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Ambode’s five theatre offerings elicit cautious optimism

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Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode

Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode

* Echo Demas Nwoko’s FESTAC ’77 proposal
I never believed I could sit down for two hours; I thought I would just pop in briefly and then leave, but this is awesome and fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The fact is that I believe strongly in the arts, entertainment and sports, everything that is arts. Like I said, before the end of next year, we are going to have five new theatres in Lagos.

“We are already engaging with Terra Kulture and we are speaking to another consultant and the truth is that we want to have the theatres in Badagry, Epe, Ikorodu, Alimosho and on the Mainland. We already have one in Victoria Island. But the truth is that this is where the energy of Lagos is and that is where we should go.”

For many culture practitioners, especially those practising in the theatre, this is good news that calls for real celebration. For once, a state governor has acknowledged what many theatre practitioners have been crying themselves hoars over: the need to expand the culture space through building structures to accommodate more talents.

Culture advocate and playwright, Mr. Ben Tomoloju, and theatre teacher and award-winning playwright, Prof. Sam Ukala, have been advocates of theatres across the country. Terra Kulture boss, Mrs. Bolanle Austin-Peters, recently took up the challenge of widening the theatre space by building one in Victoria Island, Lagos. Early in the year, Mr. Wole Oguntokun of Renegade Theatre, opened his space, Theatre Republic in Lekki, which holds weekly stage performances.

Ironically, Prof. Ukala’s presentation to Delta State Government during the tenure of theatre and movie practitioner, Mr. Richard Mofe-Damijo, as Commissioner for Culture, failed to make impact. He spoke on the necessity of building theatre spaces in the state to harness abundant youth energy in the creative sector. For many, Mofe-Damijo was the biggest disappointment as culture manager in a state teeming with youth talent. He simply lost his bearing and couldn’t make impact. Now, he is back to his acting turf, but not as a stellar culture manager.

But this is where Lagos State governor, Ambode, has made for himself a record-setting agenda as the first state in the country to see the true value and potential of theatre. Investing in culture by building structures like theatre to accommodate youth energy has been the problem in the country. Ambode’s political and ingenuous will to bell the cat is the lift the sector needs. Just like other state functionaries, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode got inspiration for the theatre project after seeing a musical theatre, entitled Heartbeat The Musical… A New Beginning at MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos. It was directed by Olu Jacobs and Joke Silver, who first cut their teeth on stage before becoming silver screen personalities.

Ambode had meant to watch the performance for only a few minutes, but became so engrossed that he ended up spending two hours! That is the power of arts, to thoroughly enthrall and captivate. On the other hand, Delta State Governor, Mr. Ifeanyi Okowa, saw Iredi War in August at Unity Hall, inside Government House, and expressed how delighted he was, but failed to make any commitment to assist the sector.

And, so again, Lagos will yet set an example worthy of emulation, something Prof. Ukala also acknowledged and applauded.

“That is great; it’s great news,” Ukala enthused over the telephone. “If Ambode actually builds five theatres in Lagos, it’s something other states should emulate.”

The theatre teacher, who won The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2014 with Iredi War, however, cautioned that the usual government bureaucracy should not be allowed to scuttle Ambode’s plan. In fact, he called for proper research on how such buildings are managed elsewhere to ensure their efficient use.

“If properly supervised, properly manned, the theatres will go a long way in solving shortage of spaces for performances,” he said. “It is my hope that they get the right people to handle them. In Nigeria, we have a lot of manpower that is wrongly applied. Often, we put wrong people in wrong places. In fact, they should throw it open so the best people will apply from all over to get the best hands to manage these theatres when they are built.

“They should first do research and go outside the country to find out how such places are run properly and even get people from outside as consultants.”

It is Ukala’s hope that governor Okowa would take a cue from his Lagos counterpart just as Sen. Ossai Osakwe recently echoed his earlier position that Delta State should build theatres and assist Nollywood to grow, with Asaba becoming a production hub.

Ambode also noted that Lagos is not only a destination for the arts, culture and entertainment, but bulging youths, who are ready to showcase their talents. Clearly, Ambode understands youth yearnings and is sensitive to its needs, which is partly the provision of structures to engage them productively.

“It’s not so much about physical infrastructure, but 67 per cent of Lagos population is below the age of 35,” Ambode had said. “So, we need to start finding things to keep the younger ones more creative and then open the space for them to be able to just show their talents.”

Laudable as Ambode’s theatre plan is, it is not exactly new. Long before FESTAC ’77, Afro-centric architect and artist, Demas Nwoko, had proposed multiple theatres for Lagos. He had bided to build the National Theatre, but he lost out as a result of his ‘strange’ proposition. What resulted was the under-utilised, wasting National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos.

As he recalled in an interview, “I’m a theatre person beyond being an architect. I knew that a theatre of that size – 5,000 persons – doesn’t exist anywhere. You can’t have an audience of 5,000; it becomes a sports venue. In fact, that building is a sports hall imported from Bulgaria. So, apart from the main bowl being 5,000, they started adding the cinema halls; it was not properly designed for those activities. They were just attached.

“What I proposed was that for FESTAC, we should build aAmbodet least five theatres or venues in Lagos. Apapa, Isolo, Yaba, Victoria Island, etc, with each venue having the capacity of 1,000 – 1,500 persons, and everybody didn’t have to go to. After FESTAC, there will be theatres at every neighbourhood. So everybody gets entertained after work in their neighbourhoods. It would have been more viable and that way, FESTAC activities would have been spread out but it became a political decision.

“But that is what happens in government projects; there are many things to consider – in allocating things, even in employing people; they could say it’s by quota, by this, by that. There are many reasons, but all manner of reasons except that for which the thing is set up for”.

Tomoloju is a consistent advocate of cottage theatres, which he canvases should be set up in every local government area. In a paper he presented at Crown Troupe of Africa’s 20th, titled ‘Nigerian Theatre: Legacies from the Past and Visions for a New Age,’ Tomoloju had said, “Theatre advocacy programme should call for the establishment of cottage theatres in the Local Government Areas of viable states in the country, as reflected in my blueprint on Culture Administration and Local Government.”

Poet and polemicist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, finds it strange that a city like Lagos has no multiplicity of theatres to entertain and be genuine social change tools.

As he put it, “You want to ask yourself, ‘how many theatres are there in Lagos?’ It is a question hardly ever answered. If you walk into the city of Lagos, which is supposed to be the heart of arts and culture in Nigeria, what do you see all over the place? We know there are no theatres, as it is in other cities of the world. In a city of about 20 or so million people, hardly do people even go to the theatre.

“In our country, we know that we do not know where to go when you are looking for drama. If you go to the National Theatre, you will not find anything there. If you go to MUSON Centre, you will notice that you are going to be entertained in a very peculiar manner. Enter the place and you will find out that artists are entertaining artists. That is the general picture.

“In Columbia, theatre is being done very well. At every corner, there’s a drama, poetry; virtually the entire city is a theatre of arts. We don’t have a city that can reach out to culture.”

Ofeimun argued that theatre could only be effectively used as a tool for social change in an environment where theatre production thrives and engages the imagination of the public. For him, there are not many theatre spaces in a cultural city like Lagos to affectively engage the public to the change dynamics embedded in the messages theatre delivers.



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