Ethiopian theaters at a glance

Guangzhou Opera House in China is described as the centerpiece of the district’s master-plan, according to The New York Times' review in 2011 entitled “Chinese Gem that elevates its setting”. Set in Haixinsha Square, the opera house takes the form of what appear to be two enormous pebbles. Rough-shaped materials sheathed in triangles of granite and glass protrusions adorn the opera house. Nowadays, theater and opera houses around the world are being transformed by structure and content and they do that to attract audiences. However, Ethiopian theater seem to be lagging behind, opines Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

Many who compare what they call the “golden age” of the current trend of plays always reminisce about one phenomenon: the launch of Hahu Besidist Wor, a play written by one of the most prolific Ethiopian literary figures, Tsegaye Gebremedhin. According to accounts, when his play was showing, part of the audience blocked the entrance while trying to view the already sold-out play and ended up having to be shove out by a fire brigade.

This exaggerated number of audiences is not part of the current contemporary theater scene. In fact, theater professionals say that the number of attendants has been depreciating over the years.

Places such as Hager Fikir Theater, which can accommodate around 900 people, nowadays has an attendance of some 200 people. These professionals cite that some of the reasoning for low viewership includes shortage in budget, bureaucracy, lack of new productions, and an audience shifting to the silver screen.

More than all these, experts raise questions such as what the theaters' contemporary role is and if they will finally be able to be an important part of Ethiopian art in the 21st century.

With the colonial Scramble for Africa, Italy set its eyes on the mountainous Horn of Africa. That was something unacceptable for Ethiopians and patriots wielded their weapons to fight the colonial power and, in the mean time, it was also necessary to encourage a spirit of resistance in urban dwellers. With this reason one of the oldest theater houses in Africa, Hager Fikir Theater, or formerly known as Hager Fiker Mahber (National Patriotic Association), was established in 1935 with the intention of creating resistance against invasion.

This association pooled together prominent literary figures and political leaders, including Mekonnen Habtewold, Kegnazmach Mengesha Kefela, Bilata Weldegiorgis Weldeyohannes and Kegnazmach Tesfa Gebreselassie, to counterbalance the propaganda being spread by the Italian political office.

Personalities who left a literary legacy, such as Kegngeta Yoftahe Nigusie, Agegnehu Engida, Tesema Eshete, Melaku Begosaw, Nigatuwa Kelkay, Ferede Golla, Abebe Wolde and Bilata Sahle Tsedalu were part of this association.

According to Simeneh Betreyohannes’s Master’s thesis entitled “Music and Politics in 20th  Century Ethiopia: Empire Modernization and Revolution,” a wide variety of artistic media, such as poetry, painting and, more importantly, fukera and kererto were used. In addition, apart from its political role, Hager Fikir Theater,  played an important role in bringing musicians of diverse backgrounds together, which contributed immensely to the modernization of Ethiopian music.

Simeneh quoted Tesfaye Gessese who reminisces about the traditions of Endih Bel (say this)—a practice in which audiences stand up and call out lyrics to the performer—which ended only very recently.  Though the plays mainly focused on resistance, there were also plays that propagated the fascist agenda.

Hager Fikir was not the only theater house that was used to entertain the agenda of the Italians; according to Mesele Woldu, Ras Theater, which was formerly known as Cinema Ras and where he currently works as art director, is another space that was built for the Italians to screen their films. Named after the local dignitary Ras Hailu, Ras Theater is located in the middle of Mercato, one of the busiest centers in the capital.

After liberation, the space was abandoned and transferred to a Greek businessman who used it as a store. Before it got its contemporary structure and name, the theater was also used as a space to play billiards and, for a couple of years, as a cinema set up by an Ethiopian of Armenian origin. It began functioning as Ras Theater in 1982 after the first four Theater Arts graduates of Addis Ababa University were hired.

Though Mesele argues that Ras Theater is a prominent venue, Simeneh says that, as the youngest theater with an inconvenient location, Ras Theater did not have a great impact as the other theater had done. 

Simeneh does not underestimate Ras Theater's contribution; he even mentions some of the artists who were based in this theater, especially during Tesfaye Lemma’s tenure, such as Tsehaye Yohannes, Neway Debebe, Elias Tebabal and Shambel Belayneh.

The theaters were not limited to music and plays. In fact, Hager Fikir manages the production and import of music albums, and the publication of Menen magazine and the newspaper Ye Ethiopia Dimts (Voice of Ethiopia). However, Hager Fikir faced a fierce competition from the National Theater, which was established in 1956.

According to Simeneh, National Theater took on the momentum of the Music and Theater Department of the municipality and received great support from the state, beginning with a luxurious auditorium that had been modified from Cinema Marconi.

The imported costumes used in the first play, Dawit Ena Orion (David and Orion) by Mekonnen Endalkachew, are still in use. More importantly this theater benefited from having a team of local experts recruited from the municipality and from Hager Fikir Theater.

After the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power, there have not been any new theater houses. Instead, theaters such as Mazegaja Theater (the Municipality), which was first established in 1917 under the name of Yeketemawe Mahiber Bet (City dwellers’ Association), gradually stopped being used for theatrical performances.

For many years these theater houses were core places for the performances of all state-sponsored musical ensembles and holiday music festivities. Great composers, playwrights, actors and actresses, instrumentalists, singers and dancers were cultivated through intensive training and performance at the theater.

Many plays have been performed on the stages of these theaters, such as Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s Yeshoh Akli (Crown of Thorns), Yekermo Sew, Petros Yachin Seat, translated works such as Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet, Enatalem Tenu (an adaptation of Mother Courage); and Mengistu Lemma’s Telfo Bekise (Marriage by Abduction) and Yalaacha Gabicha ( Marriage of Unequals). Throughout the years, the theater houses have entertained people with music and theater performances.

At Hager Fikir Theater, the brown corrugated iron houses are remnants of the old Addis Ababa. In the middle of a bustling neighborhood, Hager Fikir is still a point of pride for the neighborhood. Art lovers still hang out in the old staff canteen, sipping their coffee. Various sculptures such as that of Munaye Menberu are a highlight in the theater. Hager Fikir seems to celebrate its contributors and seats are reserved for each of them on one side of the compound.

Despite many who say the space is not as vibrant as it once was, personalities such as Chirotaw Kelkay is a recurring presence even after two years of retirement.  Renowned for his plays such as Balcha Aba Nefso, Shifinifin, Mestawotina Mishit, and Ye Venusu Negade (a translation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), Chirotaw has worked in Hager Fikir Theater for the past 34 years.

He did countless theater performances in his debut work, Tagay Sifalem, a story of patriotism and about the war with Somalia. Though they worked with a meager salary, he claims there were many theater productions that touch on the political, economic, and social aspect of the community. After the EPRDF came to power, the theater scene, according to Chilotaw, became relatively cold. One of the reasons he mentions is lack of budget for big productions; big productions are rare and the theater houses have a small budget. This year, Hager Fikir has only produced three plays. Other plays are produced by private enterprises that rent out their halls for 2,300 birr.

There are theatrical performances throughout the week. Apart from that, it produces short radio programs, rents out the hall and also prepares special programs for various national and religious holidays.

Hager Fikir was renovated back in 1998. New furniture and carpets, and the front gate was decorated with stained glass. During the millennium, sculptures for literary figures such as Munaye Menberu were the only additional things that were added. The canteen did not go through any change apart from a paint job. That is why they say the government is neglecting these theater houses.

Apart from that, people also criticize theaters for having only a few productions. Even Hager Fikir showcases the same plays for more than six years.  And it is mainly attributed to lack of budget.

Since the crowd is depreciating, the theaters are not making money and so, many of the professionals are diverting their attention to films.

“This is not like the old times. The plays are valued with the monetary profit they garner,” Abdulkerim Jemal, a senior theater expert, says.

Hager Fikir has around 105 employees in their theater, music, dance and other departments. Though the space has an annual budget of three million birr, Abdulkerim argues that they cannot produce anything they want because of complicated government procedures.

“Little issues such as purchasing a shirt for a character needs to follow a complicated procedure. Art needs freedom and these procedures go against that,” Abdulkerim says.

According to Abdulkerim, the space does not have a back stage and the equipment is old. Nevertheless, many of these things are seen with respect because of their contribution to the development agenda.

“We say that this space should be computerized. The lighting, the staging—the entire theater should be renovated, but there is no clear-cut system. The budget is set putting the developmental agenda into consideration. How beneficial renovating this space would be and what its contribution would be is not something that might be clear for people who allocate the budget,” Abdulkerim says.

This specific theater house does not have a tremendous plan. But issues such as modifying rehearsal spaces and the backstage are part of the new year plan.  Abdulkerim believes that this space is very dull and should be transformed structurally into something new. For this, he recommends that Hager Fikir should have board leaders or to be given to enterprises.

While Hager Fikir is not under any plans for renovation, Ras Theater has more than 400 million birr allocated to it to rebuild it. According to its art director Mesele, the new space will stretch out on an area of 4,000 sq.km and will have 11 storeys.

The current space lies on 900 sq.m. of land and does not have a backstage, rehearsal spaces or even a fence. Around 40 households and businesses were evicted to make space for the new Ras Theater. One hotel in the vicinity, Harar, took the case to court and the case is still pending. Construction will start once the situation is resolved. The new space will have big studios, film screening rooms, and offices. Located next to small khat houses, Ras Theater was closed four years ago to begin the process of expansion and to make it more in-line with the international standard. Even so, the 124 employees are still around there and the crew performs in different venues, including at Hager Fikir Theater. Though the government is allocating budgets to transform the theater houses, including National Theater with a new building costing 300 million birr, Mesele doubts that there will be an increase in the size of the audience.

“Only two theater houses are open for more than five million people. If there were more theater houses, the two theater houses will be empty,” Mesele says.

According to Tesfaye Eshetu, Theater Department Director, the National Theater is the only theater that fulfills the standards of international theaters with its professional visual effects, the stage design and lighting system.

He says that theater houses in Ethiopia could not go hand in hand with the current international theater standard. Ethiopian theater houses are stuck in the 18th and 19th century proscenium Elizabeth way of doing theater.

“This was one of the huge things during the 1960s and when theater started to develop in Ethiopia, they followed that trend,” Tesfaye says.

He adds that in many countries, they were wary about the film taking over, but through the years, they modified the stages and the lighting, which allowed the theater to remain relevant even with the proliferation of film. He says that there are even circular stages, which are not unique nowadays, but, in contrast, Ethiopian theaters are lagging behind.

One of the theaters spaces in Addis Ababa is the hall of the Addis Ababa Univeristy's theatre school, which is located inside the campus of the School of Pharmacy in Amist Kilo. There, concepts such as absurdism and romanticism, and experimental plays—a style never seen in mainstream plays—are entertained.  Currently, many theater professionals try to adjust their plays according to the size and shape of the stage available, which, according to Tesfaye, is a restrictive method.

Tesfaye says that during the 1960’s, there was a group of sophisticated playwrights, critics, and directors (such as Tsegaye Gebremedhin, Sibhat Gebreegziabher, Solomon Deressa, and Abebe Damte) who took theater to a whole new level. But their efforts were interrupted. Tesfaye explains that the interruption is due to education gap. It is not just the space that should be upgraded; different types and styles of plays should be part of the upgrade—the door should be open to experimental plays as well.