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Comedy group takes the country by storm

In a country where theatre companies have been closing shop in quick succession, comedy masters Heartstrings Ensemble have carved out a niche for themselves and are providing Kenyans with the laughter they so desperately need.
Zachary Ochieng

Over the years, Kenyan thespians have been mourning over the low box office takings in the theatre industry. A number of artistes hold the view that one cannot make a living out of theatre considering the huge sums of money that have to be spent on hiring an auditorium, costumes and props, only to end up playing to empty houses.

But Heartstrings Ensemble have proved that theatre can indeed be pursued as a full time lucrative career, as long as the audience’s tastes are properly gauged. This is what the other groups have failed to do.

In order to survive in this industry, the group has adopted a proactive and innovative strategy that no doubt, has paid dividends. Sammy Mwangi, the group’s co-founder and artistic director talks of the group’s secrets: "We discovered that people in Nairobi like comedies, which make them laugh. Living in Nairobi can be so stressful, hence the need to provide people with the lighter side of life".

Originally known as Falaki Arts, the group was founded in 1990 by Mwangi and the late Erastus Owuor, who were then students at the Kenya Polytechnic. Come 1997, the group changed its name to Heartstrings Ensemble and embarked on school literature set books, which they adapted for stage and later recorded on video for the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE) " a department in the education ministry charged with curriculum development.

Among the set-books recorded for KIE include Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy and Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine. However, in 2000, the group moved away from school texts to comedies, musicals and thrillers with instant success. Their most popular plays are farces by Derek Benfield and Ray Cooney, whose works revolve around themes of infidelity and a plethora of lies. Every month, they manage to attract full houses with these hilarious comedies. They draw their audience from all age groups and races, with expatriates comprising a greater percentage of their patrons.

To their credit, they have run successful productions including Asiedu Yirenkyi’s Blood and Tears, Protais Asseng’s Enough is Enough, Hay John’s Caught pants down, Terrence Freely’s Who killed Santa Claus?, Ray Cooney’s Run for your wife, and Ben Traver’s After you with the milk among others.

The group has also discovered that vernacular plays are becoming increasingly popular and has not let the chance slip by. They started last year by staging Cajetan Boy’s Benta in Dholuo. Benta revolves around the predicament of a house girl who is trapped in a love affair between her master and his son. Their latest production is also a Luo one, Dwanyruok (Bad behaviour) - an adaptation of Cameroonian Ferdinand Oyono’s Three husbands, one suitor. It was directed by Victor Ber, the five time winner of the "Best Actor" title in Kenya.

Dwanyruok is about a father who plans to marry off his daughter to the man who will pay the highest dowry. The daughter is not allowed to choose a man for herself but finally carries the day. The play, which ran at the 300-seater French Cultural and Co-operation Centre (FCCC) auditorium from May 2 to 4 attracted full houses, with some people forced to watch the two-hour long play while standing. The play was extended for another one week due to great public demand. Though staged in Dholuo, the play also attracted non- Luo speakers, who attended in large numbers.

Due to their high quality productions, the group attracts corporate sponsorship, which other groups only hear of in their dreams. The media have been their greatest supporters. For instance, Dwanyruok was supported by the Nation Media Group - the leading media house in East and Central Africa and the Kenya Television Network (KTN) - the premier private television channel in Kenya.

The group has also adopted innovative and inexpensive advertising techniques. They simply use posters and handbills. A few days to their shows, their posters are pasted at all strategic points within the city and its environs. The group also encourages talent promotion by training new thespians and casting them in their plays. Besides Mwangi and Ber, Ken Waudo also earnsa living from full time theatre. The sky seems to be the limit for Heartstrings Ensemble.

The group can be reached at .

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