National Theatre: Value for your money?

Entertainment of Saturday, 18 February 2017



National Theatre Auditorium1The new look National Theatre auditorium

Been to the National Theatre lately? I have. What greeted my eyes in the auditorium took my breath away. Thanks to “Friends of the Theatre” – an initiative launched by management a year ago – the seating has been made more comfortable,complete with aesthetically pleasant new seat covering, thanks to such ‘Friends’ as GTP, which donated the fabrics, and Chrisaach, which has re-carpeted the entire interior. Another friend of the theatre is Tropical Cables.

If your experience makes two of us, then why don’t you join me in giving honour to whom honour is due: Mrs Amy Appiah Frimpong, CEO (Executive Director) of the National Theatre of Ghana, the first female to occupy the high office since this structure was gifted to us by the Chinese government in 1992.

If I lower my cloth to waist level for Amy, it is because from what you and I have known and read over the last five years, this citadel of creative arts excellence should, by now, have collapsed beyond resuscitation or been pronounced dead beyond resurrection.

Time was – only two years ago – when event organisers could not swear to patrons that programmes for which they had had to cut an arm and a leg to afford tickets, would travel full course.

One of the several things was bound to happen: electricity supply could be cut off suddenly in the middle of the programme; even when there was uninterrupted flow of power, the air-conditioning would malfunction or underperform, breaking sweat on the body of patrons; the seats were uncomfortable and the covering was an eyesore. To these, add the problem of inadequate stage lighting.

So why, in spite of all of the above, am I bowing to the woman they call ‘Madam Amy’? Have all the problems been taken care of? The answer is no.

But it is not a big no. Those who have been to the theatre lately will confess that change has come, and that today, even if they don’t chill, they, at least, don’t get drenched with sweat.

There is no ‘Dumsor’ at the theatre not because the power supply problem has been ameliorated at the national level: there is no ‘Dumsor’ because someone (management) has had to squeeze blood out of stone to pay off the whopping GH¢600,000.00 (six billion pre-Kufuor cedis) debt owed to ECG.

Having settled that debt, it costs the theatre today an average of GH¢90,000.00 (ninety thousand Ghana cedis) a month to ensure continuous flow of power.

Something is happening at the National Theatre.

One of them, in the words of the CEO, is that “there has been a shift in the way we do business here. In those good old days,” recalls Amy, “government subvention took care of utility bills. That’s no more. Now all these costs have to be passed on to the event organisers”.

The National Theatre is not all brick and mortar. Its software is creative programming, initiated by management to infuse theatre consciousness in Ghanaians in fulfilment of the original mandate born out of the dream of the late Efua Sutherland and the passion of Dr Mohammed Ibn Ben Abdallah.

In fulfilment of this mandate, the Theatre, under Amy, has organised outreaches to Winneba and Sekondi Takoradi, on the back of popular community events such as the annual traditional festivals such as Aboakyer, Fetu, Bakatuei and Kundum to promote the Concert Party and other art forms.

One obstacle in the way of outreach is transportation. The theatre has two buses. Both are more than 15 years old. Hear Amy: “You can’t send any of the two buses out on an errand, even in Accra, and expect them to either arrive at destination or make a return trip. You will have to call a mechanic.”

Thankfully, as Amy herself has articulated so well, the time for manna is over. Something can be said for the ‘Friends of the Theatre’ initiative, which is yielding fruit. However, I agree with her critics who point nostalgically at programmes such as Concert Party and Kidafest. These used to be flagship money making events.

Talking about revenues, what is the role of the resident artistic companies, namely Abibigromma, the National Symphony Orchestra and the National Dance Company? The resident Theatre groups are at the beck and call of the state. They entertain state guests and undertake drama for development, for instance, engaging in national campaigns to dramatise state-sponsored messages.

But time is coming when government is going to ask itself if, for the best use of state resources alternatives should not be considered, namely falling on privately managed groups for state functions. I shudder at the very thought of this alternative because having been around quite a bit, Yours Truly knows that not every sound is music, not every gesture is drama and not every movement is a dance.

About this, more anon, except to remark that the National Symphony Orchestra, for instance, could take a leaf from Pastor Mensa Otabil’s Accra Symphony Orchestra whose Lumina vocal section, with its powerful voices and eye-pleasing choreography, are temptingly sumptuous.

Also, is there any earthly reason why the Theatre’s management cannot invest in extra stage lights for the main auditorium, and chairs and PA systems for the Exhibition Hall? Event organisers would be too glad to rent a good PA from the theatre and pay a little extra for hiring the Hall if the extra saves them the inconvenience of transporting chairs from town.