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‘Convert National Theatre Into National University For The Arts’




No doubt, Nigeria’s National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, has long lost both its lustre and direction. Federal Government’s inability to grasp what the arts of a country should do for it and the citizenry has not helped matters in projecting the theatre as a viable space for artistic development with its attendant value proposition. But now, a U.S.-based don, Prof. Segun Ojewuyi and theatre director, who teaches at the University of Illinois, Carbon-Dale, has come up with a revolutionary proposition that may save government current and subsequent embarrassments the theatre’s poor managers have continued to court. Ojewuyi proposes that the edifice be turned into a National University for the Arts to galvanize the enormous youth potentials in the creative sector for the benefit of the economy. He spoke to ANOTE AJELUOROU and EKEMENA AZAINO in Lagos.

The National Theatre has been performing poorly in recent years. There are talks of concession and privatization by government.

What possible viable direction do you propose for that national monument?

Yes. We have had the National Theatre. The concept of a National Theatre itself has not been actualized. I am not talking about the building, which has some problems but the building itself is not just a problem. First, it is like the controversial son of a terrible marriage, a marriage between the federal and the state government. Whereas it is Lagos that owns the land, the federal government owns the building and then the federal appoints Ministers in charge of this building. You and I know how Ministers are appointed in this country. I am talking about the Minister for Culture. Usually, they are the last ones the President chooses from his party to give portfolios. Edem Duke was the most recent example.

Government has argued over the years that it is too expensive to maintain that building because it does not generate anything. But that is wrong because the understanding of what the government should be doing is not to be quantifying it with the actual price that comes out of the building. They should have been quantifying it in terms of the values that come out of that building. So, they got that wrong. The building is structurally also not fit for the assignment and all of that.

I began to feel that this place has become a graveyard. You enter and it is dark and you feel you have been buried already. The reason it feels like that is because of the absence of life of the art of creativity for which it was built regardless of structural shortcoming. So, the option that has been fiddled over the years is to concession it. What does that mean? It simply means selling it into private hands. The options would include hotels, casinos, playground, but the arts have not actually been at the centre of all these.

So, we have over the years campaigned and protected our national monuments for our national pride, but the outstanding question is, ‘Where will that theatre come from? How will it sustain itself? What will be its agenda?’ You cannot have that building and then you say we have a National Theatre. We need theatres all over the place. So, I am a part of the movement for the privatization of the theatre. Private enterprise always brings a different energy that will give life.

When government privatized, it brought The Guardian, Concord, Vanguard and all that in the print media; they are all alive and healthy while the ones formerly owned by government have all died like Daily Times, New Nigeria, etc. radio and television stations were privatized, I think by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida in 1986 or 1987, see where that has gone. Government will not get it right the first time but it will continue to grow and because they must respond to market forces, they will have to cater for the needs and tastes of the people.
So, what you are saying is that people’s tastes and preferences will determine the quality of artistic productions?

Yes. Now leave that; go to music. The same thing has happened. I mean, government never controls music, but it has always grown. ‘Where are they coming from? How are they making so much money?’ You see, the artistes are producing, the people are consuming, there is money, and there is joy for everybody. There are a few artistes who do not do popular music but they are making money.

Now go to film. You can condemn Nollywood as much as you like. I see the shortcomings. I cannot sit to watch a lot of them to the finish. But I do not condemn the movement itself. There are people who consume them… and it is going to grow; it is going to reform because people will say, ‘we do not want that anymore’ and they have to reform. Scripts will get better, production values will improve, structures and strategies will improve. But if you still do not agree with me on that, go and check Hollywood at its very beginning; it was not dissimilar to what Nollywood has. Look at what is being fulfilled. Yes, we know Francis Oladele, Eddie Ugbomah and Ola Balogun were the ancestors of Nollywood because they were independent; they responded and answered for it. But government has always had a film unit. We have the Nigeria Film Corporation before Nollywood. It was just a place for moneymaking for individual pockets.

If you put all these together and the Visual Arts, there was a time when people painted and did general exhibitions. They are making money from their houses from exhibitions. There are numerous options now; so, privatization is not completely wrong for the arts. My point is, the theatre is not generating money because the kind of theatre that was being produced was kind of lazy. It was elitist. It was not responding or catering to the taste of the people. It was as if it was theatre for the poor, meaning ‘poor taste.’ I am not talking about those playwrights, good playwrights, but I have always been of the opinion that if you do them well, people would come. So reviewing all of these, we need a centralised agenda for the arts. We cannot continue to talk about the art in generic terms that are all over the place. ‘Oh! Let’s build more theatres. Yes! Oh! Let’s build more concert venues. Yes! Let’s build more galleries. Yes!’ But then, they will all be under government.
How can this centralised agenda be achieved with government still in charge and slowing down growth in the sector?

So the truth is, a proper re-orientation of the artiste is needed. We are not talking about people who go to the universities, applying for Law or Sociology and then finding themselves in Theatre because they could not make it to their desired courses. We are not talking about those. Let’s talk about parents. In fact, something has changed because when we were in school, parents did not like the fact that their kids were going to Theatre. Today, we have the departments, which are overflowing because of Nollywood.

So, I am saying we have a problem and I think this building is the problem but solving it does not mean turning it into a casino. I came up with this idea that we need a National University for the Arts as we have National Universities for the Science, Technology and Agriculture. So, we need a university set up solely for the training of our artistes in visual arts, music, dance, theatre and film production. Whatever it is where that university is bustling with Art, with creativity because that is what they are trained for. So when you apply, you must be driven; really impassioned about the Arts and so we harness all of these into this institution, not just the department of Theatre Arts in the universities where jobbers become professors without really being artistes.

I am talking about where artistes, veteran artistes, the Bruce- Onobrakpeyas and the dele jegedes are the professors at that level where Soyinka is there; that level where Don Jazzy is a professor. Imagine what will come out of that. Now translate that into market forces in terms of economic revenue generated. These people when they graduate have the orientation to create jobs, to make art and create jobs and in the process begin to change the orientation of this country.
That seems like a revolutionary idea. But how will the university be funded so it doesn’t suffer the fate of existing national universities that have fallen into hard times?

If you think about this it can work because the university will also be generating money through students’ tuition that they pay for their training but also their output – their thesis conferences and concert performances also generate money. They will go out and create opportunities for themselves; they build institutions and create jobs like Bolanle Austin-Peters who is into theatre production, art auctions and now into films. When we left school that was when television stations were beginning to emerge; these institutions – the NTA, the television stations, the radio stations where the places Theatre Artistes got jobs in those days.

So, we decided we have to change things and that was what led to our artist activism and we all migrated to Lagos and other parts of the country and we started media companies, drama productions, cartoon productions and all these and we went into private entities and proposed and got money to create jobs for ourselves. Alliance Francaise funded a national tour of Femi Osofisan’s play Oriki of a Grasshopper at the time. One idea will generate jobs.

And the quality of the arts that is produced from this university will suddenly shoot up and not these things being done by accidents that we are consuming now. I want to see this happen but people will come with, ‘yes, how do we form this?’ We have this building that has been a problem for years. It has everything that you need to start that university. It was built for that. It has a gallery, all those halls. It has music, films halls and then with that building re-energize, the same amount of money that is being stolen and waste through the Abuja Carnival, you know now, is channeled and all of these things, you put into this university and then you have campuses, if you so please, all over the country. You know, but that is a special place.

I am not talking about students in Nigeria alone; international students will be coming. There is nothing more that will attract the international community of students and professionals from America, Europe and Asia to come because our Arts have always been at the head of all others. They will come and they will be paying. That is what I am advocating.

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