OLUWAFIROPO EWENLA is not a green horn in theatre practice. He is passionate about the art form and would do anything to project it. For quite some time now, Ewenla, Deputy Director of Media, University of Ibadan and Coordinator, Ibadan Playhouse, has performed different plays in Lagos and Ibadan to give hope to the sick, prisoners and children in different orphanages. The thespian, who, apart from performance, is in the forefront of growing talents, recently spoke with OMIKO AWA on what he does among other issues
Why are you presenting stage plays in unconventional places in Lagos?
There is theatre everywhere and you will only get it if you know how to look for it. As a practitioner, we don’t consider anywhere to be a strange place; prisons, hospitals and orphanages are all suitable for performance. This is because we believe the value theatre has needs to be explored beyond the spaces assigned to it. Theatre can do a lot for our collective humanity; it helps to build minds, calm down people, educate and pass on messages. And I am passionate about it.
How come theatre lovers know so little of your performances?
We have been doing a lot of social media awareness. We printed handbills in Lagos, but it’s sad to know that after sending out about 400 free invitation to people to come and watch our performance, only 10 of those invited showed up. We are not calling them to pay for the performance, but to come and see it for free!
Why do people not always respond to theatre, as they do with other art shows?
I think there is a disconnection somewhere because it was never like this in the past, when theatre had a large following. In the past, you could see people queuing to buy tickets for a live play. Now, other forms of entertainment are competing with theatre; you can watch movies from your home, go to cinemas and so on. This also takes the degree of our higher consciousness because the few people you might have encountered who are passionate about going to stage play are people who are not just regular people. The whole idea of coming to the Lagos Country Club, Ikeja, Lagos, was as a result of a member of the club, who visited Ibadan and saw the play titled, The Engagement. Seeing the three-man cast made him laugh for an hour while watching and still continued laughing when he got home. So, he decided to bring The Ibadan Playhouse to Lagos to put up similar performance.
How can we make live theatre active and encourage people to come?
There should be a concerted effort from different stakeholders ––government, corporate bodies and individuals –– to achieve this. For instance, if you bring MTN and Airtel to help fix the National Theatre of Nigeria, you will be helping theatre and also creating that kind of partnership between those who have the means and those who have the ends. To activate live theatre, we need to encourage performance. We need to involve more people, encourage them to come to theatre to watch live performances; we need to encourage them by giving them tickets, buy for yourself and others. I have done it before and every month we keep reinventing our strategies like ‘buy 10 tickets and get two more,’ bring five persons and get a complementary ticket for yourself. We need people to tell others about theatre; we need people to write about plays and performances. We need people to report theatre, doing all these can never be too much.
You plan to take theatre to hospitals, orphanages and prisons. Why do you intend to do this and when will that be?
The orphanage project has started; it began in February 2016. We brought pupils from the orphanage to the theatre; it was like an outdoor experience for them. Every second Saturday, we go there to read for them. Even before I started the theatre project, I usually go to the orphanage with friends; we do spend two and half hours reading different books with them. They read to us and we read to them. When we started the Ibadan Day Out, they automatically became part of the audience that we brought to see the performance, and we are still looking for more people.
We are doing this because we believe those in prison, hospitals and orphanages are also part of our collective humanity and we can’t pretend that we do not owe them. We may not owe them as individuals, but what we are paying them is what we owe ourselves. It is just like asking what are we living for? You might have millions of naira to buy them gifts, but when they come around to celebrate their birthdays and you take them out to celebrate it, you make them happy.
Doing this in the prison too is part of our ethical responsibility. It can come with a small cinema, where people can watch because the prison is supposed to be a correction centre and not a death chamber. This is part of what government is expected to do, which they are not doing; but we have decided to take it up and that is why we are doing it.
For the hospital, I once spent more than six months on a sick bed and you can imagine what the effects of theatre can do there. While on admission, I used to bring my musician friends and seek for permission from the doctors for them to sing to people in the ward and we made friends and today, some of them are still in touch with me.
I know what theatre and the musical performances did for them, because I know what good music does to me each time I am down. Performance lifts my spirit. Healing in the hospital is not just about using drugs, but about creating that enabling environment that would hasten healing. We hope some kind of support will come for this project and we shall be pleased to extend it to more places.
Looking back, will you say you are fulfilled with what you are doing?
I feel great because it is all about giving. I have always received from people and I have not had the opportunity to give back something tangible and substantial. But each time I look into the eyes of those children, when they come to see my plays, I am always filled with joy. And when they ask if they are to come the next day, it is like touching my soul. Apart from the fact that this is an avenue for me to personally exercise my body and brain, amazingly as I am giving, I am also receiving with the kind of support I get from friends.
Why do some troupes keep on repeating old plays?
It is a strategy for audience development. A lot of people, who are attracted to see live theatre, are people who have nurtured themselves on the old, traditional plays. It is our intention that once you have been able to grow that audience, we can from there stylishly present new plays. New plays do not yet have the crowd as the traditional plays do. I am seeking for the permission of a bank to do a collection of new plays and if I get it I will roll on the floor thanking God for it. When I told my producer of it, he said I should not take the risk now, but to let us wait until we have been able to nurture our crowd. We want to make this a platform for Nigerians to see generation of new writing or plays. We have to first build the crowd before going into that.