Can The National Theatre Return To Its Glory Days?
The “architectural masterpiece” that is the National Arts Theatre was built in 1976 as the primary centre for the performing arts. It boasts a 5,000-seater main hall with a collapsible stage and two cinema halls. It was also one of the four main venues for the landmark Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977.
Forty years later, The National Theatre is no longer regarded as one of the top homes for the performing arts in Lagos. Its position as the national culture hub has since been claimed by the likes of Terra Kulture, Freedom Park, and the MUSON Centre. The space has gradually devolved into a meeting venue for Lagos branch gatherings of development unions. It also may or may not host occasional low budget theatre productions.
What happened to this national treasure?
First was the failure to plan. The government must have never accounted for the performing arts growing into the force that it is today. Think of Bolanle Austen-Peters’s production company which has created sold out shows like SARO The Musical and Wakaa The Musical home and abroad.
There have been rumours of handing the theatre over to private conglomerates to convert it into shopping malls and hospitality spots. Yet, these plans have never materialised. In 2010, former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s plans to privatise the theatre received pushback from patrons like Wole Soyinka.
In December 2017, this idea floated once again, this time, as hushed talks that the federal government was going to hand over the property to Lagos state for renovation. Six months after, the imposing edifice is still mostly empty and without activity.
There is also the non-existent maintenance culture, especially as regards public infrastructure. This national failing can be seen in other popular locations in the country. Iconic venues like The National Stadium in Surulere, which also played host to the activities of FESTAC 1977, remains in a very poor state. It has now replaced by The Godswill Akpabio International Stadium, which has become the go-to venue for all international matches. Case in point is the friendly between the Super Eagles and Atletico Madrid.
The unfortunate thing is that people are in charge of these institutions and huge sums are probably allocated annually for maintenance. Until there is a system that holds people in office accountable for monies allocated, nothing is likely to change.
There have also been reports of people suffering violent attacks while attempting to access these facilities.
After identifying these problems, what next?
The government has to invest in the arts and culture space. The industry is a potential money maker, capable of generating millions of naira to boost the economy. But, to harvest these gains, monies have to be sown in the first place. Not just in talent and infrastructure, but also in maintenance and capacity building.
Square pegs must be placed in appropriate holes and government must entrust the facilities in the hands of people committed to the arts and its development. A functional and renovated theatre will be a catalyst for the booming film and music industry and will help the theatre industry move to greater heights.
There is a lot of work to be done, no doubt, to return The National Theatre to its glory days and the rewards of such an endeavour are endless.