The economic meltdown in world over, no doubts have led to a scale down of budgets for leisure and entertainment, especially in Nigeria, where they are considered as luxury items.
While the Nigerian movie and music scenes are this time around ascending to greater heights, with big artistes attracting foreign collaborations, making money and creating jobs for those in the adjuncts showbiz outfits, the Nigerian theatre scene is yet to be immersed in this success.
This highly intellectual aspect of entertainment aside bereft of the necessary infrastructure, in terms of the right stages and equipment to boost performances, is deeply fractionalised into groups that use local languages on stage, English language users, professionals, amateurs and upcoming artistes.This division oftentimes makes practitioners’ schismatic and self-seeking, as fractionalised group members first seek to fulfill their groups’ interest and objectives before general interest of theatre practitioners.
Though, fractionalised, these groups of theatre makers have been reinventing their audience engineering strategies and production approaches. In fact, in a bid to revamp performance spectatorship, the contemporary Nigerian theatre makers have adopted several ‘new’ production and management strategies or what Professor Emmanuel Dandaura of the Nasarawa State University, Keffi, and President, IATC, Nigerian National Section, called the search for newness.
Some of these ‘new’ approaches might have long been in use in other climes, but in Nigeria, they are gradually bringing the audience to the theatre.One of such is Theatre Festival Seasons. The Lagos Theatre Festival, which was created by the British Council, Nigeria and supported for the past three years is a good example. This festival runs a variety of shows for about a week every February. This Lagos Theatre Festival has motivated the creation of new plays and fresh opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas between theatre producers, festival curators from the UK and the rich mix of Lagos audience.
Speaking on the challenge of putting up a show, Founder and Artistic Director, Young Starz of Afrika, Anthony Yusuf, said it is not an easy task putting up any performance, no matter the minimal number of the cast and crew.According to him, “one major obstacle of an upcoming troupe is funding and sponsorship from either individuals or corporate organisations, which, when not available, will make the founder of the troupe to use his personal fund to settle all the necessary bills.”
The actor, who aside from acting and dancing, has in his ensemble about 25 cast and crewmembers, and volunteers. Though, he pays them from what they make at each performance, Yusuf disclosed that corporate bodies prefer the big names in the industry and also key into programmes that is already established because they want to leverage on such platforms to further project their images or advertise their products or services.
He said: “One of the major challenges of upcoming troupes is corporate sponsorship, which rarely comes because most brands believe in sponsoring comedy, musical and even reality shows, that will give them immediate visibility, in terms of advertisement and other rewards. These organisations look down on the upcoming theatre producers and troupes, believing they would not make them reach their target audiences and achieve their marketing objectives, but all that is unfounded.
“The truth remains that many people, including those in government and corporate affairs, still need to be educated on the imports of live theatre performances, for them to appreciate the need of it and then key into it. They fail to realise that the stage leaves a lasting messages on the mind of the audiences. The effect of the messages may appear latent, but nevertheless enduring. Young and upcoming theatre producers and their troupes need to be given opportunities to showcase their skills,” he said.
Apart from stage performances, Yusuf has elevated his craft to the point of mentoring and teaching others below and above his age bracket on choreography and scripting.On how to enliven stage performances, make it active like the days of Ogunde, when the Alarinjo (traveling theatre) was the delight of the people, he noted that reviving the past needs good sponsorship and quality audience that can pay for it.
According to him, putting up a play is not a child’s play; it involves good funding.“No stage play comes cheap, you have to pay for venue, costume, hire the cast and crew members and even pay the playwright, whose play you want to present to your audience. Each stage involves money and doing it regularly means one has a very good support,” he said.
For Oluwanishola Adenugba of Live Theatre On Sunday (LTS), with quality audience that pays for tickets, the scene can be kept active again.According to Adenugba, there are one million and one entertainment media such as Facebook, Youtube, mobile phones apps that downloads movies, among others, competing with live theatre for audience. This has made it difficult for many upcoming theatre practitioners to have a full house whenever there is any play and as a result recourse to sponsors to settle their bills.
“In the days of Alarinjo, there were no Facebook, Youtube, paid TV, Satellite stations and others, so, the people looked forward to Ogunde and other theatre practitioners then for entertainment. But all that has changed and the Ogunde generation is gradually dying, giving way for new and upcoming producers. Many of the people, especially the youth, in today’s generation look on to other genres of the arts for entertainment; to them live theatre is not a popular culture and we all need to be involved in this re-orientation to put things aright,” he said.
Adenugba disclosed that current upcoming theatre practitioners and promoters are doing it for the passion for live performances, noting that even when most of these shows held at highbrow areas, including venues in the Government Reserved Area (GRA), Ikeja, and the Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island, for free or at a very low fee the audience still would be few.
Even with the gift of popcorn, lottery for the audience and other gifts as a motivation, we still do not have a full house, which is because the younger generation do not classify live theatre as a popular culture.He disclosed that they would rather spend N2,000 to N5,000 or more for musical, comedy and reality shows, but dare not spend half of this amount for live theatre. He noted that he introduced Live Theatre on Sunday, as a way of unifying homes, making family members and theatre lovers spend the evening watching a play, while preparing for the new week ahead.
COULD the lack of audience not be as a result of poor handling of storylines and presentations? Adenugba who has directed high profile and complex plays such as the Hiss by J.P Clark and some of Wole Soyinka’s plays answered in the negative, stressing that even with popular faces that cut across TV soaps and movies, the audience would still be apathetic.
“We introduced light comedy and musical shows before our plays. Abridged long plays and adopted some to current realities, as strategies to woe audience, but the situation remains the same,” he said.
Adenugba disclosed that there are other challenges, which include a playwright withdrawing permission for his or her play to be directed by you, simply because he feels the upcoming director is not capable to do so. This he disclosed has been the reason most troupes would go for a Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan or J.P Clarke’s plays. They will give you permission to use their plays, so far, the messages are not altered. For Olawale Olabanji of Theatre On The Mainland Series (TOMS), the issue goes back to our school system and until we get it right from there, we will continue to wallow in despair.
Olabanji queried a situation where some secondary schools would teach Literature-in-English without making the students to perform a play, so, theatre appreciation and following begins from there.
According to him, “theatre performance is part of our culture, going back to the days of storytelling in moonlit nights, where children would gather at the open grounds and act a play. But today, all that is gone and the social media have taken over. He noted that he introduced Theatre-in-3D (3 dimension) as a way of making the audience to feel they are part of the characters on stage.”
He said, “this gives the audience the feeling that they are part of the cast; it would make anyone happy be on stage, play simple role and go back to the audience to watch other parts played out. The theory was working attracting audience from as far as Badagry and other places to our venue, then, at Yaba, but the experiment failed because of poor funding, as I was doing it all alone.
“With this situation, we need not expect much from the audience. In fact, if we must tell ourselves the home truth, you will be shocked to hear that about 50 to 60 per cent of even the audience in our shows are made up of the family members or friends of the cast and crew,” he said.
On the way out, Olabanji aside calling for plays to be read and studied right from the primary schools, wants government create more entertainment centres where upcoming directors, either for those performing in our local languages and others can use, adding that the present ones are not enough. The theatre director noted his troupe chose to perform in unconventional places, including hotels and restaurant as way to revamp live theatre culture. He disclosed that waning audience is not only limited to performances put up by upcoming theatre directors but cut across all the theatre scenes.
Commenting on venues, Ifeanyi Eziukwu, founder and play director of Just Theatre House (JTH) revealed that greater part of the money realise on a play go for the payment of venues, which do not come cheap. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the owners of some venues to allow upcoming directors to perform in their facility, adding that such owners would not openly say no to their request to use their facilities, but would increase the rent to chase them away. He commended the authorities of Terra Kulture who before the re-innovation of the facility had been the saving grace and called for good spirited Nigerians to emulate her, saying live theatre mirrors the society; bring what is current happening to the fore for discussions,” he noted.
The arrowhead of JTH disclosed that his Theatre-in-the-Cinema initiative is one of the ways to attract people to watch live performances, especially new play. According to him, the initiative give anyone coming to the cinema an option to the big screen pictures, it tells them that apart from watching movies, they can watch live plays, meet with the characters on stage flesh and blood and relate with the story.“It is a way of saying if the people would not come to the theatre, the theatre would go to them. It is my innovative and people are gradually beginning to key into it,” he noted.
On how he is swimming the murky waters, Ikenna Jude Okpala, Creative Director, Wazobia Theatre House (WTH), disclosed that he cannot leave the scene because of the challenges that abound, adding, these challenges toughen people like him, making them to forge ahead and to look for more creative ways to remain afloat. To maintain his audience, he performs both the plays of established playwrights and upcoming ones.
Other directors have also identified disparity between the upcoming directors and the professionals in terms of hiring space. They alleged managers of venues, including the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON), would never give any of them space to perform there. According to them, the fee for hiring the place is enough for them to put up five or six performances at some locations in the Mainland. They disclosed that the high rent limits audience from that axis to watch them and would want some discounts to be given to enable them put plays there.
Finding how much they have mingled with the Lagos State Art and Culture Council centres, the directors say they are no better, stressing that taking their troupes there put them at loggerheads with some of the council’s senior staff who believe the upcoming directors have come to take their jobs.
“They are not supportive. They see us as their competitors and would secretly do anything to discourage us from using of their facility, even though in the open they smile at us, giving the impression that we are partners in progress. For us, it is better performing in open spaces, the streets and any other I can think of than face the hostility of the staff, even to our audience,” one of the directors said.
With these impediments one would expect these young producers and directors to have left the stage for a more lucrative ventures, but Eziukwu like others said it is not easy leaving what that runs in one’s blood. According to them, the rule of the game remains visibility and sustenance and with time fortune will smile at them.