministry invest in such schools in the country again?

Overall, though, the KNDFF remains fairly well organised and quite entertaining. The plays and films on show are probably our best collective creative venture, considering the faltering nature of our professional theatre and film sectors. The Kibabii community was a very amiable host. The participants, winners, Kibabii University, Kibabii Diploma Teachers Training College, the host community and county, all deserve commendation. Like any other festival, this one was entertaining, educating, informing, and a very worthy occasion to attend.


The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]