In this piece, ANTHONY ADA ABRAHAM and ENEKWECHI KENECHUKWU write on the current state of Nigerian Theatres while looking for a way forward from practitioners in the industry
Theatre or theater is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers, typically actors or actresses, to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place, often a stage. The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music, and dance. Elements of art, such as painted scenery and stagecraft such as lighting are used to enhance the physicality, presence and immediacy of the experience. The specific place of the performance is also named by the word “theatre” as derived from the Ancient Greek.
Modern Western theatre comes, in large measure, from the theatre of ancient Greece, from which it borrows technical terminology, classification into genres, and many of its themes to stock characters and plot elements.
Dr. Akas Nicolas, a senior lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, who spoke in an interview on his take on the development in the Nigerian theater, explained that the theatre can be said to be alive and also said to be dead.
According to him, “It all depends on how you see it. It’s actually a two way thing depending on the perspectives you are looking at. In one perspective, people will say live theatre is no longer that active because a lot of people find it hard to go for a live theatre performance. Since the coming of home videos, people believe that they could watch whatever they need to watch in the comfort of their own homes, so they find it difficult to go to a live theatre.
“Most people do not feel comfortable and secure in a live theatre. Most times when you go to the national theatre to watch a production, even a play written by a renowned playwright like Wole Soyinka or Femi Osofiso etc, you find out that the audience are mostly comprised of those in the academic sector or those who have passion for what theatre is all about. They are just the ones that go and watch such performances. People leaving there work or whatever they are doing to go and watch a performance becomes an issue.
“I will actually say that theatre is dying off gradually. This is simply because of security issues. A lot of people believe they are not safe in the theatre. Some even think it is a waste of time.
“On the other hand however, I will say that the live theatre is gradually coming back to life, thanks to the new Nollywood. We call it the new Nollywood because now people go to the cinema to watch performances, then the stand-up comedians like the night of a thousand laugh and the rest of them are part of the live theatre performance, now people can pay millions to watch stand-up comedy or pay just to watch the latest movie on cinema.
“As a theatre artist, I’m of the opinion that theatre is not dead totally, because the sensitisation is on the high side, if people can go to the cinema to watch movies then they could also go to the theatre to watch a production.
“There is a drama that is going on titled “Hear The Word” which is on women trying to sensitise other women on their rights as women. It’s trying to display all the inhuman acts carried out on women and how they should react. So in my opinion as a theatre practitioner, I will say it’s not dead. Any place people perform live is a life theatre so it’s not dying off.
“All we need to do is to encourage people to go and watch stage performances. During the days of Hubert Ogunde and the rest of them, they used the live theatre to re-sensitise Nigerians, even though at a point he was arrested and accused of inciting the people against the government. Even Wole Soyinka used the Gorilla theatre which was a live performance.”
In Nigerian Theatre, variety of folk opera of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria emerged in the early 1940s. It combined a brilliant sense of mime, colourful costumes and traditional drumming, music and folklore. Directed toward a local audience, it uses Nigerian themes, ranging from modern-day satire to historical tragedy. Although the plays are performed entirely in the Yoruba language, they may be understood and appreciated by speakers of other languages with the aid of a translated synopsis.
Nigerian theatre deals with three types of themes: the fantastic folktale, the farcical social satire, and the historical or mythological account derived from oral tradition. Generally speaking, both text and music evolved from a synthesis of liturgies from different religious sects.
Although there are more than a dozen traveling theatre companies, three professional troupes are particularly notable: those of Hubert Ogunde (author of Yoruba ronu “Yorubas, Think!”] and Journey to Heaven); Kola Ogunmola (The Palmwine Drunkard and Love of Money); and Duro Ladipo (Oba koso[“The King Did Not Hang”] and Eda[“Everyman”]).
Each of these troupes has created a distinctive style shaped by the tastes of its founder, who generally writes or adapts and produces the plays, arranges the music, and performs the leading roles.
Speaking further, Dr. Nicolas said there is need to sensitise people on live theatre and make them understand that the same way they could spend money to watch “Night of a Thousand laugh” and feel safe and secure, is same feelings they would also get in a live theatre performance.
“There will be enough security to make them feel safe,” Nicholas said. “The performances should be on topical issues, and stories which are not lengthy and boring. You can’t because you are a thespian and put up a production which an ordinary man will not understand or appreciate, you end up not achieving anything. You have to check out your environment, know what is happening around and whoever is coming to watch can relate to it, like the current issue of Fulani herdsmen, Boko Haram etc. Such stories will attract people.
“Then the issue of money is something that should be looked at. People do not believe so much in life theatre so the ticket shouldn’t be over priced so you don’t run them off. Government should help in reviving of the structures, some theatres are dilapidated. Some part of the national theatre stinks and makes you wonder when last the theatre was used. If the government can also help in building of theatre in local communities even if it is not a standard theatre, but any structure that people can come to watch a performance, it will go a long way to revive the theatre again.”
Also speaking, Lee O Daniels, a musician cum performing artiste and Theatre Art graduate, said theatre in Nigeria had been on the decline in most parts of the country.
“The Western Regions of Nigeria like Lagos, Ibadan etc have been striving to keep the theatre culture alive with their numerous Yoruba themed repertory production outfits.
“This tenacity has blossomed into the now blooming musical theatre culture seen to be making waves in the West and even some parts of the East and Middle Belt areas of the country. Musicals like Wakaa the musical, Magic of The Musicals(Motm) and Saro The Musical, etc. have produced talented youths in the country who have been greatly affected positively by this new musical theatre trend and most have availed themselves of this opportunities to showcase their god given and acquired skills in dance, musical prowess and mime.
“I can therefore say that theatre is not dying in Nigeria but is becoming a serious business for Nigerian artistes just as it is in the western world.
“Theatre is alive in Nigeria, though struggling, but with great producers like Bolanle Austen Peters (Bap), a veteran stage producer and her colleagues in the field, theatre performance will soon pick up again.
“Now having said this, I must point out finally that the theatre culture in Nigeria despite the traction it has garnered for itself and the artistic movement still has not reached that social centricity which is the desired resting peak of all art forms.
“Theatre is not dead and it will not die but we can do a whole lot more to sustain its apparent rise. The sector can do better with support from the government for starters, support for artistes and better licensing firms and bodies so things are done with the right policies in place. We also need to do things that will help cut down on piracy and fraudulent practitioners. Money is what the arts need basically. If you have funds, it’s very easy to make anything possible. More funding means better trained practitioners and modern equipment and also better spaces for these shows to hold.”
Daniel said a lot of people have what it takes, they just don’t have the financial support they need. According to him, “Theatre can and does sensitize the society. It also sets agenda and helps formulate policies, whilst putting government on their toes to ensure they execute policies that will help the development of the society.
“Theatre is life …simple. It should be held up as a mirror to the populace so they can see the right and wrongs of the society.”
Chris Frank, who doubles as an actor and producer added that at its birth, Theatre in Nigeria got a warm reception. But with the introduction of home videos, the theatrical culture started moving backwards.
He explained that in the Nigerian contemporary society, it will be almost inaccurate to say that theatre culture is dead but at the same time, there’s no gainsaying that it’s deteriorating by the day!
“For Theatre to rise and regain its place in the Nigerian entertainment industry, Theatre practitioners need to be more up and doing,” he said. “Those of them who have already become household names in the movie industry, need to invest in Theatre. By so doing, the creative fire will be rekindled in the younger generation of theatre artistes and it will also attract Investors from both within and outside the country.”
Floyd Igbo, an actor, creative director and scholar also pointed out that Theatre in Nigeria seems to be waxing stronger in recent years adding that many art lovers within the country are beginning to participate more actively in the area of producing more theatrical shows within the country.
He said: “It is safe to say that the Nigerian theatre industry is indeed pulling as much weight as her film and music counterparts. These speak more of growth than a disappearance of the theatre circle. In 2013, the British Council founded the Lagos Theatre Festival which is a festival to present performing arts in Lagos every year with focus on presenting site specific work. This development has led to a rise of a crop of seasoned and upcoming actors who with their participation are on the long run boosting the Nigerian Theatre industry.
“In recent years, there have been a rise in the demand for Stage musicals, many of which are performed during the holidays by brave theatre producers who have taken it upon themselves to cope with the tall order of making musicals that would parallel, to a good degree, the works seen on the Broadway stage. Some of such musicals include Saro the Musical, Kakadu the Musical, Fela and the Kalakuta Queens, Legends the Musical, Heartbeat the Musical, Adesewa the Musical among other interesting stage plays that are equally powerful but may not be musicals.
“Parents are becoming more open minded about having their children engage in the Performing Arts. A few Acting/theatre schools have also been established within the country especially in Lagos to train and encourage young people interested in theatre.
For Solution he said: “Potential art lovers with the financial muscle should be encouraged to sponsor or invest in live theatre as it is a viable source of revenue while bringing education and entertainment to the people if done properly. Just like TV and film, theatre deserves attention. Nigerian Directors and performers on the other hand should be passionate about making first-rate work; works that can parallel top theatrical productions around the world.
“Broadway is one of the strongest entertainment circles of the United States and its popularity apparently lies in its pursuit of excellence. If we glamourise the Nigerian theatre as much as we should and consciously produce great shows, the sky will be our starting point. Thankfully some Nigerian theatre Directors among others, have taken it upon themselves to push Nigerian theatre to higher heights with the great stage works they produce.
“Notable among them include Bolanle Austen- Peters, Ifeoma Fafunwa, Kenneth Upohpoh, Gbenga Yusuff, Ayo Ajayi, Kanayo Omo, Ayo Jayesimi. Some of them have been able to take their companies abroad to perform there for international audiences.
“BAP’s Wakaa the Musical was on London’s West End on 2016, Fafunwa’s ‘Hear Word’ was at Amsterdam on the same year as well. Uche Nwokedi’s ‘Kakadu the Musical’ was also in Jo’burg Theatre, South Africa in 2017, and they were well received abroad and many more new top-notch Nigerian made theatre productions and bracing up currently for performances abroad as well having thrilled fellow Nigerians already.”