"Like a dream come true," was how 18-year-old Sammy from SOS Children's Village Nairobi described his recent experience with Kenya's well-known professional drama company, the Phoenix Players, when, for three weeks in March, he acted the part of Fabian in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
Sammy, who has lived at SOS Children's Village Nairobi since he was three months old, has had a passion for acting as far back as he can remember, and he has been lucky to be able to indulge in it during the annual Kenyan 'Inter-Villages Drama Festival'. This festival, which takes place in one of the three Kenyan SOS Children's Villages every year, has produced many up and coming actors, but only Sammy, so far, has had the chance to act professionally.
Last year, when Sammy won 'Best Actor' award for his performance in the inter-villages drama festival, one of the judges was professional Kenyan actor Ian Mbugua. By coincidence, when Sammy auditioned for a part with the Phoenix Players, to fill the time before he would get his exam results, it was Mbugua who took the audition and who gave him the part as Fabian. Apparently he remembered watching Sammy in the inter-villages festival and was impressed with the quality of his acting. Although the Twelfth Night auditions had been completed already, Mbugua gave Sammy the chance to audition and two days later assigned him the part. "I was overjoyed", said Sammy "as it had been my dream to act in a recognized theatre."
Very challenging script
At first the part was very challenging for Sammy as it was longest script he had ever worked with; it was about 30 pages long. "This time", he said, "I was given a book by Shakespeare and I wondered how I was ever going to memorize it."
Anyone who has read Twelfth Night will know that the part of Fabian, despite being that of a servant, is not small. In fact it is a major part, featuring in three of the play's five acts, and the moral of the whole play revolves around this character. "I expected, as a first time player", admitted Sammy, "to be told that I would be a mere guard. So getting a major part was really challenging."
Sammy was honest when he admitted that he had never read Twelfth Night until being given the part and at first understood only half of the story. "Shakespearean English is quite challenging", commented Sammy "but the director was really helpful." As many of the cast had day jobs, rehearsals were held in the evenings, so every night Sammy rehearsed before returning late to the village. "Rehearsals were quite exhausting", he said, "as you had to put your whole heart and mind into the play for about three hours at a time." During the day he stayed in the village and helped at the SOS Social and Medical Centre which is next to the SOS Children's Village.
Village youth receive complimentary tickets
How was the first night of the play? "That was something," said Sammy who had been given about 20 complimentary tickets. Apart from inviting youths from the village, Sammy decided to allot some of these tickets to young people from the community who attend the drama club at the social centre, many of whom were unaware of his acting ability. "Acting has given me more social status in the village", admitted Sammy "and more confidence in myself."
Village director Kennedy Nzuki also made use of a complimentary ticket, and from a good vantage point was able to clearly see the whole performance. He was unstinting in his praise for Sammy: "At the end of the play I could not help hugging him in the foyer. At last I felt that the young man was finding his footing in life... I am very proud of Sammy for having made it in that play... and not just any script - a Shakespeare play."
If you're up to it - go for it
Acting with the Phoenix Players also gave Sammy an opportunity to give something back to SOS Children's Villages, which had, with the support of drama and poetry teachers, allowed him the chance to act in the first place.
The three weeks of performances of Twelfth Night were very successful and included some well-known figures in the audience such as the British High Commissioner and several government ministers. When, at the end of it all, Sammy actually received a small fee, he was surprised. He had not expected to be paid to act.
But success has not gone to Sammy's head. He hopes that his exam results will allow him to continue his studies and to eventually study international relations. Acting, he thinks, will always be his hobby and he would like to continue it, but part time. "I keep telling the younger kids who really love swimming," he said, "that they should enter any competition that they know of because they could really go somewhere with it. I just heard of the auditions and went along. If you're really up to something you should just go for it."