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Lagos’ theatres: between multiplex and geo-political spread



Following the examples of Terra Kulture Theatre Arena, the first privately-owned theatre space in Lagos and the success it is already garnering just after a year, Lagos State Government decided to built six theatres spread acros the metropolis and the adjoining geo-political zones of Ikorodu, Badagry, Epe, Agege, and Ikeja.

But the question agitating the minds of many theatre professionals is whether the political spread and multiple locations of the theatres would not hamper their economic viability and make another National Theatre fiasco out of them. Wouldn’t a complex of theatres in one economically viable location, say Onikan or Victoria Island, not have been the ideal, while also developing smaller community theatres across the state? Given that theatre is capital intensive artistic enterprise, would residents of Badagry, Epe, Ikorodu, Agege, for example, be able to afford the sometimes pricey tickets to sustain stage productions and performances?

From the look of it, if the plan were followed through, Lagos State would have unwittingly carried out Pa Demas Nwoko’s proposal back in the 1970s before the failed National Theatre edifice was built. As a renowned architect with Afro-centric, creative vision at Ibadan, Nwoko had proposed neighbourhood theatres instead of one huge edifice that would face many challenges, not unlike what the National Theatre is facing today. But he was overlooked for the Bulgarian-style structure that has become an Albatross.


The Paris-trained architect recalled how he was denied being given the National Theatre, Lagos, to design and build and the disaster that the culture edifice has turned out to be. He said he’d proposed multi-venues or theatres in parts of Lagos as against a single edifice so as to open up different neighbourhoods to the entertainment offerings FESTAC ’77 provided, saying it would have had ripple effects on cultural productions ever since. However, political decision shut him down.

According to octogenarian, “I’m a theatre person beyond being an architect. I knew that a theatre of that size (National Theatre) – 5,000 capacity – doesn’t exist anywhere. You can’t have an audience of 5,000; it becomes a sports centre. 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 at least five theatres or venues in Lagos – Apapa, Isolo, Yaba, Victoria Island, Ikeja, etc, with each venue having the capacity of 1,000 – 1,500 persons, and everybody didn’t have to go to one (venue). 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 spread. I gave the logic and all that, but it became a political decision. But again, it was the military at that time.

“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!”

However in the proposed Lagos’ theatres, would political decisions trump their economic viability? Perhaps, not. Theatre practitioners are agreed multiple locations may defeat the noble vision of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s proposal to give theatre production a lift in the state. They argue that stakeholders in theatre practice should have been part of the envisioning of the theatre project so the mistake of the National Theatre would be avoided.

According to the young thespian, Joshua Ademola Alabi, the point about viability is a strong one to raise, but he doesn’t agree entirely that multiple theatre is a bad idea. He is hopeful that the fate of the National Theatre would not befall the new idea.

“It makes sense to spread the theatres across the geo-political locations. In Germany, there are local government, region and national theatres. People in their local areas don’t have to travel to see theatre. It’s good to take the theatre to the people so there is no excuse of distance. That way, awareness of the people going to the theatre will increase.”

However, pricing would not be the same in the different locations, according to Alabi, adding, “It won’t be. Theatre won’t be judiciously thriving if highly priced. The idea is to build theatres for the audience’s income. If the audience can’t access theatre, the producer and director have failed. The idea is to start with free shows in the suburbs and then tell them they will gradually begin to pay fees.”

He advised that anything more than N500 in ticketing in places like Badagry, Epe, and Ikorodu would be counterproductive. From his experience at the University of Lagos, where he studied theatre, Alabi said N500 fee always seemed too much, saying, “But free show is filled to capacity. In Epe, Badagry, Ikorodu, start with N200. I think N5,000 is too much for a theatre built by government. This is my experience in Germany and South Africa. Also, it depends on how much you package the show. A show like Fela and the Kalakuta Queens can be N5,000, N10,000 and so on in Victoria Island, but N200 when it comes to Epe, Ikorodu and Badagry.”

Alabi is also concerned with sustainability of the news theatre being built and hopes Lagos State Government would also fund and not just end up building them as its only job.

“Government funding theatre is not about staff salary. There has to be grants that go to theatre producers, where they submit project bids to be screened by professionals.”

In this regard, he said managing the theatres should not be the job of government ministry or staff but “by uncompromising, unbiased professionals” so as to avoid the bottleneck of government’s bureaucracy.

Alabi said a tax regime is one sure way of sustaining the theatres. According to him, only theatre producers who pay taxes should be allowed to draw from the pool of grants available for practitioners.

“Theatre tax is possible in Nigeria more than anywhere in the world,” he stated. “It’s something government can do. If you don’t pay your tax, you can’t draw from the pool of grant money government provides.”

Alabi also provided the instance of Germany’s global grants ranging from 10,000 to 150,000 Euros currently being given to foreign artists and producers working in collaboration with German producers. “But I have to be a tax-payer in my country to be eligible for the money in Germany. In South Africa, every university is required to have some funding for culture up to R1,000,000. In Nigeria, many NGOs give grants, but not for culture, which is sad.”

Like other practitioners, chairman of Lagos branch of National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Mr. Makinde Adeniran, said though a great idea, the non-involvement of thespians in the theatre project from inception is a mistake since they were being built for the use of thespians in the first place. To solve this problem, he canvased “going back to the beginning and bring all of us (stakeholders) to the table and then we make a map. From now on, how do we move forward to rectify the mistake? That you run your art with passion doesn’t make you an artist. You have to consult stakeholders. At least approach people like Wole Soyinka, who ought not to be involved with Lagos@50 celebrations, but in this area. If you can’t approach associations, go to people like Soyinka.”

Adeniran also wondered whether proper research carried out before the theatre infrastructures are being built. He stressed that such research would enhance the projects.

“Do you know the practitioners?” he asked. “Who are they? What is the viability of the theatres? That way infrastructure does its job otherwise it becomes a mere hall. I’m not saying this because I’m not involved, as some people might want to say. Again, did you research Lagos? How many practitioners are there? Did you consult stakeholders? What are the troupes or after you build you hand them over to your friends? You are not even engaging practitioners.

“There may be good intention, but you cannot whole-heartedly be too sure. You can’t give this project to NANTAP; you give it to builders, those who know building. We celebrate mediocrity. Who are you building these infrastructure for? We don’t even know where they are being built. As I stand here, I just hear they are building theatres. Idea is not what makes knowledge; idea is just vapour. As it is now, the theatres are employment-generator for professionals. Or do you want to have another National Theatre on our hands?”

Adeniran’s fears emanate from the absence of theatres in the country that could have instilled proper theatre management practice principles among practitioners.

“I know there is no proper theatre, meaning no proper administration of theatre in the country,” he submitted. “Theatre is big business but only realizable through its proper administration. If you are building a proper theatre, it must conform to international standard. Terra Kulture Arena Theatre is not proper theatre. If that is the format to follow, then there is a problem. You need to bring stakeholders together.

“See, the J.F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, U.S. is built by government but not run by government. That is how it is attracting attention worldwide. All of us are all involved in the mistakes in the sector – associations alike.”

For Adeniran, the only innocent party is government, which “we like to give wrong advice. The important thing is that we are all running a state. I’m not pointing fingers but we have all committed mistakes. Our universities are not properly training the students right and no structures outside to retrain them better!”

Ropo Ewenla of Ibadan Playhouse initiative and Director of University of Ibadan Media Centre would like to know the policy guiding the proposed theatres. And he asks, “Would they be as a complex or in local government areas? Who are you building these theatres for? Is the economic consideration being put there? Honestly, I don’t know what government wants to achieve. Is it going to be public-private partnership? Is government ready to put down funds to run them? Is it to grow audience? Is it just to put it on record that we’ve built theatres, because if care is not taken, churches will take them over on account of affordability? I run a theatre company and I know what it takes.”

For the theatres to run well, Ewenla has proposed affordability as a guiding model to follow, saying, “A model that runs on government’s subvention such that they are affordable; government should give 20-year subvention to run the theatres effectively. A theatre should be able to sustain 20 per cent of its cost; not a theatre in Agege with five persons sitting in a hall of 200 persons.”

Ewenla also proposed partnerships with government-owned media organisations for awareness-generation to drive audience. He advocates that the people in the locality where the theatres are established should take ownership of them so they become the centre of the communities’ activities.

“Make local governments owner of these theatres as their cultural capital so youths in those areas are engaged positively,” he noted. “These theatres should be seen as investment for the people.”

Also, Director of British Council-inspired Lagos Theatre Festival and boss of PAW Studio, Mr. Kenneth Uphopho, said that debates about the locational feasibility of the proposed theatres had been ongoing since the idea was mooted. He said theatre business is expensive no matter how you look at it, adding, “They should have developed community theatres while also doing a complex at, say Onikan, which is centrally located, and give it to corporate people to manage.

“Government has not shown capacity in theatre management. And what is the guarantee that after the incumbent governor, Ambode, that the theatres will not become wedding centres? We are happy that government is establishing these theatres. But government needs to get corporate fellows who can sustain businesses, but there should be a mix of creative people as well. Let corporate folks come in and let creative practitioners also come in to run the theatres. However, there shouldn’t be only corporate folks who think only of money; that is not good. Just creative people who know nothing about management and money-making should not run them either. It has to be half and half for corporate and creative people so as to create a balance in management!”

While responding to the concerns practitioners have raised regarding the theatres, the new Commissioner for Arts, Culture and Tourism, Mr. Steve Ayorinde, said the idea behind the project was to spread development across the three Senatorial Districts and five divisions of Lagos State as a cardinal objective of the Governor Akinwunmi Ambode-led administration.

“Like the ‘One Lagos Fiesta’ that was originally only held at Bar Beach, but which was eventually taken around the state,” Ayorinde said, “so, too will the theatres spread development to other parts of Lagos. The concern of government is to spread development. A theatre, like a stadium, comes with a social cost and they will be maintained by a model that has worked. We’re taking the Terra Kulture model that has worked in the past 12 years; we don’t want another National Theatre, but small theatres that are easy to maintain.”


He stated that the model would also enhance content production from local talents in the localities the theatres would be situated and not just for people in those areas to consume what would be brought to them from outside.

According to him, “The theatres are not only for youths to attend plays, but to stage their plays and other shows and create a new economy for the local people. The reason is for government to start something and encourage others, corporate bodies to join later. If we are to have a smarter city, we must begin to empower local communities. For instance, the art installations are all over public spaces, not in one location. We don’t expect people in other parts of the state to travel to see them if they were centrally located in one spot. Every part of Lagos deserves to be developed and catered for.”

As for practitioners, Ayorinde said time to relate with them would be when the theatres are completed, as they would be the ones to generate content to service them, adding, “Part of what we will do is to carry them along and do a calendar of activities for the theatres – plays, concerts, and other cultural activities. We have no doubt that it will be a success story!”

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