Gilbert ‘Gillie’ Owino is a theatre, TV and film director, actor and writer, and a professional accountant. He was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, Sanaa Theatre Awards in 2018 due to the contribution he has made in the arts.
He has staged many plays in Mombasa’s Little Theatre Club and Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi. He currently plays the role of Mzee Msiri on popular Kenyan TV series, “Pete”. Gillie is celebrating his 62nd birthday today. He talks about how he got into the arts world, why he studied accounting, the growth in the industry, his dream role and a whole lot more.
NAFSI Happy birthday! For a man who has been in the arts industry for a very long time, What has been the greatest lesson that you have learned about it?
GILLIE That the arts can build character and boost confidence. I came to understand that life is not that serious. I enjoy it. I learn to be thankful. I walk into the knowledge that all things are possible.
NAFSI What was your first stage play?
GILLIE My first significant stage play was “The Siren”. It was a play at first and then KBC commissioned it to be a TV series for its potential to reach more people. We performed it on TV for one season then took it on stages in Mombasa, Malindi and Kilifi. The play is about contraceptives and it encouraged its debate. I wrote the script and played the role of a narrator.
NAFSI What has been your most memorable play?
GILLIE “Ipi Tombi” by two South African writers. It was a dream team, from the choreographer, director and to the actors. It took us about six months to rehearse and present it at Little Theatre Club. The play is about a man who leaves the countryside to look for employment in the city. He faces police harassment. The good thing is that the story is told through songs and dance therefore it is not entirely sad. It did not talk about apartheid but about a vibrant life in South Africa because of apartheid. There are sob stories from South Africa but this is not one of them. I presented “Ipi Tombi” again in 2013, 2014. I was the producer, director and co-choreographer. I did not act this time so that I could see its magic as an audience. I was very happy.
Another prominent play was “The Curse” staged in 2000, I think. I wrote and played the role of an oracle. The play is about abortion and it encouraged debate around it too. In the 80s, I also played the eldest son of Muntu in the play, “Muntu” by Doe DeGraft, and Lakunle in Wole Soyinka’s “The Lion and the Jewel” adaptation. Joe was a Ghanaian teacher living in Kenya but he made “Muntu” to be an African story.
NAFSI You play a voice of reason in these productions. Did you position yourself for such roles?
GILLIE I auditioned for some of these roles. I would write plays and the director would decide hat I should play a role without having to audition. It was an open audition for Mzee Msiri character in “Pete”. I love that I get to play these parts. I admire the character of Mzee Msiri. If I exhibit his traits in real life, I am happy. If I am not, I would love to be like him. He is in no hurry for anything. He is calm, calculated, peacemaker and gets mad very ocassionally.
NAFSI Swahili telenovelas draw a huge audience. And more and more of these productions are churned out every new day. What has contributed to the growth of the film and TV industry?
GILLIE There has been this misconception that Kenyans do not love their own and are more fixated with foreign content. The fact is that now more than ever people are investing in local content. The Kenyan film industry will benefit since the standards are improving. What we lacked before was investment. Since independent filmmakers have improved on quality, I see good productions in Kenyan TV stations. The next place we are going is Netflix. We are on that level.
NAFSI How did you get into theatre, film and TV?
GILLIE Do I even remember? I have not always had an interest in theatre although I used to perform small skits and studied literature in high school. I was interested in writing. After high school, I pursued Accounting. It was cool to do these other courses. If I was to go back to school today, I would have done performing arts, cinematography, anything in the film, theatre and TV space since there is now a market for it. Back then, the arts was considered as a hobby and there was no way you would go to school to study for a hobby.
NAFSI What was your first Film/ TV production?
GILLIE “The Wilby Conspiracy”. I had completely forgotten about this. The movie was shot in Kenya and American actor Sidney Poitier played the main role. He was the first black person I saw playing a major role in film and he became the first black actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor for the role. I watched them transform the Nairobi street to be like a bazaar in India. That was one of my first encounter with the magic of film. It was in early 70s, I was in high school and I was one of the extras, walking on the street.
NAFSI You used to stammer long ago yet you played leading roles including that of a narrator. How did you work in an industry that needs you to speak?
GILLIE I used to stammer and peculiarly so, with the words ‘mb’. I became aware of it. My conversations were very guarded. I would find a longer way of saying the same thing and if I would not think very quickly of words to use, I would be agitated and that would result to stammering. I would not stammer during performances because those were not my words.
NAFSI How about stage fright?
GILLIE There was an audition that I went to and I was given a long poem to recite. I was allowed to go with the piece of paper in the audition room. The people in that room were big names in theatre during those days. The piece was very moving. I stiffened my hands, there was a quiver in my voice when reading the poem. My hands began to shake. I was suffering (laughs) but people actually thought I was performing. That I was actually in character. When I finished reading the piece, I got a standing ovation.
NAFSI Stage fright is not entirely a bad thing after all.
GILLIE Stage fright is not entirely a bad thing after all. Even when I am on stage, I have experienced stage fright but the audience did not know. Most of the time, the audience never knows. I have just remembered recently giving a speech and the microphone started shaking in my hands. I think this time people noticed but somehow I went through with it. Stage fright happens out of the blues. I do not know what triggers it but the moment I see it is there, I cannot stop it. I have to find a way to get out of it.
NAFSI And having played all these characters, do they stay with you for sometime after the curtains close?
GILLIE I think we can wean ourselves out of a character. It can stay with us for a long time especially when playing one role for very many years, like the late Mzee Ojwang’. I believe creatives should be trained on how to get out of character. Not only that but also how to get into character. Sometimes an actor could have a conflict with his or her character’s personality to the point of refusing to be fully into that character. Good actors are able to depict a character in the most genuine way and the audience will see that. Once finishing playing the role, going back to who a person is comes natural to some while it does not to others.
NAFSI You have been acting for more than 40 years. Do you have a dream role?
GILLIE I have been told that I resemble the late Nelson Mandela. I would like to play him. I admire American actor Morgan Freeman, I would like to play him too. He is my role model after Sidney Poitier.