East African artists learn the art of crafting stories for the ear with Erik Altorfer

Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, Arti sceniche

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Swiss theatre and radio director and dramaturge Erik Altorfer has played a central role in the nascent audio play scene developing in East Africa.

Erik Altorfer has a wealth of experience writing, producing and directing audio plays, as well as mentoring others through this process. Over the past three years, Pro Helvetia Johannesburg has supported a group of organisations and platforms in East Africa to engage with Erik to develop knowledge and production skills for this novel medium.

Erik’s engagement in East Africa began in 2021 during the pandemic when he was invited by the Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative (NBO MTI) to lead a remote masterclass for the musicians and performs to produce sound collages for their 14 ongoing projects. This led to an exchange between NBT MTI and Tebere Arts Foundation in Uganda, who organise the Kampala International Theatre Festival. Erik was then invited to host a similar remote masterclass for 12 emerging artists, who are in training with Tebere to gain exposure to a wide range of performance practices and methods of making new work. These engagements concluded with a sharing of audio plays during a listening party as part of the 8th edition of the festival.

“One of the most valuable aspects of our collaboration with Erik Altorfer was that it gave the opportunity to the writer-collaborator teams to imagine different structures for their musical pieces, other than a staged version”.

Karishma Bhagani, NBO MTI
Artists from the NBO MIT are in studio recording recording an audio play from a script.
Artists from the NBO MIT recording their audio collage
An emerging artist at Tebere Arts Foundation in Kampala, Uganda watches Erik Altorfer on screen during a remote audio play scriptwriting masterclass in 2021.
Erik hosting a remote masterclass with emerging artists at Tebere, 2021

“African societies have a rich oral tradition in preserving stories, we find that there is a strong connection between audio stories and traditional forms of storytelling.”

Asiimwe Deborah Kawe, Tebere Ars Foundation

In 2022 these networks and collaborations could deepen and expand with Erik being able to travel to Kenya and Uganda to host workshops in person. Beginning in Nairobi in the context of the Kenya International Theatre Festival, Erik hosted audio play masterclasses for a selected group of participants. The masterclasses were a collaboration with NBO MTI, who shared the audio play excerpts that they had developed the previous year with Erik for each of their musicals. The participants included playwrights, theatre directors, musical theatre composers, and theatre and voice actors. The finished audio plays were presented during the festival.

Following this, Erik travelled to Kampala to resume his work with the Tebere emerging artists, focusing on directing the scripts they had written under his supervision the previous year. The recorded audio plays were presented in the 9th edition of the Kampala International Theatre Festival alongside five musical audio plays by NBO MTI.

“Erik guided the artists throughout the process, sharing and demonstrating his expertise in storytelling and sound. He used his experience to add depth to their scripts while in studio.”

Asiimwe Deborah Kawe, Tebere Ars Foundation
Audio play written by Abubakar Mwenda, Thuita Mwangi, Joseph Obel, Muthoni Kariuki and Esther Kamba during the masterclass, 2022
A recap of the production residency in Nairobi ahead of the Kenya International Theatre Festival, 2023

Picking up again in 2023, Erik hosted a two-week production residency in Nairobi ahead of the Kenya International Theatre Festival. The programme built on the concepts and skills introduced in the 2022 workshop and included the same participants. The residency aimed to deepen the participants’ knowledge and skills in audio play production through hands-on experience in scriptwriting, directing, design, voice acting, and production techniques. The four audio plays produced were presented during Kenya International Theatre Festival.

In Uganda, Erik likewise reprised his work with the emerging artists at Tebere to deepen their knowledge of writing for the ear. Lulu Jemimah, a Ugandan radio play artist and director, once again co-mentored the training together with five artists that had participated in the 2022 workshop. They guided seven new emerging artists through the process of scripting, directing and recording four new audio stories. These were presented during the Kampala International Theatre Festival.

Three emerging atists at at Tebere Arts Foundation in Kampala, Uganda are reading audio play scripts in a sound studio.
Emerging artists at Tebere working on their scripts during Erik’s masterclass, 2022
Festival goers at the Kampala International Theatre Festival listen to audio plays with wireless headphones.
Festival goers listening to audio plays at the Kampala International Theatre Festival, 2023
Audio play written by Alex Kitaka and Ubia Hope during the workshop, 2023

The 2023 audio play programme at both festivals included an additional curated selection of audio stories by Kenyan and Ugandan artists created under Erik’s mentorship. This cross-sharing of content has strengthened the relationship between the festivals and organisations, and contributed to the exchange of cultural ideas and theatre practices in the region.

With the prevalence of radio in East Africa, there is great potential for the medium of audio plays. Erik’s collaboration with the organisations and festivals has been important to equip local artists with knowledge and tools that they can use to craft interesting stories for the ear.

About

Since 1997, Erik Altorfer has been working as a director and dramaturge for theatre and radio. He teaches at the Zurich Academy of the Arts, in the last years with a focus on writing and directing audio plays.