A nation without theatre tradition is lost, says Ben Tomoloju
Ben Tomoloju is a seasoned art critic, a dramatist, a playwright and a folk musician. The multi-talented writer, generally called ‘Uncle Ben’ in the entertainment sector, was the former Arts Editor and the founding father of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP). He spoke with OMIKO AWA on theatre practice in Nigeria, cottage theatres and the need to enliven the stage through engagements.
How do you see Nigerian theatre practice at the moment?
Nigeria theatre as a discipline, as a practice, is vibrant. The only thing wrong so far is the propagation of the ideas of the profession. Theatre needs quite a lot of economic resources to stand like other sectors. It is a mobile endeavour and should move from place to place and across time. Theatre can be stationed at one place as a repertory theatre and be staged and restaged over time. In both cases, theatre structure is very important, especially in consonance with the volume of human resources that are available.
Let us use Nigeria, as an example. The contemporary Nigerian theatre is traced back to Hubert Ogunde’s ascension on stage in the early 1940s and, without looking back, the old man, who was then in his 30s created the new travelling theatre. He was moving from one location to the other to stage his plays. By then, there was no competition from the social media and television. Television in Nigeria came in 1959 over 15 years after Ogunde started his contemporary theatre. Even when television was established, there was an adaptation of dramatic acts into TV drama, while the live theatre was also playing simultaneously through the efforts of Ogunde and those he later called his contemporaries, but they were not. They were his younger colleagues. These younger colleagues of Ogunde were Duro Ladipo, Moses Olaiya, Kola Ogunmola and others. Ogunde travelled to the West Coast of Africa, Mid West, Northern Nigeria and different places in the west.
Now that we have a whole population of talents graduating from theatre schools and also theatre companies under certain masters, we find out that there is an opportunity for job-creation concerning this mass talent. We have to design strategies with which these young ones have to be fulfilled. This is why I advocated for the establishment of cottage theatres in our localities.
I derived this from the Cultural Policy of Nigeria promulgated in 1988. As one of those who drafted the policy, we said Federal Government should have its presence in terms of cultural policy on all the states of the federation, building cultural centres and that the states should have presence in their individual local governments and the local governments to look into the wards and establish cultural centres. I adopted this and applied it to the theatre. Along the line, some of our colleagues, like Professor Ayo Akinwale promoted the idea in one of his papers.
In my paper published in an academic journal, The Constitution by the Centre For Constitutionalism And Demilitarization (CENCOD), I make a hypothetical projection that if Lagos, with 20 Local Governments (LGA) and 37 Local Council Development Areas (LCDA), has 57 cottage theatres, you will find out that a single play that was a hit – well-written, well-directed and well-conceptualised – will move for a whole year from one LGA/LCDA to another if they are performed on a weekly basis. This means young people will make some money from one point to the other. It also means they may not need to rehearse more than one play in a year and the system is such that when one play leaves, say Isolo, and goes to Agege or Mushin, another starting at Agege or Mushin will come to Isolo. It would be in a revolving pattern and there will be job and wealth-creation for all, including small-scale businesses that operate around the theatre.
So, on this basis, I find it salutary the plan by Lagos State Government’s plan to build theatres in five locations across the state. I also find it salutary that the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, is ready to collaborate with Lagos State to bring into realisation the original idea that Federal Government should have its presence in every state of the federation.
What would be the effect of this on the National Theatre in Lagos?
We have concentrated so much attention on the National Theatre. This will reduced the attention, but it does not mean plays and other things will not take place there. In fact, National Theatre would be used for the bigger shows. There was a stop at the use of the main bowl, but at a time we galvanised efforts with the then sole administrator for culture, Dan Awodoyin and his colleagues. We connected to Ogunde, who used his charisma to compel the Lagos audience to come and view theatre performance at the National Theatre. So, there was resurgence and a boom to the extent that when Ogunde was performing Ayanmo, people queued from the main gate to the Costain Bridge to obtain tickets. The new Director of National Theatre, George Ufot, is a living witness to this. Once there is the right incentive people will embrace theatre.
Do you think that period when theatre had such queues would ever return?
It will, depending on the power of appeal of the play and also on the individual talents behind it. It must also be noted that generally, we do not have enough human resources manifesting on that magnitude. One needs to be a colossal talent to attract audience of such magnitude. The idea of approving the National Troupe of Nigeria by the then Head of State, Ibrahim Babaginda, came through when Ogunde performed Ayanmo. We can still get there, but we should not forget the socialistic strategy of making people from the neighbourhood stroll from their houses with their family members to any of the cottage theatres, no matter how small they may be.
Are the masters still there to pull this type of audience?
Masters produce masters. In the theatre of English production, the masters are still there. But I cannot say theatre still has the potentials in public space; I cannot be overtly optimistic about this. However, I have done a few things that show that people gravitate around the theatre. It was when my Askaris in 1997 toured 20 states in Nigeria. I was the playwright/director, while Jahman Anikulapo was the associate director. There was a robust presence of members of the public, even in the most supposedly conservative parts of Northern Nigeria. We had 3,000 in the open-air theatre of Sokoto and almost the same number outside waiting to come in. The same thing happened in Bauchi and Maiduguri; people were struggling to come in, although the show was free and well publicised. So, if we have to re-enact that we have to re-strategise with the public.
With many theatres springing up in the urban centres, would it not be right to regulate it, as a way of standardising and shutting out quacks?
I have had an experience in recent times that made me believe that theatre profession has to be regulated. I always like going back to history because if there were any resistant voice I would be the first to be listed in terms of the foundation of the Association of Nigerian Theatre. I was literally dragged to establish a formal association of theatre practitioners; they call me founding father. What we embarked on at that time was to ensure that professionalism was developed to a point that a talent that represents the theatre would be credible before the public. And we said that no one must be admitted into the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) if he or she is not trained professionally, either with the university department of theatre/dramatic arts or through a highly recognised master. And by master, we meant people like Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola and others. Dramatists of this level would issue certificates to endorse students and they would be recognised by NANTAP even with or without further university training.
I am sorry that NANTAP did not pursue this since the vanguards of the association stepped aside to allow the other generation. Now, we have situations where people just claim titles randomly without due respect to conventions. Even if we do not have constitutions or directory regulations, we have conventions. We now have a situation where the executive director of a repertory theatre would suddenly claim to be the artistic director and one begins to wonder how, ‘can theatre come to this level?’
And not only that; you forget that the production is a repertory production made and conceived in terms of artistic setting and design by a particular director and that if you are restaging the play 10,000 times, for as long as you maintain the concepts and designs of the artistic director, he will continue to take his credit. But this is not the case. It is unfortunate that we have a situation where those operating a repertory theatre do not know that they are operating it and do not know the conventions. There is even a belief that if one puts money in production that he or she can be the all in all. There are different roles in the line of communication among the artistic director, producer, technical director, costumier, choreography and others and none should take the place of the other.
The repertory theatre is just one aspect of theatre organisation. It is the theatre where you have stocks of plays you can perform at anytime. Apart from this, there are other seasonal plays that can run on the Broadway for weeks or months, but once these plays are stocked and acted again, then they would be referred to as repertory theatre. These are things we must learn and then talk about professionalism. There is a difference between a trainee and an intern, for instance. A trainee is student in the drama school and passing out, you become an intern and can do your I.T. with any of the troupes, including National Troupe. It is after this you become a professional. All these must be regulated. I regret that I have been part of the evolution and probably an oversight, yet we do not emphasise this; but at our level with over 40 years on this job, we should not keep quiet. NANTAP and other societies of the Nigerian artists should come together and ensure that there is regulation. The movie sector has their own regulation; they are the sub-sector of the theatre.
And that being said, with Lagos building five art theatres to start with, I suggest that the governor should ensure that professionals with verse knowledge and practice manage the theatres. There should be no political consideration, kinship, or sentiments. Core professionals should handle the theatres and I suggest Theatre Arts graduates.
But there must be the business angle to it, which is often lacking…
Yes, there must be and that is what the Theatre Arts graduate would do. This is so because his training includes such aspects. The theatre manager is crucial in terms of programming and the salability of programmes and the coordination of the various troupes that would come around. Take, for instance, when we will be having 57 cottage theatres, he would coordinate the management of the troupes. So, it is not a job for anybody. If I have my way, I would make five big plays to tour the theatres after completion; they would revolve the theatres and this will impact on other theatres in the state.
To solve the challenge of funding, some dramatists call for cutting of cast and crew, or at best, performing plays with solo roles. How effective are these suggestions?
One of my colleagues, a professor in Canada, wrote a paper on this and her research included Canada, U.S., South Africa, Nigeria and other countries across the globe. I do agree that this is a challenge, but we also need epic and historical theatres. We need robust theatres; theatres that are gargantuan, total and with finesse. It is part of our tradition and we cannot just dump it out of the fear of the unknown.
Yes, two, three-man or solo theatre in the old apartheid regime of South Africa had its own purposes. It allows for easy escape of the cast and crew in case they were to be arrested. It has mobility and could be moved from one locate to the other with ease, but we must tell our stories the way they are. These suggestions are part of the solutions, but it must be a thing of choice. In Germany, there is a theatre that is meant for 99 people and the artistic director; it is not taxed. The 100th seat is for the artistic director and the moment he or she commercialises it, the whole theatre would be taxed. This goes to tell the importance of the artistic director; he is the generalissimo of creative concept and actualization.
There is also the Café Theatre with a minimal cast; they are ways of saving cost and they all depend on what you want, what you can manage to get a good production.
But if you are ambitious and want to produce an epic production because it has its verve, then you can go for a large cast and crew. Source the fund and put up a very good production. There are plays that cannot be done with such small cast. Performances such as the Nativity and festival plays, which are done in the open space need large cast to bring out the beauty. I do not think we have that kind of presentations here, except for the masquerade, which are also drama on their own right. Our classics must be performed the way they should. We cannot throw them away because we do not want to spend money and this where I call on corporate organisations to come in and partner with theatre practitioners in their presentations because a nation without theatre tradition is lost. Whenever, we travel to Europe, especially Germany, we are always asked if we want to visit the theatre. The people have a very strong theatre culture, and there are plays in their theatre every day for 365 days that make a year.
And I think we abandoned our theatre tradition, when we began to see it as fetish. The passion with which members of our traditional community embraced the Alarinjo theatre, masquerade dance, royal performance and others is the same way the western nations, Japanese, Chinese embrace theirs and today, it has become a tradition. And I want to educate all of us, who are Christians or Muslims – that there is no more mystery in the pot of groundnut. If anybody says there is, let him or her bring it out.
Why do we not have festival plays and others here? Is it as a result of lack of playwrights or the skills to perform them?
We have the skills and dramatists to write this kind of plays. We have people that can present plays in stadia and any given space, but the question is, do we have people who appreciate theatre to that quintessential level in Nigeria? Would the celebration of Lagos@50, which we are hoping for in the creative industry, accommodate such gargantuan activities to impact strongly in the consciousness of the people in the magnitude of experience that the Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, has brought to Lagos? The professionals are there, but the resources are lacking.
What is the way forward for Nigerian Theatre?
There should be professionalism, standardization and deliberate campaign to foster growth in the sector. All stakeholders, government inclusive, should provide the structure that would accommodate talents that are being produced in the various Schools of Drama. Funding should also be made available, while theatre should stand up and make statement of what theatre is all about. They should engage the public the more through their activities.