LAGOS (AFP) – The future of Nigeria’s rich theatre legacy, built over decades by artists including Africa’s first Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, may be found off stage.
Theatre has been central to some of the defining campaigns in Nigerian history, including the push for independence in 1960, but it is now a struggling art, with actors warning that their industry is in danger.
One factor in the decay is the proliferation of ‘Nollywood’ films, which are not just hugely popular due to their outrageous plotlines and scandalous characters, they’re also cheaper and easier to watch than live plays.
But at the first-ever Lagos Theatre Festival in February, performers spoke of another hurdle: finding a place to perform in Nigeria’s economic capital, one of the world’s largest cities with a population of some 15 million.
Ojoma Ochai, assistant director at the British Council in Lagos which organised the festival, said several of the city’s performance spaces have been converted to churches, notably Pentecostal prayer halls as the Christian movement’s membership has surged.
Some venues have been closed, while others now set astronomical rental fees that theatre companies cannot pay.
“What we discovered is that there is an incredible generation of entrepreneurial, exciting theatre makers…but they have huge infrastructural challenges, in particular over access to spaces,” said Ben Evans, a London-based theatre consultant who helped produce the festival.
“There just aren’t the opportunities to make work on a regular basis and artists need that in terms of keeping their skills alive,” he added.
The concept of the inaugural festival was to showcase theatre staged anywhere apart from an actual theatre in the hope of inspiring further productions in alternative spaces.
The shows were scattered throughout the grounds of the luxury Eko Hotel, which is favoured by the city’s political and business elite.
In the dimly lit parking lot, the cast of the “The Waiting Room” plotted the murder of loved ones in pursuit of a hefty insurance payment.
In “Shattered,” both the actors and audience moved through the hotel’s presidential suite as the rape of a teenage girl by a powerful patriarch was revealed.
A revival of the pidgin English “Grip Am,” written in 1973 by the celebrated dramatist Ola Rotimi, played out on a patch of unused land near the pool and the tennis court.
Deleke Gbolade, who directed “Grip Am” said he wants to make work that is seen by the middle and lower classes, but doing so is financially untenable.
“It’s either that theatre companies are folding up or just struggling to make ends meet,” he told AFP, citing unaffordable venue rental fees as a major issue.
At risk is the potential loss of an art form that has been more than “just entertainment” throughout Nigeria’s history, said Duro Oni, the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) and a theatre historian.
The birth of modern theatre in Nigeria came after World War II, when plays started shifting away from churches and village markets into permanent venues, he said.
The most prominent was Glover Hall on Lagos Island, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, where the flamboyant Herbert Ogunde founded Nigeria’s first professional theatre company, drawing large audiences from both the elite and the working class.
“He saw theatre as a political weapon,” and staged profit-making shows both in Lagos and around the country that overtly supported the nationalist independence cause, Oni said.
The political theatre trend continued with Soyinka’s Dance of the Forests, first performed to coincide with independence in 1960, which prophetically hinted at early signs of trouble for the new nation, including the rampant corruption that has dogged Nigeria ever since.
“That apparently did not go down very well with the government,” said Oni, noting the ensuing persecution of other artists by both military and civilian regimes.
Soyinka, who won the 1986 Nobel literature prize, was imprisoned during the 1967-1970 civil war for alleged spying after travelling to the breakaway republic of Biafra and seeking to negotiate peace.
Young, talented dramatists are still trying to tackle urgent national issues, but their impact is limited in a theatre industry that “is almost dying,” said the playwright and UNILAG professor Bose Afolayan.
“Nollywood has really killed theatre,” she said of the domestic film industry, accusing it of excessive reliance on “sex…glamour (and) exposing the supernatural in Africa.”
There is, however, some hope.
Oni said provocative theatre is still being produced at several universities across the country, while the festival’s producers noted that a wider revival is possible if companies rethink where and how to stage a play.
As Evans noted, Nigeria still has “a reputation for brilliant theatre makers” including Soyinka, “whose works are produced the world over.”
And, he added, some successful companies, “started in people’s bedrooms with no money.”