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How neglect of theatre hurts creative industry, its job-creation potential

By Anote Ajeluorou, Assistant Arts Editor
14 October 2016   |   3:49 am
From today, Friday, October 14 through Sunday, 16, lovers of live theatre will experience spectacular fun at MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos, as the centre’s yearly MUSON Festival of the arts opens with a Broadway-style Musical Theatre.

From today, Friday, October 14 through Sunday, 16, lovers of live theatre will experience spectacular fun at MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos, as the centre’s yearly MUSON Festival of the arts opens with a Broadway-style Musical Theatre.

The subject of the performance is iconic music personality, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Titled Fela… Arrest the Music! is a production of Declassical Arts and Entertainment Company, led by Mr. Ayo Ajayi, and is part of MUSON Centre’s 20th-anniversary celebration.

Also, from next Monday, the ninth yearly Season of Wole Soyinka plays will start at Mr. Wole Oguntokun’s newly opened Theatre Republic. Childe Internationale, Population Control and Press Conference are the plays scheduled for performance to the delight of audiences. Mr. Olarotimi Michael Fakunle will be directing.

However, the question of audience is one issue that perennially worries producers of stage performances. Next in the line of their worry is the absence of performance spaces – theatres, and how their absence has stunted that creative industry’s sub-sector from performing its unique role of creating jobs in an economy badly in need of avenue to salve a festering sore.

Professor of drama and playwright, Sam Ukala of Delta State University, Abraka, sometimes ago highlighted in a paper he presented at the second Annual Delta Entertainment Summit, when he spoke on ‘Reviving Stage Drama in Post-Amnesty Delta State in the face of Global Economic Meltdown’. He raised the issue of audiences as a critical element in stage performances and how they can be galvanised to enjoy the beauty of theatre performances while also being a source of sustaining that cultural showpiece.

According to him, “We must add you, the audience, as one of the stakeholders who must ‘educate themselves’ and contribute to the development of our entertainment industry, for it is for the audience that entertainment is created. And the audience is even more important for stage drama.

In explicating the nature of drama, Ukala said, “Stage drama is made possible by the joint presence of a play, a performance area, actors or performers, and a live audience. The play is a mirror of life: it is peopled with life-like characters in life-like situations. It entertains both the actor or performer and the audience; it broadens their experience and deepens their insight.

“Consequently, it equips them with the emotional and mental tools for coping with life’s challenges. Due to the highly didactic nature of African traditional performances, especially the folktale, most African plays have high moral and ethical content. They are aimed at improving the quality of the mind, at conditioning both the performers and the audience to make choices that should benefit them as individuals but, at the same time, be within the societal norms.

“Stage drama is a life-moulding leisure, which engages the bodies and active minds of all its participants. The bodies, the senses enjoy its
aesthetic values, while the minds savour its thematic or thought values. To fully do these, one requires a measure of natural endowment in aesthetic appreciation and a measure of interpretative and analytical skills.

Ukala also emphasised the role of conscientising, value-moulding and mobilising that drama engenders among the populace. As he put it, “Thus, just as traditional performances of work songs and war songs are used for the mobilisation of the people for desired societal goals, so is stage drama capable of conscientising and mobilising people collectively, planting in them seeds of change or positive revolution”.

The drama professor then strongly canvassed for the revival of stage drama and related arts in Delta State through “Building and equipping five state theatres – one per Senatorial District as well as an additional one each in Asaba and Warri, establishing and funding an Arts Council, establishing a lottery for the generation of funds for supporting the Arts Councils and encouraging private sector participation in the sponsorship of artistic events and the building and running of more theatres with guidelines from the State Arts Council.

“Others included guaranteeing access to private venture finance for the building of theatres, devise a system by which government subsidy would be equitable, prompt and transparent, supporting the Delta State Arts Council to promote the export of Delta stage drama and other performance arts through the agency of Nigerian embassies abroad and the Internet and providing a secure nightlife for the theatre towns”.

ALSO, polemicist and poet, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, has lent his voice to the many difficulties facing theatre just as its nationalistic benefits are often overlooked, when the sub-sector is neglected, with the result that a thriving theatre culture in the country has been stunted. Ofeimun made a case for theatre at the launch of Maxim Uzor Uzoatu’s two plays, Doctor of Football and A Play of Ghosts, last week in Lagos. He spoke on ‘Theatre as a Tool for Social Change.’

Ofeimun stated, “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? We know there is none, 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 theatres.

“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 even find anything there. If you go to the MUSON Centre, you will 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”.

Ofeimun, who has written some impressive dance dramas like Nigeria the Beautiful, Because of 1914 and A feast of Return, lamented poor supporting infrastructure for theatre and the arts to thrive.

According to him, “All the companies that used to sponsor drama on television, all the companies that we would expect to give leeway to such performances, they don’t do that now. Many of us don’t know that. Between my house in Oregun and Ogba, in over a period of 10 years, about 250 companies closed down and nobody seems to know. Many of the people who used to go to those companies no longer have anywhere to go.

“The churches have cleaned them up. You sometimes have to ask yourself, are the people cleaning up these factories the ones who used to work in those companies? It is a question we never answer.

“When we talk about using theatre for social change, we often talk about a very abstract set up. I am probably invited to talk about theatre as a tool because, over a period of 10 years, I put together a dance drama company, Hornbill House of the Arts, which set out to prove that theatre can be used as a tool for social identity. We managed to do many dance dramas. Now, if you want to talk about theatre, we would have to talk about the National Theatre. In most cities like Columbia, in every corner, you have a theatre. So that in one side of the city, there is a dance drama, in another side, there is a musical performance”.

CULTURE advocate, playwright director, Mr. Ben Tomoloju, said government has consistently failed to assist the arts just as it has failed to see the true value of the sector and the need to fund it. Tomoloju, who will direct Prof. JP Clark’s The Wives Revolt at the MUSON Festival, canvassed a better deal for the sector, when he said, “I think that the way forward is for all sectors, public and private, to recognise, first and foremost, that arts and culture can add value to the life of citizenry socially, economically and even politically. We do not have any cause to ignore the arts, for instance, even in the time of recession such as we are in.

“During the great depression in the U.S. in the mid-20th century, the government deliberately promoted the arts as part of the new deal. Their regionalist intervention was strategic. It boosted creativity, imbued the spirit of patriotism and ultimately created jobs and wealth, which the new generation of Americans is enjoying till today.

“I am aware the private practitioners are working hard to turn things around for the better, but it will be more beneficial if arts and culture are not approached perfunctorily. They should be included in our strategic national agenda for economic recovery. The available skills, the human capital should be backed up with relevant structures and funding to set the sector on the path of self-actualization and sustainability”.

Tomoloju also commended the consistency of “Young directors, who have been making their impacts. Some of them, who are heads of departments in universities and are still in the same age group with those who are directing outside; they have been making their impacts. One of the most highly respected is Dr. Tunde Awosanmi, HOD, Theatre Arts Department, University of Ibadan. Then you talk of Mr. Segun Adefila.

“In terms of my advocacy, I like people to give opportunities to emerging talents. In all respects, I know of a private organisation that owns a facility, and over the years, made the facility available to young talents, who have also grown their wisdom teeth and are making remarkable impact in the theatre community and to the theatre-going public”.

CEO of Terra Kulture and producer of Saro and Wakaa the Musicals, Mrs. Bolanle Austin-Peters, gave rare moment of fitting performance index to figures with financial accounting and market projection for her theatre productions after staging Saro the Musical. The breakdown is aid of potential investors in the sector, who are not aware how the sector performs on return-on-investment. She gave a breakdown of the cost implication and return-on-investment for performing Saro the Musical, which started showing in 2013 through 2015.

According to her, “The Lion King musical has grossed over $6.2 billion since inception in 1994, making it the most successful box office total of any work in any media in entertainment history. It is followed by $6 billion-earning The Phantom of the Opera.

“Saro the Musical at its premiere in 2013 had over 7,000 people in attendance at its nine shows in three days. Thirty-five per cent of the cost of production was realised for ticket sales. In December 2014, another 8,000 people attended the 11 shows of Saro the Musical over six days. Fifty per cent of the cost of production was realised from ticket sales. In April 2015, over 9,000 people saw the 13 shows in six days. Fifty-five per cent of the cost of production was realised from ticket sales.

“The cost for staging each of the three productions above is between N70 and 80 million (cost both in kind and cash). The majority of the cost goes into venue rental and technical cost since the venues are not equipped for Broadway-style Musical Theatre productions like Saro the Musical and Wakaa! The Musical”.

Looking to the future and what should be done to move the sub-sector forward, Austin-Peters submitted, “From the above, you can imagine how much the production will turn over if it were to run at its own venue for six months,” as all musicals are wont to do.

On the strength of the success of her productions, Austin-Peters was invited by the Nigerian Stock Exchange to do the rare honour of sounding the gong to bring activities in the market to a close, the first by anyone from the creative industry. Executive Director, Market Operations and Technology, Mr. Ade Bajomo, commended Austin-Peters’ bold efforts, saying it was her ability to bring out the business in the arts that endeared her to his organization.

Austin-Peters did not fail to educate Nigeria Stock Exchange officials on how much progress the arts and culture sector has made over the years. She also harped on the job-creation potentials of the creative sector, saying Saro the Musical alone employed about 60 cast and crew youth members.

“Imagine having five such musicals in a year in the country employing about the same number of young people”, she said. “The effect would be huge as it would help mop up most of the unemployed youth roaming the streets and being tempted into anti-social behaviours like crime, insurgency or militancy.

“In Nigeria, the arts are relegated to the background. The business world needs to realise that there is power in the arts to impact society. The world is taking note of the arts and also that the stock exchange is also recognising the power that the arts wield in shaping society”.

The inability of the National Theatre to be the preferred venue for stage productions has made practitioners to look elsewhere. Even MUSON Centre is fast becoming overpriced for poorly funded theatre productions. Welcome to the birth of Theatre Republic, founded by Mr. Oguntokun, in Lekki.

For Oguntokun, “The venue will serve as a beacon to emerging performing art organisations to help them reach a position, where they have options of international collaborators and producing models. It will also help raise the performing arts industry in Nigeria to levels, where Nigerian companies can grow networks, have access to international platforms and command the respect that multilateral access to the world can give them.

“One of our objectives is to see ‘an introduction to the performing arts’ as a core subject in secondary/high schools in the country. In that way it will encourage students to be enlightened performing artistes or appreciative audience members in the future. We hope to see the Nigerian ‘product’ exported to a world that accepts and welcomes it, producing levels of cooperation never seen before.”