Theatre La Bonita is toasting to two years of offering patrons “a five-star” experience; one that features thick-cushioned seats complete with tables hidden away in armrests, leather-upholstered seating in its Royal Circle and a fully air-conditioned auditorium this month. It is theatre comfort to a T, complemented by a touch of crimson interior décor and Hellenic statues at the entrance. The Colville Street entertainment establishment is also home to The Ebonies, probably the nation’s foremost drama group. Leading man Sam Bagenda explains why Theatre La Bonita is not only drawing in patrons in droves but also becoming a firm favourite amongst thespians wishing to premiere their stage productions.
Why was it important for The Ebonies to get their own home?
One of the biggest problems we faced as a performing group was the lack of theatre halls with adequate facilities in which to show our stage prowess. Take situations where we say wanted to have a helicopter descending on stage. The only ideal theatre was the National Theatre but it was never available for the length of time The Ebonies wanted to put on a show. Our plays usually run for up to three months. Before settling for our current home, we had thought about acquiring Sharing Hall in Nsambya but it is mostly a religious institution that created logistical problems when we wanted to have shows on Sundays religious holidays because it would then be used as a house of worship. We thought about putting up a theatre at Ebony Village but the traffic on Entebbe Road can get nasty and that would have put off patrons. The good thing about our current new home is that it is right in heart of town.
How would you say Theatre La Bonita has impacted on the local entertainment scene in the two years since it opened in 2006?
The two years have been better than we expected. Our research had shown that there was a big section of the elite public that had turned away from going to the theatre for lack of a fancy place. People’s tastes have changed over time. You will not expect a person that dines at say Serena or Munyonyo to go watch a play in one of Kampala’s rundown theatres. Those are places they will not be caught dead. That is probably why they opt for alternative entertainment like pay-TV. Our plan was to bring such people back to the theatre by first of all providing a level of comfort to lure them back. Theatre la Bonita provides comfortable seating, air-conditioning and an in-house restaurant for those that want to catch a sumptuous meal before or after a show.
Let us look at the Ugandan theatre scene in general. Are other groups necessarily queuing up to showcase their plays at Theatre La Bonita?
Truth be told, every group in town, big or small, yearns to premiere its production at Theatre La Bonita. We have not had that many complaints except that the Christmas holiday dates and Easter weekend are reserved for The Ebonies as a resident group. But all the other weekends are open to anyone that wants to put on a production. In as much as the theatre is the Ebonies’ home, it is also a commercial establishment.
One of the drawbacks about putting on a show at the National Theatre is the competitive nature of its booking process. Is it any easier at Theatre La Bonita?
With us you only have to see the manager, indicate the dates you may want and if they are available you will have your booking. It should not take you more than half an hour. But like I said Christmas and Easter dates are off-limits. Our charges are season dependent like it is in the airline industry where high season means high fares and a low season means low fares. January and Ramadhan are the low season months and if you are booking in December, you are likely to pay more to hire the theatre. We usually have a preference for the big names in theatre, the ones that will guarantee occupancy of the theatre’s 800 seats but we have also had many schools showcasing here instead of the National Theatre.
You had an ambitious plan to turn theatre-going into a daily affair which has not really happened because you are mostly active on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday weekend days…
In wanting to undertake that, the plan was not to have activity on stage everyday of the week although it happens in advanced theatre markets like Broadway. The plan was to turn Theatre La Bonita into a prime meeting point where you can meet over coffee a Café La Bonita or a hearty meal at the Spectrum Restaurant. The thing is Kampalans mostly see Mondays and Tuesdays as sobering-up days. But the theatre is literally booked everyday of the week for everything from Morning Prayer meetings and the like. And it is not just plays that are hosted here. We are still the alternative venue of choice for indoor concerts and movie premieres.
But some performing artistes have complained about your theatre’s acoustics…
I think that has little to do with acoustics. What we have here is basic equipment. We cannot provide everyone with what they want which is why [Isaiah] Katumwa will opt to bring in a PA system that will make his saxophone sound better but that is mostly for the musical concerts where they even bring in their own sound engineers. The biggest challenge for us in regard to even getting the sound to the basic output we have was probably because it was a cinema hall that we resuscitated from the den it had become to the five-star entertainment venue it is today.
Renowned playwright Alex Mukulu had criticised the “picture frame” stage like the one you have as being a theatrical relic that does not allow for a lot of manoeuvre…
Well that is the stage you will find in a majority of theatres be it in Las Vegas, London, Tokyo and even Broadway. If he says that it limits what he is able to do, then that is just his opinion but the truth is that 80% of the world stages are like that.
So do you feel that you have flattened your competition by paying particular attention to your patrons’ comfort?
The competition for us is not the other theatres but other things people spend their money on like say the mobile phone. You know how Ugandans love to talk. I cannot even say pay-TV is as big a threat. Technology has made it possible for one to time-record TV shows for later viewing. Let me state here that we are not out to replace the National Theatre. We do not want to create a monopoly. But it would be good for the National Theatre which is also the Uganda National Cultural Centre to influence government so that taxes on equipment for performing artistes are waived, investors in the performing arts are granted tax holidays and the VAT on ticket prices is abolished. That would be a good stimulus to the industry.