Greek myths spring to life in Rwanda, like the staging of Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman
Isoko, a new theatre company, launches in Kigali, Rwanda, in May 2008. Canadian Jennifer H Capraru, the artistic director of the initiative, tells PHYLIS LUGANDA that the organisation has already secured office and rehearsal space in downtown Kigali.
What is Isoko?
It is a contemporary theatre company.
How did you come up with the idea?
In summer 2006 I was a member of the crew on the film, SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL. I was on 2nd unit and we shot all over Rwanda. I worked with Rwandans every day for two months, telling the story of the 1994 Genocide. At the end knew I had to return. One reason was that I had promised to come back and make theatre there. Another was Hope Azeda, whom I met on the film as she was our Rwandan Casting Director. At the end of the film we realised with surprise that we were both theatre directors. So we did what theatre people do? we drank some Mützig (beer left from the German colonial period) and planned how we could collaborate. I returned a second time in March-June 2007 on an invitation from the Rwanda Cinema Centre to give script development workshops. This started an intensive three months of theatre work with various groups. On this return trip, I met Nandita Dinesh of India, a graduate student at New York University who was on a fellowship to research theatre in post-conflict zones. We began to collaborate and then decided to form Isoko. Nandita brought in Emmanuel Munyarukumbuzi, a Rwandan traditional dancer and TV producer who became the third member. I found a significant part of my voice as a theatre artist by making work around the Holocaust, which touched my family. Now I would like to work to help Rwandans find their voices too.
Why did you choose the name Isoko?
We chose the name Isoko because it means “the source” in Kinyarwanda and “the market” in Kiswahili, as we aim to contribute to both the social reconstruction as The Source, and the economic development as The Market, of Rwanda.
The enactment of Littoral, a play by Wajdi Mouawad, during a workshop at the National University in Butare, Rwanda
What are the objectives of “Isoko”?
Our objectives are to provide safe spaces for discussion, creation, and healing through theatre; to contribute toward a creative economy; and to build with Rwandese their contemporary theatre culture. Our first project, Colleen Wagner’s internationally-produced anti-war play, “The Monument,” is extremely current in Rwanda right now. Theatre is an art form with which Rwandans have an immense fascination, and along with their history of oral tradition, their innate sense of theatricality and physicality make them natural actors and storytellers. There is a large body of talented artists with the potential to continue to develop their own theatre and get it out to the world if they are provided with a window into contemporary theatre. Theatre manifests art for social change and is the perfect tool to bring about dialogue around issues concerning the genocide, fostering civil society, gender, and peace building.
How did your journey into theatre and film begin?
I grew up in a haunted house in Montreal that accorded me lively imagination. I was also influenced by The Wizard of Oz at a tender age. Nandita, who started as an Indian classical dancer at the age of three, made her foray into Theatre for Development during a semester spent in Uganda in 2005.
How has the government of Rwanda taken this initiative?
We have the institutional support of the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture. Currently we are giving a copy of “The Monument” to the first lady, Jeanette Kagame. Mrs Kagame had a history in the theatre of Burundi, so we are very excited to have her opinion and advice, if possible.
How soon is Rwanda going to benefit from this project?
Isoko launches in May 2008. We have secured office and rehearsal space in downtown Kigali, which we share with a former manager of the Rwanda Film Festival, Daddy Youseff Ruhorahoza, who now runs Café Torerro.
How do you intend to fund the project?
We have received major funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. We have also received seed funding from the Dutch Embassy and the German Development Agency (DED) in Kigali. Grants are pending from ArtVenture, Women’s Global Fund, Echoing Green, and Africalia. We will also be engaged in private fundraising in Rwanda and Canada besides seeking corporate support in Rwanda. Later there will be earned revenues through workshop fees for the NGOs we partner with, and ticket sales for theatre, though we aim to keep prices affordable. Art is not a luxury.
What is your role in theatre exhibitions in Africa?
We hope to tour East Africa in future, and collaborate with some of the exciting theatre companies in Kenya.
A workshop for young writers with Nandita at Kivu Writers, Kibuye, Rwanda
What do you wish to achieve?
We hope to achieve social harmony, healing, and getting Rwanda’s pre-colonial and post-genocide stories out into the hills and to the world.
In your opinion, how would you describe the Rwandan theatre sector?
Rwandan theatre is full of potential since there are some extremely talented artists who have returned to Rwanda from Burundi, Congo and Uganda after the genocide; not to mention the artists who have worked there in the country through its trials and tribulations over the decades. In terms of the audiences, the Rwandan public seems to have fewer stereotypes about what theatre ‘should’ be like, which makes them a wonderful spectatorship to work for.
How different is Isoko going to be from the other theatres in Africa?
The involvement from the start of Rwandans, a Canadian and an East Indian in the formation of Isoko makes it uncommon. With our diverse backgrounds, we can identify with the diverse groups that comprise Rwanda today and thus Isoko has the potential to be an important focal point for intercultural exchange and dialogue through theatre.
Which kind of plays are you planning to make?
We are planning to make plays that reflect themes that are important to today’s Rwanda. The work we do with NGOs, schools, and community groups will help us in the identification and promotion of these themes. We will also be promoting new playwrights who will draw attention not just to the themes Rwandans want to hear about, but also provide an insight into how theatrical styles might be changing across the country. We want to make work that will show Rwanda to the world, and also the world to Rwanda. Therefore regular production and readings of international plays will be an important part of our repertoire.
How are you going to inspire the young directors and writers to develop their skills?
We are going to have playwriting competitions and the winning playwright, the best out of 10 selected by SMS on cell phones by popularity with the Rwandan public, will be offered training and a professional stage production of their play at Isoko. The same will apply to directors, since an apprentice programme is integral to our work. Hence, all our productions will train apprentices in various aspects of theatre-making so that new blood is encouraged and promoted in the theatre of Rwanda.
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Are you planning to incorporate a festival in your project?
Yes. We would eventually like to have the Festival of One Thousand Hills in Rwanda every other year. We would also like to revive the Caravan Amani and tour productions in East Africa.
Metamorphosis is part of life, or isn’t it?
What are some of the things you will change in Rwanda through theatre?
We will focus on changing the silence that exists when talking about controversial issues – to give space for people to educate each other and share their opinions so that they might see differences in thought as a good thing rather than something to be feared. We will ingrain professionalism within up and coming theatre artists so that they find a place for themselves nationally and internationally. We will find ways to make the cultural sector thrive and become an integral part of the Rwandan economy.
What are your expectations from Rwandans?
We expect them to go along with us for the ride and expect from us as much as we expect from ourselves.
Do you anticipate any challenges?
Since two of us are foreigners, there is bound to be a bit of a slowing down in the processes due to cultural differences. However, it is nothing that will hold us back as we will continue to work closely with our Rwandan colleagues in making Isoko self-sustaining.
Besides art, how else are you going to contribute to the Rwandan society?
The wonderful thing about art is that it cannot be restricted solely to one effect. So, while our focus will be on theatre, we will be meeting very many people along the way, so we are bound to get involved in Rwanda in more ways than we can imagine.
He who plays at home is rewarded with recognition, as these Rwandan performers, discover with the applause accorded them
What future do you think theatre art has in Africa?
So far theatre has been very effective in certain countries in Africa such as South Africa, Senegal, and Kenya. The fact that we see such a potential for Isoko is proof of our belief in the role that theatre can play in Rwanda in specific and in Africa in general. We believe that, like sports, art will be an incredible way to invoke a sense of African pride and unity. In the words of Augusto Boal, “Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”