Interview with Ugandan playwright Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare

Dr, Mercy Mirembe Ntangaare is a professor, playwright, and folklorist, and a woman who writes powerful plays for both young audiences and adults.  Write Local. Play Global. asked her a few questions about her work:

WLPG: Was there something in particular that motivated you to start writing for young audiences?

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MERCY: Yes and no. I write both for young and adult audiences. Childhood creativity and apparent playfulness at life’s realities intrigue me. A world of make-believe and suspended truth. When I write for adults, I like to explore options that are otherwise usually ignored. But, whether I write for young or adult audiences, I like to tell a story of especially ordinary beings, young or old, in the face of a social system or power structure that means to direct their lives.

WLPG: Is there a production, playwright, or theatre company that has been influential on your work?

MERCY: Quite a number of productions and a few playwrights have influenced my work. First and foremost, I enjoy “seeing” the drama in folk stories. Fables, myths and legends are my favourites. I also like watching wrestling matches (traditional and contemporary), circus and puppet shows (on television or in real life). Once I got into a circus wheel, and I remember vividly the thrill and fear of the whole experience. I watch and listen a lot to people’s everyday small dramas and “shows”. On the other hand, I read and re-read playwrights like Shakespeare who discuss the human condition and the intricacy of human relationships.

WLPG: Why is it important to write for children and young people?

MERCY: It’s a way of encouraging and capturing their spirit for theatre. Trends and styles in theatre are set by younger generations. Most important, they are the future theatre practitioners. To invest in them today is investing in the future.

WLPG: What is your typical writing process?

MERCY: I write by inspiration. Once an idea comes, I encourage it to grow as I make notes and a draft –in the “heat” of the moment - so as not to forget or lose the story’s grip. With my full draft down on paper (I prefer using a certain type of pen and full-scap booklets), I set upon editing it for meaning and consistence. Then, I type out the draft and go out in nature to re-work it to my satisfaction. I get together 5-8 “critics” - colleagues, friends and others representing the possible spectrum of the play’s audience - in a reading workshop. I ensure the play is staged in theatre to get its complete dramatic and theatrical appeal. I also print or publish the scripts and do audios and videos to create a wider market choice and for posterity. Joint or children collaborative plays/ performances however follow own procedures accordingly.

WLPG: Is there any real difference between writing for young audiences and writing for adult audiences?

MERCY: I would say, yes. While both categories need good drama/theatre, young people’s theatre appeals more with lots of fantasy, type characters and the visual picture (spectacle). I like to entertain adult audiences more positively by engaging them mentally and psychologically as well i.e. some social issues to think about or debate. I try to use different techniques to achieve this so that even if the two types of audiences watched the same production each would get their own appeal from the play/show. For example, through the story, character and characterisation, costuming, music and dance.

WLPG: Is there something about Ugandan playwriting for children and young people that is notable?

MERCY:Certainly. For example, there is always the heavy use of story and story-telling, complete with animations and personifications. Song and dance and, sometimes, ritual form part of the plays’ structure. Shorter, crisp performances that are integrated and engage especially young people or their social heroes are loved. The plays also discuss topics the audiences are familiar with. Sometimes the audiences love to see type characters. Interestingly, some children love to debate or present alternatives to the views of adults on key social subjects like corruption.

WLPG: Is there a question you would like to ask your fellow playwrights?

MERCY: The one question for fellow playwrights making plays for young audiences: How can we easily tap into new communication technology and medias to theatre’s benefit without eroding completely theatre’s live experience? For example, I am currently experimenting with what I call audio plays (mixing speech with music, song and drum instrumental music) in the hope that groups of young people can listen to the plays the way they do music CDs. I am also thinking there’s a way, especially for the younger children, where the word (the characters’ speech/dialogue) could be organized to sound as one opens the pages of a book where of course there could be shots of the same scene coming up - just the same way some musical cards/books for children are made or something similar to the i-pad technology. Any one out there who knows if and how this is possible?

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Read Mercy's biography.

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