A year ago, like-minded groups convened to discuss the experience, state and growth of theatre in Abuja. The result today is the Abuja Festival of Theatre (AFT), a 10-day immersion in epic and contemporary African theatre spread across 20 productions aimed at not just celebrating the journey of the theatre but formalising and offering visibility to theatre practice in the FCT.
Artistic Director of ‘2 Masks & A Griot’, 2MG, Chidi Ukwu, the brainchild of the festival, speaking to LEADERSHIP Books & Arts on the objectives of the festival, challenges and expectations, said while exploring the magic in African theatre, the event aims foremost at formalising theatre space in Abuja, and creating visibility for the artform in the city.
Ukwu pointed out that present efforts by theatre practitioners have been individual and uncoordinated. AFT activities such as seminars, workshops and panels discuss offer a platform to convene practitioners, attract new entrants and talents into the sector to ensure its quick access and visibility to government, organisations and agencies.
“Sometimes, a theatre production takes place and people don’t know about it. We want to attract people who have never thought of theatre but are actually theatre-lovers. At the moment, they are doing something else, at a garden somewhere, eating fish and drinking beer at the club, or at the movies.
“The other thing is to bring more of us into the different areas of production – crews, talents, artistes, those outside the profession but can find a place in the theatre world – and to be recognised as part of a group. To illustrate, a fashion designer can operate in this space as a costumier. We want to help them identify with this new role that, ‘I am not just a tailor or fashion designer, but I am also a costumier.’ ‘I am not just a carpenter; I am a set builder.’ That sort of structure means we can identify ourselves to one another and to other parties,” he said.
Addressing the timing of the festival, Ukwu said there has never been as much theatre happening at one time in Abuja as today. The fast-growing city, with its increasing multi-cultural residents, hospitality services, relative security and proximity to an international airport, is the perfect backdrop for such a festival.
Furthermore, there is the world’s current fascination with blacks and Africa, what is Africa and what makes one African, which informed the festival’s theme.
“A look at Hollywood in the past few years, shows not just a tilt but a slant towards Africa. We talk about Black Panther, and remember a time when no one thought an all-black cast film would make it in Hollywood. There is the migration issue in Europe, and the movement of Africans all over the continent, via legal and illegal entries. All that adds to the big wonder of what is Africa? Who are Africans? We want to be at the heart of the response to the question, of what is African culture and its expression,” Ukwu added.
In spite of the attendant challenges in organising a festival including space, funding, inadequate skilled marketing manpower tied to limited funds, and insufficient hours per day to plan, organisers have managed to leverage on in-kind support of sponsors and partners. Enough to assure, a venue at The Mediterranean Place for the major productions; a black box space, at no cost for Fringe performances by fledgling theatre groups, subsidised transit fares, in addition to an all-expense paid hosting of the four best productions from the Nigeria Universities Theatre Arts Festival (NUTAF).
The hinted presence of Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, at the festival alongside renowned US Theatre figure, Chuck Mike, heightens its appeal. Ukwu said the attendance of the busy, last icon of Nigeria’s theatre, who has endorsed the festival though not set in stone, is highly probable.
Of the lessons learnt from organising a huge event like the festival, Ukwu stressed starting early, a two-year head-start and working with skilled manpower. With the maiden edition, he found investors are hedgy with creative start-ups, “waiting to see where this is going before coming onboard.”
He, however, is optimistic and assured audience satisfaction with the scheduled performances and activities at the festival.
“There are five theatre groups Afritheatre, Krump Studios, Pop Theatre, Osunmare Creative Vision and 2MG performing. Two theatres are doing pieces on ancient cultures, traditions and deities, but a good number of the works are contemporary pieces. There is a theatre company doing a drums performance, and another group has invented a new drum to be revealed at the festival. Audience should expect to be awed. Our goal is for people to come, see, and have the experience of staying with them for a long time,” Ukwu enthused.
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