The ACCRA Theatre WorkSHOP: African x Avant-Garde

Story by TAYLOR EDELHART | Photography by SELORM JAY

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Elisabeth Sutherland is trying to figure out how uncomfortable to make her next piece.

“There’s going to be a giant caterpillar and a giant tree monster,” she says with a smile, referring to the large-scale puppets, a trademark of hers, that she’s planning on incorporating into the piece. “I’m going to ask the people who audition for it to evolve from a single-celled organism, and if they can’t do that, if they can’t get down on the ground and improvise, they can’t be in the show.”

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The piece, which will also use found text and scripted movement, opens in April through Sutherland’s Accra Theatre Workshop [ATW], a new home for artistic experimentation and support begun officially by Sutherland this past summer, following her graduation from Depauw University in Indiana, USA. “We’re just trying to make good stuff more visible,” she says of the new theatre company, which will use both training and performance opportunities to create a new space for theatre artists at all career levels to make work free of typical artistic and financial pressures. Sutherland’s movement piece will be the company’s third full production — their second, Stereo Love, a romantic comedy by Emmanuel Deegbe, ran during Valentine’s Day weekend at the Nubuke Foundation in East Legon.

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While ATW has only been mounting full productions for the past few months, its main education initiative, Summer Shakespeare, has been teaching youth about Shakespeare and performance every summer since 2012. Past productions by Summer Shakes include Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Comedy of Errors.

Training at Summer Shakes is focused on fostering an appreciation of Shakespeare in the children that attend, and on asking the children to work and rehearse professionally. “The standard we hold them to – they are even more professional than some actors I’ve met in New York,” said Sutherland. “They learn from each other.”

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Sutherland feels strongly that intensive arts education is crucial to the creation of a quality artistic culture, especially in the case of Accra, where local theatre and art resources are few and far between and many children’s first artistic experiences are telenovelas. “Your cultural identity is in your media,” Sutherland said. “If you don’t see quality in that…it’s detrimental to us as a nation. I get upset when people don’t take arts education seriously.”

Sutherland also believes a lack of viable performance spaces is holding back the Accra cultural scene. “I’ll go into a space, and it’ll have this really nice hardwood floor. I can’t screw anything into this floor. Or there will only be one outlet for the whole room.” Sutherland hopes that ATW can one day begin to fill this gap by investing into this multi-use space designed for a wide variety of performance work.

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In the meantime, ATW will continue to produce work and educate out of their current home on the grounds of the Nubuke Foundation for at least the next five years, according to Sutherland. “Nubuke is awesome,” Sutherland said. “They really put their money where their mouth is. We like them, they like us.” Upcoming projects include Sutherland’s new piece and, hopefully, an improvised movement workshop for adults led by a visiting Belgian artist.

Though she is currently caught up in the more technical aspects of running ATW, Sutherland said she is looking forward to having the time to just be creative again, and to continue to work on the foundation of theatrical training that Accra needs.

“We’ll get there,” she said, another smile playing across her face. “We’ll get there.”

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