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Biodun Abe preaches gospel of technical theatre

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It’s late October 2018. Kester Abiodun Abe is on viva table. A call comes.
“Please tell your director to get us something better,” he says, plainly.
You can almost feel his anger when he challenges a director who puts up a show at the National Theatre with a poor set.
He always howls at the top of his lungs.
“Oh my God, that set is bad for my image as a technical theatre person,” he often says. “You can do better than this.”
He stops.
He’s spent a lifetime trying to make people understand importance of stage, light and scenography in theatrical productions, and he’s not found alternatives.

“My life is technical theatre, so, I don’t want anything bad on that hallowed National Theatre stage,” Abe says firmly, without much editing.“Let us look at the film we watched. Can you see the power of cinematography: It is about theatre; it entails set designs, stage designs, costumes, make up and some other salient aspects of the production process. That is my area of competence in theatre,” he says.

Abe continues, “today, aesthetics has become an integral part of the theatre that people want to go to the cinema to enjoy performances. As a matter of fact, the impression that designs create in the minds of people cannot be easily wished away.”He says, “it is the set that announces everything. The scenic experience gives the long-lasting impression in the eyes and minds of the audience.”

Abe looks like the job: hard and stuff.You can almost see the blood run out of him when The Guardian asks him of the flaws he spotted in the stage construction of Obi Wali International Conference Centre in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, which he says shouldn’t have arisen if a technical theatre person is consulted.

He threads his way toward the gangway, peering through the windows, and says: “One thing that makes me happy is, when I come to a performance arena and see that everything is perfect.”Abe clears his throat and says: “Good edifice, but the stage has a lot of technical faults.”

The Obi Wali Conference Hall has a large theatre hall, some small halls and beautiful scenery for open field event.The centre seats 2,500 persons in a theatre style. It is suitable for convention, conference, public lecture, wedding, receipt ion, seminar, workshop and other activities. He adds, “aesthetics plays a great role in modern theatre design. That’s without killing the message itself. That, for me, is an appetiser and that too is the whole essence of stage designs and set and so on. It is to prepare the minds of the people as they enter the hall to watch the play.”

Abe believes that every beautiful designer is a frustrated director. In other words, before you can become successful as a stage designer, you must know how to read the mind of the stage director. He says, “this is because it is the stage designer himself who situates all the actions on the stage. And for you to be able to do this well, you have to work out the exits and entrances for the stage. You also design what the background is.”

Without sounding immodest, he says: “The way theatre runs, there is limitation to what a designer ought to do. People want to suggest to him what to do. A playwright, for instance, picks his biro and starts writing stories. It takes him time to do that. But when it comes to me to do mine, he wants me to just jump into stage and design the work immediately.”

Trained at University of Ilorin and Ibadan for his first and second degrees in Theatre Arts, Abe is a multiple award winner. He has equally put into the business of theatre and film 31 postgraduate fruitful years. As a film arts director, Abe has his stamp in some of the films that have made waves in the country. Credits include, but not limited to Oduduwa, Sango, King Jaja of Opobo, Agbako, Blood On My Hands, Omen of Love and
The Covenant Church.

According to him, when he went to secondary school, all he knew basically was that acting is all there was to the theatre, but when he got into the university, other areas of theatre arts revealed themselves.“We started talking about theatre management, directing and other areas, and we knew that acting is just one of the areas.”He sighs.

According to him, “as a designer, should be able to determine the nature of the stage with the kind of characters you have presented in the book. And I need to read the play; I need to study it properly to know the striking scenes that can make for a stage design or set. You need to read about the environment, whether it is summer or winter. A designer should come to terms with all these. There are certain things that give me quick inspiration when I read a script to get my stage design. First is space; when I see space, it gives me a lot of inspiration. Every congested space does not help my design. With space I am able to think. If I open my window and I see space, it helps me a lot.”

Abe insists, “this is why if I pick a novel to create the stage or adapt it to a stage, it is the environment that I am looking at. I will first of all read the novel and get the impression that will give people insight into the book. I came in contact with your own book, This Wonderful Life and the first impression that came into my mind was space and the environment. Yes, you can say the story is beautiful, it is moving but the issues of the environment matters a lot.”

He admits beautiful things help to situate the stage and “inspire the creativity in me a great deal.”Abe continues, “even from the stage lighting you give to the stage or the props and costumes you invent into it, you have to bring the audience into it. That’s the razzmatazz we are talking about. So, I do not see a good theatre without my area of specialisation.”

He laughs: “As a designer, some people even suggest that an empty space can do for some productions. You may not have a clue into the mind of the writer. However, as a designer that is worth his salt, you may be able to open such mind. When you have done that, you can then create scenes that an ordinary eye cannot see. It is one of those things I have working for me. Do the best ever stage design for that play.”

As a stage technical director, he has handled well over 50 quality productions, which include, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings Horseman, Lion and the Jewel, Bacchae of Euripides, Femi Osofisan’s Midnight Hotel, Morountodun, Twingle-Twangle, Once Upon Four Robbers, Ola Rotimi’s Kurunmi, Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again and Ahmed Yerima’s The Sisters, The Portrait and Trials of Oba Ovonramwen.

Abe was the technical director of United States Information Service’s project, American Theatre Revue, in 1991. He was technical director for OAU summit 1991, ECOWAS summit 1991, COJA 2003 (all the productions) National Sports Festival (Abuja 2004), technical director, Gateway Games, 2006 and technical director, Abuja Carnival, from 2008 before his appointment as the carnival director

As an arts administrator, Abe was acting Artistic Director of National Troupe of Nigeria (1990- 1991). As the National president, National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), he coordinated the affairs of a professional body that has branches in all the states of the federation including, the Federal Capital Territory.

Following the association’s well articulated and consistent advocacy campaign for arts and culture development, the association received from the Ford Foundation in 2001, a grant to the tune of 100,000, which under the supervision of Abe was used for capacity building, acquiring of a functional, computerised training school — Wole Soyinka Training School and a well stocked reference library — Zulu Sofola Library.

In 2003, Abe also co-ordinated the implementation of an AIDS Grassroot Intervention Project (AIDS- GRIP) campaign in six states: Lagos, Oyo, Edo, Ondo, Akwa- Ibom and FCT with a grant of N11 million from the Action committee on Aids (NACA). In 2005, Abe also received funding from Prince Claus Funds in Netherlands for his association’s 2004 edition of Festival of Nigerian Theatre Arts (FESTINA).A widely travelled Artiste, Biodun Abe, a Fellow of theatre arts, is a member of an array of professional bodies both at home and abroad.


In this article:
Kester Abiodun Abe
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