by Ifeanyi Dibia
Acclaimed Nigerian playwright and stage director, Wole Oguntokun (fondly called Laspapi), is a pioneer in every sense of the word. Apart from his envious record of single-handedly producing over 50 contemporary performances at the prestigious Muson Centre and also weekly performances at the Lagos art hub TerraKulture for the past three years; the lawyer cum artist is responsible for bringing theatre in Nigeria back into the spotlight. A feat worth acknowledging for a young man who had no formal training in theatre but yet dared to thread its murky waters, beginning way back in 1998 with his debut production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Wole Soyinka?’ under his company Jason Vision. Today, thanks to Oguntokun’s sheer persistence and faith in his passion, the once regarded as dying industry is fast becoming the cynosure of all eyes locally and internationally. Even more evident a result is the new crop of ambitious stage-makers emerging rapidly across the country.
In September 2009, Ikhane Akhigbe’s Aboriginal Productions appeared on the theatre landscape with a big-budget musical theatre extravaganza ‘Oluronbi: The Musical’. With a visually stunning and beautifully-paced theatrical spectacle, Oluronbi (A contemporary twist on a popular Nigerian folk legend) marked the arrival of Broadway experience in Nigeria at par with such international successes as The Lion King. It’s safe to say that the bug which bit Oguntokun many years ago came back for a bigger bite on Ikhane (also a Lawyer), as the production which involved huge funds and talents (a 50 man cast comprising mostly of music stars), is a testament of renewed hope in the performance industry.
It’s not been a circus for only lawyers. DreamPlayHouse Theatre – a new school independent company run by a creative bunch of 20-something year olds – is also keeping the stage-lights on. The company’s world class production of Ita Hozaife’s classic play ‘To Love A Ghost’ in September 2010 raised positive buzz about the amazing new work going on in the local theatre. Not coincidentally, the company’s 25-year old founder/creative director was a protégé of Oguntokun. The former had met the playwright in 2002 at a literary reading event and the two became friends, with Oguntokun opening the doors of his glamorous theatre to the young director. No wonder the vision statement of DreamPlayHouse is to create a sustained relevance of the beauty, significance and power of African theatre. By presenting theatre in a fresh and attractive style, the company seeks to lure young and upwardly mobile professionals into the intimate world of live story-telling.
But sadly, despite the promising works from this new breed, the problems facing the industry have barely been solved. Practitioners still have to battle with lack of structure in the craft and little or no support from the government and corporate organizations. Producing a play in Nigeria is a financial-herculean task with a huge risk and no profit assurance. Actors and directors are underpaid because producers (who mostly double as directors) spend so much on productions and need to recoup some profit. And very insufficient gain at that, considering the nerve-wrecking cost of publicity (printing fliers, banners and radio spots), set design, lighting, costumes and the biggest of them – performance venue! But half of the financial burden on producers may be solved if the country has a cheap venue dedicated to theatre. The National Arts Theatre – which should be a ready playground for these performers to showcase innovative and experimental acts – is an artistic ridicule, and so serious minded production companies know better to put up their plays at other fancy venues. Its common business sense: why put up a play at a national edifice that no one will dare go to and then risk all the financial investments?
Gone are the days of Herbert Ogunde and Wole Soyinka when theatre travelled across the country, raising sleeping dust in the villages and soothing wild forests with its tuneful songs. Today, a travelling theatre is a luxurious dream. The umbrella body for theatre in Nigeria NANTAP (National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners) is surprisingly a silent voice in the ear-deafening creative orchestra banging across the country. The association is heard only during its annual conventions (where dull visions are cast and office positions are elected), turning the artistic leadership into a political enterprise. But everyone who is a keen observer of the industry knows that if things are to take a greater shape, then it’s going to be more than belonging to an association; it’s going to require bold, passionate and imaginative spirits.
Theatre in Nigeria is definitely at the verge of a transformation. And except the government steps in to provide funds and rebuild the battered image of the National Arts Theatre; then contemporary stage-makers – hopeful enough to walk the hard grounds like Oguntokun – must consistently seek innovative ways to ensure the stage-lights are kept on.
About Ifeanyi Dibia
Ifeanyi Dibia is the Founder/Creative Director of DreamPlayHouse Theatre. An Actor, Writer and Media Entrepreneur; he is passionate about telling stories across a wide range of the media and was a 2010 visiting-writer at the BBC-World Service Trust writing clinic in Abuja. Ifeanyi currently appears on the Mnet Drama Series Tinsel and juggles a day job as a copywriter in a leading advertising firm in Lagos. You can reach him on [email protected]