NAIROBI CITY PLAYERS
MEMOIRS OF A COARSE ACTOR – NICK DONNE
Prior to my arrival in Nairobi in September 1972, I had been actively involved in amateur theatre in New Zealand where I starred as a child actor in Robin Hood, playing the character of Will Scarlet. The part was very demanding with one line consisting of one word and involving the first stage kiss seen in junior theatre with a girl whom I did not fancy. Later on, I read a book that changed my life. It was entitled “The Art of Coarse Acting” by Michael Green and I became one of his fervent disciples.
ACT 1 – 1972 to 1978
Scene 1 – Opening number
In early October 1972, I saw a notice in the East African Standard announcing auditions for Hello Dolly. Having distinguished myself as number 10 waiter in the same production in New Zealand, I thought I had a great chance of a starring role as I already knew the show well. I arrived at 5.30 on a Monday night at the St Georges Primary School on Dennis Pritt Road and stood around waiting to be noticed. I talked to a few people and with little or no verbal acknowledgement, realized that my version of the English language was entirely unknown to the local inhabitants. I was about to leave when fortunately, a bearded man hailed me. “Hello”, he said slowly, shaking my hand, “My name is Arthur Docherty”. After a few sentences, I gathered he was welcoming me to NCP. I thought I had given a great addition because immediately I was asked to be in the show. I later discovered that men for the chorus were in short supply. Due to translation problems I was not offered a speaking part and yes, I ended up again as number 10 waiter.
Scene 2 – On Stage
After a 3 month period in the theatrical wilderness, I had resigned myself to a life of examining insurance contracts in a foreign land when I was contacted in March 1973 to see if I would be “available” to audition for Man of La Mancha. I was told that the Director was impressed with my performance in Hello Dolly and that my presence on stage would be welcome. Again I auditioned and was instantly accepted. (I hadn’t yet understood that the shortage of men in the chorus was a perennial issue). I did not secure a solo speaking part as obviously I was still learning the local patois but performed as one of the Muleteers. My cast photo was published in the East African Standard courtesy of my new agent Bryan Epsom. This was to be the only one of two photos in my entire theatrical career. (Curiously, I have never been asked to sign any of these or indeed provide an autograph in any programme).
Scenes 3, 7 and 15 – On Stage
Benny Goodman, being the NCP resident genius, optimistically thought that he could improve my on-stage performances in 1974 through a new medium of a touring show to be entitled The Minstrels. Benny had managed to obtain the words for a large number of songs which were last performed on stage in England prior to the First and Second World Wars. I had a major problem with learning the words even though they were in a familiar language so I decided to concentrate mainly on the tune and learn the first two lines of each song only. As a slow learner, It took me a long time to realize that the other cast members found my focus on the music to be a little off-putting and physically distanced themselves from me on stage if possible.
Benny had still not given up on me and once again, I found myself as a cast member of The Minstrels 1975. Having a functional vehicle was the one significant asset that secured my participation.
NCP took a gamble that that audiences have short memories and in 1978, I joined the revival of The Minstrels. My unusual performance abilities meant that some of the previous cast members decided to drop out but I continued to sing with great gusto.
Scenes 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 – Off Stage
By now, NCP had decided that my talents would be better put to use off stage. They achieved this in June 1974 by making me a member of the Standing Committee, putting me in the lighting crew for Godspell and delegating all responsibility for the programme to me. I managed to deliver enough programmes for the first night directly from the printer with the ink not even dry. In The Rainmaker in September 1974, I was stage manager for this small production which ran for a week on stage in the Kenya Cultural Centre but my real involvement was to open the hall and turn out the lights after the show. I then made a decision in October of 1974 to have a break from all NCP productions for a few months. This was immediately countermanded by Bryan Epsom, who commanded me to provide any assistance necessary for Oliver in December 1974. An Inspector Calls in March 1975 required my services and once again I was confined to backstage activities. Another Opening was cobbled together at the end of 1975 at the last moment as NCP did not get the rights for No No Nanette in time to stage the show that year. My appearances, although infrequent, happily escaped the notice of the critics.
Scene 10 – On Stage
Hostile Witness performed in March 1976 saw the launch of the theatrical career of my doppelganger, John Gaven. This little known and shy individual bravely stepped in to the key role of Assistant Police Constable at the last minute with absolutely no rehearsal and managed to expand his appearances opening the courtroom door, from 4 scripted ones to over 30 each night over a season of only 10 performances. Sadly on this occasion, his quest for publicity failed dismally and he was only to perform once again in his life.
Scene 11 – Off Stage
Cabaret in June 1976 was by far the hardest show I ever worked on, with a demanding script, set, and score, not to mention the Director. I distinguished myself only by making a railway carriage at 2.00am after the final dress rehearsal.
Scene 12 – On Stage
I was finally able and allowed in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in December 1976, to put in to practice the principles I learned from The Art of Coarse Acting. The only stipulation from the Director, Benny Goodman, was that any role assigned to me would be a non-speaking one.
I appeared early in the show in a pie throwing scene and then sat around the dressing room of nearly an hour until the second half when I changed roles to one of the Centurions. As one of the bored coarse actors involved applied more and more make-up of imagined battle scars progressively during the run, causing Benny, by now playing the lead role, to amazingly forget one word of his lines during the last performance.
Scenes 13 and 14 – On Stage
My principal duty in The Merry Widow in 1977 during the performances was to ensure that the musical director returned promptly after the interval. The reprisal of The King and I in December 1977 was another tremendous success. My repeated attempts to audition for the ballet sequence for The Small House of Uncle Thomas did not result in any stage appearance, no doubt due to the advice given to the Director, Fernand Monast about my unusual abilities.
Finale – Act 1
As I was shortly to leave Nairobi for Singapore I had resigned from the committee of NCP and my involvement with The Barber of Seville in June 1978 was limited to assistance backstage.
Prior to my disappearance from Nairobi I was given a farewell party as I was leaving for good ……. or so they thought.
ACT 2 – 1985 to 1990
I arrived back in Kenya for the second time in September 1985, newly married and working for a new employer. My wife Philippa coped very well with a new husband, a new country as well as NCP.
Scenes 1, 2 and 3 – Off Stage
Our involvement with Aladdin in December 1985 was mainly in the back row of the auditorium providing audience training for responses to the pantomime script. We were then fully involved backstage in Annie which was performed in June 1986 and Jack and the Beanstalk in December 1986 required again our services again as audience trainers.
Scene 4 – On Stage
Geoffrey Brawn, the Director was looking for raw, unconventional performers for the Old Time Music Hall in 1987 and of course my name appeared at the top of his list. Hope Jackman, a well-known theatrical personality in London took on the task of personally coaching me on how to learn lines. Her valiant attempts were unsuccessful and hence I gave a different performance every night.
Scene 5 – On Stage
I was press-ganged into accepting a very minor speaking part in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. My earlier difficulty in remembering lines re-appeared and my performances resulted in my swansong on stage both in Nairobi and internationally. In this production, Philippa joined me as a backstage member but even her presence did not improve my performances.
This was the second and final appearance in his life of my doppelganger, John Gaven. He gave perhaps the best performance of his life in this production. This was predictably a non-speaking part. His participation in this show however did not advance his career further and he did not rate any mention in the press reviews. Dispirited, he eventually gave up all attempts at acting and became a successful filing clerk.
For Godspell (2) in 1989, I assisted in supporting the show backstage. This was the last show I was involved in for Nairobi City Players.
Like so many others, I can honestly say that the 11 years I had with Nairobi City Players were amongst the best in my life. Over 22 productions, I met literally hundreds of people and the many friendships I made have been life-long. I regard myself as extremely lucky to have had many opportunities to participate in so many different aspects of theatrical life and to have worked with so many talented people. Looking back, I would not have changed anything (except perhaps to learn my lines).