By Anote Ajeluorou
The late Herbert Ogunde and Duro Ladipo were household names back in colonial times and shortly after with their public space theatres that roved around neighbourhoods, with mere palm fronds sometimes serving to screen off the performance area. Even when the colonial government banned Ogunde for the seditious nature of his performances and would not allow him use of the few theatres available, the famous culture icon took to neighbourhoods and endeared himself to ordinary folks who would ordinarily not go to theatre to see plays on stage.
But that idea of theatre in public or open spaces, also known as street or neighbourhood theatre, died a long time ago, with the ascendancy of the Greeco-Roman stage taking over with the proliferation of Theatre Arts Departments in universities. But apart from the theatre spaces in universities for students’ use, fewer stages are built outside of campuses. Thus, apart from the National Theatre, Lagos, and Music Society of Nigeria (MUSON) Centre, also in Lagos, there are no other purpose-built theatres in the vast theatrical space called Nigeria for the practice of theatre! Inevitably, this has stunted the growth of theatre practice, what with added poor patronage and sponsorship, even as a few diehard practitioners have braved the odds to periodically stage plays to keep the sector alive.
But this depressing theatre landscape will soon change starting this month, precisely Saturday, June 27, 2015. The testing ground for the revival of public space theatre is Bishop Howells Memorial Grammar School, St. Finbars Road, Akoka, Bariga, Lagos. Time is 4pm. The play in context is Batonga, a story about child trafficking and how parents need to watch out for those who offer dubious work to their children in foreign lands. To direct the play is dance coach Gbenga Yusuf, who choreographed dances for the explosive performance, Saro the Musical. This will happen courtesy of a partnership just struck between two culture promoters, Terra Kulture and Ford Foundation.
The stated aim of the public space theatre partnership is to “use the platform to propagate social messages, create awareness about the potentials of careers in the theatre, create employment and economic benefits and get children off the streets, encourage investment in theatre and theatre infrastructure and create a source of recreation and entertainment to families that ordinarily will not engage in recreational activities by taking theatre entertainment to their neighbourhoods”.
In a media briefing last week, boss of Terra Kulture Mrs. Bolanle Austen-Peters and West Africa Representative of Ford Foundation Innocent Chukwuma were enthusiastic about the new project, which they said had been long in coming, and they are working hard to realise this new frontier for theatre.
A joint statement from both parties said, “Theatre in public spaces initiative is intended to show that theatre can thrive even when there is no purpose-built infrastructure. We believe talent and creativity should not be limited or held back by want of proper facilities, but that we can make do with what is available and by being innovative and creative we can use what we have to get what we want. We believe that success with this initiative will inspire the growth and proliferation of neighbourhood theatres, help develop talents, create employment and help get children off the streets.
“We are taking theatre to public schools, parks, playgrounds and open spaces easily accessible to children and the youth. We will focus on plays with social messages that are educative, informative and capable of instigating change. This is a way of giving back to and influencing positive change in society. It’s strictly a not-for-profit project. We will invite public schools in the neighbourhoods to arrange for their students to attend. We will also reach out to community associations to help spread word about the play coming to their neighbourood”.
Chukwuma, who said Ford Foundation was happy to be returning to its area of primary concern, which is promoting arts and culture, a vision the last administration veered off from, commended Terra Kulture’s revolutionary transformation of theatre practice in the country and affirmed that his organization was happy with the collaboration.
According to him, “Terra Kulture has revolutionised theatre as it used to be before Nollywood films took over. Ford Foundation is coming back to our legacy programming in arts and culture. We have a new leadership that is revamping the arts and culture programme. We’re exploring new ideas on arts and culture, which are known barrier-breakers the world over. Other advocacy programme formats tend to pitch ‘us’ against ‘them’ and elicit resistance from intended target audience. But when such programmes are delivered through the medium of the performative arts, they become easily assimilated, even if it’s on subjects that are usually resisted”.
Also, Chukwuma anchored the anticipated success of theatre in public spaces on overpricing of theatre or plays held in upscale venues that were often out of the reach of the poor segment of society. He said, “We think that the poor like art and culture, but it’s usually not a priority for them because of the cost. We need to bring back theatre to the generality of the masses. The poor appreciate arts; we need to invest in poor neighbourhoods where the talents abound”.
He argued the great footballers, musicians, writers and film stars and other creative geniuses don’t usually come from highbrow neighbourhoods, but poor ones. Ironically, these same folks from poor neighbourhoods are denied the benefits of see stars made among them on stage because of overpriced tickets.
Batonga is a 25-man cast production. Tolu School Complex, Apapa, is another venue being considered after the Bariga show this weekend.